Three Minutes Before Midnight

Leaders at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (a journal) last week moved the minute hand of their virtual Doomsday Clock to three minutes before midnight, symbolizing how very close the world is to disaster. Especially citing unchecked climate change and nuclear weapons modernization as the biggest threats to humanity’s future, the group said, “world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe.”

The last time that the Doomsday Clock was moved this close to midnight was in 1984 when relations between the two nuclear superpowers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, were at a low point. Then in 1991, by which time relations between the superpowers had improved, the hands of the Doomsday Clock moved to 17 minutes from midnight. Since then, unfortunately, the clock has been moved closer and closer to zero hour.


Explaining why they are now resetting the Doomsday Clock from 5 minutes before midnight to three, the Bulletin’s science and security board said that “stunning governmental failures have imperiled civilization on a global scale.” Richard Somerville, a world-renowned expert on climate change (whose ideas were discussed in the preceding post on this blog), is a member of that board. He and colleagues urged citizens to “demand action from their leaders.”

The Doomsday Clock is a symbol that presumably can be easily understood by ordinary citizens and policymakers alike. But the Doomsday Clock image, which has been in use since 1947, is probably not as familiar to many people as it should be.

The Bulletin‘s timeline for the Doomsday Clock can be found online.


The Climate Change Ski Slope Graph

Professor Richard Somerville is a renowned climate scientist. He was a coordinating lead author for the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, and continues to teach, write, and speak forcefully about climate change.

Prof. Somerville recommends using what he nicknamed the Ski Slope graph to communicate about the time-sensitivity of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. To read the graph, shown below, we need to know that because CO2 takes centuries to disappear from the atmosphere the warming effects of the CO2 humanity is adding to the air do not depend on when it was added. Quickly adding a lot of CO2 and then stopping is the same as adding only a little at a time over many years (assuming the total amount of CO2 emitted is the same in both cases). For the world to have about a 67% chance of limiting global warming to 2° C. or less, mankind must limit total future emission of CO2 into the atmosphere to a specified amount (roughly 565 gigatons). It doesn’t matter if this amount of CO2 is emitted rapidly or slowly; what matters is the total we end up adding to the atmosphere.

The areas under the three curves shown in the graph (green, blue, and red) are the same, and in each case that area represents the maximum CO2 we can emit (about 565 gigatons) to have a reasonable chance to limit global warming to 2° C. What the steepness of the curves shows is that the sooner mankind starts to limit emissions the more gradually we can cut back, and the longer mankind waits the more rapidly we will need to reduce emissions.

SkiSlopeGraphProfessor Somerville calls these three curves the bunny or beginner slope, the intermediate slope, and the double black diamond (expert) slope. Mankind has missed the opportunity to use the more gradual bunny slope. We are soon going to miss the opportunity to use the intermediate slope. That will leave us with only the expert slope, or with even worse choices like not cutting emissions at all.

To better understand what these curves mean for the world, the blue curve – a 5.3% annual reduction starting in 2015 – means reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by 50% in just 13 years, by 2028. The red curve – a 9.0% reduction annually, but starting in 2020 rather than 2015 – means humanity would need to reduce global emissions by 50% in only about 8 years, again by 2028. For the world to successfully carry out either strategy would be challenging, but the second approach would be more difficult. It would mean jamming on the global emissions brakes fast and hard and rapidly screeching to a stop.

Research studies demonstrate that reading any but the simplest graphs is challenging for young people – and for adults, too. We can assume, for example, that few people are able to look at the Ski Slope graph and fully understand it without help. Graphs may communicate a great deal of information concisely and elegantly, but often they do not speak for themselves. Nonetheless Professor Somerville says he finds that many legislative aides, who are not typically scientists, can understand the urgency illustrated by the Ski Slope graph, which makes it a valuable communication tool.

A group of us at The Concord Consortium, where I worked for nine years, developed a new approach to help middle school students better understand graphs (less complex graphs than the one above). We tested the new approach in dozens of classrooms, and a middle school journal published by the National Science Teachers Association, Science Scope, is showcasing our work in its February 2015 issue.

When you look at the Ski Slope graph, where can you find hope? One important answer is that no matter which year humanity finally begins reducing greenhouse gas emissions we know that sooner is better than later. So let’s begin!

Five Key Ideas about Climate Change Often Missing in Conversation

Many people and groups do a fine job presenting the basics of climate change concisely. Examples include a 6-minute video by writer and activist Bill McKibben, a 4-1/2 minute video by Bill Nye (the science guy), a 7-minute video featuring Paul Higgins of the American Meteorological Society, and short online text from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Public appreciation is due to all who present this complex topic in a manner that allows non-scientists to understand the basics.

Nonetheless, several key ideas seem to be under-emphasized in materials created for the public. While I agree that we should ponder just how alarming messages for the public ought to be, and I agree we need to present messages of hope, at the same time if the public is not sufficiently alarmed then large numbers of citizens will not put pressure on policymakers to act quickly and forcefully.

Specifically, the following five points seem to deserve greater attention, especially among “Alarmed” and “Concerned” members of the public, who can then persuade others:

Climate tipping points pose a grave risk to humanity. Few basic presentations about climate change mention tipping points, moments at which some irreversible event happens. Melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet is an example of a tipping point that scientists believe has occurred, meaning that continued, complete melting of that sheet is irreversible no matter what we do. The most serious, or one of the most serious tipping points about which scientists are concerned is melting of the tundra around the world (e.g., Alaska, Canada, Siberia). Frozen tundra contains large quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas (more powerful than CO2 for over a decade). As tundra melts and releases methane, the atmosphere will warm still more, which will result in melting more tundra, which will further raise temperatures. Once we reach a tipping point, this process will continue until all the methane from tundra around the world is released; we will not be able to stop the process. Should that happen we may warm the earth so much that it becomes a planet inhospitable to most life as we know it, perhaps for thousands of years.

Scientists have so far underestimated the speed of climate change, including tipping points. Any complaint that scientists are too concerned about climate change (“hysteria”) misses the fact that earth has changed more quickly than predicted, not more slowly. Melting of polar ice in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions is one example of more rapid change than expected. Alarm among American policymakers should be increasing, but instead climate change skeptics and deniers in the U.S. are growing more influential in the Congress.

The timeline for effectively mitigating greenhouse gas emissions is short. Although scientists do not know exactly how quickly additional problems (serious storms, droughts, heat waves, crop loss, unfavorable circulation patterns in the ocean and the atmosphere) will arise as the climate changes, many scientists are becoming more pessimistic that humanity will be able to limit global warming to 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit). If we do not change our business-as-usual habits quickly – in a matter of decades, at most – then average global temperatures may rise 4° C or more by the year 2100. Mankind is now emitting more greenhouse gases each year than ever. The trend is going in the wrong direction, raising the likelihood that we will irreversibly tip more parts of the climate system with catastrophic results.

Combating climate change is an expensive undertaking. Too many people believe that change will cost little or nothing. After all, energy from wind and solar power will be virtually free, right? In fact, mitigation and adaptation will cost the world hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars. In the U.S., we need to build sea walls, levees, and make low-lying buildings less vulnerable to rising seas. We need to improve the electrical grid and build much more renewable energy capacity. New technologies are needed, such as for storing large quantities of energy when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. Wealth will need to be redistributed; for example, states heavily dependent on fossil fuels for their revenues (Kentucky, for one) may bargain for reimbursement for economic losses (note that the federal government ran a “Tobacco Buyout” program for farmers to reduce tobacco growing). Already, less developed nations are calling for payments from more developed nations, whose emissions are responsible for almost all of the CO2 added since the industrial revolution. Some experts talk about the need for annual investments of 1%, 2%, or more of the global domestic product to address climate change mitigation and adaptation.

America needs a clear plan to combat climate change. It seems easier to imagine a future America running on clean, renewable energy than it is to describe how the U.S. will transition from the present to that future world. To the best of my knowledge, there is no credible step-by-step plan to wean the U.S. from fossil fuels in a few decades. Setting long-term goals is not enough; we need public plans explaining how to reach those goals.

Climate Change Messages for the “Alarmed” and “Concerned”

Data show that the American public can be divided into “six Americas,” which have different sets of beliefs and motivations regarding climate change. This perspective comes from the Yale Project on Climate Connections (formerly the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media), which conducts research and writes reports about public perceptions of climate change, and climate communication strategies.

At one extreme, 16% of the public is “Alarmed,” having great concern about what is happening to the earth’s climate and strong motivation to combat the problem. At the other extreme, 13% of the public is “Dismissive,” having little confidence that climate change is real and thus the lowest motivation to combat it. In between these groups are the “Concerned” (26%), the “Cautious” (25%), the “Disengaged” (5%), and the “Doubtful” (15%).

In theory, at least, effective communication strategies should be tailored to each of the different groups (which is easier said than done). For example, the important questions people want answered vary by group, with the “Alarmed” most interested in learning what actions can be taken to combat climate change, while the “Cautious” want to ask whether earth’s climate is really changing and, if so, why scientists are sure that human beings are causing the changes. Majorities of the “Doubtful” and “Dismissive” say they don’t even want to read or hear about the issue – therefore, messages aimed at those two groups need to be briefer than those aimed at the “Alarmed” or “Concerned” and engage them in a different way. A strategy recommended for many groups is to emphasize that desirable actions are growing in popularity and have been adopted by admired individuals (similar, perhaps, to the Got Milk? advertising campaign in which famous people were shown wearing a milk mustache): so-and-so installed LED bulbs (which saves him or her money) and drives an electric car.

I am particularly concerned about messages for the “Alarmed” and the “Concerned” because experts say that a promising strategy to change minds is to better educate members of these two groups and have them discuss the issue with family and friends. A few organizations, like Mothers Out Front, have adopted this approach.

What are the key messages to convey to open-minded individuals who are already alarmed or concerned about the climate? That is not a question with easy answers; climate change is a complex topic and there are many informative fat reports about it. Similarly, there are many perspectives from which the topic can be explored (science, policy, international diplomacy, economics, etc.).

Despite this complexity, my review of short videos about climate change, as well as conversations with friends, leads me to believe that several key parts of the climate change story are not being told well enough or often enough. If the “alarmed” and “concerned” don’t understand important parts of the story, they cannot convey them to others.

In my next post, I will discuss the messages that I believe are vital but not sufficiently emphasized even among the “Alarmed” and “Concerned.”