Archive for the 'Global Warming' Category


reframing the debate on climate science

The international consensus on global warming has seemingly experienced a spectacular slow-motion train wreck over the last few months, with “climategate” reports piling up in public debate like derailing rail cars filmed in freeze frame.  The fascination for on-lookers, however, is that the science itself is largely blameless.   Instead, the pile-up stands as a case study in how not to wage a political battle.  And make no mistake; the attacks on climate science are pure politics.  We have seen attacks on science before, just pick your favorite example: smoking, toxic pollution, seat belts, etc.  However, until there is a fundamental reframing of the climate science debate, one that illuminates the politics, this round of attacks will continue to enjoy success.

Before focusing on how to reframe the debate on climate science, it’s fair to ask whether it’s worth the effort. In the wake of the Nobel-prize winning IPCC report on climate change three years ago, with climate science seemingly well established, advocates for climate protection focused their attention and rhetoric on the power of clean technology to fuel economic growth and create green jobs.   This strategy was driven in part by the sober realization that abstract science is very limited when it comes to reaching and mobilizing mainstream audiences in the U.S.  Fancy power point charts describing a threat arriving 100 years in the future just won’t cut it when your job is on the line right now and rent is due next week.

With the IPCC report well publicized, the champions of climate science moved onto other fronts, leaving climate scientists to hold down the fort. However, this approach ignored a basic principal of conflict – victories must be defended.  Not surprisingly, the opponents of climate protection took advantage and mobilized to attack the science.  They understood full well that, while the science is insufficient by itself to mobilize public will, it does provide the foundation for building the moral outrage than can and does move Americans.  Poll after poll has found that highlighting the threat global warming poses to our children’s future is one of the few compelling arguments that gain traction with mainstream audiences.  But that threat is meaningless if the science is not believed.

At the same time, the scale and pace of change required to avoid catastrophic climate change can’t be summoned simply by highlighting the benefits of investing in clean energy.  The benefits from changing over to a low carbon society are too diffuse, and the few big winners are yet to be known.  Meanwhile the losers know exactly who they are and understand that they stand to lose, and they have the deep pockets to fight long and hard.  Choosing between highlighting the benefits of change or focusing on the danger of inaction is a bad strategy.  Both benefits and risks must be illuminated.

Science is the question (and it shouldn’t be)

Currently media coverage of climate science is framed such that it defines the fundamental question as an issue of science, not politics. In this setting, the more the science is debated, the more the science is defined as debatable.  There is simply no way to “prove” the science in a sound bite or a new story.  Debating the science in the news is a no-win proposition that perpetuates public doubt.

There are four dimensions to the frame of every issue.  And there is an opportunity to recast every dimension of climate science debate.

The Messenger

When audiences read news stories and attempt to make out the underlying issues, they take an important cue from the identity of the messengers.  And currently, climate scientists are almost the sole messengers defending climate science.  While this is problematic on a number of fronts, it is particularly challenging for the framing of the debate.  Putting a scientist in the messenger role reinforces the notion that the fundamental issue is a question about the science.  If scientists are doing the debating it is only natural to assume the science is debatable.

Beyond the question of identity, many scientists don’t make for a good messenger when the issue is politicized, such as with climate science.  They are loath to call out the politics and step into a controversy outside their area of expertise.

Climate scientists must be joined by other messengers who are willing to stand up and speak out against the attack on science: farmers whose children would inherit dust-bowl farms due to the delay urged by climate deniers, generals who understand the national security threat, and business leaders who understand that every year of delay in investing in clean energy costs the global economy hundreds of billions of dollars.

The Message

When debate becomes poisoned and opponents are engaged in distortion and deceit, it becomes critically necessary to call out the politics and highlight the consequences of arguing in bad faith.

Climate advocates should document and highlight the funding and industry ties for the current wave of climate deniers.  While the new generation of critics is often driven by partisan politics as much as by direct industry interests, their partisanship is fair game for reprove, particularly when it comes at the expense of our nation.

Advocates for climate protection need to go on the offensive.  They need to go beyond saying what the attacks don’t do (“they don’t undermine the science”) and spell out what the attacks do achieve: costly and dangerous delay.

Calling out the politics is a way to bridge the debate, to move away from debating climate science to highlighting the impacts of climate change as well as the opportunity to invest in a clean energy economy, an opportunity jeopardized by the delaying and stonewalling tactics of climate deniers.

The Audience

The audience forms the third dimension of a news frame.  Tell the same story to a different audience and you can end up with a different story.  In the context of the climate science debate, addressing the ultra-conservative audiences served up by Fox News is a low priority.   The focus should be on independent audiences in key states. At the same time, it is important not to ignore liberal bloggers simply because reaching out to them is seen as preaching to the choir.  That choir makes up the much talked about echo chamber, and if you don’t give the choir a songbook, it doesn’t know what to sing.

The Setting

It’s critically important to do more than defend the IPCC.  Debating 1,000 page science reports is not a compelling setting, and the rehabilitation of the IPCC brand will not happen overnight, despite the fact that the damage was done by erroneous attacks.

A better setting for talking about climate science is a real time impact of climate change, be it a record heat wave or record heavy rains followed by heavy flooding.   There is no denying what your eyes can see.  Last fall’s record setting flood in Atlanta was a textbook example of the kind of impact that should be highlighted. Only months earlier, NOOA had released a consensus science report documenting the trend of increased heavy precipitation during the fall months in the southeastern United States.  NOAA identified climate change as driving the trend and predicted more of the same for the future.

Some have argued that focusing on current weather can be tricky.  However, advocates were forced to do just that when opponents focused on the recent snowstorms as “proof” that global warming was oversold. Advocates were successful in pushing back on climate change deniers in that instance, and the same effort should be applied to upcoming heat waves, droughts and flooding, events that fit the pattern of increasing extreme events that scientists have clearly documented and predicted will only increase as the impacts of climate change intensify,

Another useful setting can be the courtroom where the plaintiffs are real-life people who’ve suffered real losses from climate change.  In this setting the question is not whether or not the science is solid, but whether the fossils fuel industry should be held legally liable for the billions of tons of carbon pollution it has dumped into the atmosphere.

Other useful story lines could highlight different governments, companies, and stakeholders such as water managers who are already making decisions and taking action based on what the science is dictating, reinforcing the notion that the science is settled–and urgent– with dramatic consequences for their business and communities.

Fending off the attack on climate science does require a concerted rapid-response defense simply to set the record straight.  But winning the debate requires going beyond defending the science. It requires asking different questions, such as who wins and who loses.


What “17%” Means

With climate proposals finally landing on the table from the U.S., China, Russia and elsewhere it’s time to figure out how it all adds up. And the answer is that it doesn’t come to much.

The unambitious U.S. proposal (a cut of 4% from 1990 levels or 17% from 2005) seems to have helped to set the bar pretty low for effort all around.  As a result, we are faced with a very hot future.

To understands what this sort of half-hearted ambition means, take a look at Chicago which by mid-century will suffer through a killer heat wave every year, heat waves like the ’95 heatwave that killed hundreds. By the end of the century, Obama’s hometown will go through THREE such heat waves every year. This is all according to the consensus science report issued by the Obama administration back in June (a report, interestingly enough, that was commissioned by the Bush administration and conducted by scientists picked by the Bush crew).

To connect the dots yourself and figure out what the impacts will be in your home town (if you happen to live in the U.S), first go to the website put together by the scientists at ClimateInteractive, which offers a tracking tool that calculates the global CO2e emissions implied by the “confirmed proposals,” and from there calculates how much CO2e pollution will have accumulated in the atmosphere by 2100 [yes, this stuff accumulates, that’s why we can’t wait and fix the problem later – by then it’s too late].

Once you have those numbers in hand, skip over to the impact predictions website put together by the U.S. Global Change Research Program.  There are several tabs to check out.  Most of the local impacts are detailed in a regional breakdown.  Use the accumulated emissions number to figure out which scenario we’re putting ourselves in, and then look at the corresponding impacts that scenario will deliver. Additional impacts are detailed in sectoral summaries (like agriculture and transportation) and are also offered as highlights in the national overview section.  It’s a grim picture, but if you’re interested in knowing how the decisions made in Copenhagen this month will impact your kids’ future, it’s worth the visit.  And, to be sure, the report details what the impacts of lower pollution look like, too.


A Modest Proposal (for the rest of the world)

At this morning’s White House press gaggle, Obama’s climate czar, Carol Browner, announced “the President is prepared to put on the table a U.S. emissions reduction target in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels in 2020,” which roughly translates into a cut of 4% below the emission levels of 1990  (the year traditionally used for comparing the efforts of different countries).

A lot of people are going to be discouraged by this 4% number, which falls woefully short of the 40% cut that science says is needed to avoid dangerous climate change (though Atlanta’s flood victims from this fall might say it’s already too late for that, having suffered through unprecedented fall rains exactly three months after NOAA released a consensus climate science report predicting same).

Likewise, some countries waiting to hear the opening bid from the United States (e.g. China) might now be tempted to low-ball their own ambitions.  But there’s an interesting twist to the offering from the United States, one that might be skillfully exploited by countries seeking to build economic advantage over the United States.  Accordingly, and in the long literary tradition of the modest proposal, I make note of the following opportunity for China and Europe.

While Obama’s goal for 2020 falls way short of what’s needed, not to worry, says Browner, we’ll make up for it down the road, by steeply reducing emissions in the future:

“In light of the President’s goal to reduce emissions 83 percent by 2050, the expected pathway set forth in pending legislation would entail a 30 percent reduction below 2005 levels in 2025, and a 42 percent reduction below 2005 levels in 2030. Both the Senate and the House bills include interim measurements.  They’re slightly different, but they’re fairly similar.”

Back in July the Director of the Congressional Budget Office published this graph in his blog showing how emissions (in covered sectors) would rise until 2017 and then dive, crash dive really, under the House bill.

Estimated U.S. Emissions under the House-passed Bill

With Europe offering to reduce emissions 30% below 1990 levels by 2020,  its hard to ignore how unfair a 4% offering looks from the United States.  But if Obama is willing to lock the U.S. into a crash dive program, Europe and China might take a second look.   By starting on the task of re-tooling their economies now (a task that both the EU and China have actually already started), they will own economic advantage over the U.S. for decades.  In contrast, rather than preparing for a smart, efficient transfer over to clean energy, the U.S. will have to go on a crash diet, shedding economic output for the sake of shedding carbon pollution [and even with that, still pay other countries to make some of our reductions for us, through the use of so-called “offsets” – a controversial practice that some say deliver few real reductions].

The irony behind the U.S. numbers goes even further, however.  The numbers are only as anemic as they are to appease conservatives in the U.S. Senate who claim to be watching out for the U.S. economy, arguing that moving quickly to curb carbon pollution will cripple the U.S. economy.   However, as the graph above illustrates, delay threatens to undermine prosperity in our country for decades.  The International Energy Administration has estimated that every year of global delay will cost the global economy $500 billion.  The only winners from delay are those who profit from pollution – the fossil fuel industry.


Calling Out Climate Lies

The  hacked climate science email “scandal” once again raises the question of how to respond to climate “skeptics.”

The first chore is to sort out what kind of skeptic you are dealing with. And for the most part, they fall into two varieties: uninformed folks acting in good faith (sometimes to meet self-serving ends) and informed experts acting in bad faith (often to serve industry).

It’s one thing to debate science in good faith.  But when you find yourself debating someone arguing in bad faith, there’s nothing for it but to call out the dishonesty.

While it’s good and necessary to set the science record straight, continuing to answer false arguments made in bad faith only pours fuel on the fire.   In this setting, the very act of debating the science promotes the notion there is something to debate.  Climate deniers thrive on false debate.  Rising to rebut their arguments is simply taking the bait.

Yet remaining silent often won’t work – thus the need to call out the disingenuous nature of the “debate.”

This post by a climate scientist in response to NYT reporter Revkin about the hacked email story is a good example of how to douse fire with water.

“The tactics the inactivists have been using in the run-up to Copenhagen have been all outside the sphere of legitimate scientific discourse. Bogus petitions, sham attempts to gut the  A.P.S. climate statement, and now cowardly illegal outings of private emails from an individual scientist.”


Global Warming, Texas Style

Texas Drought

Temperatures are soaring this summer in Texas, driving record-breaking drought.

According to the Associated Press, “San Antonio, which relies on the Edwards Aquifer for its water, is enduring its driest 23-month period since weather data was recorded starting in 1885, according to the National Weather Service.”

“In the bone-dry San Antonio-Austin area, the conditions that started in 2007 are being compared to the devastating drought of the 1950s. There have been 36 days of 100 degrees or more this year in an area where it’s usually closer to 12.”

While not every extreme weather event can be linked to climate change, the science of climate change and extreme weather such as heatwaves and drought is now firmly established, and it is disturbingly similar to the context for other social risks such as smoking or heart disease. Not every case of lung cancer can be linked to tobacco, but when a smoker dies of cancer the cost of smoking is grimly highlighted.

The irony in this drought is thicker than dry river mud. Texan George W. Bush infamously stonewalled any effort to advance climate protection for almost a decade. And now the state’s two federal senators are firmly in the “no” column on climate legislation working its way through Congress this summer.

While conservative commentators focus on the costs of investing in low-carbon energy to secure climate protection, they are blind to the benefits.

Throughout U.S. history, government policy has played a key role in driving the economy by setting the table for technological innovation, from the development of the railroads, through the evolution of the pharmaceutical industry and up to today’s internet built by DARPA.

Texas is host to some of the best wind energy resources in the United States, a resource base that would be developed into a multi-billion dollar industry if we could stop burning fossil fuels with abandon and get onto a low-carbon energy path.  But apparently some Texans would rather fry in hell today in order to avoid going down that road tomorrow.

July 2018
« Jun