A Special Place in Hell

People often rely on “trusted communicators” for information more than on individual experts they do not know, such as scientists. Trusted people and institutions in the media thus have a special obligation to get their facts right, because they reach millions of readers and viewers. But the Wall Street Journal’s editorial staff repeatedly publishes error-laden, misleading editorials and op-ed pieces about climate change.

For example, just after the September 2014 climate march brought hundreds of thousands of people to New York City, the WSJ wrote about “exertions to save the planet from atmospheric carbon that may or may not have consequences that may or may not be costly in a century or more” [emphasis added]. The Arctic ice cap shrinks by 50 percent, there is flooding in Florida and around the world as sea levels rise, oceans are acidifying, and this year is on track to tie or break global temperature records – yet the editors choose a stance of outright denial of anthropogenic climate change?

By printing such nonsense the WSJ provides a convenient source of “authority” for free-market enthusiasts, or others, who believe the WSJ is an excellent newspaper. The editorial staff, led by Paul Gigot – as well as too many of the WSJ’s readers – simply ignore the overwhelming scientific consensus, and the evidence of their own eyes. Glaciers and the Arctic ice cap really are melting, as anyone with access to Google and the Internet can see. As the comedian John Oliver notes in a funny bit of video, if media outlets wanted to host an accurate “debate” about climate change they should invite 97 scientists representing overwhelming consensus, debating just 3 skeptical scientists. Instead, the WSJ prefers to reverse those figures (that is, if even as many as 3 percent of their op-eds present the true scientific consensus).

Fewer people believe in hell these days than in earlier centuries. But everyone has a right to be scandalized when a respected news organization flaunts the truth so blatantly. The editors could call on their own science writers, who know better. In response to a letter I wrote to Paul Gigot (never answered by the editorial staff, of course), one of the WSJ science writers I copied replied almost instantly to say that reporting and editorial are two separate functions; i.e., don’t blame the science writers for ignorant, misleading editorials!

A few intelligent readers of the WSJ say they long ago gave up reading the editorials. On the other hand, I recently engaged with a wealthy man who made bundles of money at Chase Bank and he was fixated on the fact that year-to-year global warming “paused” for some years, which he was convinced meant that global warming was not real.

The WSJ provides convenient intellectual cover for such people. Whether that is because Rupert Murdoch (the owner) simply wants to sell newspapers, or because the Journal is speaking for fossil fuel companies and free-market purists in denial about anthropogenic climate change, or for some other reason, I do not know.

Whatever the reason, as far as I am concerned there is a special place in hell for the WSJ editors responsible for promoting such ignorant, harmful fictions about climate change. These people do real damage to the public’s understanding of science, and to humanity’s chances of averting the worst impacts of climate change.

Thinking Fast and Slow

Thinking Fast and Slow is the title of a book by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman that won a best book award in 2012 from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Drawing on extensive research, Kahneman shows – to simplify a bit – that there are two distinct information processing systems that guide people’s behavior, one of them intellectual and slow, and the other one emotional and fast. These systems use different parts of the brain.

Kahneman names and describes many of the specific ways that people are prone to errors in thinking, such as the availability error, in which people’s recent experience, or some particular examples that quickly come to mind, unduly influence their thinking, leading them to make mistakes. It is worth repeating that there is solid research behind his claims.

As one example, as I write this post a total of two people have become infected with Ebola in the United States. Each had treated someone who contracted the disease abroad and subsequently came to the U.S. Both people who contracted the disease in the U.S. recovered.

Despite this teeny, tiny number of cases (as a comparison, thousands die in the U.S. every year from flu), a recent Gallup poll showed that Americans think that Ebola is one of the most urgent health problems facing the country! As Gallup’s editor-in-chief reported on a radio program, when people “scan their environment cognitively, the [major health problem] that came to mind, other than access and cost [for health care generally] was Ebola, because that had been in the news. So that’s what [the survey result] told me, is there’s simply been a lot of discussion of Ebola.” This is an example of the availability error at work.

What is more, Ebola is a frightening disease, and fear automatically activates people’s emotional information processing system. In many cases, as Kahneman and others have shown, emotion governs human thinking more than careful analysis.

Scientists are trained to be careful and analytical. Papers and reports they write are seldom emotional in tone; usually, they cannot be emotional, or the writings would not be published. Thus, there is a mismatch between how most scientists write and talk and the way the human brain is wired. Climate change has not been clearly apparent in most people’s lives and so their emotional information processing system has not been activated, certainly not in the way that Ebola has activated a fearful response.

What Can You or I Do?

Knowing that humanity can still have a significant impact on carbon emissions, and reduce the extent of climate change, what can you or I do? People need to do something to be invested in climate change. Here are some possibilities (not a comprehensive list).

For Almost Zero Time or Money. Talk about climate change! In the United States too many people remain silent. Hold a “house party” or just discuss the problem with friends, family, and neighbors. Tell them how much you are concerned and why you believe that aggressively addressing the issue is essential to us, the next generation, and their children. Let elected officials (national, state, or local) know that you are concerned; write them, send emails, sign responsible online petitions.

For A Bigger Investment of Time. Participate in actions such as climate marches, or organized campaigns to influence public or private officials to take positive steps. Help develop state and local plans to mitigate the effects of climate change. Ask public officials to resist the temptation to spend more money on fossil fuels instead of transitioning to greater conservation and an increased supply of renewable energy. Support efforts to divest cities, towns, universities, and other public and private entities from fossil fuel stocks. Join relevant organizations concerned with climate change and support them financially and/or with your time, such as volunteering to manage or organize events. If you are involved with a business, consider how energy conservation will save money, often with short payback times for any investments made.

Change Your Own Energy Practices. Use more compact fluorescent or LED light bulbs in your home. Set thermostats lower, especially at night or when no one is home. Better insulate your home. Pay for “green energy” either via a provider to the electric grid (e.g., Mass Energy in Massachusetts), by installing solar power, or in other ways.

Learn More About Climate Change. Read news articles by reputable science specialists, IPCC reports, or other credible sources of information. There are many excellent videos online, too. As you learn more, consider the changes that will be necessary in the U.S. and around the world if we are to (a) transition away from fossil fuels in a matter of decades, not centuries, and (b) mitigate changes that we know are coming, such as rising sea levels. Changes need to be significant: cars need to become more fuel-efficient; coal and oil, especially, need to be phased out relatively quickly (burning natural gas also affects climate but may be needed for a longer time); assistance needs to be provided to poor countries facing near-term threats from climate change; more and better international agreements need to be forged; inter-state energy compacts (such as in New England) can be significant; coastal infrastructure needs to be protected from rising sea levels; etc.

No one person or organization can “do it all” but we can all do something significant to help ourselves and others reduce impacts of climate change.

More Good News

An earlier post on this blog offered some hopeful information about climate change. Here is more good news:

  1. On November 12 the United States and China announced an agreement to reduce carbon emissions. This is a big deal because the two nations alone are responsible for more than 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and because for each nation the promised reductions are larger than ever before. China committed to reaching a maximum of annual emissions by 2030, while the United States said it would emit 26 to 28 percent less carbon in 2025 than in 2005. In the U.S., opponents of reducing greenhouse gas emissions have often cited China as one reason for their opposition (as in: why should we reduce emissions if the Chinese do not?), and the new bilateral agreement makes that argument far less persuasive.
  2. State and local officials in the U.S. are often more pragmatic about climate change than national political figures, despite their party affiliation, treating it as a problem that needs to be addressed. For example, the New York Times quotes James Brainard,the Republican Mayor of Carmel, Indiana saying: “I don’t think we want to be the party that believes in dirty air and dirty water,” … noting that the Environmental Protection Agency was founded under President Richard M. Nixon, a Republican. Despite the broad agreement among scientists on climate change, he added, “the problem in D.C. is that a lot of people are making a lot of money keeping people mad at each other.” As another important example, as long ago as 2006 the State of California conducted its own climate risk assessment, which has been updated, and the state maintains a climate change website (http://www.climatechange.ca.gov/) that describes actions to reduce emissions in various sectors (e.g., agriculture) and to safeguard the state.
  3. Germany and Denmark demonstrate that renewable energy is able to provide a large fraction of electricity right now, with the percentage growing steadily in the future. Germany is poised to supply 30 percent of its electricity via wind and solar power, and Denmark is already above 40 percent.
  4. The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found that registered voters in the U.S. “are 2.5 times more likely to vote for a congressional or presidential candidate who supports action to reduce global warming.” (Unfortunately, voters make decisions based on many factors, not only climate change policies.)

There are good reasons to wonder whether progress on climate change is happening fast enough; nonetheless, these are among the signs of positive steps being taken in the U.S. and around the world. There are significant opportunities for people concerned about climate change to work at the state and local level as well as nationally and in their personal behavior.

Forty-plus Years of Warnings

In this post I focus on some of the readings with which I became familiar as a young man, whose messages have stayed with me for decades and that have stood the test of time. It is not my intent to conduct an historical review of warnings about anthropogenic climate change, which stretch back more than a century.

A few of these readings, such as The Limits to Growth, were well known at the time they were published. Others, such as the writings of Willis Harman at Stanford, were not.

I went to do graduate work in science education at Stanford in 1969 and soon enrolled in Willis Harman’s wonderful course called The Human Potential. Through his course I became aware of Sufism and the writings of Idries Shah. A brilliant man, Shah wrote dozens of books, including accounts of his travels, books about Sufism, a novel about the Afghan-Soviet war, a collection of fairy tales collected from around the world, compilations of jokes from the Middle Eastern jokester Mulla Nasrudin, and more. Shah was a founding member of The Club of Rome, which commissioned work by MIT that was published in 1972 as The Limits to Growth and sold more than a million copies. Based on the computer simulation capabilities of its day – which have vastly improved since then – The Limits to Growth predicted that if humanity continued along a business-as-usual path, with dramatic increases in population, economic growth, and pollution, there was a significant prospect of collapse and disaster. The broad-brush picture their report painted more than forty years ago has stood the test of time. Almost everyone is aware of the collapse of many ocean fisheries, most glaciers, and huge ice sheets.

Professor Willis Harman, originally an electrical engineer, became director of an Educational Policy Resource Center at Stanford in the late 1960s. He and his colleagues at the Center conducted a study of alternative futures that anticipated the work of the Club of Rome, but based on a different methodology. Harman used the term “world macroproblem” to describe the combination of ecological and economic problems, dysfunctional institutions, and outdated mindsets that taken together could be viewed as a single problem. Harman focused particular attention on “new” ways of thinking (some rooted in ancient traditions), and different value systems than those guiding most governments and institutions, ideally leading together to changes which he believed were essential if mankind was to survive and flourish.

A few years later, in 1974, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect by the economist Robert L. Heilbroner was published. It began: There is a question in the air, more sensed than seen, like the invisible approach of a distant storm, a question that I would hesitate to ask aloud did I not believe it existed unvoiced in the minds of many: “Is there hope for man?” Heilbroner focused special attention on the problem of allowing capitalism to continue unfettered, and he also believed, as did Harman and The Club of Rome, that people’s vision of the future, including mankind’s “very will to live,” would be of paramount importance in the choices made by individuals, institutions, and societies.

One reason to offer this brief account is to remember that it has not only been the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established in 1988, that has been warning humanity for decades about the grave dangers that we face. Another reason is to recall that the problems of climate change are not simply “environmental” but also include economics, energy, international relations, value systems, and people’s understanding of themselves and of humanity’s relationship to the world. For decades human psychology, including its current limitations, has been viewed as a central part of “the world macroproblem,” which we might now prefer to call climate change or global warming.

Changing modern historical patterns of thinking and acting is not going to be easy. However, for more than forty years we have been warned that we must change or face grave consequences.

Some Reasons for Optimism

American elections two days ago put more Republicans in positions of power in the U.S. Senate and House, and unfortunately many Republicans are skeptics about climate change, at least publicly. Nonetheless, it is important to look for positive indications of change. Here are four significant rays of hope:

  1. Under President Barack Obama the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule in June that would cut carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-burning power plants up to 30 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. If this regulation is, in fact, adopted and enforced, it would be among the strongest steps taken by the U.S. government to address climate change. Keep in mind that existing power plants account for nearly 40 percent of America’s carbon emissions.
  2. Last month the European Union announced that it would cut greenhouse gas emissions at least 40 percent by the year 2030, compared with 1990 levels. The EU agreement was designed in part to put pressure on other nations and regions of the world before a major climate meeting in 2015.
  3. A credible approach to drastically reduce American dependence on fossil fuels has been developed by Amory Lovins and his colleagues at the Rocky Mountain Institute. Lovins claims that by restructuring the energy, transportation, and building sectors the nation can save $5 trillion by 2050 while growing the economy and replacing all fossil fuels (except for some natural gas) with renewable sources of energy. Prominent Republicans (e.g., George Shultz) and Democrats (e.g., Bill Clinton) believe Lovins’s work deserves attention and action.
  4. Professor David Victor points out that tiny carbon particulates (“aerosols”) created by burning coal and oil are sources of global warming (because they absorb light and turn it to heat) and serious health hazards. As a consequence, almost all nations (China, for one) have an interest in reducing these particulates in order to safeguard the health of their citizens. Whereas many actions to reduce carbon emissions may be perceived to have only long-term benefits, it is possible to take a number of steps – such as reducing aerosols, and keeping methane leaks to a minimum – that will have immediate payoffs to reduce global warming, as well as long-term benefits.
  5. According to the Sierra Club, the cost of the Kemper Coal Plant in Mississippi “skyrocketed to $5.6 billion, more than twice the original projection of $2.4 billion. This price tag demonstrates the increasing cost of coal at a time when the cost of clean energy is rapidly falling. Kemper is already the only coal plant to break ground during the Obama Administration, and may be the last coal plant built in the United States.”