I spent most of Wednesday attending a series of sessions featuring bestselling authors from the AGU Global Environmental Change division. The presenters were authors of books published in the last couple of years, all on various aspects of climate change, and all aimed at a more general audience. As the chairs of the track pointed out, it’s not news when an AGU member publishes a book, but it is news when so many publish books aimed at a general audience in a short space of time - you don’t normally walk into a bookstore and see a whole table of books authored by AGU members.
As the session unfolded, and the authors talked about their books, and their reasons for writing them, it became clear that there’s a groundswell here, of scientists who have realised that the traditional mode by which science gets communicated with the broader society just isn’t working with respect to climate change, and a different approach is needed, along with a few from outside the climate science community who have stepped in to help overcome the communication barrier.
The first two books were on geoengineering. Unfortunately, I missed the first, Eli Kintish’s “Hack the Planet: What we Talk About When we Talk About Geoengineering”, and second speaker, Jeff Goodall, author of “How to Cool the Planet” didn’t make it. So instead, I’ll point to the review of both books that appeared in Nature Reports back in April. As the review makes clear, both books are very timely, given how little public discussion there has been on geoengineering, and how important it is that we think much more carefully about this because we’re likely to be approaching a point where people will attempt geoengineering in desperation.
One interesting point made in the Nature Reports review is the contrast in styles, between Eli’s book, which is much more of a science book suitable for a scientifically literature audience, and which digs deeper into how various geoengineering proposals might work, versus Jeff’s book, which is more lively in style, illustrating each chapter through the work of a particular scientist.
This theme of how to get the ideas across, and especially how to humanize them, came out throughout the session as the other authors presented their experiences.
In place of Jeff’s talk, Brian Fagan, author of “The great warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilization” filled in. Brian is an anthropologist by training, but has focussed much of his career on how to explain research in his field to a broader audience. As snippets from his book, Brian gave a number of examples of how human civilization in the past has been affected by changing climate. He talked about how a warmer European Climate in medieval times allowed the Vikings to explore widely across the North Atlantic (in open boats!), and how the Mayan civilization, which lasted from 200BC to 900AD was eventually brought down by a series of droughts. The Mayans took water very seriously, and many of their rituals focussed on water (or lack of it), while the Mayan pyramids also acted as water towers. In the late 19th Century, the Indian Monsoons failed, and millions died, at at time when the British Raj was exporting rice from India to bring down food prices in Europe.
The interesting thing about all these examples is that it’s not the case that climate change causes civilization to fall. It’s more like the ripples spreading out from a stone dropped into a calm pool – the spreading ripples are the social and economic consequences of climate changes, which in some cases make adaptation possible, and in other cases lead to the end of a civilization.
But most of what Brian wanted to talk about was why he wrote the book in the first place, or rather why he got involved in communicating issues such as climate change to broader audiences. He taught as a professor for 36 long(!) years. But he was strongly affected by experiences at the beginning of his career, in his early 20s, when he spent a year in the Zambezi valley. Here, rainfall is unpredictable, and when the rains don’t come people starve. He’s thought a lot since then about the experience. More recently, seeing the results of the Hadley Centre models that forecast increasing droughts through the next few decades, he realised that the story of drought in human history needed to be told.
But there’s a challenge. As an academic, from a research culture, you have to deal with the “publish or perish” culture. If we want to reach the public, something has to change. The NSF doesn’t provide research funds to explain to the public what we do. So he had to raise money by other means to fund his work, mostly from the private sector. Brian made much of this contrast – studies of (faintly disgusting) ancient artefacts for their own sake are fundable, but attempts to put this work in context and tell the larger stories are not. Brian was accused by one University administrator of doing “inappropriate research”. And yet, archeology is about human diversity – about people, so telling these stories about human diversity ought to be central to the field.
Having written the book, he found himself on the bestseller lists, and got onto the Daily show. This was quite an experience – Jon Stewart reads everything in the book, and he sits right up close to you and is in your face. Brian’s comment was “Thank god I had taught graduate seminars” and was experienced with dealing with probing questions.
His other advice was if you want to reach out, you have to know why. People will ask, and “because I love it” isn’t enough – you have to have a really have a good reason. Always think about how your work related to others and to wider society. Use your research to tell stories, write clearly, and personal experience is very important. But above all, you must have passion – there is no point writing for a wider audience without it.
The next talk was by Claire .L. Parkinson, author of “Coming Climate Crisis? Consider the Past, Beware the Big Fix”. Claire’s motivation for writing the book was her concerns about geoengineering, and the need to explain the risks. She mentioned that if she’d realised Eli and Jeff were writing their books, she probably wouldn’t have.
She also felt she needed to deal with the question about how polarized and confused the community has become about climate change. Her goal was to lessen the confusion and to encourage caution about geoengineering. A central message of the book is that the earth’s climate has been changing for 4.6 billion years, but humans were not around for most of this. Climate can change can happen much more abruptly than what humans have experienced. And in the face of abrupt climate change, people tend to assume geoengineering can get us out of the problem. But geoengineering can have serious unintended consequences, because we are not all knowing, no matter how good our models and analysis are.
Claire gave an quick, chapter-by-chapter overview of the book: Chapter 2 gives an overview of 4.6 billion years of global changes, including tectonics, extra-terrestrial events, changes in orbit, etc; Chapter 3 covers abrupt climate changes, putting the last 20 years in comparison with the historical record from ice cores, with the key point being that the earth’s system can and does change abruptly, with the beginning and end of the Younger-Dryas period as the most obvious examples. Chapter 4 is a short history of human impacts on climate. The big impacts began with human agriculture, and with the industrial revolution.
Chapter 5 looks at the future, and the consensus view that the future looks bleak if business as usual continues. The IPCC scenarios show consequences of warming over the coming century. In this chapter, Claire also included a section at the end about scientists who disagree with the IPCC assessment. Her feeling is that we shouldn’t be disrespectful to the skeptics, because we might not be right. However she has been criticized for this [see for example, Alan Robock's review, which explains exactly what he thinks is wrong about this approach],
The next few chapters then explore geoengineering. Chapter 6 looks at things that were done in the past with good intentions, but went wrong. An example is the introduction of prickly pear cactus into Australia. Within decades it had grown so profusely that areas were destroyed by it and homesteads had to be abandoned. Chapter 7 explains the commonly touted geoengineering schemes, including space mirrors, carbon capture and sequestration, white roofs (which actually make sense), stratospheric sulfates, artificial trees, and ocean fertilization. Chapter 8 covers examples of attempts at a smaller scale to change the weather, such as cloud seeding, lessening hailstorms, and attempts to tame hurricanes (Jim Fleming, the next speaker had many more examples). These examples demonstrate lots of interest and ingenuity, but none were really successful, and therefore they provide a cautionary tale.
The last three chapters are also cautionary: just because we have a scientific consensus doesn’t mean we’re right. It’s unfortunately that people express things with 100% certainty, because it give the impression that we’re not open minded scientists. Chapter 10 is on climate models – no matter how wonderful they are, and no matter how wonderful the data records are, neither are perfect. So the models might provide misleading results, for example arctic sea ice has declined far faster than the models predicted. Chapter 11 is on the social pressures, and was the toughest chapter to write. There is both peer pressure and media pressure to conform to the consensus. Most people who got into the earth sciences in Claire’s generation never expected their work to have strong public interest. Scientists are now expected to provide soundbites to the media, which then get distorted and cause problems. Finally, chapter 12 looks at the alternatives – if geoengineering is too risky, what else can we do?
The next speaker was Jim Fleming, author of “Fixing the Sky: Why the History of Climate Engineering Matters”. Jim is a historian, and points out that most history of science books are heroic stories, whereas this book was his first tragicomedy. Throughout the book, hubris (on the part of the scientists involved) is a strong theme.
As an aside, Jim gave a simple reason why you should be nice to historians, best captured in the Samuel Johnson quote “God can’t alter the past, but historians can”. He also pointed out that we should take heed of the Bruntland’s point that current environmental crises require that we move beyond scientific compartmentalization, to draw the very best of our intellectual reserves from every field of endeavour.
Jim was the only historian invited to a NASA meeting at Ames in 2007, on managing solar radiation. He was rather amused when someone got on the mic to apologise for the problems they were having managing the temperature in the meeting room (and here they were, talking about managing the planet’s climate!). There were clearly some serious delusions among the scientists in the room about the prospect. As a result, he wrote an essay, ”The climate engineers” which was published in Wilson Quarterly, but was clearly a bit too short to do justice to the topic.
So the book set out to bring these issues to the public, and in particular the tragic history of public policy in weather and climate engineering. For climate change and geoengineering, people have been claiming we don’t have a history to draw on, that we are the first generation to think about these things, and that we don’t have time to ponder the lessons of history because the problem is too urgent. Jim says otherwise – there is a history to draw on, and we have to understand this history and learn from it. If you don’t study history, everything is unprecedented!!
Geogengineering will alter relationships, not just between humans and climate, but among humans. If you think someone else is modifying your climate, you’re going to have a fundamentally altered relationship with them! He gave some fascinating anecdotes to illustrate this point. For example, one of the NCAR gliders was attacked with molotov cocktail – it turns out people thought they were “stealing the sky-water”, while in fact, the reason they were using a glider was to minimize the impact on clouds.
An early example of attempts to manage the weather include James Espy, who, having studied volcanoes, realized there’s always more rain after an eruption. In 1839, he proposed we should burn large fires across the appalachians to make more rain and to purify the air (because the extra rain would wash out the “miasmas”).
About the same time, Eliza Leslie wrote a short story “The Rain King“, which captures many of the social dynamics of geoengineering very well. It’s the story of the opening of a new Rain Office, which has the machinery to control the weekend weather, and sets up a democratic process for people to vote on what weather they want for the weekend. The story is brilliant in its depiction of the different petitioners, and the cases they make, along with the biases of the rain office staff themselves (they want to go for rain to test the machinery), the eventual trumping of them all by a high society lady, and the eventual disappointment of everyone concerned at the outcome of the process.
Another example focusses on Wexler (von Neumann’s right hand man) and the story of numerical computing in the 1940′s and 1950′s. At the time, one could imagine decommissioned WW2 flight squadrons going out to bomb a developing hurricane to stop it. Wexler and von Neumann both endorsed this idea. von Neumann’s 1955 essay ”Can we survive technology?” warned that climate control could lead to serious social consequences. Meanwhile, Wexler was concerned with other ways of fighting the Russians, opening up access to space, etc. While studying the Weather Watch program, he explored how rocket trails affect the ozone layer, and explored the idea of an ozone bomb that could take out the ozone layer, as well as weapons that could warm or cool the planet.
James Van Allen, discoverer of the van Allen belt, was also a geoengineer. He explored ways to change the earth’s magnetic field using A-bombs. His work was mainly focussed on “bell ringing” to test the impact of these bombs on the magnetic field. But there were also attempts to weaponize this, e.g. to cause a magnetic storm over Moscow.
Jim wrapped up with a crucial point about tipping points: if we attempt to tip the earth, where will it roll? If we do end up trying geoengineering, we will have to be interdisciplinary, international, and intergenerational about it.
The next speaker was Edward Parson, co-author with Andy Dessler of “The science and politics of global climate change: a guide to the debate”. The book is a broad overview of climate science, intended as a teaching resource. The collaboration in writing the book was interesting - Andy is an atmospheric scientist, Edward is an expert in climate policy. But neither knew much about the other discipline, so they had to collaborate and learn, rather than just dividing up the chapters. This meant they ended up looking in much more detail at the interactions between the science and the politics.
It was hard to nagivate a path through the treacherous waters of communicating the scientific knowledge as a basis for action: not just what we know, but how we know it and why we know it. In particular, they didn’t want to over-reach, to say scientific knowledge by itself is sufficient to know what to do in policymaking. Rather, it requires a second step, to specify something you wish to do, or something you wish to avoid, in order to understand policy choices. With climate change it has become much easier to demonstrate to anyone with a rational approach (as opposed to those who do magical thinking) that there are very clear arguments for urgent policy action, but you have to make this second step clear.
So why does everyone try to frame their policy disagreements as scientific disagreements? Edward pointed out that in fact most people are just doing “evidence shopping”, on one side or another. He’s been to many congressional hearings, where intelligent, thoughtful legislators, who are quite ignorant about the science, pound the table saying “the science says this, the science says that”. Scientific assessment processes are an important weapon in curtailing this evidence shopping. They restrain the ability of legislators to misuse the science to bolster their preferred policy response. A scientific assessment process is not the same as collective authorship of a scientific paper. It’s purpose is to assemble and survey the science.
Many of the fights over climate policy can actually be understood as different positions on how to manage risks under uncertainty. Many of these positions take an extreme stance on management of risk. Some of this can be traced back to the 1970s, when it was common for advocates to conflate environmental issues with criminal law. For example, a manufacturer of CFCs, arguing against action to protect the ozone layer, saying “what happened to the presumption of innocence?”, while ignoring the fact that chemicals aren’t humans.
In criminal proceedings, there are two ways to be wrong – you can convict the innocent, or release the guilty. We have a very strong bias in favour of the defendant, because one of these errors is regarded as much more serious than the other - we always try and err on the side of not convicting innocent people. This rhetoric of “the burden of proof” and “presumption of innocence” has faded in environmental issues, but its legacy lives on. Now we hear lots of rhetoric about “science-based” policy, for example the claim that the Kyoto protocol isn’t based on the science. In effect, this is the same rhetorical game, with people demanding to delay policy responses until there is ever more scientific evidence.
But science is conservative in this, in the same way that criminal law is. As a scientist, it is much worse to be promiscuous in accepting new scientific claims that turn out to be wrong, than it is to reject new claims that turn out to be right, largely because of the cost of getting it wrong, and directing research funds to a line of research that doesn’t bear fruit.
When there are high stakes for managing public risk, this perception about the relative magnitude of the cost of the two types of error no longer applies. So attacks on Kyoto as not being exclusively based on the science are technically correct, but they are based on an approach to decision making that is dangerously unbalanced. For example, some people say to assessment bodies, “don’t even tell me about a risk until you have evidence that allows you to be absolutely certain about it”. Which is nuts – it’s the role of these bodies to lay out the risks, lay out the evidence and the uncertainties, so that policymaking can take them into account.
Much of the book ended up being a guide for how to use the science in policy making, without making biasing mistakes, such as these recklessly risky demands for scientists to be absolutely certain, or demands for scientists to suppress dissent. But in hindsight, perhaps they punted a little on how to solve these problems. Also, the book does attempt to address some of the claims of climate change deniers, but it’s not always possible to keep up with the silly things people are saying.
Edward finished by saying he has long wished for a book you could give to your irritating uncle, who is a smart guy with forceful opinions, but who gets his knowledge on climate change from Fox news and climate denialist blogs. The feedback is that the book does a good job on this. It’s a shame that the denialist movement has appropriated and sullied the term “skeptic” which is really what science is all about.
The next speaker was Naomi Oreskes, co-author (with Erik Conway) of “Merchants of Doubt”. Naomi titled her talk “Are debatable scientific questions debatable?”, a title taken from John Ziman’s 2000 paper, who points out there is a big contrast between debate in politics and debate in science, and this difference disadvantages scientists.
In political debates, debate is adversarial and polarized, aimed typically at deciding simple yes/no decisions. In science, we seek out intermediate positions, multivalent arguments, and consider many different hypotheses. And there is no simple voting process to declare a “winner”.
More importantly, ”scientific debates” generally aren’t about the science (evidence, findings) at all, they are about trans-scientific issues, and cannot be resolved by doing more science, nor won by people with more facts. Naomi argues that climate change is a trans-science issue.
When they wrote merchants of doubt, they were interested in why there is such a big gap between the scientific consensus and the policy discussions. For example, 18 years after the UN framework convention on climate change, the world still has not acted on it in any significant way. In 2007, the IPCC said the warming is unequivocal. But opinion polls showed a vast majority of the [American] population didn’t believe it. At the same time as scientific consensus was developing on climate change, a politically motivated consensus to attack the science was also developing. It focussed on credible, distinguished scientists who rejected the work of their own colleagues, and made common cause with the tobacco and fossil fuel industry.
Central to the story is the Marshall institute, which has been denying the science since the 1980′s. It was founded by three physicists, Seitz, Jastrow, and Nierenberg. All three had built their careers in cold war weaponry. They founded the Marshall institute to defend the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), which was extremely controversial at the time in the scientific community. 6500 scientists and engineeers signed a boycott of the program funds, a move that was historically unprecedented in the cold war era. In anger at this boycott,, Jastrow wrote an article in 1987 entitled ”America has Five Years Left”, warning about Soviet technical supremacy (and there’s a prediction that didn’t come true!). Jastrow was also working for the Reynolds corporation, whose principle strategy to fight increasing tobacco regulation was to cast doubt on the science that linked tobacco smoke to cancer. An infamous tobacco industry memo boasted that ”Doubt is our product”.
You might have thought that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, these old cold warriors would have retired, happy that America had won. But they found a new enemy: environmental extremism. They applied the tabacco strategy, but they needed credible scientists to promote doubt. In every case, they argued that the scientific evidence was not strong enough to lead to government action.
Why did they do it? It wasn’t for money, nor for scientific concerns. They did it because they shared the political ideology that Soros calls “free market economy”. This brand of neo-liberalism was first widely promoted by Thatcher and Reagan, but also lives on even in the policies of left-leaning politicians such as Tony Blair. The ideology is based on the work of Milton Friedman. The problem, of course, is that environmentalists generally argue for regulation, but to the neo-liberal, regulation is one step to governmental control of everything.
This ideological motivation is clear in Singer’s work on the EPA ruling that second-hand smoke is a carcinogen. Independent expert reviews had concluded that second-hand smoke was responsible for 150,000 to 300,000 deaths. So why would a rocket scientist defend the tobacco industry? Singer lays it out clearly in his report: “If we do not carefully limit government control…”
These people tend to refer to environmentalists as “watermelons” – green on the outside, red on the inside. And yet the history of American environmentalism traces back to the work of Roosevelt, and Rockefeller. For example, the 1964 Wilderness Act was clearly bi-partisan – it passed congress with a vote of 373-1. Things began to change in the 1980s, when scientific evidence revealed problems such as acid rain and the ozone hole that seemed to require much greater government regulation, just as Reagan was promoting the idea of less government.
Some environmentalists might be socialists, but this doesn’t mean the science is wrong. But it does mean that there is a a problem with our economic system as we know it. It’s due to “negative externalities” – costs of economic activity that are not borne by those reaping the profits. Stern described climate change as “the greatest market failure ever”. In fact, acid rain, the ozone hole and climate change are all market failure, and it’s science that revealed this.
It seems pretty clear that all Americans believe in liberty, and prefer less intrusion by government. But at the same time, all societies accept there are limits to their freedoms. The debate, then, is on where these limits l should ie, which is clearly not a scientific question.
If this analysis is correct, then we should focus not on more evidence that the science is unequvocal, nor on collecting more evidence that there is a consensus among scientists. What we need is more vivid portrayals of what will happen.
The next talk was by Wally Broecker, about his latest book, The Great Ocean Conveyor. He said he wrote the book partly because he loves to write books, and partly because he’s been encouraged to speak out more on global warming, especially to young people. He wrote it in 3 months, but it took about a year to get published. Which is a shame, because in a fast moving science, things go out of date very quickly.
Students have a tendency to think everything in their textbooks is gospel. But of course this is not true – the science moves on. In the book, Wally shows that many of the things he originally thought about the ocean conveyer turned out not to be correct.
The first diagram showing the conveyer was produced from a sketch for a magazine article. Wally never met the artist, and the diagram is wrong in many ways, but it does get across the idea that the ocean is an interconnected system.
The ocean conveyer idea was discovered by serendipity. A series of meetings were held to examine the new data coming from the Greenland ice cores. On seeing graphs showing the CO2 record against ice depth, Wally wondered how the wide variations in the CO2 record could be explained. He focussed on the North Atlantic, exploring whether the CO2 could have got in and out of the atmosphere through changes to the the ocean overturning. Eventually he stumbled on the idea of the ocean conveyer.
I was particularly struck by the map Wally showed of world river drainage, showing that the vast majority of the world’s landmasses drain into the Atlantic. This drainage pattern, together with condensation from warm tropical seas cause large changes in salt concentration, which in turn drive ocean movements because saltier water is heavier and sinks, while less salty water rises.
There are still a number of mysteries to be solved. For example, what caused the Younger Dryas event? Wally was a proponent of the theory that a break in ocean overturning occurred when Lake Agassiz broke through to drain into the Atlantic, dramatically changing the salinity. But no evidence of this flood has been found, so he’s had to abandon this idea. Some argue that the flood might have gone in a different direction (e.g. to Gulf of Mexico). Or it could all have been due to a meteorite. It’s a big remaining problem – what caused it?
The next talk was by Dorothy Kenny, “Seeing Through Smoke: Sorting through the Science and Politics in the Making of the 1956 British Clean Air Act”. She hasn’t published this study yet, but is hoping to find a publisher soon. The story starts on December 5th, 1952. A “pea soup” fog covers London. White shirts turns grey. Streetcars are abandoned in the street. The smog lasts until the 9th, and newspapers start to tot up the growing death count. Within a week, 4,000 people were dead. Three months later, the death toll had risen to 12,000 people. The smogs had become killers.
By July 1953, the UK government had formed a Committee on Air pollution. In December 1953, it presented an interim report on the cause and effect of the smogs (but with no policy prescriptions). A year later, it produced a final report with plans for action, and in 1956 the clean air act was finalized and passed by parliament.
What was needed for this act to pass? Dorothy laid out three factors:
- Responsibility had to be established. Who was responsible for acting? Three different Ministries (Health; Housing and Local Govt; and Fuel and Power) all punted, each pointing at the department of science and industry. But DSIR hadn’t looked into it, citing a lack of funding, and a lack of people. The formation of the Beaver committee fixed this – the committee could become the central body for public discontent. They were anxious to get something published by the first anniversary of the smog, in part responding to the need for a ritual response to show that government is doing something.
- The problem needed to be defined and described. The interim report identified sulphur dioxides and visible smoke as the main culprits, both from coal. The media critized the report, because it didn’t propose a solution, and just told people to stay indoors on smog days. There was widespread fear of another killer smog and the public wanted a plan of action.
- Possible solutions to the problem needed to be discussed and weighed up. A cost-benefit analysis was used in the final report to include and exclude policy solutions. In the end, the clean air act focussed on particulate matter, and left out any action on sulphur dioxide. It promoted smokeless fuel, which was a huge cultural change, taking away the traditional British coal fire, and replacing it with a new, strange fuel. Even the public pamphlets at the time hid the role of SO2, eliding them from graphs showing the impacts of the smogs. Why was SO2 excluded? Largely because of technical limitations. The available approaches for removing SO2 from coal were deemed impractical: flue gas washing, which involves flushing river water through the flues and dumping it back into the rivers, was highly polluting; while coal washing was ineffective, as there was no method at the time to get rid of the sulphur. The committee argued that solutions deemed not practical could not be included in the legislation.
What lessons can be drawn from the clean air act? First, that environmental policy is exceedingly complex. Second, policy doesn’t necessarily have a short term outcome. Third, even with loopholes and exclusions, the act was effective in setting the framework for dark smoke prevention. And finally, a change in public perception was crucial.
Next up was Jim Hansen, talking about his book “Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity”. (Lots of extra people flowed into the room for this talk!)
Jim gave a thoughtful account of his motivations, in particular the point that climate change is much more than a scientific matter. He has been doing science all his life, but it is only in the last few years that his grandchildren have dragged him into other aspects. Most especially, he’s motivated by the thought that he doesn’t want his grandchildren to look back and say “Grandpa understood the problem but didn’t do enough to make it clear”.
One thing he keeps forgetting to mention when talking about the book: all the royalties go to 350.org, which Jim believes is probably the most effective organization right now pushing for action.
Jim argues that dealing with climate change is not only possible, but makes sense for all sorts of reasons. But lots of people are busy making money from business as usual, and in particular, all governments are heavily invested in the fossil fuel industry.
Jim had testified to congress in the 1980s, and got lots of attention after this, but he decided didn’t want to get involved in this public aspect. So he referred requests from the media to other scientists who he thought more enjoyed the public visibility. Then, in 1990, after a newspaper report called him the grandfather of global warming, he used a photo in one of his talks of first grandchild, Sophie, at age 2, to demonstrate that at least was a grandfather, if not of global warming.
Later, he was invited to give a talk in Washington which for various reasons never happened, so he gave it instead as a distinguished lecture at the University of Iowa. In the talk, he used another photo of his grandchildren, to make a point about public understanding. It shows Sophie explaining greenhouse gas warming to her baby brother, with the caption “It’s 2W/m² forcing”. But baby Connor only counts to 1.
Just before the talk, he got a memo from NASA saying not to give the talk, as it could violate policy. He ignored the message, and gave the talk anyway, as he had paid his own way to get there for a vacation. A year later in 2005, Keeling invited him to give another talk, and for this he decided to connect the dots between special interests seeking to maximize profits and the long term economic wellbeing of the country. This talk gave rise to the “shitstorm at NASA HQ”, and the decision to prevent him from talking to the media. He managed to get the ban lifted by talking about it to the NY Times. But even that story was presented wrongly in the press – it wasn’t a 24 year-old appointee at NASA public relations, but a decision from very high up in NASA headquarters.
Then, in 2007, Bill McKibben started asking what is a safe level for carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. Bill was going to start an organisation called 450.org, based on Hansen’s work. But by 2007, it was becoming clear that even 450ppm might still be disastrous. Jim told him to wait until the AGU2007 fall meeting, when he would present a new paper with a new number. The analysis showed that if we want to keep a planet similar to the one in which civilization developed, we need to get back below 350ppm. This is feasible if we phase out coal over next two decades and leave the oil sands untouched. But the US has just signed an agreement for a pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to Texas refineries. The problem is that there’s a huge gap between the rhetoric of politicians and their policies, which are just small perturbations from business as usual.
Now he has two more grandchildren. Jim showed a photo of Jake at 2.5 years, showing he thinks he can protect his baby sister. But of course, Jake doesn’t understand there is more warming in the pipeline. The issue is really about inter-generational justice, but the public doesn’t understand this. It’s also about international justice – the developed countries have become rich by burning fossil fuels, but are unwilling to admit this. Fossil fuels are the cheapest source of energy, but only because nobody is obligated to pay for the damage caused.
Jim’s suggested solution is a fee at the point of energy generation, to be distributed to all people in the country (sometimes known as fee and dividend). It would stimulate the economy by putting money into peoples hands. He believes cap-and-trade won’t work, because industry, and China and India, won’t accept a cap. Cap-and-trade also keeps the issue very close to (and under control of) the fossil fuel industry.
So what are young people supposed to do? Recently, the young people in Britain who blocked a coal plant were convicted, and are likely to serve a jail term. Jim’s first grandchild, Sophie, now 12, wrote a letter to Obama, which includes phrases like “why don’t you listen to my grandfather?”. It’s rather a good letter. Young people need positive examples of things like this that they can do.
Jim ended his talk on a couple of notes of optimism:
- China is behaving rationally. There is good chance they will put a price on carbon, and they are making enormous investments in carbon-free energy.
- The legal approach is promising. The judicial branch of the US government is less influenced by fossil fuel money. We can sue the government for not doing it’s job!
The next speaker was Heidi M. Cullen, talking about her book “The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet”. Heidi set out to walk through the process of writing a book. She works for a non-profit group, Climate Central, aimed at communicating the science to the general public.
Heidi worked for many years as a climatologist for the weather channel, where she found it very hard to explain climate change to people who don’t understand the difference between climate and weather. When hurricane Katrina hit, she felt like a loser. It was the biggest story of the year, and as a climatologist, there was very little she could say about this tragic, terrible event. It was too hard amongst all the human tragedy to connect the dots and provide the context. But the experience planted the seed for the book, because it was a big climate change story – scientists had been saying for 20 years how vulnerable New Orleans was, and the disaster could have been prevented. And this story needed to be told.
So book was designed to tell the history – showing it goes all the way back to Arrhenius, not just something that started in the 1980′s with Hansen’s testimony to congress. And to tell the story of the science as a heroic endeavour, looking at the research that scientists are doing now, and how it fits into the story.
A recent poll showed that less than 18% of Americans know a scientist personally. So an important premise for the book was an attempt to connect the public more with scientists and their work. Heidi began by emailing all the climate scientists she knew, asking them if they had to pick the hotspots in the science, what would they pick.
It was a lot of work with publisher to pitch the book, and to convince them they should publish “another book on climate change”. Heidi’s editor was brilliant. He was also working on Pat Benetar’s biography, and other book on Rock and Roll, which made for an interesting juxtaposition. His advice was not to start the book at the beginning, but to start at the easiest place. But as an engineer, being anal, Heidi wanted to start at the beginning. Her editor turned out to be right.
It was very hard to manage the time needed to write the book. Each chapter, on a specific scientist, was effectively peer reviewed by the scientists. There were lots of interviews, all recorded and transcribed, which takes ages. She tried to tell it as a story that people could relate to. The story had no pre-ordained outcome, but different aspects scared the scientists in different ways.
The book came out in August, coincidentally, at the same time as the Russian heatwaves, so it got lots of interest from the press. Which brings Heidi to her final point: when you’ve finished the book and it gets published, that’s really only the start of the process!
The final talk of the session was by Greg Craven, author of “What’s the Worst that Could Happen”. Greg’s talk was completely different from everything that had come before. He gave an impassioned speech, more like the great speeches of the civil rights era – a call to arms – than a scientific talk. Which made both a great contrast to the previous speakers, and a challenge to them.
Greg challenged the audience, the scientists of the AGU, by pointing out we’re insane, at least according to the definition that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different outcome. His point is that we’ve been using the same communication strategy, giving them straightforward scientific information, and that strategy isn’t working. Therefore it’s time for a radical change in approach. It’s time for scientists to come way outside of their comfort zones, and to inject some emotion, some passion in to the message.
It became clear during the talk that Greg was on at least his third different version of the talk, having lost one version when his hard drive crashed in the early hours, and having been inspired by the previous night’s dinner conversation with several seasoned climate scientists.
Greg’s advice was to stop communicating as scientists, and start speaking as human beings. Talk about our hopes and fears, and tell them frankly about the terrors you are ignoring when you get your head down doing the science, hoping that someone else will solve the problem. Scientists are civilization’s last chance – the cavalry who must come charging down the hill.
If you don’t believe now is the time, then come up with an operational definition, a test, for when it is the appropriate time to take extreme action. And if you can demonstrate rationally that it’s not the right time, then you can be absolved from the fight.
Anyway, I couldn’t possibly do justice to Greg’s passionate speech – you had to be there! Luckily, he’s promised to post the text of the speech to gregcraven.org by the weekend. Go read it, and figure out how you would respond to his challenge.