Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Frog jumps to "Resource Crisis"

(image h/t Mike Haywood)


One year of blogging with the frog has been a remarkable learning experience. At this point, I think I have learned enough to conclude that it is better to merge this blog with my other one, "Resource Crisis". The frog doesn't disappear, it just jumps there.


One year ago, I started the blog titled "The frog that jumped out." The first post appeared on April 28 2013 and from then on I published 127 posts for a total audience of more than 80,000 contacts. Not a bad result for a blog that was a totally personal effort - without any attempt to use SEO or other Web tricks to diffuse it.

This year of blogging on "The Frog" has been a learning experience that changed my views of how to act on the climate problem. At the beginning, I thought that there was a problem of communication; that the fact that nothing was being done about climate change was the result of us not being able to pass the message in the right way. That is something that many scientists have discovered. The result has often been a search of better methods of communication. It has led, for instance, to books such as "Don't be such a scientist" where the main idea is that scientists should improve their skills of communicating with the public by becoming clearer and more entertaining. That, in itself, is not a bad idea: scientists are often extremely poor at communicating: boring, pompous, incomprehensible, and even worse. Improving on that is surely a welcome trend.

But transforming yourself into a Ronald McDonald of climate science doesn't solve the problem. No amount of gee-whiz power will carry the message across to people who don't want to hear it. The mistake in this idea is steeped in the so called "information deficit" model. It says that people are not doing anything about climate change because they are not informed enough. Therefore, if we find a way to explain to them how things stand, they'll do something. Hence, the idea of "sweetening the pill". Alas, no. It doesn't work that way.

The real problem can be summarized by a comment that I received from a friend of mine (DJ at Bottleneck Foundation):

"The main problem is that the deniers are rolling rocks downhill in human mindspace and we are rolling them uphill. "


I think this concept explains a lot of things, although I would personally modify it as follows: "The main problem is that we are trying to roll rocks in human mindspace and the deniers are trying to keep them where they stand".

That is, in order to fight the dire effects of human caused climate change, it is not enough that the problem is recognized. We need to generate deep changes in the way society functions. But this is almost impossible to do because society is simply not geared for deep changes. Our society, as most complex systems, exists because it has built-in mechanisms that resist change. It is much easier to keep things as they stand than changing them.
 
So, effecting change is a systemic problem, not just a communication problem. That makes the problem more difficult but, at the same time, gives a different perspective to it. Systemic changes occur all the time - they are simply unavoidable. No matter how much society tries to resist change, it must, eventually, cede to physical reality. So, at some moment in the future, we'll have to stop our emissions of fossil carbon in the atmosphere either as the result of depletion or as the result of the damage generated by climate change. The problem is that we are not doing that fast enough to avoid a traumatic adaptation (this is what I call the "Seneca effect"). However, the end result is certain: it is only a question of which trajectory we'll follow. Eventually, we'll have to learn to live within the limits of this planet.

These considerations affect the future of this small blog, "The frog that jumped out". Once you see the climate problem as a systemic problem, you see that the solution is not just communicating what the problem is (although that's also necessary) but promoting a whole array of actions that go from new technologies to new kinds of social and economic behavior. As a result, I think that the focus of this blog on communication alone is a bit too narrow. So, my idea is to merge it with my other blog, Resource Crisis, which has a similar focus. After all, the climate crisis is also a question of resource depletion: we are depleting the capability of the atmosphere to absorb the products of the combustion of fossil carbon without overheating.

"The Frog" does not disappear from the Web, I'll still keep it as a repository of posts specifically dealing with climate change. But most of the action will be on the other blog, Resource Crisis. So, thanks to all of you for your attention and your support and I hope we can continue the discussion there!












Friday, April 11, 2014

My view on climate change



After my resignation as editor of "Frontiers" in protest over their retraction the paper "Recursive Fury," dealing with the attitude of climate deniers, I received plenty of support but also a lot of the usual pseudo-scientific criticism on the question of climate change. So, I thought I could repropose here a post of mine that I published in 2012 in order to clarify my views on this matter. In the end, it has all to do with the concept that forms the title of this blog: "Resource Crisis." One of the resources we are depleting fastest is the capability of the atmosphere to absorb the products of the combustion of hydrocarbons


From "Cassandra's Legacy", Dec 12, 2012. 

Climate change: Confessions of a Peak Oiler

 by Ugo Bardi


 Peak oil may well have arrived or be arriving soon, but that has not stopped CO2 emissions from increasing and climate change from going on, faster than ever. That may soon make the peak oil problem irrelevant. Here is a personal view of how I came to be a peak oiler who is more worried about climate change than about peak oil. (Image from The Daily Kos.)


In 2003, I attended my first conference on peak oil, in Paris. Everything was new for me: the subject, the people, the ideas. It was there that I could meet for the first time those larger than life figures of ASPO, the association for the study of peak oil. I met Colin Campbell, Jean Laherrere, Kenneth Deffeyes, Ali Morteza Samsam Bakthiari, and many others. It was one of those experiences that mark one for life.

In Paris, I learned a lot about oil depletion, but also about another matter that was emerging:  the conflict of depletion studies with climate change studies. That ASPO conference saw the beginning of a contrast that was to flare up much more intensely in the following years. On one side of the debate there were the "climate concerned" people. They were clearly appalled at seeing that their efforts at stopping global warming were threatened by this new idea: that there won't be enough fossil fuels to cause the damage that they feared. On the other side, the "depletion concerned" people clearly scoffed at the idea of climate change: peak oil, they said, would make all the worries in that respect obsolete.

My impression, at that time, was that the position of the climate concerned was untenable. Not that I became a climate change denier; not at all: the physical mechanisms of climate change have been always clear to me and I never questioned the fact that adding CO2 to the atmosphere was going to warm it. But the novelty of the concept of peak oil, the discovery of a new field of study, the implications of a decline of energy availability, all that led me to see depletion as the main challenge ahead.

That belief of mine would last a few years, but no more. The more I studied oil depletion, the more I found myself studying climate: the two subjects are so strictly related to each other that you can't study one and ignore the other. I found that climate science is not just about modern global warming. It is the true scientific revolution of the 21st century. It is nothing less than a radical change of paradigm about everything that takes place on our planet; comparable to the Copernican revolution of centuries ago.

Climate science gives us a complete picture of how the Earth system has gradually evolved and changed, maintaining conditions favorable for organic life despite the gradual increase of the solar irradiation over the past four billion years. It is a delicate balance that depends on many factors, including the burial of large amounts of carbon which previously were part of the biosphere and that, over the ages, have become what we call "fossil fuels". Extracting and burning fossil fuels means tampering with the very mechanisms that keep us alive. Climate science is fascinating, even beautiful, but it is the kind of beauty that can kill.

So, step by step, I went full circle. If, at the beginning, I was more worried about depletion than about climate, now it is the reverse. Not that I stopped worrying about peak oil, I know very well that we are in deep trouble with the availability not just of oil, but of all mineral resources. But the recent events; the melting of the polar ice cap, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires and all the rest clearly show that the climate problem is taking a speed and a size that was totally unexpected just a few years ago.

Climate change is a gigantic problem: it dwarfs peak oil in all respects. We know that humans have lived for thousands of years without using fossil fuels, but they never lived in a world where the atmosphere contained more than 400 parts per million of CO2 - as we are going to have to. We don't even know if it will be possible for humans to survive in such a world.

Right now, peak oil is not solving the problem of climate change - it is worsening it because it is forcing the industry to use progressively dirtier resources, from tar sands to coal. Maybe in the future we'll see a decline in the use of all hydrocarbons and, as a consequence on the emissions of greenhouse gases. But, if we continue along this path, peak oil will be just a blip in the path to catastrophe.







Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Climate of intimidation: "Frontiers" big blunder on the "Recursive Fury" paper

(reproduced from "Resource Crisis")



After the recent events in the saga of the paper titled "Recursive Fury" by Lewandowsky et al., I am stating my disappointment by resigning from Chief Specialty Editor of the Frontiers journal



You may have followed the story of "Recursive Fury", the paper by Stephan Lewandowsky and others that the journal "Frontiers" had published in 2013. The paper reported the results of a survey that showed that the rejection of climate science was often accompanied by a similar mindset on other scientific areas. So "Climate skeptics" were also found to reject the notion that AIDS is caused by the HIV virus and that smoking causes cancer. A result not at all surprising for those of us who follow the climate debate in detail.

As it might have been expected, after publication, a storm of negative comments was unleashed against both the authors of "Recursive Fury" and the journal. What was unexpected, instead, was the decision to withdraw the paper taken by the editorial board of Frontiers.

I found the behavior of the publisher already highly objectionable at this stage. However, I could at least understand it (if not agree on it). They stated that "[Frontier's] investigation did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study. It did, however, determine that the legal context is insufficiently clear and therefore Frontiers wishes to retract the published article." The authors themselves seemed to share my opinion when they said, "The authors understand this decision, while they stand by their article"

Unfortunately, now Frontiers has issued a new note where they backtrack from the previous statement and they seem to indicate that they found substantial problems in the paper. The new Frontiers' note is discussed in detail by Lewandowsky himself in a post titled: "revisiting a retraction".


It is not for me, here, to discuss the merits and demerits of this paper, nor the legal issues involved (noting, however, that the University of Western Australia found no problems in hosting it on their site). However, my opinion is that, with their latest statement and their decision to retract the paper, Frontiers has shown no respect for authors nor for their own appointed referees and editors. But the main problem is that we have here another example of the climate of intimidation that is developing around the climate issue.

It is becoming commonplace for scientists to receive personal attacks (including death threats) for having stated their position on the climate problem. This violent reaction often takes the shape of mailing campaigns directed to the institutions of the targeted scientists. There are many examples of this phenomenon; it will suffice, here, to cite the most recent case; that of Professor Lawrence Torcello who recently was the target of an abusive hate campaign, based on the false claim that he had proposed to jail climate skeptics. Fortunately, Torcello's institution (Rochester Institute of Technology) stood for freedom of expression. In other similar cases universities stood by the rights of their faculty members. They did exactly what Frontiers did not do (but should have done) for the paper by Lewandowsky et al.


The climate of intimidation which is developing nowadays risks to do great damage to climate science and to science in general. I believe that the situation risks to deteriorate further if we all don't take a strong stance on this issue. Hence, I am taking the strongest action I can take, that is I am resigning from "Chief Specialty Editor" of Frontiers in protest against the behavior of the journal in the "Recursive Fury" case. I sent to the editors a letter today, stating my intention to resign.

I am not happy about having had to take this decision, because I had been working hard and seriously at the Frontiers' specialy journal titled "Energy Systems and Policy." But I think it was the right thing to do. I also note that this blunder by "Frontiers" is also a blow to the concept of "open access" publishing, which was one of the main characteristic of their series of journals. But I still think that open access publishing it is the way of the future. This is just a temporary setback for a good idea which is moving onward. 







Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Report to Galactic Command: the eradication of the human species is in progress

(originally published in 2012 on "Cassandra's Legacy")




From: Earth Orbital Outpost
To: Galactic Central Command
(note: time spans in this report are measured in Earth orbital revolutions. One Earth orbital revolution corresponds to 4e-10 Galactic years)


Progress report: Human eradication plan


- Strategic Summary

The Earth Orbital Outpost is pleased to report to Galactic Command that the eradication of the creatures termed "humans" inhabiting the planet known as "Earth" is proceeding according to plans. The rapid warming of the planet obtained by the injection of large amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is expected to wipe out most large vertebrates within 40-50 planetary revolutions around the parent star. The planet will be ready for colonization by our species in a few thousand years; when the ecosystem will have been restored.

- The original (1st level) plan

Planet Earth was the object of several preliminary explorations before being selected as suitable for colonization. Upon reaching this decision, the Earth Orbital Outpost was set up with the purpose of facilitating the colonization task. The Outpost proceeded to study the planet, finding that it is dominated by a species, known as "humans", which has appropriated most of the planetary ecosystem productivity. Individually, humans turned out to be highly intelligent and it was soon clear that the species poses an important obstacle to colonization. A necessary step for colonization was therefore their eradication. The decision was reached also upon the consideration that, if left to themselves, humans were likely to reach a technological level sufficiently high to become a nuisance at the Galactic scale.

Several plans were developed to carry out the eradication program. It soon became clear that sterilization with neutron beams, carried out by the Galactic star fleet, was possible but expensive and, besides, humans were rapidly reaching a technological level sufficient to produce a significant opposition. Instead, it was found that humans could be eradicated at a much lower cost by warming the planet at temperatures high enough to make their survival impossible. That could be accomplished by exploiting the human habit of burning fossil carbon materials in order to obtain energy. According to initial observations carried out about a hundred revolutions ago, just letting humans to themselves would lead them to inject in the atmosphere sufficient amounts of greenhouse gases to cause a warming intense enough to destroy most large vertebrates.

In previous reports, we were pleased to describe that the plan was working. 50 revolutions ago, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere had already picked up a trend of rapid growth and it was calculated that it would lead to the collapse of the ecosystem in less than a hundred revolutions. However, as mentioned earlier on, humans turned out to be remarkably intelligent and the brightest of them were able to identify and understand the ongoing process (that they usually referred to as "global warming.") Humans built up a sophisticated planetary monitoring system and created theoretical models of the atmosphere. At that point, they embarked in a planet-wide effort to stop global warming by curbing fossil carbon burning and deploying non-carbon based energy sources.

Having observed this development, it was necessary to alter the original plan and intervene more directly in the eradication task, although still doing an effort to avoid the enormous costs involved in deploying the Galactic fleet.

-  The 2nd level plan

Stopping humans from taking measures to avoid destroying themselves turned out to require a quite modest effort - completely within the resources available to the Earth Orbital Outpost. This result may be surprising and, indeed, some members of the Galactic Command had expressed doubt on being able to convince humans - individually very intelligent - to continue actting in ways that were leading to their destruction. Nevertheless, we succeeded in accomplishing this task.

The key element of our action has been the study and the exploitation of the human information network, that they call "the Web." It is a sophisticated planet-wide information system that has been fundamental for humans in developing their understanding of climate and diffusing this knowledge with their decision makers. However, we found fundamental flaws in the functioning of this network.

In particular, we found that the network is dominated by "super-nodes" which show a higher level of connectivity than most nodes. These super-nodes are called by humans "media" and sometimes "mainstream media". Surprisingly, we found that the supernodes are managed by humans who are quite unable to understand the basic elements of the functioning of the Earth's ecosphere. Even more surprisingly, we found that the humans in charge of these media nodes make no effort whatsoever to check that the information they diffuse corresponds to physical reality.

We also found that the humans in charge of managing the media supernodes are easily influenced by other groups of humans which are called "lobbies," whose role is not easily understood by us. We believe it has something to do with the abnormal interest of humans in a virtual entity that they have created and that they refer to as "money". Although the characteristics of this entity are obscure to us, it seems that humans (especially males) care about being associated with large amounts of this virtual entity and this, in turn, seems to have something to do with the behavior of human females. In any case, we were able to penetrate the human computing centers which produce this "money" and appropriate large amounts of it for our purposes.

In practice, it was sufficient for the Earth Orbital Outpost to take control of a small numbers of leading human individuals; whom we refer to as "avatars." This task was accomplished mainly by our control of large amounts of the above mentioned "money" entity. Using money, the takeover of these minds turned out to be extremely easy: we found little resistence on their part and no evidence that our operation was detected by other humans. Our avatars carried out several tasks, mainly providing the media super-nodes with fake data that contradicted the results of the previous scientific investigation on the degradation of the ecosystem.

A special operation that turned out to be extremely successful was to break into the database of one of their best scientific organizations (called by humans "climate research unit") and diffusing internal data exchanges all over the network. This operation generated considerable confusion among humans as it highlighted several uncertainties in the research; something typical of scientific investigation but that, apparently, most of them are not familiar with.


Assessment of the present situation

The takeover of the human information system (the "Web") by our human avatars was completely successful and we have been able to turn it into an instrument for our purposes. We are pleased to report that most human leaders have been turned into avatars under our direct control or are completely confused about the issue of global warming. It has been possible to relegate the discussion on this theme to only some minor clusters of the information network. All attempts carried out by humans to diffuse it outside these clusters are met by aggressive denial (humans turn out to be extremely aggressive for reasons that to us appear futile).

As a consequence of our takeover of the information network, all attempts of humans to stop the ecosystem destruction have been halted and appear unlikely to be restarted any time soon. The amount of greenhouse gases being emitted in the Earth's atmosphere keeps increasing. That is creating a rapid rise of temperatures, as confirmed by the recent observation of the near complete melting of the North Pole ice cap, a planetary feature that had been existing for several million years of planetary history.

It is clear that the Earth's system is heading towards a tipping point where rising temperatures will trigger a series of phenomena which will lead to runaway warming and to the total collapse of the ecosystem, even without further human generation of greenhouse gases. We have been monitoring the system evolution using climate modeling programs developed by humans, which turned out to be very sophisticated. According to these models, the tipping point could have been already reached or, in any case, will be reached within a few planetary revolutions. Therefore, we expect that the eradication of the human species could be fully accomplished within a few tens of revolutions.

Recent developments and recommendations for the future

Even though the Earth's climate tipping point is likely to have been reached, humans could still, theoretically, react with various countermeasures, such as restarting with the phasing out of fossil carbon burning, deploying non carbon energy sources, shielding the Earth from solar radiation, and so forth. In order to succeed, however, humans need first to regain control of the planetary information system. Our avatars on the planet report ongoing human efforts in this sense, perhaps triggered by the observation of the melting of the North Pole ice cap.

Given these recent developments, the coming planetary revolutions will be critical for the success of the human eradication plan. The Earth Orbital Outpost will keep the situation under strict and continuous monitoring. We do expect difficulties, in particular with our avatars. Their physical integrity cannot be guaranteed if their role in the eradication plan is discovered by humans not under our control. Nevertheless, they have done their job and their loss will not change the rapid evolution of the Earth's climate system.

Assuming that things continue to move according to plans, planet Earth will soon be free of humans and of most large vertebrates that could be a nuisance for colonization. We shall therefore proceed with the second part of the plan, which consists in cooling down the planet by deploying space mirrors. Subsequently, natural processes will re-absorb greenhouse gases and restore the planetary ecosystem in about one thousand planetary revolutions. At this point, the planet will be ready for colonization by our species. Ships with colonists are expected to arrive in about ten thousand revolutions from now. Then, a new planet will be added to our Galactic civilization!


End Report - The Earth Orbital Outpost 





(note: this post was inspired by Isaac Asimov's story "The Gentle Vultures" - 1957)