Sunday, November 28, 2010

Pre-Cancun Climate Framing

In the lead-up to UNFCCC COP 16, the UN climate conference opening tomorrow in Cancun, the UN Environmental Programme publicly released its emissions gap report last week (.pdf, but not too big - here's the shorter press release, also a .pdf). The report is titled, "Are the Copenhagen Accord pledges sufficient to limit global warming to 2 or 1.5⁰C?" And the answer is, despite delegates' common desire to build upon the admittedly feeble momentum out of Copenhagen (COP 15) last year, of course not, silly.

Cheryl earlier linked to that widely-cited recent paper by psychologists Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg at UC-Berkeley that concludes what we've known for some time: fear-mongering public rhetoric only works when one wishes to invade foreign countries, not when it comes to convincing people about the importance of acting on climate change (I'm taking liberties here... the report is about climate change, not military invasions).

A minor industry in tsk-tsking anti-climate-fear-mongering warnings seems to have resulted, adding on to the more media-pervasive, misleading, and often fact-altering Lomborgian view that, there there, we're all just going to be alright (see one response here). Technological innovation, human ingenuity, rah rah. If environmentalists would just focus on happy thoughts and proposals for real improvements, some conclude, we might make real headway on climate change stabilization. What's needed is “a dash of more hope, all without losing the sense of urgency.” Well, put the latter way, it's hard to disagree.

As Isaac Smith notes in response, however,
Here’s the thing: Environmentalists already did this. It was called “green jobs,” which, although often oversold, was a bona fide attempt to frame the problem of climate change as an opportunity to put people back to work, revive American manufacturing, reduce inner-city poverty, &c. It was the complete opposite of doom-and-gloom, and yet it ultimately proved to be useless in the face of relentless opposition from Republicans and Democrats from coal- and oil-producing regions. Moreover, green jobs figured heavily, if only rhetorically, in the Recovery Act, and the failure of that plan to bring down unemployment (as opposed to halting its rise) may well have tarred the green jobs strategy as well.
Maybe I'm out of the loop of the scary people, but at least in my decade or so of working on environmental issues, teaching active grad students, and as a delegate at UNFCCC COP15 last year in Copenhagen, I haven't actually witnessed much climate change scare-mongering. The struggle for climate scientists, most environmentalists, and policy analysts is to help the public have a much clearer understanding of the high and low probability risks of certain climate change effects and of possible solutions.

The more detailed conclusions of the Berkeley research are crucial, however. All the more so because they suggest something much different than the media's understanding and much closer to Isaac's point above.

Basically, the research finds that,
...dire messages about the threat of global warming will strengthen people’s acceptance of climate science when combined with solutions, which is the approach taken by leading climate activists.
Polar bears actually are severely threatened (and countless other species, some of which may turn out to be quite resilient and others not at all), the likelihood of increasingly extreme weather events actually does have a very high degree of probability, sea levels are already rising due to warming, glaciers all over the planet are melting as is Greenland's ice sheet as is sea ice, acidification of oceans due to GHG emissions is a serious problem, human migrations already occur in response to changing climatic and environmental conditions, etc. The risks vary depending on a host of factors that go into the notion of vulnerability. There is also intrinsically some degree of uncertainty (it's science!) about the characteristics of future events (it's the future!), but the risks are very real. We should be worried.

But there are also real, concrete, and feasible responses on the table. They've been there all along and are constantly improved and added to through genuine human ingenuity. Sometimes market forces are helpful; sometimes not. Browse, for example, Bellona's impressive document, "101 Solutions to Climate Change."

Old-timey economic platitudes about technological innovation spurred by rising prices on resource commodities or other reactions to what economists call "scarcity" (high cost/price), and blind faith in human ingenuity are near-religious assumptions about which we should be very concerned. My point is hardly that innovation and ingenuity are not possible. Precisely the opposite! The problem is the concomitant economic assumption that if broad technological innovation hasn't fully catalyzed quite yet, then "scarcity" is not yet an issue, costs having reached that margin at which it is more efficient to seek substitutes, then everything is A-okay. Providing the public good that is climate stabilization will have to wait. Too inefficient right now; thus, environmentalists want to make you jobless and broke, while climate scientists enrich themselves through NSF grant funding!

We're now dealing with a temporal dimension of ecological change that out-paces responsive and effective technological innovation. This is of the very nature of the problem of climate change. Some environmental problems are more easily captured temporally by human economy and technological change: for example, toxic industrial waste for which we have perhaps slowly but eventually developed containment systems or completely changed the processes that produced the waste. Climate change, however, is simply out-pacing our ability to understand it fully and to respond effectively. It is a complex system that could come to be characterized by its emergent phenomena, systemic features completely unpredictable from examination of the system's components.

[Human consciousness, for example, is an emergent property of the brain or perhaps brain-action-environment-brain transaction - you can't predict the rich essence or even existence of consciousness solely by observing electro-chemical processes in the brain. Why isn't consciousness simply experience of electro-chemical synaptic transmissions?].

The risks of climate change include the risk that we're simply too far behind to develop effective technical responses. This is not because of environmentalists, who have been urging new research, building new technologies, trying to find new approaches to policy-making, and continue to try to communicate real science all while up against a major media machine that sometimes willfully and sometimes out of ignorance confuses the scientific evidence and actual policy options.

The risk that we're falling behind too quickly in responding to climate change is basically generated by having this same damn discussion over and over again. And it is in the interests of a certain special class of people to prolong preliminary discussions by sowing confusion rather than engaging in serious discussions about remaining scientific uncertainties regarding the nature of climate change effects and policy options. As long as people are led to believe the non sequitur that any uncertainty entails universal and absolute uncertainty, they will have few incentives to change their preferences and behavior, even though it is in their own interests and those of their families, communities, and countries to do so. As long as public confusion about evidence, current observations, risk, and probability regarding the future persists, people will stand pat.

This is how the status quo always wins its battles.


Cheryl Rofer said...

Brad DeLong makes a good point that applies to this issue and the less-than-desired effectiveness of presenting solutions. It's what I've heard of as the story of Pyotr's pig, told to me during the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but I suspect the essence goes much further back.

A Russian politico is campaigning for the new elections in a village.

"I'll bring better times. You'll have more to eat, we'll send fertilizer for the crops."

A man comes up after the speech and quietly asks a question.

"You know Pyotr, down at the end of the street? He has a pig."

"Yes, yes. We'll see that everyone has a pig."

The man leans in. "No, no, you don't understand. I'll vote for you if you promise to kill Pyotr's pig."

DeLong quotes the same sort of thing from Nietzsche. I used to think of that story as particularly Russian, but we've got far too much of it in the US and Europe these days.

troutsky said...

The question that needs to be asked is :Why did it get to this point? ( dire urgency)
"The media" doesn't really cover it , in my opinion, nor does "special interests".

The problem is our hollow, formal "democracy". State capitalism sort of precludes "public policy".

By the way, industrial waste was just shipped out of sight. It still exists in a very big way.

helmut said...

Troutsky: Why did what get to this point? The first theory of global warming was posited in the 1890s; some earth scientists have discussed the possibility since the 1950s; the science only really started to congeal into the bigger picture in the 1970s and 1980s; the UNFCCC was created in 1992; and global warming only really became near-universally accepted in the scientific community only by the IPCC's 3rd Assessment Report, released in 2001. The fuller range of risks and probabilities has been worked up over this past decade. Even now there's disagreement about the possible effects of CC, the main issue being that there are so many different elements, observed effects, and high probability effects and events that understanding the interrelations between them all (some effects could exacerbate or mitigate others - we're talking of a complex system rather than individual hydro-meteorological effects) may be even theoretically impossible (complex adaptive systems, though not the consensus lens for understanding CC, are characterized by emergent phenomena, which by def cannot be predicted from the individual elements or interactions within a system). It's not that the science regarding the existence of anthropogenic climate change and its basic parameters is in doubt. It's not in doubt at all, despite the megaphone given to contrarians when not outright denialist quacks.

But the consensus really is relatively recent - maybe we could say 15 years old at most. Then comes communication to the public and policy makers. What CC entails is massive behavioral change by individuals and states, large-scale investment in new forms of energy production, large-scale financial and technological assistance to vulnerable populations, etc. Both the science and the hard policy discussions we need to have and act upon are actively obscured by, yes, certain interests with particularly influential public presence (given Fox, et al). Getting agreement at the international level adds further issues regarding fairness/justice, poverty, human rights, environmental protection, major impacts on human livelihoods, etc.

It's not that everyone can say, "okay, there's now scientific consensus, let's all act in such and such ways." China has an enormous poverty problem to try to resolve - the nature of global and domestic economies can change, but given actual economy, resolving poverty is precluded by slowing economic growth, in China's view. The US economy is inextricably bound with China's - China's rapid growth is a very mixed bag for the US. Americans, meanwhile, are making some individual efforts to reduce their carbon footprints but are, as we know, largely unwilling to make the requisite lifestyle changes. Americans per capita produce four times as much GHG emissions as Chinese per capita - that's all about Americans' insatiable consumption practices. Now take 180 other countries with their own domestic issues, the two-level games of international-to/fro-domestic politics and their constraints, etc.

I don't want to excuse anyone here except obviously for the global poor, who have contributed very little to the problem of CC but are most likely to feel the harshest effects of CC. And I agree with you about the relative hollowness of US democracy.

But I don't see how even a 100% environmentally aware, educated, and active public of democratic deliberators would make a lot more headway on CC. How would that happen?

I admit I'm a pessimist, but my pessimism is based not on distrust of the public or UNFCCC negotiators and other participants. My pessimism is based on the view that we're caught in a possibly unresolvable crisis. It's possibly unresolvable because human brains aren't as yet up to the task of understanding, let alone dealing with, climate change, while CC is occurring on a shorter time-scale than the existing, relevant human institutions are able to respond to.

I might change my mind tomorrow, though.

helmut said...

Oh, and yes I know industrial waste is often simply transported elsewhere, usually along the path of least political and economic resistance. But it is true that toxic waste management, industrial methods that produce it, and regulatory frameworks have been completely transformed over the past 40 years. Although obviously not a perfect state, we are in a far better state today.

MT said...

Not even a clear analysis totally compels people to action. It's hearts and minds--not just minds. To dissuade a rational action a propagandist and/or marketer need only make the fearful to you, for example, or make an alternative sexy. Science and people in lab coats have a persuasiveness that isn't about the specific content of their Power Point slides--when there is not a campaign distracting, besmirching and otherwise acting to undermine it. But I think that's the campaign against energy and emissions reform in a nutshell.

Anonymous said...


Your comment on CC above is the best thing I've read on the topic in a while. Well done.