Archive for the 'Climate Change Communication' Category

Climate Change: A fundamental shift of our place in the world

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

Climate Change: A fundamental shift of our place in the world

Richard B. Rood, University of Michigan

This blog appeared originally in the Michigan Journal of Sustainability, The Conversation: Climate Change: A Fundamental Shift of Our Place in the World.

A scientist colleague told me, recently, he had realized that talking to the press about climate change was not about education and outreach, and he was no longer sure of his role. During the 1990s at the federal research labs, there were initiatives to communicate science to the public. A common vehicle was a one-page popular summary of technical journal articles. An underlying premise of this public outreach was that there was one conversation, that of informing the public of meaning, value and societal importance. This naive notion of outreach did not recognize other types of conversations. Already in the 1990s, there was an emerging political conversation about climate change. There were also philosophical conversations about humans, nature, conservation and sustainability – some anchored in religious convictions. A more psychological conversation evolved about being responsible for doing damage to the planet.

As these conversations have evolved, scientists have thought more formally about communication. In one meeting of scientists, I said that every time a climate scientist wrote or talked it was potentially political. When scientists participated in interviews, blogged or sat on panels at the local museum, then there was almost certainly a political element that might be extracted from their words. Some of my colleagues were offended at my statement, maintaining that that they never spoke politically, only from dispassionate knowledge. I also maintained that most scientists are ill-prepared to participate in the political arguments.

Recently, Secretary of State John Kerry framed climate change, the persistent warming of the Earth and its consequences, in terms of weapons of mass destruction. Secretary Kerry and President Obama reached for the seemingly easy comparison of climate change deniers to those who believed that the Earth was flat before the European sea exploration of the fifteenth century. This comparison motivated a predictable and easy response from those who consider climate change to be an exaggerated risk, with the public presence of that risk being maintained by a community of self-interested climate change believers – the warmists. So now we have the warmist versus the deniers. This is yet another type of conversation – tribal, you are wrong because of who you are.

One of the more prominent pieces that appeared in response to Kerry’s statements painted climate change deniers as mavericks of the past proved right by progress. Richard McNider and John Christy wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Why Kerry is Flat Wrong on Climate Change.” They maintain that, in fact, the scientific consensus of ancient times was that the Earth was flat, and it was the skeptical minority that motivated the thinking and exploration that proved the Earth round. They then walk through a list of failed predictions by prejudiced scientists who could be forgiven their follies if they were not so wrong and persistent in their message.

This recent kerfuffle, as one of my journalist colleagues calls it, was motivated by the Secretary of State. When the Secretary of State speaks, it is at its very root a political statement. I don’t have any way of knowing the calculation or preparation in the use of comparisons to flat earthers and to weapons of mass destruction. It is safe to say, however, that both were meant to make a point that was more political or rhetorical than scientific. The response by McNider and Christy shows the relative ease that these comparisons can be turned around. That is one of the attributes of political argument, the ability to twist and parry statements to make points, both substantive and not, to advance a political agenda.

If I were to take the time to analyze this fuss in my class on climate change, I would ask my students to look through the documents and identify questions from two perspectives. The first is scientific, using the principles of scientific investigation, what needs to be analyzed? The second is rhetorical, what forms of argument are used? I will accept Secretary Kerry’s statements as political. McNider and Christy write, however, as credentialed scientists. Yet the form of their argument relies on statements of prejudice, presentation of isolated information, invocation of disconnected facts to superficially bolster a point, fragmented quotes and easy personal conclusions that support their argument. These elements mark theirs as more a political than a science-based argument.

There is, however, a point made by McNider and Christy that caught my attention: namely, the claim of scientific consensus in the ancient world. But this point is actually difficult to substantiate because scientific investigation in the ancient world was so limited. In the basic teaching of science and mathematics, students are taught that Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the Earth about 200 BCE. This fact is generally touted as a scientific accomplishment that stood in contrast to the non-scientific belief that the Earth was flat. When the scientific and quantitative investigation of the natural world challenged the belief-based description in this way, it often ended badly for the scientist or mathematician, for example, Hypatia of Alexandria, who was torn to pieces by a mob during times of great religious conflict. It is easy to chip away at the idea of the scientific consensus in the ancient world being that the Earth was flat.

That question aside, McNider and Christy’s point put me in mind of the psychologist Gardner Murphy’s 1975 book, “Outgrowing Self-Deception.” Murphy maintains that we have two ways of ordering reality, “the way of science and the way of personal desire.” We are drawn powerfully to our personal desires because they in some way bring safety to our well being. In pursuit of this safety, we develop a personal imperative to believe that we are essentially correct or right. In our groups we share this rightness for collective assurance. This sometimes self-deceiving rightness often forms and aligns with society’s power structures, some political, some economic and some religious. It is, perhaps, a foundation of the tribal conversation.

In a late chapter of “Outgrowing Self-Deception,” Murphy offers a perspective on humankind rather than on the foibles of the individual. Murphy maintains that the scientific methods of Copernicus were frustrated by the underlying beliefs that the universe was “perfect” and a heliocentric model of the universe required orbits to be circular. Why? Circles were divinely perfect. Galileo’s observations challenged the human-imposed paradigm of the perfect universe and “force experimental physics into the center of the new knowledge as it forced the sun into the center of the solar system.” Charles Darwin, too, challenges the widely held perception that humans are different from all other living creatures. Through these and other examples. Murphy blames the often tortuously slow pace of breakthroughs in human thought on self-imposed deceptions, confrontation of power structures, and both individual and group imperatives to be right.

Today, climate change is often called the challenge of century, an existential threat and, according to Secretary Kerry, akin to a weapon of mass destruction. The fact that we have developed these types of conversation – political, philosophical or tribal, demonstrates that the science-based reality of climate changes stands as a fundamental breakthrough of human knowledge. We have the ability to transform the very nature of the planet – and we are doing so. Our individual and group perception of our place in the world is changed. We have to assume the responsibility of what we are doing to the planet. There is the responsibility of how we use the knowledge that we have generated of the ways the planet will change.

If we are to use the knowledge of climate change, then we challenge the familiar power structures of economies, politics, beliefs and perceptions. These challenges are consequential to a far larger portion of society than those of Copernicus, Galileo or Darwin. We, therefore, expect the conversations and the progress to be tortuously slow and conflated with arguments to maintain the power structures. To make the knowledge-based part of the conversations more effective, we must realize that we are in multiple types of conversations, set in the context of a fundamental change to the body of human knowledge. The political, economic and belief machinations will continue. Compared to those earlier times where we were merely trying to place the Sun in the center of the Solar System, the conversations about climate change are far more important. Those whose knowledge is based in the way of science need to find and to focus on the conversations that speed up the use of knowledge about climate change – to own and play their roles.

NRC Report: A National Strategy for Advancing Climate Modeling

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

New Report: A National Strategy for Advancing Climate Modeling

In late 2010 and 2011, I was writing about organizing U.S. climate modeling. I combined and posted some of the WU blogs on as Something New in the Past Decade? Organizing U.S. Climate Modeling. I want to revisit those issues in light of the release of a National Academy of Sciences Report, A National Strategy for Advancing Climate Modeling (2012).

I am a co-author of this Academy report. In this blog, I am writing not in my role as a co-author, but from my personal perspective. This blog fits in with many of the themes I have written about in the last few years.

First, I want to explain the role of the National Academy of Sciences. The Academy is a private, not-for-profit organization created by President Abraham Lincoln at the height of the Civil War. Lincoln and others at the time realized the importance of science and technology to the United States and wanted a way to get independent advice on issues important to policy. Almost 150 years later, this importance is greater, but the role of science is an increasingly controversial political issue – especially when scientific investigation comes into conflict with how we might want to believe and to act. (see, here or edited here ) So one role of the National Academy is independent review – a role that is at the heart of the scientific method and the culture of scientific practice.

Second, how does the Academy decide what to write about? The Academy serves as adviser to the government, and so organizations within the government ask the Academy to evaluate a specific set of questions or issues surrounding a body of science-based knowledge about a particular subject. Often, as in this report, there is a forward-looking aspect of the problem, such as an outline for a strategy. One example of a past report is an analysis President George W. Bush requested soon after his inauguration, Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions. This report is famous, partly, because it took one-month from start to finish. It found that the science of climate change was robust. In June 2001, President Bush gave a speech noting, “Climate change, with its potential to impact every corner of the world, is an issue that must be addressed by the world.” (see speech)

The current report on modeling strategy had many sponsors, notably among them the U.S. Intelligence community, a user not a builder of climate models. An early talk to the writing panel was given by Rear Admiral David Titley (Titley talks about climate and national security). In his presentation, he highlighted numerous concerns of the U.S. military, ranging from patrolling an open and disputed Arctic Ocean to threats of rising sea level to billions of dollars in assets. Other issues of national security are related to the stability of nations, the access to resources, and the volatility of commodity markets. A basic question to the panel is on the improvement of predictive skill, to address questions such as, when will we have to rebuild the dry-dock in Newport News, Virginia, and how high will it have to be?

Next, how does a panel like this actually work? The National Research Council is the operational part of the Academy. If you look on the Policies and Procedures link, you will see its rules of operations on, say, conflict of interest. The Academy selects a chair and a panel to answer the sponsor’s questions from a broad range of experience and points of view. Practically, members of the panel are assigned as lead authors on some chapters, secondary authors on other chapters, and reviewers and deliberators on the entire document. In addition to the panel, the Academy assigns staff members to manage the integration of the document as well as to assure the document is written according to Academy protocols. The staff is attentive to moving the document away from personal points of view towards a document that represents the collective view of the panel. That’s the process.

In this report I wrote history – the first draft of Chapter 2, Lessons from Previous Reports on Climate Modeling. Also, having been a co-author on some of those earlier reports, I provided continuity. For this blog, I am going to write from the perspective of someone who has advocated the need for our community to address a set of important organizational challenges. Or given a more than 20-year history of repeated recommendations and a series of Academy reports that re-identified the same problems, as stated in Chapter 2, “A challenge, therefore, to the current committee is how to disrupt the inertia of the U.S. climate science enterprise: going forward, what do we do differently?”

Because of the disruptive consequences of global warming, the scientific study of climate change has, long ago, moved out of the domain of curious scientists driven to explain the world around them. Climate change requires more than interpretation and guidance in order to be relevant to policy. Stated differently, to be directly usable by society, there is a requirement for scientific investigation focused on specific questions or classes of problems. Addressing these problems requires the use of complex software systems, multidisciplinary scientific information, rigorous and transparent evaluation, and interpretation of the knowledge produced and its uncertainty. Therefore, addressing these problems requires the combined efforts of many individuals from several professional backgrounds. There needs to be a process of planning, coordination, and execution.

We need, therefore, to coordinate activities that are, traditionally, scientific, computational, and organizational. My experience as a manager of scientific efforts is that organizational coordination is far more difficult than the challenges of computational and scientific coordination. Standing alone, coordination of computational and scientific efforts is stunningly difficult. Therefore, the new, perhaps overarching, recommendations of this report are focused on ideas that the committee viewed as helping to advance coordination, integration, or synthesis.

One of the report’s overall recommendations is “to evolve” towards a national software infrastructure for climate modeling. I think the word “evolve” is important because the reports from a decade ago also recommended software and information system infrastructure. In fact, following those reports, there has been investment and progress, both substantial, in the development of infrastructure. This is documented in the report, with the recognition that the organizational achievements are as notable as the technical achievements. Throughout the report, there are calls to build upon these successes, to utilize the communities that have made the progress of the past decade. To quote, “The Committee recommends a community-based design and implementation process for achieving a national common software infrastructure. While this goal has risks, costs, and institutional hurdles, the Committee believes they are far outweighed by its benefits.”

Another major recommendation is the formation of a modeling summit to promote “tighter coordination and more consistent evaluation” of climate models. This, to me, is perhaps the most novel and most important recommendation. Why? Previous reports have struggled with organizational issues and have made recommendations about re-organizing government agencies or re-focusing governmental organizations. At the same time earlier reports, as well as this report, express reservations about centralization and bureaucratic structures. What this recommendation recognizes is the need for a community-based organization that needs to find its niche within the federal agency structure, the interagency organizations, and the growing community of users. It recognizes the value of increased community-based planning and, hopefully, execution. And it, once again, recognizes the progress of the past decade of community building.

The next key recommendation is to “nurture a unified weather-climate modeling effort that better exploits the synergies between weather forecasting, data assimilation, and climate modeling.” This subject, too, has been flirted with in previous reports, and it is a recommendation that is more controversial than one might imagine. These two communities, weather and climate, have come to the modeling problem from different perspectives. Their practices of science have some distinct differences. There is also in the United States an idea held by many that weather forecasting is “operational,” and that “operational” comes at the expense of “science.” This recommendation from the Academy panel is based on the facts that 1) “operational” does not have to come at the expense of “science,” and 2) rationalization or unification of the different practices of science come with the benefit of more robust science-based products.

The final overarching recommendation is about the development of a new type of professional, the climate interpreter. This recommendation follows from other Academy reports and a growing body of research into the barriers of the use of climate information by scientists and practitioners who need climate information in their research, applications, and decision making. This recommendation explicitly recognizes the importance of formalizing the interfaces between climate modeling, more broadly climate science, and the usability of climate information by society as a whole.

These new recommendations are supported by a series of recommendations, which are, again, focused on pulling together the community: the scientific efforts, the computational efforts, and the interfaces to society as a whole. These supporting recommendations focus on continuation and strengthening of important activities that are of especial importance.

I want to also point out a few things that the report is not. It is not a list of important scientific questions. Many such lists have been made, and they are often the natural product of a group of scientists thinking about strategy. It is not a recommendation that if the government reorganizes in some way or simply provides more money, then we will address all needed climate services. We have no way to reorganize the government, and we are smart enough to know the challenges of money. And, finally, this report is not a call to centralize through reorganization. As a government manager, for years I studied centralized organizations, federations, and anarchist groups. I feel that centralization in a field and environment like ours is, primarily, a process that leads to increased risk. I feel that federated, community-based responsibility is the best path to assure success. It is also the most difficult.

As a final comment: I am a co-author of the report writing a blog that is my point of view. If I were asked to interpret the report in a strategic sense for a program manager, this is where I would start. One of the lessons I have learned is that this report is now in the hands of the public. Some people will interpret the report to support their agendas, sometimes their prejudices. I looked at past reports that I have been involved with, and I have seen recommendations cherry-picked for both good and bad reasons. The message of this report is synthesis, integration, and coordination. For the report’s message to become reality, those with the power to act and to implement need to focus on synthesis. We need to go forward more as a whole than as a thousand points of expertise brought together in grand exercises of climate-science assessment.


Belief and Knowledge and Humans and Nature:

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

Belief and Knowledge and Humans and Nature:

I am starting this entry from a previous blog, Rhetoric Again – Cycles. I got some interesting comments as well as a couple of letters for that entry. To set the tone, here is a thought from the end of that blog.

There is little doubt that humans are the dominant life form on the planet today. We shape every ecosystem. We consume all forms of energy. Throughout time, plants and animals have determined and altered the environment. Today we humans change our environment, the atmosphere and ocean. Not only are we a dominant life form, we have this amazing ability to extract rocks and liquids and gases from the Earth and to burn them. We have the ability to push land around, to remove mountains, to build islands, and to manufacture concrete. We are, therefore, not only biological, we are geological.

We humans are a force of nature – while yet a part of nature. Because we have the ability to remember, to reason, to develop and to accumulate knowledge, unlike other parts of the natural world, we have the ability to make decisions that influence the future of our environment. Therefore, our role in nature, in the natural world, is unique. To be clear, that uniqueness is not in our ability to change the environment, but in our ability to understand the consequences of those changes and the ability to anticipate and influence the future.

I bring up this idea of humans as a reasoning biological and geological force for several reasons. First, I believe that to set the world into two parts, natural on one hand, human on the other, is both a false and dangerous division. As we focus on climate change, this division is at the foundation of the thought of those who argue that the climate is full of natural cycles, that the current warming is just part of that natural cycle, and hence that we humans have no need for concern. Or alternatively, there is no need for us to modify our behavior because the changes we see are simply a force of nature, and we don’t have any influence over nature. (see also). Some of the many who see humans as outside of nature see humans as a disturbance to nature, and others believe humans have divine providence over nature. The very foundation of how we think about climate change, our environment, and our place in nature is based on our beliefs. It is a belief base associated with our personal identity. (WWF, Environment and Identity)

I have been motivated to think about what we believe and how our beliefs influence how we think about climate change working to improve our ability to communicate climate change. Some scientists spend a lot of time thinking about how to communicate their work; in fact, research sponsors often require plans for communication, outreach, and broader impacts. Many scientists, trained in a discipline of evidence-based knowledge generation, naturally present evidence-based arguments, with the idea that ultimately the evidence-based argument will be convincing beyond reasonable doubt. In many ways, this invites an argument more suitable to our approach to legal problems. We the scientists will present the evidence base. This evidence will stand in contrast to the arguments of the nonscientist. There will, ultimately, be judgment in favor of the evidence base, because, well, it becomes self-evident. This form of argument does not recognize that we humans often look at evidence and make decisions that deny the existence of that evidence. We make decisions that align with our desires, our beliefs, and what we want to believe.

I have written about some of these communications issues, and they are compiled here in What to Do? What to Do?. What I want to state more explicitly than I have stated before is the importance of the recognition of the belief-based argument. First, I naturally contrast the belief-based argument with the knowledge-based argument, which is not really the right contrast. The belief-based argument is, in fact, informed by knowledge, but it does not give high weight to science-based knowledge. Hence, it is not especially useful to pose a belief-based versus a knowledge-based argument. I have already stated that both sides of the argument are belief-based and that both sides of the argument are informed by knowledge. Hence, these arguments easily fall into attacks on personal identity – I the scientist work from the foundation of knowledge and the ability to generate knowledge. You do not. Therefore, you are wrong. This form of argument is not useful.

Second, I have used belief-based argument with the idea that belief-based might be viewed as a politically based argument or even a religion-based argument. I have often referred to the politically based argument in my blog entries, and I have stated that once the climate change discussion becomes a political argument, where the foundation is not primarily science-based knowledge, there is really little purpose in arguing over facts and evidence-based knowledge of the Earth’s climate. There is even evidence that introduction of science facts increases the polarity of political arguments (see here). In such an argument, people may be working from a different base of believed facts. This failure of science-based knowledge to win the belief-based argument is especially evident in the arguments over biological evolution, divine creation, and, say, the observation-based scientific description of progression of Earth’s life and climate.

Where am I planning to take this blog? First, the communication of climate change is complex and individual. If we mash together evangelical, conservative, and Republican beliefs as dismissive of climate change and view a concern for climate change as secular, liberal, and Democratic, then we do disservice to all. It does not take much effort to reveal evangelical, conservative, Republican organizations that are concerned about and vested in ways to address climate change (Inglis and Climate Change). That is why in the 2012 political environment, a focus on exposing the companies, the governments, and the individuals that are seeking solutions is a more useful way forward than perpetuating the political arguments and despair over the political response. There is no simple key that will be uncovered by a compelling presentation of knowledge; there is no single approach to communication that will be effective. Successful communication is purpose-based and recognizes the valid points of view brought to the table by all constituencies. It often requires overcoming barriers of prejudice.

Next, let’s return to the idea of natural cycles – climate variability. We have been faced with many environmental challenges. I wrote this sitting in St. Cloud, Minnesota, in a region that was largely deforested many years ago, on the Mississippi River, which has an excess of nitrogen-based nutrients in the water. A few miles back I saw a bald eagle, a species that was endangered by the insecticide DDT after World War II. We eliminated the use of DDT, and we have seen the return of the bald eagle. Why can we make that decision – to ban DDT? Lots of reasons, an important one being the easy identification of cause and effect. And we see the return of the eagle over our lifetime. Climate change does not have that easy cause and effect.

Responding to climate change lacks the narrow focus on regulating an insecticide and saving a grand bird. It is not easy to see the benefit of regulating carbon dioxide emissions. Those benefits are many years in the future, and the near-term cost is high and very visible. It is like people not taking a medicine that has a 90 percent chance of curing them from a slowly progressing disease because they don’t understand how the drug they ingest might work and they don’t want to introduce alien chemicals into their body. They seem to be doing okay right now. And if we look at the consequences of climate change, they are frightening, threatening, and our fault. We don’t accept fault easily; we have a mandate to feel that we are right. We don’t like change forced upon us, either individually or collectively. We fall back to our beliefs, our identity.

After the blog Rhetoric Again – Cycles, I was asked whether or not I considered man part of nature. Yes, I am saying that man is part of nature. But I don’t think that nature proceeds as a completely unrestrained force. We are many, and we influence nature. In fact, we are at this time the most dominant force of nature. However, we are also able to investigate nature, develop knowledge, and anticipate scenarios for the future. Therefore, we can influence the course of nature. My belief is that we have the responsibility to act on this knowledge. And like people who get caught in cycles of behavior, perhaps trapped by psychological pitfalls, with recognition of our role in nature, we have the ability and the opportunity to take advantage of our knowledge.

To my students I try to teach that they separate what is known from what they believe and what they want to believe. Advocacy needs to be recognized by the advocate, and advocacy changes one’s role in decision making. The advocate identifies with an issue and is trying to elevate one position relative to other positions. The convincing advocate for addressing climate change is anchored in a knowledge base that is drawn from scientific investigation. With a separation of what is known, from what is believed to be known, and what is desired based on belief, the climate-change advocate becomes more effective in the decision-making process. It is then easier to incorporate climate knowledge into planning and policy, and societal response becomes possible.

We are what we repeatedly do

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

Form of Argument: Adventures in Rhetoric

In 2009 I received some questions from Westview High School in San Diego, California (see here). A few weeks ago I heard from the same teacher, Bob Whitney, and he was curious about how I would respond to the issues raised in this posting on Rogues and Scholars. This is a long exchange of postings between two engineers, Burt Rutan and Brian Angliss.

In my blog, for better or worse, I have tended away from engaging in the type of discussions that are represented by this exchange. A couple of reasons: One, this line of argument that works to discredit climate change is at this point political, and as I argued here, engagement in this argument is not productive. Two, while it is necessary to address the factual inaccuracies that are stated in this type of discussion, it has been done repeatedly and well by many others (look around, for instance, at Real Climate). That said – what do you say to students who have the discussion between Rutan and Angliss at hand and want to make sense of it all?

When I look at the words used by Rutan, I see words anchored around fraud, dishonesty, alarmist – this is an argument that relies on discredit and personal attacks. Such an attack quickly raises the emotion and takes the discussion away from a knowledge base. It is the sort of attack that has become pervasive in our political conversation in general, and it is an excellent diversionary tactic. It raises the specter of distrust.

I tell students to look for the form of argument. So, first, does it rely on discredit? In this case, it does rely on discredit, and it relies on discrediting thousands of scientists, writing many thousands of papers, over many years, from many countries. It is fundamentally conspiratorial, and not only is it conspiratorial it requires that many years before climate change emerged as an important environmental problem, that the foundation for the conspiracy was being laid down. To me, this lacks any credibility in reason, but if conspiratorial beliefs are held, then it is virtually impossible to provide convincing counterarguments to the person who holds those beliefs. If the form of argument relies on conspiracy, then it is immediately suspect.

One way to address, rationally, issues of dishonesty and conspiracy is to seek external review and, ultimately, judgment. The body of climate science research has been subject to extensive external review. Governments, the National Academy (here as well), non-climate-science scientists, and lawyers have reviewed climate science. They have all affirmed the results to be well founded and based on proper scientific investigation. The studies have documented that scientists have foibles and that peer review captures the vast majority of errors and prejudices and that there are no fundamental shortcomings in the conclusions that the Earth has, at its surface, on average, warmed and with virtual certainty will continue to warm. But if you dismiss climate science on the principle of conspiratorial malfeasance, then it is simple to dismiss external review. If you stand on only your own review and have the foundation to dismiss all external review because of conspiracy, then you are always right. Hence there is no discussion. There is no possible way forward for the student other than looking at the evidence and behavior and form of argument and standing as judge.

Does the argument rely on invoking moral levers of trust and distrust based on the belief of conspiratorial fraud?

Does the argument pull out single pieces of information and ignore other pieces of information? Does the argument rely on planting belief and disbelief by reaching for metaphors outside of the field? Does the argument assert that broad claims are made when there is no evidence to support such assertion?

So for the student – you have to think about the whole, not just isolated points that are meant to be provocative and planted to grow on an emotional state fueled by claims of amoral behavior.

Yes, carbon dioxide acts as a fertilizer, but is that the complete story of the vigor of plants? Is there any denial of this role of carbon dioxide in the climate literature? Can you find quantitative, science-based studies of the carbon dioxide fertilization effect?

Yes, there was a lot of carbon dioxide when there were dinosaurs; it was warm – what is the relevance of that argument? Does that establish that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant? Can’t things that are natural also be a pollutant? Isn’t that why we don’t want mine tailings in our drinking water? Isn’t that why we manage our sewage?

There is a wealth of information out there. There are ways to analyze that information, to evaluate its validity. If this sort of argument is encumbering, then there is a need to synthesize, personally, that information to form defensible conclusions.

If you look at the form of argument that relies on emotion, picks out pieces of information to support the argument, ignores pieces of information that do not support the argument, paints moods by long reaching metaphors, and ultimately relies on a belief that a field is corrupt, and that corruption requires a conspiratorial organization extending across decades and all nations – if that is the form of argument, then how is that robust? How is that believable? It is a prejudicial form of argument directed only at making someone believe the person making the argument; it is not seeking knowledge-based understanding.

That’s how I would look at that discussion.


Figure 1: A summary figure I use after I walk through about 10 lectures on the basics of climate science and global warming.

What to do? What to do?

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

What to Do ? (1) Politics and Knowledge:

A few months ago a Republican candidate for State Office came to my office to talk about climate change. At the end of the hour he asked me how I thought we could advance beyond the current political state which is publicly characterized by, my word, tribalism – do you or do you not believe in climate change? Since I had recently posted an article on the subject (here), I had some semblance of an answer queued up. At one level the answer is time, but I will get back to that.

At the top of the strategy was the realization by scientists that climate change was, now, a political issue, and that within the realm of the political culture, knowledge-based education was not, first and foremost, the way forward. In fact, in many cases, the exposure of more knowledge, more science, was likely to have a negative effect, fueling the political turmoil, and damaging, more, the body of scientific knowledge. Nuance of the scientific literature adds to uncertainty, and all uncertainty can be used to build doubt, which is the goal of the political argument.

Climate change has been a political issue for many years, but the relative weight between political issue and scientific issue has changed. The fact that a political candidate came to my office is, perhaps, a measure of how political it has become. But there are more thorough and, do I dare, more scientific measures. As mentioned in an earlier blog, Anthony Leiserowitz and colleagues have been investigating the how the public perceives climate change. Table 31 in this June 2010 presentation shows that Democrats are in a very small minority of those who are “Doubtful” or “Dismissive” of climate change. Republicans are in a slightly less distinct minority of those “Alarmed” or “Concerned” about climate change. The group who identified themselves as “Concerned” was the largest of six groups.

The majority of people who were “Alarmed” and “Concerned” about climate change identified themselves as Democrats. In the categories of “Doubtful” and “Dismissive” the largest group of people identified themselves as Republican, with a large percentage identifying themselves as Independent.

This quantifiable information supports the identification of climate change as a political issue and aligns climate change with the values associated with political affiliation. Hence, policy (and de facto commercial) interests and political values of taxation, regulation, energy, environment, conservation, etc. enter into how people think about climate change. For example, climate change means we have to change our reliance on fossil fuels, and if I make my living on fossil fuels, then I will likely be inclined to embrace the doubt that is the product of the political argument.

Once accepting that climate change is, publically, a political issue more than a scientific issue, it is important to realize that this challenge to science-based motivation of policy and societal change is not unique to climate change. In a paper I have referred to many times before Liisa Antilla states in her conclusions (I refer you to the original paper for the references):

“The attack on climate science, observed Pollack (2003), replicates previous assaults on science, such as by the pesticide industry (DDT), coal-burning electric utilities (acid rain), and the chemical industry (effect of CFCs on stratospheric ozone). Furthermore, Nissani (1999, p. 37) stressed that the ‘phoney’ controversy surrounding anthropogenic climate change has been preceded by controversies on such issues as slavery, child labour, and civil rights. There have always been experts willing to back up a ‘profitably mistaken viewpoint’; there have always been efforts ‘to cover the issue in a thick fog of sophistry and uncertainty’ and to ‘unearth yet one more reason why the status quo is best for us’ (Nissani, 1999, p. 37–38).”

It is important to appreciate that the politicization of climate change is not unique because it means that there is not some piece of magic, something that we have being saying wrong, that if we say it correctly, more convincingly, with a preponderance of knowledge and rationality – if we say it correctly, then we can move forward. Also realizing that the climate change is not unique in its politicization allows us to depersonalize the attacks, which are sometimes highly personal (a tried and true political tactic).

The use of the heavy weight of scientific investigation in such a political argument, I assert, serves just as much to maintain the politically useful perception of the arrogance of scientists and elitism of education as it does to correct misconceptions. This continual flow of knowledge and education from scientists engaged in this political game fuels the words of those making the argument that there is a conspiracy to deny personal choice – forced vegetarianism, a breathing tax, small dangerous cars …

Never mind the fact, the evidence, that small cars are not distinguished by excess danger, this is not a game of knowledge, of facts. Though not specifically focused on climate change a recent paper by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler study The Persistence of Political Misconceptions. They find through case studies of a set of recent cases, that the correction of incorrect information in polarized political issues did not lead to a rationalization of factual knowledge. In fact, they found that the correction of factually incorrect information could backfire, leading to more polarization. Quoting from their conclusions:

“As a result, the corrections fail to reduce misperceptions for the most committed participants. Even worse, they actually strengthen misperceptions among ideological subgroups in several cases.”

The realization and acceptance of climate change as a political issue that has a significant element of political values or ideology in how climate change is perceived has a profound influence on how we advance beyond the current political state. Notions that the way forward is simply a matter of communication are naïve. Yes, there is a subset that such information might influence; however, it will not convince those who have taken an explicit anti-climate change position. It will likely fuel them, amplify their message, with that also influencing those in middle ground open to influence. Not a simple case. The next articles will explore more aspects of the strategies for advancing the issues of climate change – What to do? What to do?

What to Do? (2) Who is the Audience?

In the previous article I argued that much of the “opposition” to climate change was politically motivated or politically aligned. With such political positioning a communications and education strategy motivated by the opposition only feeds the political argument. This is especially true in crisis situations, where reactions to the crisis serve to build and perpetuate the crisis. Then some become vested in maintaining the crisis, including those whose primary goal is to seed doubt – which is the purpose of the political argument. Casually, therefore, it makes some sense to step back from the argument and, perhaps, seek to do no harm.

More generally, if the way scientists, individually and collectively, decide to communicate is based upon and focused on the points raised by political opposition, then this seriously compromises the ability to move forward with knowledge-based action. Why? As argued and substantiated in the previous article, the correction of factual misstatements often does not make things better and can make things worse. This means that the energy expended in making the arguments of correction is largely wasted, and the messages that enter into the public dialogue are largely defined by the political opposition. This does pose a dilemma, which I will get to below.

I return to the research of Anthony Leiserowitz and colleagues who investigate how the public perceives climate change. This research divided the U.S. into Six Nations as indicated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: From Center for American Progress, Global Warming’s Six Americas. Here is a June 2010 update and more figures.

Focusing only on the “Alarmed” and “Concerned” communities, together, they provide an actual majority. This suggests that, in fact, the science-based study of the Earth’s climate, projections of climate change, and the potential consequences have been communicated and accepted as substantive. On top of this, it is reasonable to add to this informed group the people listed as “Cautious,” yielding quite a large majority of people who have at some level heard and are receptive to the issue of climate change. The “Cautious” group is split across Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Not only does this suggest success from the point of view of the scientist, but it has implications for communication strategies as well as moving forward.

With regard to communication strategies, the target of communication might naturally be those in the “Cautious” group. Therefore, rather than reacting to the message of the “Doubtful” and “Dismissive,” it is perhaps worthwhile to respond to the questions of “Cautious.” Hence, we need to know the questions of the “Cautious,” and these will not be only questions about scientific investigation.

With regard to moving forward, the results in Figure 1 show a majority of people are “Concerned” or “Alarmed.” Under the assumption that these people do not hang on in quiet desperation, there should be a substantial amount of actions and intellectual energy focused on developing and implementing solutions. Therefore, the extraction of knowledge from these evolving activities serves not only to promote creativity and accelerate the development of solution paths, but also to diversify the base of people who are advancing climate change as an important issue. This takes climate change out of the realm and culture of scientists, making the message more broadly concrete, and revealing more and more opportunity that comes from addressing climate change as a societal value.

Above, I mentioned a dilemma. On one hand I am advocating that scientists (perhaps others) disengage from the political argument. I base this argument on the idea that participation in the public political argument often makes the problem worse; this includes the correction of untrue information and errors. Yet aren’t we required to make these corrections? It is important to assure that there is knowledge-based information, and that this knowledge-based information is regularly refreshed. It is important that there is education, both formal and informal. It is important that we constantly improve the ability to communicate the essence and the substance of complex problems. Explicitly, the dilemma is both the need to correct incorrect information, with the realization that the correction of incorrect information does not lead to knowledge-based reconciliation of disagreements.

What is required to bring some rationalization of this dilemma is, again, the recognition of the political motivation of the opposition, and to set that political opposition into its proper context. It exists; it can be identified, and the level of response is then tailored to what it is. If the political opposition is continuously engaged; if it is allowed to define the strategies of communication and education; then it serves to erode the science-derived knowledge base. This is, perhaps, a generalization of Edwin Friedman’s Fallacy of Empathy, which is that an excess of empathy towards an individual propagates through an organization and exaggerates the (usually negative) influence that that person has on the organization. Success requires the containment of the political (and emotional) argument, and the separation of the education and communication functions from this political and emotional argument. This is a difficult, but necessary and doable, proposition. And, as argued above there is a ready audience for this message. (Do I dare invoke the Silent Majority …. No.)

The point of this blog is that to move these issues forward it is necessary to avoid the lure of the political argument and the personal attack. It is critical to identify the receptive audience, and it is critical to target substantiated information to this audience. On the flip side it is important to minimize the harm of participation in the political argument, and it is important to avoid having the political argument define the communication and education mission of the importance of climate change.

What to Do ? (3) The Messenger Matters:

The first article in this series was motivated by a Republican candidate for State Office coming to my office to talk about climate change. The previous two entries in the series (one, two) have focused on the identification of the evolving political nature of climate change and what that means to knowledge-based education and communication. I have argued that scientists, generically, are not well positioned to participate in ideological confrontation and are easy foils for savvy political strategists. This leads to a dilemma – there is a need for communicating correct information about climate change, but at least a subset of this communication serves to fuel the political cause of those who oppose using resources to address climate change on a political or ideological basis. It is easy to make things worse.

One of the common points made in political arguments is that scientists sustain arguments about the threats of climate change because it is a way to keep funding coming to the field. This is a classic conflict of interest argument, which does not, intuitively, carry a lot of substance. For example, as Steve Schneider pointed out, if scientists were truly vested in a conspiracy to enhance and maintain their funding, then they would not state that global warming is “unequivocal” (IPCC 2007). It would be a lot smarter to say that we think global warming is important, but we need to do a WHOLE lot more research. For scientists to state that warming is “unequivocal,” and that we really need to pay attention to impacts often works against the obvious self-interest of the climate scientist. Such a position empowers new fields of expertise and their constituencies. In a tight budgetary time this pulls money away from science. But like the knowledge of climate change itself, if too much effort is made to counter the conflict of interest argument, then this only serves to fuel and spread the political argument. (“More research” is quite often a political tactic to delay action.)

There is a point to be extracted from the above. The messenger is important.

The role of the scientist in the communication of scientific issues and in the possible consequences is complex. Scientists open themselves up to the conflict-of-interest criticism if there is even an indirect link between what people say and the way they get their funding. However, scientists are required by the scientific method and, de facto, contractual obligation to report their research. In their reports they need to write why the work is novel and important. Being novel and important does contribute to sustained funding – as it should. On top of this there is constant pressure from agency program managers and politicians for scientists to communicate their results in a way the public can understand. There was a time period when I was in the government where it was stylish to be asked the question “so what?” The implication of this question was that you must go beyond saying something is important, but you must say why it is important – often we were told, “so your mother could understand it.” In addition to these motivations and demands for scientists to communicate broadly, there is also the role of advocacy. There are some who see issues as so important that they move beyond the purveyors of objective knowledge to advocates of particular points of view (Scientists as Advocates).

Earlier in this series I put forward the notion that scientists needed to be cognizant of their role in what is now political discourse and, perhaps, to seek to do no harm. This requires scientists not only to understand their audience, but to also understand where their point of view is perceived to lie. Assume that one determines that they are engaged in a political exchange. Then given that the IPCC report has been politicized, authors of the IPCC report are by definition engaging in a political discussion. Being in a political discussion the role of correct facts and consideration of complete knowledge becomes complex. Not only does the aforementioned role of factual knowledge in science-motivated political issues come into play, but the IPCC author is a political voice motivated by a perceived partisan defense of their position and their work. Careful accurate statements by a scientist in such a position is likely to do little good, and careless statements are likely to generate new tendrils of the political argument and contribute to escalating personal attacks and attempts to discredit the messenger.

The messenger is important, and the most obvious way past the problem of the politicized messenger is to expand and diversify the messenger base. Perhaps the easiest diversification of the messenger base is to engage a far broader cross section of voices from the community of scientists. There are experts outside of the community of IPCC authors and the lead authors of classic papers. These voices bring new strength and perspectives to the body of knowledge – different ways of stating ideas. Often these voices are young, the next generation, and if we have confidence in our efforts, then we should have confidence in those who have learned from us.

The idea of the inclusion of new voices in scientific communication is almost simplistic; however, it is not easy to achieve. For example, journalists and reporters naturally come to the expert and the people at the top of the author list. They come to people who have made news, perhaps have a history of controversy or the notoriety of an advocate. In this case, if there is to be diversification to new voices, then making that happen might fall to the scientists themselves – scientists opening the paths to new voices. Sometimes this requires a harsh personal accounting of where a scientist sits in the political and communication environment, followed by self-imposition of boundaries. Am I doing good? Am I doing harm?

The role of translators between the climate expert and a particular audience is growing. The audience ranges from the general public to people in business, in government, in nongovernmental organizations, in academia and education, and even to climate scientists from different sub-disciplines of climate science. Translators are often needed in complex problems. The experts in the field may or may not be good communicators, and they are often not comprehensive and objective.

Traditionally, a subset of journalists stood as translators, but the past decade has seen great changes in journalism. We have the democratization of journalism with the emergence of, for example, blogs; the decline of structured, editor-supervised journalism; the emergence of point-of-view journalism; and the identification of virtually all authors as representing a point of view or a political position. In many instances, I strive to serve as a translator in these blogs/articles, and I have made the deliberate decision in my research career to translate between fields.

A natural question arises in this search for translators and honest sources of information: are there ways that we can organize to provide a source of substantiated, vetted, and unbiased climate information? Ideas of community wikis and community-certified blogs emerge. (see Judy Curry’s controversial take on this) This will be explored more in future articles, but such a self organization has, potentially, profound implications for the process of peer review and role of the professional societies. Such an approach is, perhaps, a democratization of science, which would change the role of the expert.

The widest diversification of the messengers of climate change comes from the active inclusion of people who are positioning themselves to adapt to climate change and to address the changes in energy policy that are necessary to affect climate change. I have mentioned several times the paper by Daniel Farber that concludes that scientific investigation of climate change warrants legal standing in U.S. courts (Trust, but Verify). I have also discussed the positions articulated by Jim Rogers the CEO of of Duke Energy. Responses to climate change can be found in national security, energy distribution, municipal climate action plans, the insurance industry, etc. These are people and organizations who have looked at the knowledge, looked at the evidence, and have started to align capital and human resources with the solution space. These are the stories and the messages that need to be brought forward. Diversification of the messenger community outside of the community of scientists and academics and government researchers not only brings forward voices who are responding to the body of climate-change knowledge, but also untangles conflict-of-interest perceptions and provides concrete examples of the translation of climate science to action. This is where some principles of organization need to be focused.

What to Do ? (4) Time for New Community:

This is the final in a series of blogs that explores the political nature of climate change, strategies for communication of information about climate change, and how to move forward our collective response to climate, climate variability, and climate change. One of the ideas that I have advocated is to make much larger and more diverse the people who are contributing to the discussion and knowledge base of climate change. In this final piece, I want to move away from the original points of the first three articles to broader issues of developing and providing information about climate change. (Previous articles in this series: one, two, three)

Though a few scientists and politicians identified human-caused climate change as an important environmental issue before World War II, until the last 20 years or so, climate change remained primarily in the realm of scientific investigation and scientists. With the emergence of global warming as an environmental issue that will disrupt societies, climate change became an issue of public policy. In contrast to, for example, the issue of tobacco and lung cancer or even coal burning and acid rain, we have not moved to situation where the definitive proof of global warming and its consequences lie behind us. There is not, therefore, a definitive boundary between the time of scientific research and the time of public policy. The two are required to coexist. (Here is new paper that I wrote with Maria Carmen Lemos on the use of climate projections in public policy.)

In the initial research-dominated phase of an issue that emerges as a public policy priority, it is natural to imagine scientists and science communicators working to inform the public as well as those who are perceived as having a need to know. This is a push of information, and in earlier articles I have argued that there has been quite an effective push of knowledge about climate change (Who is the Audience?). As a result of this successful push of information, there are many individuals who are motivated to take action on climate change – or at least to figure out what to do about it. Aside from high profile efforts like the Climate Action Partnership, I have worked with people considering how to migrate forests northward, anticipate new public health risks, manage fisheries, price carbon, maintain urban water supplies – the list goes on. My first point is that there are already many more people on this solution side than there or on the physical climate research side. We need to recognize more vigorously the resources represented by this community and to develop the capability for this community to both pull on the climate-science knowledge base and to contribute to development of that knowledge base.

There is a second point that follows from the recognition of this community outside of the mainstream of climate researchers. As an example, consider the issues facing a water resource manager in coastal Florida versus North Dakota. In Florida there are concerns of sea-level rise, salt water intrusion, and the sinking of land as ground water is removed. Wetland ecosystems are central to Florida’s water management challenges. In North Dakota concerns are more likely dominated by better management of rivers and lakes in the presence of more volatile drought and flood cycles, as well as competition with agricultural needs. Both managers have to deal with their current facilities, projections of population, tax bases, and local, state, regional, and national water policies. The take away message is that to incorporate climate variability and climate change into plans for management and development is strongly influenced by the specifics of the problem. It is so strongly influenced by the specifics, that it is unreasonable to expect that a guidebook to climate solutions will be generated by a relatively modest number of climate experts and then prescribed to a waiting audience. With the enormous complexity that will be faced in seeking climate solutions, it is, again, necessary to consider how community-based approaches can be used to allow the organization of the complexity and the emergence of new solution paths.

I advocate, here, a re-framing of the climate and climate-change problem. Rather than this being, primarily, a scientific problem with scientists or an institutional service pushing information to waiting and perhaps under-informed audiences, we must develop community-based resources that allow for the participation of an informed community in the evolution of climate solutions. This supports the pull of information, self-organization, self-correction, and the ability of the community to inform the research needs of the community. Simple to say – more difficult to accomplish.

Climate and weather scientists have been at the forefront of data sharing and community activities (again a reference to Paul Edwards’s book, A Vast Machine). A major reason for sharing of weather data is the need to have routine observations of the entire globe in order to provide weather forecasts. Within the climate community the development of the Community Climate Model serves as a premiere example of community resources. Now the Community Earth System Model (CESM) this activity has provided a series of models available for general use by both scientific and non-scientific communities. The CESM activities have engaged through its working groups a large number of scientists. This activity was begun at a time when climate science was, primarily, the concern of research scientists and when computational and intellectual resources required the centralization of efforts to develop super systems that were beyond the ability of individual researchers.

The community reframing that I am advocating recognizes the evolution and successes of open source communities and the use of open innovation techniques in management of complexity, complex problem solving, and the emergence of knowledge (Wikipedia, for instance). Compared with the original concept that led to the Community Earth System Model (CESM), these open communities have broader, more active, less managed participation by the community. A re-framing might be that a model would be built by the community not for the community, even if there is substantial community participation.

The concepts of open communities raise many concerns, especially when there is a need to assure accuracy and truthfulness of information and results. Going back to the basic definition of the scientific method there is the notion of controlled experimentation, where the environment is controlled to isolate cause and effect. There is the fundamental practice of anonymous peer review to assure accuracy. Often in the building of complex systems like rockets, there is need for control over process to assure mission success. Opening up processes and knowledge generation raises the risk of inaccurate knowledge – it potentially opens up a body of knowledge to political manipulation or advocacy or advertisement. The question then arises on how to reduce these negative risks to a level that they are overwhelmed by the positive attributes of problems being solved and the emergence of solutions out of the complexity.

The questions of a successful community become, therefore, how is governance instituted to assure the accuracy of information, how is credibility established, how are inaccuracies identified and corrected? The success of an open community relies on its relationships with existing and evolving entities, institutions, and communities. The existence of successful open communities suggests plausibility. The goal of an open climate community would an accessible knowledge base that serves as trusted resource of objective information for those who have an interest in climate and climate change.

Time. At the start of this series of articles I mentioned that one thing that is necessary to evolve climate and climate change, productively, as an issue is time. When I wrote that, I was thinking of the half-generational time span that is needed for controversial environmental issues to rise above the opposition to the changes in behavior that are necessary to address the issue. I was thinking that we need to shorten that time span. Part of what is needed to accelerate our response to knowledge of climate change and actual climate change is to shorten the amount of time that is needed to produce accurate and usable information about climate change. This requires us to generate new methods of review and evaluation of knowledge and to accept new ways of the inclusion of uncertainty in complex problem solving. This requires education and alteration of climate scientists and the scientific process just as much as it requires education by scientists about climate and climate change. The large number of people already making decisions about how to invest their time and money in response to the body of knowledge about climate change will move much faster than is consistent with the traditional generation of scientific knowledge. We need the best climate information at any given time. Despite the challenges of governance to assure accuracy, if we don’t develop open community based approaches to climate change problem solving we will not accelerate our collective response; we will miss opportunity, and we will isolate the generation and use of scientifically generated knowledge from problem solving when it is most critical.


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