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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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Climate Papers

I found this article from a Tweet this morning:
Prof John Mitchell: How a 1967 study greatly influenced climate change science

The Carbon Brief blog asked climate scientists to nominate the most influential refereed paper.  Manabe & Wetherland’s 1967 paper entitled, “Thermal Equilibrium of the Atmosphere with a Given Distribution of Relative Humidity” was the winner.  The paper incorporated the transfer of heat from the Earth’s surface to the atmosphere and back for the first time in a model.  Their model produced surface temperatures that were closer to reality than previous efforts.  They also tested constant and doubled atmospheric CO2 and found global mean temperatures increased by 2.4C under a doubling scenario.  In a nutshell, a simple model in 1967 projected the same warming signal as dozens of more sophisticated models do today.

I am not the first to pose the following question: what additional value do today’s extensive models provide over simple models?  Climate scientists still use simple models in their investigations.  They’re obviously useful.  But posing the question differently addresses my more recent interests: does the public derive more value from today’s climate model results than they did before with simpler and cheaper models?  The most obvious addition to me is the increasing ability to resolve regional climate change which is more variable than the global mean.  I do wonder how the public would react if they heard that climate models are largely generating the same projections given the amount of money invested in their development and analysis.  We have a partial answer already with the growth of climate skeptics in the public sphere.  Some people are obviously drawn to the problem.  As complex as all the aspects of the problem are and as busy as most people are, perhaps it is in science’s best interest to not make too much noise.

I will also note that one of the drawbacks of climate science in the academy is the utter lack of historical context for results.  My experience really has been the proverbial information dump as part of the information deficit model of learning.  The Facts Speak For Themselves.  I don’t remember hearing about this article that so many in my field consider seminal.  My colleagues would benefit from exposure to the history of their science.


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What’s Fiscally Conservative

A thought experiment today.

In recent years, Republicans in the US Congress, and in state legislatures as well, refused to approve budgets unless they cut programs.  Which programs?  Well, the ones that benefit the low and middle classes at the expense of the wealthy, of course.  There are a number of kinds of hypocrisy here, to be sure.  Two occupations and private defense corporation operations to the tune of $2,000 billion and counting?  Republicans didn’t bat an eyelash to approve all of that.  Tax cuts for the wealthy that weren’t balanced in the budget?  No eyelash there either.  A prescription drug program that cost additional billions of dollars?  Yup, still no eyelash.  Those are only a few examples of real costs that Republicans forced American taxpayers to pay for.  Cost that grew the national deficit and debt – issues that Republicans cared about only when a Democrat (and a black one at that) became President.  The Teabaggers didn’t get organized until the Kochs told them to get organized after Obama took office.  I don’t want to go through with this experiment, but if a Republican in 2016 is elected President, I’m willing to bet the Teabaggers wouldn’t object to continued deficit spending – so long as it’s their ideological causes that receive the largesse.

Given all this, I play “what if” when I read news stories.  Earlier this week, there was news that the Obama administration wanted to spend $236.3 million to eight states to improve electricity infrastructure in rural areas.  Which got me to think, “Where would Republicans demand spending cuts for “fiscal conservatism” to remain true to their debt fetish?”  Of course, Republicans will not demand spending cuts.  But maybe Democrats should.  In order to remain deficit neutral, what should we cut to spend $236.3 million taxpayer dollars – dollars that primarily came from urban areas by the way?  Should we cut agriculture subsidies?  Should we cut rural road spending?  How about drought and flood insurance subsidies?  See, this is where the rubber meets the road, Republicans.  What are you willing to give up to spend money to ensure rural areas have power in the face of weather losses?

Or how about the problem of forest fires?  By and large, this is a wilderness and rural problem.  Fires are burning in Washington and Oregon right now.  Where does the money come from?  Again, primarily urban taxpayers.  If Republicans want to cut SNAP money to veterans and children, why won’t they also propose cutting rural firefighting dollars as well?  Because they know the former affects more urban Democrats and the latter affects more rural Republicans.  Why don’t the mountain folks pull themselves up by the bootstraps and fight their own fires?  Why must they continue their federal welfare addiction?  Why do they like the nanny state so much?  Wouldn’t fighting their own fires instill a little confidence in themselves so we could reduce the federal debt?

How much do Republicans really care about the debt?  Only so much that it hurts their political opposition.  Republicans are considered serious thinkers when they propose cuts to programs that keep people out of poverty, that keep American children educated, that keep our food and water safer than they otherwise would be – programs that by and large impact more urban people.  The corporate media would make a clown out of any Democrat that, in the name of fiscal responsibility, proposed cutting programs that benefited rural populations.  I for one would sure like to know when Republicans are ready to get serious about debt reduction.


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N.C.’s Sea Level Rise Reaction

Many people involved in climate activism have probably heard of North Carolina’s reaction to sea level projections.  The reaction has been exaggerated by some of those same activists.  I read this article and had the following thoughts.

By the end of the century, state officials said, the ocean would be 39 inches higher.

There was no talk of salvation, no plan to hold back the tide. The 39-inch forecast was “a death sentence,” Willo Kelly said, “for ever trying to sell your house.”

Coastal residents joined forces with climate skeptics to attack the science of global warming and persuade North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature to deep-six the 39-inch projection, which had been advanced under the outgoing Democratic governor. Now, the state is working on a new forecast that will look only 30 years out and therefore show the seas rising by no more than eight inches.

Up to this point, readers probably have one of two reactions.  They either agree with quoted environmentalists and think N.C. tried to “legislate away sea level rise.”  Or they agree with Kelly’s reactions and the legislature’s boundaries on projection scope.

I think the reactions were entirely justified from a personal standpoint and easy to predict if anyone had stopped to think things through.  Nearly everybody would have the same reaction if your property was under threat to be considered worthless – regardless of the underlying reason.  Why?  Because you have an emotional attachment to your property that far exceeds the attachment to a 90-year sea level projection.  You’re going to react to the former more strongly than the latter.  The article identifies the underlying process:

“The main problem they have is fear,” said Michael Orbach, a marine policy professor at Duke University who has met with coastal leaders. “They realize this is going to have a huge impact on the coastal economy and coastal development interests. And, at this point, we don’t actually know what we’re going to do about it.”

This is the problem with the vast majority of climate activists’ language: they coldly announce that civilization will collapse and won’t offer actions people can take to avoid such a collapse.  Well, people will respond to that language, just not the way activists want them to.  People will fight activists and identify with climate skeptics’ arguments since they view the announcements as a threat to their way of life.

Where I differ with Kelly and others is this: she and other coastal residents had better look for viable long-term solutions before that 30-year period is over.  If they prevent long-term planning beyond 2040, inland residents of N.C. will be unfairly burdened with the cost of subsidizing Kelly and others for their lifestyle choices.

Kelly’s view is not without merit, to be sure:

Long before that would happen, though, Kelly worries that codifying the 39-inch forecast would crush the local economy, which relies entirely on tourism and the construction, sale and rental of family beach houses. In Dare County alone, the islands’ largest jurisdiction, the state has identified more than 8,500 structures, with an assessed value of nearly $1.4 billion, that would be inundated if the tides were 39 inches higher.

That’s 8,500 structures in just one county – worth $1.4 billion – an average of $165,000 per structure.  I would absolutely fight to keep my $165,000 worth as long as I could.  Nationwide, the estimate is $700 billion; not a trivial sum is it?  The article has this choice quote:

“What is it you would ask us to do differently right now? Tell people to move away?”   “Preaching abandonment is absurd. People would go in the closet and get the guns out.”

The Coastal Resources Commission bungled their attempt to evaluate the science and establish policy.  By the time they announced results with no action plans, rumors fed by misunderstanding and bias confirmation ran rampant.  The result was Kelly’s actions to change the time horizon that planners could use.

So what are the solutions?  The Commission should establish and maintain relationships with stakeholders.  Get to know the mayors and planners and scientists and property owners.  Find out what their interests are and what motivates them to do what they do.  Identify actions they can take in the next 30 years that sets them up for success afterward.  But don’t release information without context.  Because sea level rise is likely to accelerate in the 2nd half of the 21st century.  But most people will focus on potential direct threats to themselves and their livelihoods, not global concerns.  So get into the weeds with folks.


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N.C.’s Sea Level Rise Reaction

Many people involved in climate activism have probably heard of North Carolina’s reaction to sea level projections.  The reaction has been exaggerated by some of those same activists.  I read this article and had the following thoughts.

By the end of the century, state officials said, the ocean would be 39 inches higher.

There was no talk of salvation, no plan to hold back the tide. The 39-inch forecast was “a death sentence,” Willo Kelly said, “for ever trying to sell your house.”

Coastal residents joined forces with climate skeptics to attack the science of global warming and persuade North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature to deep-six the 39-inch projection, which had been advanced under the outgoing Democratic governor. Now, the state is working on a new forecast that will look only 30 years out and therefore show the seas rising by no more than eight inches.

Up to this point, readers probably have one of two reactions.  They either agree with quoted environmentalists and think N.C. tried to “legislate away sea level rise.”  Or they agree with Kelly’s reactions and the legislature’s boundaries on projection scope.

I think the reactions were entirely justified from a personal standpoint and easy to predict if anyone had stopped to think things through.  Nearly everybody would have the same reaction if your property was under threat to be considered worthless – regardless of the underlying reason.  Why?  Because you have an emotional attachment to your property that far exceeds the attachment to a 90-year sea level projection.  You’re going to react to the former more strongly than the latter.  The article identifies the underlying process:

“The main problem they have is fear,” said Michael Orbach, a marine policy professor at Duke University who has met with coastal leaders. “They realize this is going to have a huge impact on the coastal economy and coastal development interests. And, at this point, we don’t actually know what we’re going to do about it.”

This is the problem with the vast majority of climate activists’ language: they coldly announce that civilization will collapse and won’t offer actions people can take to avoid such a collapse.  Well, people will respond to that language, just not the way activists want them to.  People will fight activists and identify with climate skeptics’ arguments since they view the announcements as a threat to their way of life.

Where I differ with Kelly and others is this: she and other coastal residents had better look for viable long-term solutions before that 30-year period is over.  If they prevent long-term planning beyond 2040, inland residents of N.C. will be unfairly burdened with the cost of subsidizing Kelly and others for their lifestyle choices.

Kelly’s view is not without merit, to be sure:

Long before that would happen, though, Kelly worries that codifying the 39-inch forecast would crush the local economy, which relies entirely on tourism and the construction, sale and rental of family beach houses. In Dare County alone, the islands’ largest jurisdiction, the state has identified more than 8,500 structures, with an assessed value of nearly $1.4 billion, that would be inundated if the tides were 39 inches higher.

That’s 8,500 structures in just one county – worth $1.4 billion – an average of $165,000 per structure.  I would absolutely fight to keep my $165,000 worth as long as I could.  Nationwide, the estimate is $700 billion; not a trivial sum is it?  The article has this choice quote:

“What is it you would ask us to do differently right now? Tell people to move away?”   “Preaching abandonment is absurd. People would go in the closet and get the guns out.”

The Coastal Resources Commission bungled their attempt to evaluate the science and establish policy.  By the time they announced results with no action plans, rumors fed by misunderstanding and bias confirmation ran rampant.  The result was Kelly’s actions to change the time horizon that planners could use.

So what are the solutions?  The Commission should establish and maintain relationships with stakeholders.  Get to know the mayors and planners and scientists and property owners.  Find out what their interests are and what motivates them to do what they do.  Identify actions they can take in the next 30 years that sets them up for success afterward.  But don’t release information without context.  Because sea level rise is likely to accelerate in the 2nd half of the 21st century.  But most people will focus on potential direct threats to themselves and their livelihoods, not global concerns.  So get into the weeds with folks.


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Climate Communication: Case Study

Climate Communication

What gas do most scientists believe causes temperatures in the atmosphere to rise?  Is it carbon dioxide, hydrogen, helium, or radon?

I’ll give you an opportunity to think about your answer.

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60% of 2013 Pew poll respondents answered correctly: carbon dioxide.

What was the political affiliation of those correct responders: Democratic, Unaffiliated, or Republican?

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There was no statistically significant difference between the responders’ affiliation, but Republicans were somewhat more likely than Unaffiliateds and Democrats to answer correctly:

 photo PewPoll-CO2andTempbyPoliticalParty_zps96cdd163.png

What a minute.  Does that make sense?  More Democrats than Republicans believe that humans are causing global warming, but they don’t know the most fundamental fact about the topic.  Conversely, more Republicans do not believe the human-global warming relationship, but know that CO2 is a GHG and causes the atmosphere to warm.  Don’t climate activists rail against Republicans for dismissing facts or being uneducated?  They sure do, and I  think it increasingly hurts their cause.

In a nutshell, it’s not about education.  Belief statements about climate change don’t convey science knowledge; they express who people are.

This is a very good piece, which Dan Kahan delivered at Earthday “Climate teach in/out” at Yale University last month.  The  upshot: What you “believe” about climate change doesn’t reflect what you know; it expresses *who you are*.  This flies in the face of the approach many physical scientists (and academic faculty) take.  According to them, people are stupid and need only be filled with knowledge they possess.  That isn’t the case at all.  Instead, people respond to this and similar questions according to their identification with a cultural group.  As Kahan writes:

It [the result of taking the “wrong” position in relation to a cultural group] could drive a wedge—material, emotional, and psychological—between individual the people whose support are indispensable to his or her well-being.

And note this doesn’t just apply to evangelical Christians, a group many climate activists derogatorily cite.  This applies just as equally to those climate activists – which explains ideological positions entrenchment on the topic of climate change, evolution, the Big Bang, etc.

Kahan continues:

But while that’s the rational way for people to engage information as individuals, given what climate change signifies about their cultural identities, it’s a disaster for them collectively.  Because if everyone does this at the same time, members of a culturally diverse democratic society are less likely to converge on scientific evidence that is crucial to the welfare of all of them.

So there’s more helplessness as a result of climate change?  No, there’s not.  Kahan offers a solution and well stated opinion on where things stand:

If we want to overcome it, then we must disentangle competing positions on climate change from opposing cultural identities, so that culturally pluralistic citizens aren’t put in the position of having to choose between knowing what’s known to science and being who they are.

[…]

That means you, as a science communicator, can enable these citizens to converge on the best available evidence on climate change.

But to do it, you must banish from the science communication environment the culturally antagonistic meanings with which positions on that issue have become entangled—so that citizens can think and reason for themselves free of the distorting impact of identity-protective cognition.

If you want to know what that sort of science communication environment looks like, I can tell you where you can see it: in Florida, where all 7 members of the Monroe County Board of Commissioners — 4 Democrats, 3 Republicans — voted unanimously to join Broward County (predominantly Democratic), Monroe County (predominantly Republican), and Miami-Dade County (predominantly Republican) in approving the Southeast Climate Compact Action plan, which, I quote from the Palm Beach County Board summary, “includes 110 adaptation and mitigation strategies for addressing seal-level risk and other climate issues within the region.”

I’ll tell you another thing about what you’ll see if you make this trip: the culturally pluralistic, and effective form of science communication happening in southeast Florida doesn’t look anything  like the culturally assaultive “us-vs-them” YouTube videos and prefabricated internet comments with which Climate Reality and Organizing for America are flooding national discourse.

And if you want to improve public engagement with climate science in the United States, the fact that advocates as high profile and as highly funded as that still haven’t figured out the single most important lesson to be learned from the science of science communication should make you very sad.

Those last two paragraphs convey my sentiments well.  Climate activists rail against skeptics as uneducated and ideologically motivated.  They label them anti-scientific and Luddites.  They try to put themselves on the high ground of the debate landscape by claiming the science flag.  Unfortunately, they focus their attention singularly on physical science and discount social science results.  While they do this, they alienate potentially receptive audiences and ensure the pace of climate action remains glacial.

There are proven ways to better communicate climate risk to a culturally pluralistic population.  Small examples are available for study and emulation.  We need to break old communication habits and adopt new ones.


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Cliven Bundy Development

Well, what could possibly go wrong with this?
http://lasvegassun.com/news/2014/apr/28/sheriff-urged-clamp-down-armed-militiamen-around-b/

“The letter also says militiamen have a presence on state and local roads as well as federal highways. In some areas, according to the letter, militiamen have set up checkpoints where drivers are stopped and asked to provide a proof of residency.

They’ve been seen carrying high-caliber weapons and keep a round-the-clock security detail on Bundy.”

As I discussed over the weekend with someone, this would never happen in other developed nations. People might shut down streets as a part of the political process, but they do so unarmed.  Having access to high-caliber weapons significantly raises the stakes and imposes risks on the public that few public officials could countenance.

Additional thoughts: people aren’t likely to support this kind of activity if they don’t think the militia members have legitimate authority in the area.  Militia aren’t police or sheriffs, or national guardsmen, or the army. These folks are instead domestic terrorists masquerading as authority figures. Which could further cement people’s anti-assault weapon opinions.  It’s one thing when the topic is abstract (i.e., you’ve never even seen an assault weapon outside of the movies); when someone with a weapon asks for your ID while you’re driving your kid home … well, that’s entirely different.  On top of that, it’s only a matter of time (if the sheriffs and ATF don’t respond to this) before an accident occurs and a militia person murders an innocent civilian.  The NRA might argue that they themselves should have been armed with their own assault weapon, but I think reasonable people will see through that nonsense.  Finally, Bundy might be able to argue he can hire private security contractors for his ranch, but those contractors can’t operate on public roads.

The most obvious analogy continues: can anyone seriously imagine a group of brown/black people checking IDs on public roads in support of a brown/black person that owed the federal government a million dollars after two decades of being a deadbeat?  I mean, seriously…


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Continuing a Theme

The Nordhaus & Shellenberger piece certainly has kicked up a lot of dust, including from someone whose work I normally enjoy.  Tom Toles issued his own ranting screed at the Washington Post yesterday.  It includes most of the same over-the-top grousing about the N&S piece as other writers.  But it includes a couple of things I’d like to highlight for additional discussion.

The ‘concern’ is that as a tactic it can ‘backfire’ and not win over conservatives to climate change action. Not win over conservatives! The article doesn’t place ALL the blame on faulty environmentalist tactics. It pauses to include what may be the most understated disclaimer in history: “Other factors contributed. Some conservatives and fossil-fuel interests questioned the link between carbon emissions and global warming.” Some! Really???

At what point will people realize that if we nullify conservative’s work against climate action, then the very thing Toles and others claim to care about so deeply will finally happen: widespread and robust climate action?!  No, Tom is right.  We should continue the same strategies that failed for 30+ years, because one day, gosh darn it, they’ll magically work.  It’s quite simple really: identify and work via values and tactics that resonate with conservatives to achieve the same goal that working via different values and tactics that resonate with liberals.  This is where tribalism rears its ugly head big time.  Instead of recognizing inherent worldview differences and expending effort to talk to conservatives differently than liberals, it is much easier to shut your brain down and scream about how conservatives are “others” and should therefore be banned from all decision-making.  What a wonderful strategy!  Obviously it’s worked since so many conservatives are voting for carbon taxes and setting up subsidies for renewable energy and … that’s right, none of that is happening, is it?

N&S pointed out that many environmentalists work against their stated goals by purposefully shutting out 1/3 of the population.  That doesn’t sit well with Toles or Romm or many others.

Here is the second thing Toles writes that irks me:

If environmentalists aren’t careful, it says, sufficient support for an adequate policy response might go away. Go away! As though it was ever even close to being there in the first place. They cite Al Gore’s 2006 ‘Inconvenient Truth’ as contributing to backlash and division. Do they think no one has any memory whatsoever? Let me remind those who don’t. Before “Inconvenient Truth’ there was close to ZERO widespread public concern about climate change.

How close to ZERO was there, Tom?  Let’s check the first thing that comes up when I Google search ‘global warming polling 1980’:

 photo GlobalWarmingPollingGallup1989-2013_zpsf586fd1f.gif

Well, would you look at that – somebody polled Americans for decades now – who would have thought?  It turns out that 50-72% of Americans worrying a great deal or a fair amount is close to ZERO in Tom’s world.  That’s enlightening.  Gore released “An Inconvenient Truth” in early 2006.  In Gallup polling, worry jumped from 51% in 2004 to 62% in 2006 and 66% in 2008.  So yes, Truth likely brought American’s attention back to the issue in a way that other efforts did not.  Note however a couple of things this time series shows us: support was higher in 1999 and 2000 than 2008.  So Truth wasn’t the most effective strategy.  Also, worry post-2008 fell back to 2004 levels: 51%.  Worry was falling in 2009 – when Waxman and Markey were writing their cap-and-trade legislation – through 2010 – when the legislation failed to pass Congress.  That was despite having a Democratic President and a Democratic-led House and Senate.  That combination will not repeat itself any time soon.  So what should liberals do?  Find alternate tactics to motivate conservatives instead of denigrating and alienating them?  That sounds crazy to me.

Gallup’s page has plenty of other interesting results to chew over.  I will include one more in this post for illustrative purposes because it gets at the heart of what N&S really wrote about.  Gallup started asking in 1997 whether people thought global warming was a threat in their lifetime.  Guess what the majority answer was.  That’s right: most people said “no”.  Most people (50%-69%) hold this belief at the same time they believe that global warming is real, that human activities cause it, and that news reports on it are correct, if not underestimated.

What does that mean?  It means that people view the problem as a distant threat that will impact others before Americans.  There is scientific truth behind this belief.  The first reports of impacts were on Asians and Africans.  Those same populations will continue to be disproportionately affected in the coming decades, as the IPCC AR5 reported this year.

N&S’s post was an attempt to change this perception.  If scientists employ “communications approaches that take account of individuals’ personal points of reference (e.g., based on an understanding and appreciation of their values, attitudes, beliefs, local environment, and experiences) are more likely to meaningfully engage individuals with climate change,” more people are likely to view climate change as a direct threat to their own lives.  If that happens, support for climate action will break through traditional barriers.  But I guess Toles, Romm, and others aren’t really interested in that.  They’re interested in this topic on ideological grounds: so long as liberals beat conservatives and people with slightly different worldviews, they’re happy.

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