In her recent Mother Jones story, Julia Whitty mentions that “destruction of nature” has become a “dominant meme” in environmental discourse and politics. Her excellent piece does not follow this familiar script. Rather it chronicles the extraordinary conservation successes of a few unsung individuals.
Anyone who follows environmental writing knows that Whitty’s article bucks a long established theme. As Michelle Nijhuis noted in an essay last year:
Environmental journalists often feel married to the tragic narrative. Pollution, extinction, invasion: The stories are endless, and endlessly the same.
In her Mother Jones piece, Whitty references a 2011 paper by two conservation biologists in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution. Here’s the section in the paper that jumps out:
Relentless communication of an impending mass extinction is, self-evidently, having insufficient impact on politicians, policy makers and the public, and could eventually even be counterproductive for improved conservation. Instead, we contend that there is ample evidence from other disciplines, such as medicine, public health, and road safety, to show that achieving political support and lasting behavioral change requires ‘bad news’ to be balanced by empowerment. Berating people about biodiversity decline ignores fundamental human behaviors. In broader society, people ignore delivery of bad news because it reflects badly on the deliverer. Indeed, denial of major biodiversity loss might intensify in the wider public, even as scientific evidence accumulates, because of the way in which people respond to threats of this nature.
Sound familiar? Just substitute climate change for biodiversity and the same applies.
is probably (pound for pound) the best piece ever written about the dire straights anthropogenic climate change has presented the human race.
A recent video by Peter Sinclair connecting climate change to this summer’s heat waves, wildfires and extreme weather in the United States was called, “Welcome to the Rest of Our Lives.” Translation: Global warming has arrived and this is what it looks like. I think there might be some quibbles with that (in terms of the implied linkages), but no matter. If you don’t pay attention to the details, then watch the video and weep. If it doesn’t inspire utter helplessness in the average person, I’d be surprised.
Along those lines, I’ll be curious to see how the emerging climate movement motivates people to act while they are curled up in a fetal position.
Last year, Berkley physicist Richard Muller excited the climate world with this WSJ op-ed:
The Case Against Global Warming Skepticism
He touted his Berkley team’s preliminary re-analysis of temperature trends that, as Brad Plumer drily noted,
appears to have confirmed the basic tenets of climate science.
At the time, many climate scientists rolled their eyes at Muller’s grandstanding announcement, but because he was a darling of climate skeptics and his work was partially funded by the Koch brothers, it was all great fodder for the long-running soap opera, “As the Climate World Turns.”
Roger Pielke Jr. yawns and Joe Romm calls it a bombshell. As this latest over-hyped drama plays out, I wonder if anyone will notice that Muller, in his current NYT piece, has foreshadowed his next op-ed (in the Washington Post?) sometime in the next year or two. In case you missed it:
I still find that much, if not most, of what is attributed to climate change is speculative, exaggerated or just plain wrong. I’ve analyzed some of the most alarmist claims, and my skepticism about them hasn’t changed.
How clever is that?! In one swoop, he throws a bone to the Koch Brothers while setting the stage for his next conversion.
UPDATE: Watts has toned down his momentous hype. He apparently has a healthy sense of self-importance that leads him to make grand pronouncements. That sound you hear is air deflating from the climate skeptic sphere.
Either Anthony Watts is in possession of big-time climate news or he’s over-dramatizing a piece of news that he thinks is big:
Something’s happened. From now until Sunday July 29th, around Noon PST, WUWT will be suspending publishing. At that time, there will be a major announcement that I’m sure will attract a broad global interest due to its controversial and unprecedented nature.
Whatever it is–proof of Sasquatch, the whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa, or as many suspect, a new cache of climategate emails –Watts has created expectations for a revelatory disclosure that will rock the climate world.
What do you think it is? The clock is ticking…
If you had time to read only one scholarly paper on drought, I’d suggest this one (published in 2007) by Cook et al. It’s a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary overview that amply supports this assertion made in the first sentence of the abstract:
Severe drought is the greatest recurring natural disaster to strike North America.
The Cook et al paper reads like a forensic reconstruction of the past 1000 years, revealing
the occurrence of past “megadroughts” of unprecedented severity and duration, ones that have never been experienced by modern societies in North America. There is strong archaeological evidence for the destabilizing influence of these past droughts on advanced agricultural societies, examples that should resonate today given the increasing vulnerability of modern water-based systems to relatively short-term droughts.
Speaking of those short-term droughts, they happen to be much in the news right now. The top story in today’s print edition of the New York Times starts off:
Scorching heat and the worst drought in nearly a half-century are threatening to send food prices up, spooking consumers and leading to worries about global food costs.
Many other recent stories have referenced NOAA’s state of the climate report from last month (June), which included this sobering tidbit:
In 2012, about 56 percent of the contiguous U.S. was in moderate to extreme drought at the end of June. The last time drought was this extensive was in December 1956 when about 58 percent was in moderate to extreme drought.
At the same time, NOAA also reports:
While extensive, drought in 2012 has not been as severe or widespread, westwide, as it was in 2002-2005.
That brought back memories for me, when I was working on this archaeological story in the mid-2000s. It took me to a remote and magnificent part of Utah that I would periodically return to for the rest of the decade, reporting on additional facets of a controversy that grew out of the initial piece. (Here’s a reflective post that includes most of the links to those stories).
So for that first article, I’m interviewing two of the principal archaeologists–Kevin Jones and Duncan Metcalfe– at the main site in Utah’s Range Creek Canyon, when the conversation turns to drought. The context is Utah prehistory but the discussion also touches on the recent drought that had gripped parts of the Southwest, including Utah. At one point, Jones injects some perspective:
The drought that nearly brought this country to its knees in the 1930s wasn’t all that long.
The two archaeologists then remind me of the mega-droughts I referenced above. (Incidentally, the prehistoric Plains got nailed, too.) With that context in mind, Metcalfe wonders about modern day Utah and the United States. “Could we survive a thirty year drought?” he asks rhetorically. “Absolutely not. We don’t have that buffering capability in place.” [This is a reference to reservoirs and other means of water storage.]
Jones then muses:
Collectively, humans are very, very bad at planning for the future. We like to coast and think things are going to be the same as they are. It makes sense in terms of your own personal decision making to not always be preparing for disaster. But collectively we’re just as bad at it as we are as individuals.
Now before we go any further, let me add another wrinkle to this longer-term perspective on drought. For that, we go a 2009 paper by Woodhouse et al and this section:
Although these “warm” medieval droughts may be considered conservative analogues for future droughts, it is important to recognize that there are many reasons that the mid-12th century drought cannot be considered an exact analogue for future worst-case droughts. Besides anthropogenic warming, there have been a multitude of changes in land cover throughout the Southwest due to human activities since the late 19th century. Conversion of desert and grassland to cropland, grazing, fire suppression, introduction of invasive species, disturbances leading to soil erosion and blowing dust, and the development of urban areas have all likely had impacts on regional climate. No systematic studies on these land cover changes and their impacts on climate or drought have been undertaken, but these changes are another important reason that droughts of the past are unlikely to be an exact analogue for current and future droughts. In addition, from an impacts standpoint, droughts have a much broader range of impacts on human activities today than in the past because of today’s greater demands on limited water resources.
Fast forward to a post I wrote at the beginning of 2012 for the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, in which I contend that
we have yet to appreciate what science has already learned about climate change in the distant past, specifically (tree ring) evidence of devastating, prolonged droughts.
This history and the contemporary land use changes and settlement patterns that Woodhouse et al describe gives us much to chew on in the context of today’s drought. Here’s something else from that paper we might want to keep in mind:
As far as we know, there is no reason why droughts of the duration, severity, and spatial extent experienced in the medieval period could not occur in the future. Even without the anticipated increased warming in the 21st century, droughts of the magnitude of the medieval droughts would present enormous challenges to water management agencies. Worst-case droughts of the 20th century, unlike those of the paleo record, do not contain episodes of many consecutive decades without high [water] flows, so critical for refilling of reservoirs.
Could we survive a 30-year drought? Maybe it’s a question that should be part of today’s anxious conversation on drought.
The contradictions in the climate debate make my head hurt. For years, we’ve been hearing that one of the biggest impediments to action is that people aren’t sufficiently alarmed and informed about global warming. And that this owes, in large part, to a collective media failing. Here’s Joe Romm in 2010:
The dreadful media coverage simply creates little space for rational public discourse. The media has for a long time downplayed the importance of the issue, miscovered key aspects of the debate, given equal time to pro-pollution disinformers, and generally failed to inform the public.
I don’t agree with this assessment; on the whole, there is ample evidence that belies Romm’s broad brush. Nonetheless, the media remains a convenient scapegoat for many in the climate concerned community. (How journalism is responsible for the failure of 20 years of international climate talks escapes me.) In any case, whoever/whatever is at fault, a bigger problem implied by Romm is the lack of “rational public discourse.”
But in recent years social scientists and cognitive researchers have been telling us that our brains are not equipped to respond rationally to climate change, which is now widely understood to be a “wicked” problem. Several days ago, this theme was discussed in a NY Times piece:
We have trouble imagining a future drastically different from the present. We block out complex problems that lack simple solutions. We dislike delayed benefits and so are reluctant to sacrifice today for future gains. And we find it harder to confront problems that creep up on us than emergencies that hit quickly.
“You almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.
What he means by that is that our evolutionary brains are not built to deal with climate change. The danger signal that evolved in response to immediate threats to our survival through much of human history isn’t activated by the diffused and delayed impacts of greenhouse gases. To understand this is to understand that our behavior–even in the present technologically advanced era–is largely governed by evolutionary forces.
So if hostile aliens invaded the earth today I imagine the world would instantly come together in common cause. So far, the looming threat of climate change has not done that. Will it anytime soon? Unlikely.
But back to that Times article. For some reason I cannot fathom, it triggered an angry reaction from Romm. In short, he argues that the piece glossed over the political and ideological obstacles to climate action. Instead of blaming politicians, the media and the “anti-science pro-pollution ideologues” (you know who you are!), we were
subjected to a bunch of psychoanalysis and social science research about how we all have a mental block to solving the climate problem.
I think I know who has the mental block here.
I’m also starting to wonder if every article on climate change should carry this disclaimer: “This message was not approved by Joe Romm. It may not emphasize the full scope of the climate change-triggered apocalyptic death spiral of the human race, and it may not fully emphasize the full culpability of journalists, climate deniers, and all Republicans. May the climate Gods have mercy on my soul.”
Seriously, as one commenter at Romm’s site says, the author of the Times piece
wasn’t undertaking to comment on politics, or acting as an apologist for why a climate bill wasn’t passed. She wasn’t drawing a sharp moral judgment call between us, the people, and the politicians in Washington. It is a classic case of “our” blog looking for a difference of opinion “” a reason to take off the gloves “” when one did not exist.
So, I don’t see the purpose or the advantage gained from jumping down the throats of every individual who comments on some aspect of climate change who does not also, first and foremost, parrot the particular theme “” federal political inaction, is it? “” “everyone” here wants to hear.
Now I’m not saying that politics isn’t an important part of the equation. Perhaps the 2009 cap & trade legislation that died in the U.S. Senate would have put us on a path to somewhere hopeful. A lot of smart people were dubious about that, but still latched on–rationalizing that any path is better than the ditch we’ve been in for two decades. And now with one of the major U.S. political parties embracing a rejectionist stance on climate science, I can appreciate the pent up frustration of folks who correctly see no desire by either political party to talk about climate change, much less help chart a new path to a decarbonized world. But I’m willing to bet that this changes as soon as the economy fully recovers and the unemployment rate drops to Clinton Administration levels.
Meanwhile, what might change this dynamic (at least in the United States)? A large enough bloc of committed, passionate voters that makes its voice heard in Washington. A couple of hundred people chanting outside the White House gates isn’t going to do it. It has to be a sustained, organized movement. Something nourished at the grassroots that spreads and multiplies throughout congressional districts. Can Bill McKibben pull that off? Al Gore should give him his Nobel if he does.
Because there are no shortcuts. Greens and climate activists shouldn’t count on sporadic heat waves and wildfires to do the work for them. This is crucial because extreme weather and disasters has become crack cocaine to the climate community. Many of them are now hooked. And they come crashing down once the heat breaks and global warming disappears from the headlines. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Paul Krugman in his last column:
When the mercury is high and the crops are withering, everyone talks about it, and some make the connection to global warming. But let the days grow a bit cooler and the rains fall, and inevitably people’s attention turns to other matters.
That’s a problem for a climate movement that looks good on the web but is a paper tiger in the real world. So what’s the game plan, other than beating up on the media and evil deniers? Paradoxically, more fossil fuels (in the short term), as Michael Tobis suggests here (my emphasis):
Our only hope is in the long game, and the sustained cultural shift. We have lost the decade already; by driving the world to the edge of economic chaos the Bush administration settled it for us. We need to recover the prosperity of the 90s before we take another run at major infrastructure and policy change. The new energy supplies will make this relatively easy.
Meanwhile we have to build a world which understands what is going on. Before there is deeper understanding (and more international trust) there will be no significant progress.
Many people already understand what is going on, of course, but never mind that. Once they have a steady job again and can make the monthly mortgage payment, their lizard brains will be receptive to a “cultural shift.”
Environmentalism, as a social movement, has atrophied. At the national level in the United States, it’s become reflexively oppositional, a marginal political force, and subject (with good reason) to caricature. This is because it remains wedded to an outdated paradigm, as I’ve previously discussed here.
Despite its long history of anti-pollution advocacy, which has helped lead to cleaner air and water, environmentalism is a nature-centric movement. It is popularly associated with polar bears, old growth forests, ecology. Thus the impression, in many minds, that tree-hugging environmentalists put the concerns of wildlife and nature above those of humans. That is one of the biggest reasons why the movement’s constituency remains narrow.
So for environmentalism to really capture the hearts and minds of people, and to expand its demographic, what will it take?
More stories like this:
Park by park a patchwork of green spaces has been taking shape, the consequence of decades of grinding, grass-roots, community-driven efforts. For the environmentalists, educators, politicians, architects and landscape designers involved, the idea has not just been to revitalize a befouled waterway and create new public spaces. It has been to invest Bronx residents, for generations alienated from the water, in the beauty and upkeep of their local river.
Also, coalitions that bring disparate interests together, such as this one, will perhaps demonstrate that conservation and development need not be mutually exclusive. For the sake of the planet and the future of environmentalism, I hope so.
It’s not in the headlines or on the evening news, but there’s a big story that some people are discussing. And it’s going to get bigger and matter way more than the heat waves and extreme weather that everyone in climate circles is buzzing about this summer.
To catch up on this story, you should read the series of posts in July by Walter Russell Mead, which he has titled, The Energy Revolution. From part one:
A world energy revolution is underway and it will be shaping the realities of the 21st century when the Crash of 2008 and the Great Stagnation that followed only interest historians. A new age of abundance for fossil fuels is upon us. And the center of gravity of the global energy picture is shifting from the Middle East to”¦ North America.
In part two, Mead writes that, “we are now entering a time when energy abundance will be an argument for continued American dynamism.” The bright future for America he foresees is based on this:
By some estimates, the United States has more oil than Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran combined, and Canada may have even more than the United States. A GAO report released last May (pdf link can be found here) estimates that up to the equivalent of 3 trillion barrels of shale oil may lie in just one of the major potential US energy production sites. If half of this oil is recoverable, US reserves in this one deposit are roughly equal to the known reserves of the rest of the world combined.
Mead’s posts (he is now up to part 3) follow a report published in June by Leonard Maugeri titled, “Oil: The Next Revolution.” Skeptics of Maugeri’s bullish analysis might point out that he is a former oil industry executive. He is currently a Research Fellow of the Geopolitics of Energy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. The Project, incidentally, is funded by BP.
Be that as it is, Maugeri’s analysis has convinced George Monbiot that the world is not about to run out of oil anytime soon. His recent Guardian column on the report is headlined: “We were wrong on peak oil. There’s enough to fry us all.”
A more guarded outlook of the projected “energy abundance” (including the implications for climate change) is offered by energy policy expert Michael Levi in the current issue of Foreign Policy. For example, Levi writes:
As a mere matter of scale, projections that the United States will reclaim the title of world’s largest oil producer are entirely plausible, though hardly guaranteed.
Last week, Levi was one of the assembled experts for a panel at the New America Foundation called, “Scrutinizing a Potential New Golden Age of Oil, and What it Could Mean for the Next President.”
At his Foreign Policy blog, journalist Steve LeVine (who convened the New America panel) writes:
A growing number of key energy analysts say that technological advances and high oil prices are leading to a revolution in global oil. Rather than petroleum scarcity, we are seeing into a flood of new oil supplies from some pretty surprising places, led by the United States and Canada, these analysts say.
LeVine’s post is titled, “The Era of Oil Abundance.”
You getting the picture?
Now this is not exactly news to those who have been following stories like this (in the NYT) and this (in the WSJ). And there’s the new gas age already well underway, of which The Economist takes stock of in its current issue. Combined, these developments have me recalling this Salon piece from Michael Lind last year, which begins:
Are we living at the beginning of the Age of Fossil Fuels, not its final decades? The very thought goes against everything that politicians and the educated public have been taught to believe in the past generation. According to the conventional wisdom, the U.S. and other industrial nations must undertake a rapid and expensive transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy for three reasons: The imminent depletion of fossil fuels, national security and the danger of global warming.
What if the conventional wisdom about the energy future of America and the world has been completely wrong?
If this proves to be the case, then will it really be–to borrow from James Hansen–game over for the climate? Faced with such a prospect, might we soon be forced to take geoengineering seriously? Oliver Morton of The Economist is at work developing this argument. I think he’s on to something here:
At a recent meeting Rob Socolow suggested that we should divide the world into people who do or don’t think the risks of climate change are an urgent matter and people who do or don’t think decarbonisation is difficult (pdf). A lot of the green movement is in the do/don’t quadrant ““ do take climate change seriously, don’t think getting rid of fossil fuels is all that difficult (“just needs political will,” dontcha know). People opposed to current or intensified action on climate (sceptics, lukewarmers, status-quo-ers, whatever) are in the don’t/do quadrant ““ don’t see climate change as a serious risk, do think decarbonisation is difficult, or at least costly.
Like Rob, I am in the do/do quadrant. I do think climate change poses serious risks, and I do think decarbonisation is difficult. That is why I think it is worth taking the possibility of geoengineering seriously enough to see how well it might be done.
If a new era of oil abundance is truly upon us, we may have no choice.
How inconvenient. I go away on vacation for a few weeks and during that time everybody, it seems, becomes convinced that global warming has struck the earth like the Ten Plagues of Egypt. So does this mean the message (unabated carbon emissions = climate damnation) finally–finally!–has been received by 1) the media, 2) all earthlings (except faithful readers of WUWT and Climate Depot), 3) President Obama, and 4) China, India et al?
I know you’ve been waiting anxiously for my return so I can answer these crucial questions. I will not disappoint.
But first, let me say that during my vacation I was disconnected from what was happening in major regions across the United States. From June 28 to July 14, me and the family were (mostly) in Northern California, where the skies were blue (except for that charming San Francisco fog), and the weather was calm and comfortable. Now I am aware that I was in some sort of climatic Twilight Zone for two and half weeks, since nearly every morning I’d wake up to headlines in USA Today about the rest of the country being tormented by historic heat waves, power outages, and catastrophic fires. By the end of week one of our vacation, my Google news alert on climate change was ringing with stories that linked all the misery and disasters–either directly or indirectly–to global warming. Sneaking an occasional peek at my twitter feed on July 3 (I took a vow of no blogging or tweeting), I learned from some journalists and Penn State’s Michael Mann that the media was offering up “teachable moments”:
Busy time right now to be a climate scientist–in very good way. ‘Teachable moments’ perfect description of what we have here.
As if on cue, a piece that day in the Associated Press included a quote from the University of Arizona’s Jonathan Overpeck that connected all the heat waves/fires/climate change dots:
This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level.
By week two, while my wife and I were blissfully sampling wines in Napa and Sonoma (we left the kids with my brother for a 24-hour getaway) and all of us were lollygagging in Santa Cruz, Monterey, and Yosemite National Park, much of the rest of country was still being choked by unbearable heat and the misery index was climbing. A July 10 Time magazine headline asked:
Now do you believe in global warming?
Unsurprisingly, more people were saying yes. This follows a public opinion survey from two months ago that found Americans had become less concerned about global warming. That was then. We don’t need a pollster to tell us which way the wind blows today.
Or the media. Last week, Joe Romm woke up one day and couldn’t find an itch to scratch. Instead, he wrote that
we have the unprecedented situation of the evening news shows last night on ABC, CBS, and NBC (and PBS) all talking about the link between greenhouse gases and the stunning heat wave.
After returning home and reviewing much of the coverage and punditry that has connected global warming to the most recent extreme weather across the United States, I have to wonder: Is this a turning point in the way climate change is covered in the media? Perhaps more importantly, will this newly heightened and likely brief spike in awareness of global warming move beyond the usual climate porn stage to spur a more constructive discussion on how to reduce greenhouse gases?
Let me rephrase the question I asked at the outset: Do you think that if scientists and the media continue to pound away with the message of climate damnation that this will lead to action on climate change? That President Obama, in a second term, will make climate change his signature issue? That China and India will agree to curtail their economic growth, and by extension, their carbon emissions? That, absent any of these developments, a great swelling of the masses will rise up and demand politicians to take action?
So more people believe in global warming at this moment in time. Big deal. Let’s talk again in six months. And even then, if the public opinion needle has seriously moved, what does it matter if it doesn’t lead to reality-based discussion about solutions?