Striking a Proper Tone

Shortly before last fall’s 400,000 person climate march in New York, a woman I have known for sixty years said that she did not like the hysteria that too often accompanies discussions of climate change. I agreed that hysteria was not helpful when discussing any topic. However, I was puzzled why she would raise a concern about hysteria at that particular moment; I expected the climate march to be dramatic but not hysterical and that is how it turned out.

Still, the question of what tone to adopt – analytical, scientific, conversational, alarmed, hysterical, or other – is important with respect to climate change. Most climate scientists believe that global warming poses existential threats to the future viability of human life on earth and yet is under mankind’s control. What is the proper tone for discussing this threat with intelligent people who are willing to listen?

As I noted in an earlier post, most scientists and organizations try to be measured in the tone they use. Here are a few examples drawn from a variety of documents:

  •    “Observed impacts of climate change have already affected agriculture, human health, ecosystems on land and in the oceans, water supplies, and some people’s livelihoods. The striking feature of observed impacts is that they are occurring from the tropics to the poles, from small islands to large continents, and from the wealthiest countries to the poorest. … Future risks from a changing climate depend strongly on the amount of future climate change. Increasing magnitudes of warming increase the likelihood of severe and pervasive impacts that may be surprising or irreversible.” (IPCC press release, March 2014)
  •    “Without further commitments and action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the world is likely to warm by more than 3°C above the preindustrial climate. Even with the current mitigation commitments and pledges fully implemented, there is roughly a 20 percent likelihood of exceeding 4°C by 2100. If they are not met, a warming of 4°C could occur as early as the 2060s. Such a warming level and associated sea-level rise of 0.5 to 1 meter, or more, by 2100 would not be the end point: a further warming to levels over 6°C, with several meters of sea-level rise, would likely occur over the following centuries. … A world in which warming reaches 4°C above preindustrial levels (hereinafter referred to as a 4°C world), would be one of unprecedented heat waves, severe drought, and major floods in many regions, with serious impacts on human systems, ecosystems, and associated services.” (World Bank, November 2012)
  •    “Humanity was, and is, using 1.4 planets to supply its current use of grain, meat, timber, fish, urban space, and energy. … the main challenge in our global future is not to solve the problems we are facing, but to reach agreement to do so. … The problem is that climate-friendly solutions normally are more costly than the cheapest solution, which is to do nothing and continue business as usual.” (2052, Randers, 2012).
  •    “A CO2 amount of 450 ppm [parts per million] or larger, if long maintained, would push Earth toward the ice-free state. Although ocean and ice-sheet inertia limit the rate of climate change, such a CO2 level likely would cause the passing of climate tipping points and initiate dynamic responses that could be out of humanity’s control.” (Hansen et al., 2008)
  •    “We now have sources of energy that don’t pollute, that don’t cost more and that don’t run out. But if we don’t accelerate the transition to clean energy, it will be difficult to win the fight against climate change.” (Environmental Defense Fund Special Report, Winter 2015)

What do you think? Are these hysterical statements? Conversely, should they be more alarming? Looked at as a group, do they seem to you to strike the right tone? Communicating effectively about climate change is challenging and I’ll explore that topic again in future posts.

Flying, Psychology, and Climate Change

Next year I will attend weddings in Montana and in Washington State. Both will require long round-trip airplane flights. Apart from such special events, I fly for pleasure (several domestic and one international flight so far this year) and I used to fly often for business. How do I reconcile my frequent flights with concerns about climate change?

Burning jet fuel produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Experts say that the total warming effects from jet travel are actually two to four times greater than just the CO2 emissions, because water vapor, oxides of nitrogen, and other emissions are climate pollutants, too. I have read that roughly 3 to 5 percent of anthropogenic climate change is due to air travel, a percentage that is likely to increase — especially now that crude oil is unusually cheap. But flying accounts for more than 5 percent of my own greenhouse gas emissions (depending on where and how often I fly).

At least one of my friends is poised to visit his 50th nation, and I know many people who have visited dozens of countries. My total over a lifetime is undoubtedly higher than the average person’s.

Americans have far larger per-person impacts on climate change than people in other nations, particularly poor nations. The world, particularly the U.S., cannot continue along its business-as-usual path without causing grave impacts on earth’s future as a habitable planet.

These considerations cause me to wonder about my future travels. I live with the uncomfortable truth that “I am a polluter,” as a bumper sticker of the 1970s said. In other words, I share some responsibility for climate change (past, present, and future), as well as some responsibility for ameliorating the problem.

For the time being my thoughts about flying are uncomfortable and paradoxical. I do not plan to stop traveling for pleasure trips, including visiting family and friends. Yet I realize that if everyone in the U.S., let alone everyone in the world, flew as often as I or many of my friends do, climate change would become marginally more severe.

As I think about air travel, the fact that 95 percent of climate change is caused by other factors seems significant. America has the capability to reduce emissions from coal generating plants, make automobiles more efficient, better insulate buildings, install more LED bulbs, increase the supply of renewable energy, and more. Wasted energy and accompanying greenhouse gas emissions, including methane leaks (which are too common), can and should be reduced.

Like lots of others I have taken a number of steps to reduce my carbon footprint. And like many people, I contribute time and money to address climate change. But reducing climate change depends on changing national and international policies and priorities; there is only so much that each of us can do as individuals. Whatever I do ought to be more than nothing; but how much more? As I think about plans for air travel, that seems a relevant if sometimes uncomfortable question to ask.

Merchants of Doubt

I wrote in a previous post that I don’t know why the editorial staff of the Wall Street Journal adopts an ignorant, anti-science stance about anthropogenic climate change. We know that many people in the U.S. have been influenced by a well-funded, right-wing campaign to undermine people’s trust in science. Perhaps the editors have also been influenced by that campaign.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway wrote a great book about this campaign, called Merchants of Doubt. The book documents how a small group of people and foundations intentionally set out to manufacture doubt about research on the harmful health effects of tobacco. (The government later proved a conspiracy by tobacco companies and others to cover up research showing harm.) The book also documents the financial and intellectual threads that tie together the fostering of skepticism about a variety of scientific topics: the effects of tobacco, the depletion of the ozone hole by chlorofluorocarbons, acid rain, global warming, and other topics. The same group of people and foundations have tried multiple times, and often succeeded, in sowing doubt about scientific consensus.

For example, a man named Fred Singer objected to research showing that acid rain on the east coast was caused by smokestacks in the Midwest. In 1990 he started the Science and Environment Policy Project to promote ‘sound science’ in environmental policy. By ‘sound science’ you should understand that phrase to mean his views about science and his distrust of scientific consensus. Of course, the overwhelming scientific consensus was proved correct in the case of acid rain, as it was also for the harmful effects of tobacco.

But that didn’t stop Fred Singer from claiming that the overwhelming scientific consensus about climate change was not sound science. Nor did it stop the Wall Street Journal from publishing and promoting Singer’s skepticism about human-caused climate change.

Reporters must learn which sources are trustworthy and which are not. Apparently senior editors at the Wall Street Journal writing about global warming put their faith in the same people who doubted research on the harmful effects of tobacco, the causes of acid rain, threats caused by the ozone hole, and other important scientific issues. The WSJ evidently finds them credible sources. How many times must the merchants of doubt be wrong before supposedly intelligent people stop listening to them?