Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A corollary to Godwin's law: the "law of genocidal intentions"

(image from Corellianrun)

You surely know about Godwin's law (also known as "reductio ad Hitlerium"); the one which says that, given enough time, any Internet discussion will eventually result in somebody being compared to Hitler. This law seem to be almost as strong as the principles of thermodynamics and, recently, we saw it applied to Russia's president - Vladimir Putin - compared to Hitler in a press release by the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.

But Godwin's law seems to have many variants; e.g the "racist variant". Here, I would like to propose another variant or corollary; one which doesn't necessarily mention the name of Hitler or the term "fascism". It is the "law of genocidal intentions", which can also be termed as "reductio ad exterminium," . It can be described as follows:

Every discussion about environmental policy, sooner or later someone will accuse someone else of genocidal intentions, that is of planning to exterminate most of humankind

This seems to apply especially when the environmental policy being discussed has to do with population. In this form, one of the first examples goes back to the the publication of "The Limits to Growth" in 1972. The sponsors of the study, the Club of Rome were later accused of being an evil organization dedicated to the extermination of most of the world's population. They were even accused to have created the AIDS virus specifically for this purpose. Needless to say, "The Limits to Growth" or the members of the Club of Rome never ever recommended - or even remotely conceived - anything like that. But the legend remains widespread as you can see by googling, e.g. "club of rome" together with "extermination" or "depopulation." See also a post of mine titled "How the Limits to Growth was demonized"

The law of reductio ad exterminium doesn't apply just to discussions about population. It pops out more or less in any discussion involving environmental policies, in particular those related to climate change. In this case, any action designed to reduce the damage involved with global warming may be defined as aiming, in reality, to the extermination of most of humankind. A recent example involves a paper by Lawrence Torcello, where the author expressed the opinion that:

We have good reason to consider the funding of climate denial to be criminally and morally negligent

Note that Torcello said that what should be criminalized is only the funding of climate denial by those who have "a financial or political interest in inaction." He never said that about people expressing their opinion on this matter. But the "law of genocidal intentions" immediately kicked in. For a report on the hate campaign unleashed against Lawrence Torcello, see this article by Graham Redfearn. Here are a couple of examples taken from the Web:

So, what happens when we discover there is not enough prison space anywhere to house the 2/3 of America guilty of Climatic Blasphemy? I guess executions will be necessary, which suits the whole Agenda 21, environmentalism-as-religion philosophy just fine, since such people believe at least 80% of the planet's population needs to be eliminated for things to be sustainable. (link)

What is the logical extension of jail time? Taken to its end, Torcello’s philosophy leads to execution. You may think that’s crazy, but you’d be wrong. This is how fascism begins. Liberal philosophy evolved always leads to fascism. As they say, the path to hell is paved with good intentions (link)

These laws, Godwin's law or the reductio ad exterminium, look almost funny, but what we are seeing is the complete degeneration of the debate: a true "reductio ad vituperium." Will we ever be able to set up a rational discussion on any important subject? Probably not, and that's a real tragedy in a moment in which we desperately need to find a consensus on what to do to avoid various impending disasters; including climate change.


Note: "exterminium" is a late Latin term which is the origin of the English term "extermination" (see here). Literally, it means "outside the borders" and figuratively can be taken as meaning "destroy" or "kill". "Vituperium", instead, can be simply translated as "insult" and it has been coopted in various ways in the modern English language. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Touching a raw nerve with the anti-science tribe: Lawrence Torcello on climate misinformation

Lawrence Torcello must have touched a raw nerve with the anti-science tribe, at least judging from the abuse he is receiving for this article, (just google "Torcello" and "climate" and you'll see what I mean). In his article, Torcello starts from the 2009 earthquake that struck the city of L'Aquila, in Italy, causing hundreds of casualties. There followed a trial in which a number of Italian scientists were accused of criminal negligence and found guilty. In some cases, the judges were accused of "medievalism", but I noted in a comment to Michael Tobis blog that scientists, here, had been carried away by their fear of being labeled as "catastrophists" and ended up telling citizens that there was no reason to be worried because of a possible earthquake. The connection with the present debate on climate is evident and, here, Torcello examines it in depth.

Is misinformation about the climate criminally negligent? 

Lawrence Torcello 
The importance of clearly communicating science to the public should not be underestimated. Accurately understanding our natural environment and sharing that information can be a matter of life or death. When it comes to global warming, much of the public remains in denial about a set of facts that the majority of scientists clearly agree on. With such high stakes, an organised campaign funding misinformation ought to be considered criminally negligent.
The earthquake that rocked L'Aquila Italy in 2009 provides an interesting case study of botched communication. This natural disaster left more than 300 people dead and nearly 66,000 people homeless. In a strange turn of events six Italian scientists and a local defence minister were subsequently sentenced to six years in prison.

The ruling is popularly thought to have convicted scientists for failing to predict an earthquake. On the contrary, as risk assessment expert David Ropeik pointed out, the trial was actually about the failure of scientists to clearly communicate risks to the public. The convicted parties were accused of providing “inexact, incomplete and contradictory information”. As one citizen stated:
We all know that the earthquake could not be predicted, and that evacuation was not an option. All we wanted was clearer information on risks in order to make our choices.
Crucially, the scientists, when consulted about ongoing tremors in the region, did not conclude that a devastating earthquake was impossible in L’Aquila. But, when the Defence Minister held a press conference saying there was no danger, they made no attempt to correct him. I don’t believe poor scientific communication should be criminalised because doing so will likely discourage scientists from engaging with the public at all.

But the tragedy in L’Aquila reminds us how important clear scientific communication is and how much is at stake regarding the public’s understanding of science. I have argued elsewhere that scientists have an ethical obligation to communicate their findings as clearly as possible to the public when such findings are relevant to public policy. Likewise, I believe that scientists have the corollary obligation to correct public misinformation as visibly and unequivocally as possible.

Many scientists recognize these civic and moral obligations. Climatologist Michael Mann is a good example; Mann has recently made the case for public engagement in a powerful New York Times opinion piece: If You See Something Say Something.

Misinformation and criminal negligence

Still, critics of the case in L’Aquila are mistaken if they conclude that criminal negligence should never be linked to science misinformation. Consider cases in which science communication is intentionally undermined for political and financial gain. Imagine if in L’Aquila, scientists themselves had made every effort to communicate the risks of living in an earthquake zone. Imagine that they even advocated for a scientifically informed but costly earthquake readiness plan.
If those with a financial or political interest in inaction had funded an organised campaign to discredit the consensus findings of seismology, and for that reason no preparations were made, then many of us would agree that the financiers of the denialist campaign were criminally responsible for the consequences of that campaign. I submit that this is just what is happening with the current, well documented funding of global warming denialism.

More deaths can already be attributed to climate change than the L’Aquila earthquake and we can be certain that deaths from climate change will continue to rise with global warming. Nonetheless, climate denial remains a serious deterrent against meaningful political action in the very countries most responsible for the crisis.

Climate denial funding

We have good reason to consider the funding of climate denial to be criminally and morally negligent. The charge of criminal and moral negligence ought to extend to all activities of the climate deniers who receive funding as part of a sustained campaign to undermine the public’s understanding of scientific consensus.

Criminal negligence is normally understood to result from failures to avoid reasonably foreseeable harms, or the threat of harms to public safety, consequent of certain activities. Those funding climate denial campaigns can reasonably predict the public’s diminished ability to respond to climate change as a result of their behaviour. Indeed, public uncertainty regarding climate science, and the resulting failure to respond to climate change, is the intentional aim of politically and financially motivated denialists.

My argument probably raises an understandable, if misguided, concern regarding free speech. We must make the critical distinction between the protected voicing of one’s unpopular beliefs, and the funding of a strategically organised campaign to undermine the public’s ability to develop and voice informed opinions. Protecting the latter as a form of free speech stretches the definition of free speech to a degree that undermines the very concept.

What are we to make of those behind the well documented corporate funding of global warming denial? Those who purposefully strive to make sure “inexact, incomplete and contradictory information” is given to the public? I believe we understand them correctly when we know them to be not only corrupt and deceitful, but criminally negligent in their willful disregard for human life. It is time for modern societies to interpret and update their legal systems accordingly.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Climate change explained to my students

This is a written version of something I said a few days ago to my students of a class for of the "Economic Development  and International Cooperation" school (SECI) of the University of Florence.

The question: Professor, but did I hear correctly what you said? You say that climate change will bring problems for us in decades? Now, I knew that scientists were talking about centuries or even longer times. How can that be possible?

My answer.  You got it right: I said "decades", not centuries and I might as well have said "years" - although perhaps decades is a more correct time scale for the troubles awaiting us - and you in particular, since you are so young. Now, I also understand why you were under the impression that climate change is a question of centuries; something to be dealt with by future generations. This is an unfortunate result of the way some data are presented; in particular by the intergovernmental panel on climate change, the IPCC. They are very cautious, they try to avoid giving the impression of being "catastrophists" and the result is that climate change, according to the way they discuss it, looks very smooth and gradual that goes on for centuries. That's not necessarily the case.

The time scale of climate change depends on what we are considering. Some effects are very slow: if we think, for instance, to the Antarctica ice cap melting and disappearing, well, that will take centuries or even millennia. But if you consider the Arctic ice cap, you see that it is melting down fast and it is melting now! And the consequence is a major change in the weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere - it is something we are all seeing in terms of droughts, hurricanes, snowstorms and the like.

But it is also true that we won't die because of bad weather and your probability of being drowned by a major hurricane is rather small, especially if you live in Italy. Your question is more specific and I understand it very well: what will be the importance of climate change for people like you, who are now in their 20s?

Let me rephrase the question to make it clearer. I could say that from my personal viewpoint - I am now 61 - I could organize my life on the bet that climate change won't affect me too much for the time I still have to walk on this planet. It is probably a reasonable bet for me (but it IS a bet!). The question is, then, is it reasonable for you to bet in the same way? I think not at all and let me explain to you why.

Let's see.... the life expectancy at birth in Italy is of about 80 years, so you have more than half a century to go, in principle. But let's say that you don't care about getting stricken by the Alzheimer disease. You just want to get, say, to 70 in good health. Then you still have more than 40 years to go; that the time range you should care about, supposing, of course, that you don't care at all about your children and grandchildren - which seems to be the standard way of thinking around us: after all, what did my descendants do for me? Given these assumptions, how is climate change relevant for you?

If you look at the nice and tame IPCC scenarios, you'll see that in 40 years from now we are talking of about 1-2 degrees C of temperature increase. So stated, it looks like a very minor effect. What difference does a degree and half make? Just a minor nuisance. In Summer we'll turn on our air conditioners and in Winter we'll save a lot of money on heating. The same is true for sea level rise: the IPCC is talking of about 20 cm for mid 21st century and what are 20 cm? We can build a 20 cm wall to keep the water out in no time. So, nothing to worry about too much? I am afraid that things are not so simple.

The real problem has to do with the resilience of our society. You may have heard the term "resilience" in various contexts - basically it means the capability of a system to resist changes, in particular rapid or even violent changes. The opposite of resilient is, "fragile". For instance, a glass is hard, but not very resilient, of course; it is fragile. The trick when discussing resilience is that it is often the result of a compromise with performance. If you want to have high performance - say -  for a sport car; then your car will be more prone to breakdowns: think of using a Ferrari F1 for going to the supermarket to buy your groceries.

This kind of problem exists also for much bigger things: the way our world works; say, industry, commerce, transportation, and agriculture. And now that I said that, think of how fragile is modern agriculture. You have probably heard of the "Green Revolution", the new way of producing food that's feeding more than seven billion people on this planet. It is true; there has been such a revolution in the second half of the 20th century. It has been based on hybridizing plants in such a way to obtain higher and higher performance. The grain which is cultivated today has a yield at least ten times higher than the grain which was cultivated one or two centuries ago. It is truly the Ferrari of crops.

Unfortunately, the fact that the new generation of grain is such a wonder doesn't mean it is also resilient. Actually, it is not. As all engineered varieties of crops, it is made to grow in very specific conditions. It needs water, it needs fertilizers, and it needs mechanization. Which is fine; so far we have been able to supply agriculture with all that and in this way we are able to feed seven billion people. Well, not really seven billion. Despite the wonder crops we have, a lot of people are going hungry every day, I read that it the number is around 850 million, which means that more than one person in ten, today, doesn't have enough to eat. In a sense, it is a success because years ago the situation was worse but during the past few years this number has not been going down - the success of the Green Revolution seems to have tapered out. Nevertheless, the problem today is more a question of distribution than of production. In principle, our agriculture would be perfectly able to feed seven billion people - probably even more than that, although we seem to be getting close to the physical limits of what can be produced on a certain area of land.

So, what's the problem? It is that high performance normally comes with low resilience and this is true also for agriculture. The wonder crops of our age are high performance but low resilience. They have been developed for a situation in which climate was relatively stable, now that it has become unstable, it is another matter. Periodic droughts and floods are obviously very bad for agriculture and even a wonder crop is useless without water; it is like a Ferrari without good tires. And think of how floods wash away the fertile soil needed by plants, to say nothing about the damage done by fires.

Don't take me for an agronomist; I am not one. Food production is a complex matter and lots of things may happen that improve (or worsen) the situation. I am just noting that climate change may strongly impact the - almost literally - soft belly of humankind: agriculture. But that's not the only case. Think of infectious diseases, often transmitted by insects such as mosquitoes whose distribution depends on small temperature changes. Think of the mass migrations created by desertification of large swats of land. Then, couple climate change with the other great problem we have, resource depletion, and you'll see that the two problems reinforce each other. We said that a couple of degrees C is nothing if you have air conditioning; fine, but in order to have air conditioning you need energy and that energy - today - comes from fossil fuels. But fossil fuels are fast depleting: will you have enough energy for air conditioning in 30-40 years from now? Maybe, but I wouldn't bet on that.

So, let's go back to the initial question. I was telling you that you have much to be worried about because of climate change during your life expectancy of about 40-50 years. It doesn't mean that you won't arrive to my age; but that it is not obvious that you will. I said before that there are about 850 million malnourished people on this planet and I wouldn't be surprised if they were to become a larger fraction of the total population in the near future. Your problem, in this case, is whether or not you'll be part of that fraction.

As I said, acting in view of the future is like betting on something. If I were you, I wouldn't bet on the fact that the future will be like the past (it never is, actually). So, I think it would be a bad idea for you to plan to pass on the next generation the troubles that will come because of climate change; just like my generation has been doing with you. At some moment, someone has to be left out in the cold (actually, in the heat) and I am afraid that there are good chances that it will be your generation.

That brings the question of what to do to avoid becoming a malnutrition statistics (if possible, avoiding that anyone becomes such a statistics) but this is a long story that we'll discuss in another occasion. For the time being, let me just say that this discussion reminded me of something that Marcus Aurelius said. Citing from memory, it was something like "Everyone lives only in the fleeting moment and you could live many thousand years and that would make no difference to this fact  (*)" So, don't worry too much about how many years of life you have left. You can't know. But you know that you have a lot of work to do if you want to do something useful for you and for everyone else. So, you'd better start doing it now. 

(*) Remember that even if you were to live for three thousand years, or thirty thousand, you could not lose any other life than the one you have, and there will be no other life after it. So the longest and the shortest lives are the same. The present moment is shared by all living creatures, but the time that is past is gone forever. No one can lose the past or the future, for if they don't belong to you, how can they be taken from you? Marcus Aurelius (121-180)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Climate change for engineers

Last week, I was giving a seminar to a group of engineering students. Everything was fine, but when I started discussing climate change, a discussion ensued which I think is worth reporting here. 

The question. Professor, it is all right that you tell us these things about climate change, but I have to tell you that, a few weeks ago, we had here another professor who told us more or less the opposite; that is he told us that carbon dioxide is plant food, that models are uncertain, that there is much exaggeration and alarmism about climate change. Now, he is a scientist, just like you. So, what should we think?

My Answer. I understand your question and I even know rather well the person you are mentioning: a colleague of mine; a chemist by training, just like me. Of course I could dispute his statements about climate one by one but, from your point of view, it would only create confusion. Your question is not about the details of climate science but, rather, why there is this strong disagreement among two scientists.

Let me try try a personal interpretation. The point is, I think, is that with climate we are discussing about science and not about engineering. These are two different things, engineering is about building things that work using knowledge we believe is well established. Science, instead, often deals with matters which are uncertain and where the data are insufficient. As a scientists, you have to work with what you have and you are supposed to be creative. You have to question the data, the theories and everything if you want to understand what you are studying. And if you do that, then you have to take the risk of following the wrong road. This is the way science progresses. Then, if it turns out that new data contradict your interpretation, well, there is no blame in changing your mind. Of course, you understand that this kind of attitude would be no good for an engineer who is supposed to design such things as bridges or planes.

So, when we deal with climate change, it is perfectly legitimate for scientists to have different opinions. For instance, I am in contact with a colleague who believes that global warming is not a serious problem if we take into account the depletion of fossil fuels. According to his interpretation, soon depletion will force us to strongly reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide and the earth's climate will stabilize without creating big problems. I don't agree, but I recognize that it is a legitimate position: the data and the models we have are uncertain enough that my colleague's interpretation is a possible future.

Still, even engineers sometimes have to deal with uncertain situations and insufficient data. In this case, you know that you don't have to be creative. You have to be extremely conservative - it is exactly the opposite attitude to that of scientists. That is, you don't need perfect models of the deformation of tubular structures in steel to understand that if the Titanic hits an iceberg, then the results will not be good. If you like, it is a moral issue: you just can't afford to put people's lives at risk and that holds for both engineers and scientists. But, occasionally, scientists don't have this point so clear.

Let me go back to my colleague; the one who spoke to you last time. This colleague of mine has stretched a lot the uncertainties related to climate science - I think well over legitimacy - but it is also true that these uncertainties exist and, within some limits, it is legitimate to emphasize them, especially for a scientist who is trained to push science forward by questioning the established positions. What is not legitimate at the present stage is to neglect the risks of climate change. That is, I think my colleague sees the climate question as a gigantic scientific experiment in progress and, as a scientist, he thinks it is legitimate for him to question the data, to question the interpretation, in short to play the role of the contrarian. As an additional note, I know that my colleague has built his long and distinguished career on petroleum chemistry and we may imagine that he resists the idea that acting against climate change could force us to stop using petroleum. But the important point is that he doesn't realize, unfortunately, that he is playing with the life of people, and especially with the life of young people as you are.

It is, in the end, a moral issue, as I said. In this case, there is the additional point that you have much more future - many more years to go - than your teachers. So, the climate related risk for you is much larger than for them. If your teachers don't understand this point, I think they are failing you and I am sure you are smart enough to understand what I mean.

Now, if you like, I could tell you more details about climate science but perhaps it is not needed. If you reason like good engineers, as you are being trained to become, you can look at the data and make up your mind by yourselves.