Hope and Springtime in Massachusetts

Massachusetts is fortunate to be home to many high quality environmental leaders and groups that help move the state in the right directions regarding climate change. In this context, the legislature is expected to create and vote on a comprehensive energy bill soon. What exactly will be in the bill and whether it will become law are unknowns. However, some recent developments encourage hope that the bill may be good, and might even be excellent.

For one thing, last week 97 of 160 State Representatives signed and delivered a letter to the Speaker of the House, Robert DeLeo, urging him to “omit any public support for gas pipeline expansion from omnibus energy legislation.” Pressure from power companies and other interests has been building to allow Massachusetts electricity providers to tack $5 to $8 billion onto ratepayer bills to finance new natural gas pipelines, despite the fact that reputable studies have found that the state does not need new pipelines. The fact that more than 60 percent of House members are clearly saying ‘no’ to funding new pipelines is a victory for everyone concerned about reducing carbon emissions resulting from the state’s use of electricity.

Days later, Kinder Morgan, the company that had been proposing to build the biggest new gas pipeline (called Northeast Direct, or NED), announced that they were suspending work on that project, ostensibly for lack of interest from potential customers. It is hard not to draw a straight line between the letter to Speaker DeLeo and the announcement by Kinder Morgan. In any event, whatever the cause of the company’s change of heart, it is welcome news.

But, as Yogi Berra said, it’s not over until it’s over. There are still many uncertainties about what will be accomplished during this legislative session. For one thing, Speaker DeLeo is reported to have “an aversion to conflict, and a cautious, go-slow approach to the business of law-making.” Yet bold action is needed, not caution; in fact, bold action 40 years ago would have been better. And through the years, power has apparently become more centralized in the House. “The reality is,” said one Representative, “the House leaders are making laws in the Commonwealth. The members are more spectators than participants.” Therefore much about the pending energy bill hinges on Speaker DeLeo.

As they wait for details to emerge about the energy bill, many environmental advocates are concerned that doubling the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) is not a prominent issue, especially for typical voters, and thus might be overlooked in whatever legislation emerges. That would be a shame and would represent a major missed opportunity.

Spring is the season of hope. The community concerned about climate change has not stopped working, lobbying, or being realistic—but it remains hopeful.

(Note: For those interested in reviewing this blog in its entirety, it is available as a single document in the “About” section of the blog.)


Climate Psychology and the Massachusetts Legislature

When one is faced with designing a museum exhibit about climate change, a video for the public, or some other product it is vital to understand the audience. Discussions of psychology and climate change become eminently practical. That is also true when one tries to influence policymakers. Then one wants to know: how do they think?

Many people and groups concerned about increasing the supply of renewable energy are facing that question as they work with the Massachusetts legislature. The legislature is likely to produce a comprehensive energy bill soon, bring it to a vote before the end of July, and send it to Governor Baker, a so-called moderate Republican, for his signature.

It has been many years since the state legislature passed landmark, forward-thinking legislation, such as the Global Warming Solutions Act (2008). Legislators are now faced with important decisions about investing in solar energy and offshore wind, importing more hydropower from Canada, increasing energy efficiency in homes and businesses, putting a price on carbon across all sectors (e.g., transportation as well as electricity), and more. New England already has a Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) that has saved consumers billions of dollars and reduced emissions. Yet far more needs to be done if Massachusetts and New England intend to meet goals that, should they be implemented worldwide, have at least a chance of limiting global warming to 2° C.

A key policy in this state, and many other states, is called the Renewable Portfolio Standard, or RPS. The RPS requires electricity providers to generate a particular percentage of electricity from solar power, wind, or other “Class I” renewable sources. The percentage increases by 1% annually under current law. Mass Energy, the Sierra Club, and many other organizations want the legislature to increase that annual increment to 2%, which would mean that by 2050 at least 80% of the state’s electricity would come from renewable sources, compared to 12% now. This is feasible, partly because New England has vast offshore wind resources available for energy generation.

Legislators have a limited appetite to act on big challenges, whether about health care, the environment, or other issues. Communicating clearly with them about the RPS is vital. Essentially, if fossil fuel prices remain as low as they are now the only path to assure that the state’s electricity system is fueled predominantly by renewable sources is by mandating that goal in law. Lobbyists for the politically powerful electricity providers, pipeline builders, and other interest groups push back. Many policymakers don’t understand complex details of energy and climate, and may also believe that they are doing “enough” for climate change if they legislate on only a few pieces of the puzzle.

Governor Baker apparently falls into that category, and he has focused most of his energy on importing more Canadian hydropower. The Governor also wants electricity providers to build new natural gas pipelines to and within Massachusetts—but several reputable studies show the state does not need new pipelines. Moreover, if new pipelines are built and used then natural gas is likely to remain a very large part of the electricity generation infrastructure in the state for decades, squeezing out the growth of renewable sources.

Almost all policymakers in the state say they are concerned about climate change. That is not enough. As James Hansen said about the Paris climate agreement, “We’re not going to reduce emissions as long as we let fossil fuels be the cheapest form of energy”—or unless, I would add, policymakers mandate, via the RPS or other means, that providers steadily use more renewable energy.

How does one persuade “reasonable” policymakers (not climate change deniers) to make the RPS a priority? Many seem to be more concerned about keeping the price of electricity as low as possible and yet say that they favor combating climate change. Those two perspectives are not compatible, and “reasonable” policymakers as well as their constituents will be affected as much by climate change as everyone else.

(Note: For those interested in reviewing this blog in its entirety, it is available as a single document in the “About” section.)

Teaching about Climate Change

Teaching climate change in schools, especially in the current highly politicized culture, is a challenge. Two new studies were described recently in The New York Times and they add to the stack of information about psychology and climate change.

One of the newspaper headlines was: Science Teachers’ Grasp of Climate Change Found Lacking. The Times article said that teachers’ “insufficient grasp of the subject,” combined with political factors, “may hinder effective teaching,” which seems to be an understatement. Remarkably, across all science disciplines, and including both middle schools and high schools, science teachers spent on average only one or two hours per year on climate change.

The original study on which the article was based, Climate Confusion among U.S. Teachers, was published in Science magazine. Based on a survey of 1,500 science teachers, the authors found that more than 30 percent of science teachers “report sending explicitly contradictory messages, emphasizing both the scientific consensus that recent global warming is due to human activity and that many scientists believe recent increases in global temperature are due to natural causes.” However, we know that the latter statement is incorrect; scientists overwhelmingly believe human activity alone is causing climate change.

When science teachers in the study were asked “what proportion of climate scientists think that global warming is caused mostly by human activities,” less than one-third of those teaching in middle schools and fewer than half the high school science teachers selected the correct answer, namely 81-100 percent. Obviously, there is a much work to be done to improve science teachers’ understanding of, and their instruction about, climate change.

But changing teachers’ or others’ opinions about what experts believe is not as easy as one might wish. A day after the Times published the article described above, the paper ran another article called Why People Are Confused about What Experts Really Think. The article, written by a university psychology professor who conducted experiments and published the results in a scientific journal, reported that simply “hearing from experts on both sides of an issue distorts our perception of consensus—even when we have all the information we need to correct that misperception.” Respondents in the experiments could remember the extent of consensus on an issue if that was all the information they were given. But if they were also given two opinions, one from an expert on each side of the issue, they had a harder time correctly identifying the percentages of experts who agreed or disagreed. “In other words,” the author writes, “being exposed to the conflicting comments made it more difficult for participants to distinguish the issues most experts agreed on (such as carbon tax) from those for which there was substantial disagreement (such as minimum wage).” Subjects perceive a “false balance” of expert opinions when they are given examples of the two opposing views.

These studies, and others, show that schools have a long way to go before most students receive an adequate classroom education about climate change. Of course, thousands of science teachers do a good job, and in fairness, neither school administrators nor politicians nor the public have been advocating loudly enough for more and better education about climate change. An added problem is that most science teachers had little exposure to the topic when they were in school.

One piece of good news, as noted before in this blog, is that the Next Generation Science Standards (available since 2013 for states and school districts to adopt if they wish, and adopted so far by 15 states) do emphasize climate change as an important topic for study in schools. Also, many high-quality instructional materials are available to teachers.

(Note: For those interested in reviewing this blog in its entirety, it is available as a single document in the “About” section of this blog.)

When to Stop Writing

The primary reason that I have been writing this blog has been as a stimulus for and record of my own education. In 18 months of research and thinking about psychology and climate change I have learned a great deal. I hope that some readers also have found the blog useful.

Although the subject seems inexhaustible, at some point there will be a good moment to bring the blog to an end. With the Paris agreement now in the rear-view mirror, this might be such a moment. However, as a volunteer actively helping to lobby the Massachusetts legislature to enact forward-looking green energy legislation, I may want to write more about that particular topic before the current legislative session ends next summer. Will the Massachusetts legislature react positively to the Paris climate agreement by passing laws to increase the supply of renewable energy (especially wind and solar) in the state? The state has an opportunity to become the American home to offshore wind companies, including the world’s largest wind turbine company (Dong Energy, a Danish company), and to help jump-start offshore wind development in the U.S., which lags far behind Europe in that area. But it is too soon to be confident what our legislature will do. Our state Senate is generally forward-looking about climate change and energy, while the House is more of a mixed bag. For example, one state representative with whom I spoke at length is clearly much more concerned about keeping the price of electricity as low as possible than he is in addressing climate change.

In anticipation of my final blog post, whenever that may be, I am adding to the blog an Adobe Acrobat document that includes all of the posts to date—more than three dozen—in chronological order. For those who may be interested in reviewing the blog in its entirety, it will be easier to read a single document than to scroll through the entries online. I will keep that document updated if and when I make any additional posts. It can be found in the “About” section of this blog: https://climatepsychology.wordpress.com/about/

What Do You See in The Paris Climate Agreement?

A few days ago nearly every nation in the world agreed on a plan to reduce carbon emissions. The result is a kind of Rorschach test for citizens. The written agreement is certainly more than an ink blot but it is less than a treaty (which the American Congress would almost surely not approve), and it raises for each of us the question: What do you see?

President Obama said, “This agreement sends a powerful signal that the world is fully committed to a low-carbon future. We’ve shown that the world has both the will and the ability to take on this challenge.”

The New York Times summarizes its view this way: “the Paris agreement will need strong follow-up,” noting that “the cheering and the high-fiving have died down. Now comes the hard part.” In other words, nations must first follow through on their pledges (technically “intended nationally determined contributions”), and then do much more. Editors at the Times understand that if nations do only what they have pledged to do, scientists estimate that global temperatures will rise about 3.5° C, or 6.3° F, over pre-industrial levels, much more than the 2° C that the world has already agreed should be the maximum allowable global warming. Yet we know that warming of less than 1° C has led to the loss of half of Earth’s polar ice cap (and more warming is inevitable due to past emissions).

Climate scientist James Hansen, who warned Congress and the nation about climate change more than a quarter-century ago, has called the Paris talks “a total fraud.” In an interview from Paris, Hansen warned, “we’re not going to reduce emissions as long as we let fossil fuels be the cheapest form of energy. There are lots of countries that want to lift their people out of poverty. And of course, they should do that. But everybody would be better off if the price of fossil fuels was honest. It should include its cost to society.”

The Paris agreement included a kind of stretch goal, stating that the parties hope to limit warming to only 1.5° C. Climate activist Bill McKibben wrote that meeting the 1.5° C goal “would require breakneck action of a kind most nations aren’t really contemplating. At this point we’d need to leave almost all remaining coal and much of the oil and gas in the ground and put the world’s industries to work on an emergency basis building solar panels and windmills.” Replacing the world’s billion-plus automobiles with electric cars in just a few decades is an example of the enormous and expensive effort that would be required.

Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidates in the U.S., most of whom are skeptics about global warming, have barely mentioned the climate deal. And the Obama Administration’s EPA plan to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants is being attacked by at least 24 states, which have filed lawsuits to block it.

In a Psychology Today interview forty years ago, Idries Shah, the leading exponent of Sufism in the west and a founding member of the Club of Rome, was quoted saying, “This is a civilization that is going down, not because it hasn’t got the knowledge that would save it, but because nobody will use the knowledge.”

What do you see? In the historic Paris agreement do you see evidence that the world will, in fact, use its abundant knowledge in order to avoid truly catastrophic climate change?

Humanity’s Plan B

Humans are born explorers. It took only 10,000 years for our early ancestors who had already crossed from Asia to the Arctic to explore and settle lands stretching nearly to the southern tip of South America. From humans’ early origins in Africa and the Near East, and using primitive technologies, mankind populated virtually the entire world.

Starting in the 1960s the human race began exploring space. Two dozen people have been to the Moon and back, and hundreds have lived on the International Space Station. According to the Augustine Commission, which reported to NASA and the White House in 2009: “the ultimate goal of human exploration is to chart a path for human expansion into the solar system.” Sending humans to Mars in the decade of the 2030s—only 20 years from now—is part of NASA’s plans.

Exploring the solar system is risky—but so was sailing from Europe to America on the tiny Mayflower. Some of the colonists headed for the New World perished during or soon after the journey. Taking risks, like exploration, is part of human nature.

Planning and problem-solving are also part of being human. The Martian, a novel by Andy Weir and now a movie starring Matt Damon, shows how human ingenuity and perseverance overcomes potentially fatal problems as American astronauts explore Mars. Although The Martian is fiction, humans are, in fact, likely to take the risk of traveling to Mars.

Can humans do more than visit Mars? NASA is already considering how astronauts could use Mars’s natural resources to build, as illustrated in this quote from a NASA web page: “We must find ways to make what we need once we are at our destination. For example, the soil on Mars could be used to make modular structural building blocks to make shelters, landing pads and other useful structures.” For decades, scientists and writers have also been wondering whether it would be possible to use various resources to transform Mars into a warmer planet with a thicker, more breathable atmosphere, a process known as terraforming.

Recent discoveries of liquid water on Mars make colonizing Mars a more attractive prospect, and we already know that there is water on the Moon, a possible way-station for flights to Mars. Given time, money, and willpower, it may be feasible to create Martian settlements. Robert Zubrin, an influential scientist and engineer who in the late 1990s described feasible ways to send people to Mars, wrote an interesting article called The Case for Colonizing Mars.

Settling Mars would be a huge step for humanity, and it is a goal that could foster cooperation across the Earth, as the International Space Station has. Contrary to what many believe, the space program is not a large part of America’s budget (it is less than 0.5% of federal expenditures).

Going to Mars was a compelling idea before climate change was identified as a significant issue. Now, as an additional factor—beyond humanity’s natural curiosity, drive to explore, and innate capability to plan and solve problems—settling people on Mars can be viewed as a prudent insurance policy. Colonizing Mars could be Plan B in case our Plan A fails—that is, if the world acts too slowly and climate change is so severe that it makes Earth uninhabitable for humans.

To be clear, many thousands of people are working on the transition of Earth’s economies from fossil fuels to renewable energy so humanity avoids the worst effects of climate change. That is obviously an effort more governments should support, and more vigorously. We can hope that the pending Paris climate talks will lead to a breakthrough agreement—but even so, reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be a matter of performance, not paper promises. In any event, it is still important to invest in Plan B.

For the first time in history evolution of the human species lies consciously in the hands of the world’s decision makers—and not merely because scientists are able to engineer the human genome. Moving off of our home planet, Earth, will be a major step in the evolution of our species, but it is a step that will not happen by accident or due to a chance genetic mutation. Because of climate change, mankind’s future on this world and on Mars must be viewed as possibilities rather than certainties. In both cases the human race must make decisions soon.

Climate Change Education

The driving question for this blog has been: How can we encourage more people to think clearly about climate change? This post focuses on educational materials for varied audiences, adding to the resources discussed in earlier posts. The examples below illustrate the diverse range of material available designed to help people learn about climate change. Notably, the first item draws heavily on the type of psychological and communications-related research about climate change that has often been highlighted on this blog.

The National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI) is a collaboration of zoos and aquaria in the U.S., like the New England Aquarium, many of which provide the public with information about climate change. Together with the Frameworks Institute, financially supported by the National Science Foundation, and based on extensive research, NNOCCI developed a 12-module, values-based, self-guided online course focusing on how to provide information about climate change in a form that is understandable to the public and that avoids traps limiting the usefulness of the information. NNOCCI says, as an example, that focusing too much attention on dangers caused by climate change (“the crisis trap”) may garner people’s temporary attention but can often lead to a feeling that nothing can be done; and, that the “do one thing to combat climate change” approach is inadequate because it does not help people understand the importance of more comprehensive strategies based on community-wide actions. The course is available free online at Frameworks Academy and focuses especially, but not exclusively, on climate change and the oceans, using the metaphor of the ocean as “climate’s heart.” NNOCCI suggests spending 45 minutes on each of the 12 video and print modules; however, you can quickly sample modules in the course to see whether it fits your needs.

There are many “massive open online courses” (MOOCs) related to climate change aimed at adults and college students (see https://www.mooc-list.com/tags/climate-change). Most are free of charge. I enrolled in Climate Change in Four Dimensions last year, an outstanding college-level course then offered by U.C. San Diego and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography through Coursera (which still offers related courses). The four dimensions in the title are science, policy, international relations, and psychology/communication. Lectures and many other resources from the course are still available online via YouTube, including presentations by Professor Naomi Oreskes, lead author of the books Merchants of Doubt and The Collapse of Western Civilization.

The science education standards developed collaboratively by dozens of states, called the Next Generation Science Standards, identify climate change as a topic that should be taught to all elementary and secondary school students. One website that curates climate change resources for use in schools and provides links to many of them is http://www.climatechangeeducation.org/. NASA also maintains a useful website about climate change, including resources for “climate kids.” The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and the National Earth Science Teachers Association (NESTA) also offer useful resources, some for teachers and others for students.

Nonprofit groups across the country create slide shows and provide briefings aimed at state and local policymakers. These materials often focus on particular pieces of legislation related to climate change, such as proposed laws intended to increase use of renewable energy sources. There must be high quality briefing materials for national policymakers, such as members of Congress, but I cannot point to any. International organizations also develop educational materials for policymakers, such as a recent two-part IMF seminar on new opportunities to combat climate change that the IMF says are now possible in light of historically low oil prices.

I sometimes wonder why one does not see more spots or ads about climate change on television or in print, along the lines of public service announcements. I suppose that the answer is that a national media campaign focused on climate change would be very expensive and that no individual, foundation or organization has chosen to fund such a campaign.