CIRES Climate Literacy Blog will no longer be updated but please enjoy this archive of posts.
We invite you to check out the new CIRES Education and Outreach Blog, which focuses on geoscience and climate education topics.
CIRES Climate Literacy Blog will no longer be updated but please enjoy this archive of posts.
We invite you to check out the new CIRES Education and Outreach Blog, which focuses on geoscience and climate education topics.
The U.S. Global Change Research Program, otherwise known by the daunting acronym USGCRP, has released a draft Strategic Plan 2012-2021 for comment, which includes a robust communication and education element.
USGCRP, known as the Climate Change Research Program or CCSP during the George W. Bush era, has evolved from a physical science and modelling program that gave marginal lip service and no funding to social science, education and communication efforts or research into a robust inter-agency effort with international links that now considers social science and effective education and communication to be integral to addressing global change.
Even a few short years ago, education was missing from the program’s mandate, but things changed with the release of the Climate Literacy: Essential Principles of Climate Science, an official USGCRP document. (A parallel and complementary Energy Literacy document is currently in final review with USGCRP and the White House.)
There are four goals presented in the draft plan:
Goal 1. Advance Science: Advance scientific knowledge of the integrated natural and human components of the Earth system.
Goal 2. Inform Decisions: Provide the scientific basis to inform and enable timely decisions on adaptation and mitigation.
Goal 3. Sustained Assessments: Build sustained assessment capacity that improves the Nation’s ability to understand, anticipate, and respond to global change impacts and vulnerabilities.
Goal 4. Communicate and Educate: Advance communications and education to broaden public understanding of global change and empower the workforce of the future.
In making the case for why physical science research and findings are not sufficient to prepare the nation, the authors write:
The goals acknowledge that global change research is not a purely academic endeavor. To be useful, scientists must understand the needs of decision makers at all levels in the public and private sectors and clearly and effectively make research results relevant to those decision makers. For example, farmers depend upon information to adjust and manage crops as planting seasons, growing zones, and pest and weed ranges change. Health care providers must prepare for more severe heat waves and outbreaks of diseases previously unknown in their regions. Insurers must account for shifting weather extremes in assessing future financial risk. Inhabitants of coastal cities need to understand the implications of sea level rise, while many regions of the country address changes in the availability of freshwater and increasing energy demands.
Focusing specifically on Goal 4: Communicate and Education, the authors note:
The final goal acknowledges that meaningful engagement with the public is essential. By integrating communication, education, and engagement into core activities over the next decade, USGCRP and its member agencies will serve as an important gateway to credible and authoritative global change information. USGCRP will build capacity to inform citizens of global change science and data through a user-friendly global change information system. USGCRP education efforts will also support the development of a workforce capable of using global change information and addressing global change issues. The Program will place particular emphasis on education that bridges physical, biological, social sciences, and engineering, and the support of educators’ professional development in USGCRP-related STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) areas.
The plan is a significant departure from prior program plans and reports and, for anyone interested in what can be done at a federal level relative to preparing the nation for changes that are already well underway, the draft plan is well worth reviewing and commenting on: http://strategicplancomments.globalchange.gov/ . But given the fiscal climate in Washington, it will be interesting to see whether Goal #4 will suffer from “last bullet syndrome”: a well intentioned intention but the first to go when the financial going gets tough.
Photo courtesy of Asian Scientist.
The International Council for Science (ICSU), which was established in 1931 and has played a behind-the-scenes role in fostering scientific integrity and collaboration at a global level ever since, held their tri-annual General Assembly in Rome this past week. The Earth System Sustainability Initiative, which has been several years in development, was discussed at the assembly, and Nobel prize winning scientist Yuan Tseh Leah from China: Taipei, was elected President for the next three years. In his address to the assembly, he articulated the challenges humanity faces:
If we are to avoid catastrophe and ensure humanity’s continuation on this planet, the keyword for the next few decades will be transformation. That is, we must begin to transform our global society into a truly sustainable civilization.
Calling for greater resources to be devoted to science, he noted:
In the past many excellence ideas were abandoned because there was no funding. This is really heartbreaking. If there is a worthy idea, we must do all we can to find the resources. Just imagine what we could do if just 1% of the estimated US$1 trillion spent by governments on defense every year could be devoted to global sustainability research. After all, the greatest threats to security today no longer come from across borders but are caused by humanity on humanity itself….
Our primary theme for the coming years must be “Action – and solutions – now!”
Here is a guest posting from CIRES Education & Outreach Director Susan Buhr about a DVD being sent to teachers entitled “Unstoppable Solar Cycles“. Her posting originally appeared on the ICEE Community Forum.
I was reading some evaluation data recently and found that a couple of teachers were confused after receiving Unstoppable Solar Cycles in their mailboxes. This is a set of video clips featuring a set of misleading statements made with no evidence or data whatsoever.
The clips employ some rhetorical devices meant to mislead-questions are raised and then not answered, along the lines of “are you still beating your wife?”
Some of the review criteria we use in the CLEAN project to ascertain scientific credibility are:
This Unstoppable Solar Cycles resource fails on many points. Others have pointed out the political origins of Unstoppable Solar Cycles and the spokespeople within it. But, the resource fails on other points also, and employs shady rhetorical devices to imply points that are not actually made. There is no evidence- watch it if you aren’t sure. There are only allusions, true statements that are then used to imply a wrong conclusion, and false or misleading statements.
Among the true statements:
So far, so good. But then the video uses rhetorical tricks to imply the true statements mean something they don’t, and throws in some half-truths and falsehoods. Here are the main insinuations:
Watch for questions that are raised but not answered, false choices, and red herrings. Here are some examples:
Soon (scientist in the video) says “It would be really, really useful to learn from the Vikings’ example how to cope with big natural changes in the Sun and the Earth’s climate system.”. And then Beth says “How can we cope with natural changes in the climate system? Scientists study the past to help them understand what’s causing similar changes today and they’re finding natural cycles that move between periods of warm and cold.”
It isn’t clear what Soon thinks we can learn from the Vikings, since they apparently froze, starved, died and disappeared. It’s really meant to introduce the idea that today’s change is like the change the Vikings experienced, natural. Then Beth reinforces the idea that we are coping with a “similar change”. This is a bait and switch, or false comparison. It’s like saying we can study ancient apples to understand similar fruit today, such as oranges.
Beth (student figure in the video) says “we are urged to accept just one theory”. Here Beth is confusing a hypothesis, or a claim that is being tested, with a theory which is the sum body of knowledge on a topic. In fact many different potential causes have been examined, including solar variability, and all have over time been discarded as they did not explain the evidence.
The video says “The journal Physics and Society, which is a publication of the American Physical Society with a membership of over 50K physicists, now welcomes debate of the question.”. In fact, here is a description of Physics and Society from the American Physical Society.
Physics and Society is the non-peer-reviewed quarterly newsletter of the Forum on Physics and Society, a division of the American Physical Society. It presents letters, commentary, book reviews and articles on the relations of physics and the physics community to government and society. It also carries news of the Forum and provides a medium for Forum members to exchange ideas. Opinions expressed are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the APS or of the Forum.
It’s not a peer-reviewed journal, and the APS published a position paper supporting the evidence for human activities leading to recent warming in 2007. http://www.aps.org/policy/statements/07_1.cfm . In Physics and Society commentaries against human causation APS noted specifically that the article was not peer reviewed and reaffirmed their position statement. Furthermore, journals do solicit papers on particular topics sometimes, but they are not debating societies. Journals solicit presentations of scientific evidence, not debates.
There’s more with which the discerning observer could take issue, but this is a start. I would not use this video in class on purpose, because it is hard to dispel misconceptions after they have been introduced. People remember what they heard or saw, not how credible it was. However, if a student brings this video to class, it would make for a teachable moment, an opportunity to help students identify strong and weak scientific dialogue. Maybe have the student compare and contrast with Earth The Operators Manual http://earththeoperatorsmanual.com/ where you can also get free clips.
Here’s a link to the ICEE Community Forum that this posting was originally from.
Interactive of temperature a from time series of 1884-2010: http://climate.nasa.gov/keyIndicators/
In his final Economic Scene column in the New York Times last week entitled “A Knowing Nation Has Issues That Need Solving,” Pulitzer Prize winning columnist David Leonhardt notes the messiness of economics and democracy, writing that “knowledge tends to come with caveats and nuances” and suggesting that we’re not very good at either these days.
The earth is not perfectly round, of course. Some smokers will never get cancer, while most cancer is not caused by smoking. Yet in the ways that matter most, the earth is still round, and smoking does cause cancer. Both of these facts are illustrative in another way, too; seemingly smart people spent decades denying them.
Focusing primarily on the benefits of market economies balanced with the dangers of unencumbered markets, the importance of education and the costs of health case in the US, which is about 75 percent more per person that other affluent nations, he also touches on climate change as an issue that needs solving.
We know the planet is getting hotter. Last year tied for the warmest on record, and the 10 hottest have all occurred since 1998. The resulting risks, economic and otherwise, may be more serious than the risks from the deficit, but receive far less attention in Washington. (And climate worriers do not need to be skittish about making the connection between heat waves and the larger trend. The thing about global warming is that it warms the globe.)
Indeed. But what to do about it, if anything?
Even among those who agree that human activities are impacting climate and the environment that sustains us, the “debate” is polarized and sometimes mean-spirited.
Over on GRIST, Joe Romm, who has expressed strong anti-adaptation attitudes himself in the past, preferring to put all the eggs in the reducing emissions through laws and treaties basket, manages in his posting “Be Unprepared: the GOP war against climate adaptation” to lump together and blur the differences between those who are out to gut any climate-related federal programs with a group who offer an alternative to the current stalemate in their Climate Pragmatism report. To Romm the Climate Pragmatism authors, who he is fond of feuding with, are naive. But see for yourself what the Climate Pragmatists propose:
For the United States and other nations to effectively pursue energy innovation, resilience to extreme weather, and pollution reduction, policymakers must make a clean break from the pitched and polarizing climate wars of the last twenty years and embrace a more pluralistic and pragmatic approach. Already, the international community is moving in the right direction. In mid-January, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon announced that the focus of his efforts would shift away from climate and toward accelerating the development and deployment of clean energy, especially in the developing world. China presses ahead with the deployment of new, low-carbon energy technologies to enhance security of supply, improve public health conditions, and build a profitable new domestic manufacturing sector. And President Barack Obama’s 2011 State of the Union Address focused squarely on energy innovation in the context of economic renewal and competitiveness, rather than climate change.
Read for yourself the Climate Pragmatism report, which, while not immune to critique, does point out the flaws of the sole focus on carbon mitigation through laws and treaties.
Meanwhile, over on Big Think, Michael Nisbet discusses the climate cultural divide between science and journalism (and the limits of science literacy), while at Al Gore’s newly rebranded Climate Reality Project, which is getting geared up for a big 24 Hours of Reality event in mid-September, is now partnering with 350.org. Will this nation be able to overcome the “the pitched and polarizing climate wars” of the past decades? Our recent political history doesn’t bode well for resolving these issues anytime soon.
While offshore wind has not yet taken off in the United States, in some parts of the world, such as the North Sea, off-shore wind farms are becoming the “new normal.” But wait! Maybe wind turbines have unintended consequences, as this article from NOAA ClimateWatch Magazine suggests:
Wind turbines produce more climate-friendly power than generators based on fossil fuels. But the turbines also produce wakes – ripples, waves, vortices, and other disturbances in the air that can stretch at least a few kilometers long at times. These turbulent wakes can affect power output and cause damage at downwind turbines. Normally, the wakes are invisible to the naked eye, but in the photograph above, they have churned the air over the North Sea into furrows of clouds….
Why do clouds form downwind of these offshore wind turbines? It’s evident from the haze that the air upwind (in the foreground of the photo) is nearly saturated with water vapor. Maybe when that moisture-laden air hits the turbines, it slows and cools, condensing out water to form clouds.
Will anti-wind advocates use this new research to fight off shore wind in the US? No doubt.
In another article, “The New Climate Normals: Gardeners Expect Warmer Nights,” reports on the upcoming new “Climate Normals” report from NOAA that will readjust what is meant by “normal” when weathermen and women discuss weather events.
Updated each decade, the U.S. Climate Normals are 30-year averages of many pieces of weather information collected from thousands of weather stations nationwide. Each time they are updated, an old decade is dropped, and a new one added. Starting in July, when you hear that a day was hotter, or colder, or rainier than normal, that ”normal” will be a little different from what it was in the past.
This time around, the 30-year window for the U.S. Climate Normals is 1981-2010: the decade 1971-1980 was dropped, and 2001-2010 was added. Since the ’70s were an unusually cool decade, while 2001-2010 was the warmest ever recorded, it is not surprising that the average temperature rose for most locations. For the United States as a whole, it was not daytime highs (maximum temperatures) but overnight lows (minimum temperatures) that rose the most compared with the 1970s.
Updating the 30 year “normals” in effect moves the goal posts of what we mean by “normal” or expected climate, meaning that acknowledging the human-impacts on changing climate may be lost in the noise, as it seems to have been in a recent New York Times article on drought, that seems to deliberately avoid mentioning human induced climate changes.
There is also an emerging “new” normal in some climate adaptation circles is the idea that reducing risk and dealing with the climate change already in the pipeline due to the long-term momentum of human impacts requires far more than moving from fossil fuels to renewables. In the US in particular for the past several decades we’ve put our eggs in the basket of “reducing carbon emissions through national policies and international treaties”. As a result, we’ve done little or nothing to prepare for changes that are already well underway.
But there are indications this tide is turning. The U.S. Navy Task Force Climate Change is one example of an effort to tackle issues like the 1-1.5 meter sea level rise over the next century and ice free summers in the Arctic. Another is the Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange, or CAKE, which is collecting case studies of efforts to prepare for climate change around the world.
The high degree of rationality individuals display in forming risk perceptions that express their cultural values can itself inhibit collective welfare rationality by blocking citizens from converging on the best available scientific evidence on how to secure their common interests in health, safety, and prosperity. (Kahan et al 2011)
Over on Chris Mooney’s “The Intersection” blog on Discover, a discussion thread that Chris started entitled “Do Scientific Literacy and Numeracy Worsen Climate Denial?” to discuss a new paper by Dan Kahan and colleagues at Yale has been essentially hijacked by an articulate, impassioned skeptic named “Johnny Says” who belittles those who take AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming- code for an unproven theory, science scam and/or liberal conspiracy) seriously and is dueling anyone willing to challenge his wit and insight. So far, he has no shortage of takers.
The “debate” is somewhat less nasty and more “rational” than on some blogs, but Mooney’s blog, much like the comments section of Al Gore’s essay on Climate of Denial in Rolling Stone, demonstrates a very polarized cultural clash, which is the focus of Kahan and colleagues’ study.
In Dueling Denial (Part 1) I summarized their findings: that greater scientific literacy is associated with greater cultural polarization. This, in turn, leads to “citizens’ failure to converge on the best available scientific evidence on how to promote their common welfare.” I also suggested that both sides, at least in terms of the irrational cultural clash they engage in, are to some degree in denial. As we wrestle, the world remains for the most part unprepared for global changes– whether natural or human-induced– that are already well underway.
The Kahan study, The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change, is a working paper for the Cultural Cognition Project and is based on a national survey they conducted, which builds on the work of Wildavsky & Dake, 1990 and others.
Beginning with the observation that “scientific examination does not bear out the premise that deficiencies in science education or defects in individual reasoning explain conflict over climate change,” the authors, based on their research findings, suggest that “public opinion can be understood to be irrational at the collective level” even if it may appear to be rational at the individual level.
What makes collective decision-making irrational, moreover, has nothing to do with limited scientific literacy or wide-spread cognitive biases; on the contrary, the source of the problem is just how exceedingly rational society’s members are at the individual level: The reliable capacity of individuals to conform their personal beliefs to those that predominate within their respective cultural groups prevents those groups from con-verging on beliefs that make all of their members materially better off.
The study itself measured “science literacy” and “numeracy” based on fairly generic indicators that had little or nothing to do with climate science. The authors also do not comment on whether in fact there is value to “civic science literacy” in general or climate/energy literacy in particular. Instead they highlight their finding that those who are relatively more science and numeracy literate are slightly less concerned than others about the potential impacts of climate change. (Could it be that, at least for some, understanding the problem is empowering because it helps inform them of ways of responding to the problem?)
Since Kahan and colleagues are focused on the science of science communications at a societal level, they ignore the question of how can we as a society make informed decisions, (as many cities and some states are starting to do as they prepare for sea level rise, droughts, wildfires, more extreme events, and ways to reduce their fossil fuel footprints,) without understanding the basics of climate and energy?
The study overtly dismisses the idea that generic science literacy isn’t helpful in terms of resolving the polarized, politicized “debate”. That may be true, but doesn’t necessarily mean that more specific, targeted climate and energy literacy are not important, even crucial, to addressing the challenges we face.
The fact that most Americas would get a D or an F on their understanding of basic climate science and energy facts is irrelevant in their analysis, which focuses primarily on respondents’ values using Hierarchy-Egalitarianism and Individualism-Communitarianism scales developed as part of the cultural theory of risk by Douglas & Wildavsky.
The “cut to the chase” finding of the study is that “cultural values had a bigger effect on percpetion of climate-change risks than did differences in their degrees of either science literacy or numeracy.” The Hierarchical Individualist, which might best correlate with the “Dismissive” in the Six Americas framework, and the Egalitarian Communitarian, perhaps most similar to the “Alarmed” (though additional research is needed to verify whether there is strong correlation) are poles apart when it comes to answering the question “How much risk do you believe climate change poses to human health, safety, or prosperity?”
Previous Six Americas studies found that in some cases the “Dismissive” had a better handle on certain aspects of climate science than even the “Alarmed,” but both groups are outliers on the bell curve of Americans’ attitudes about human-induced climate change, with the majority of Americans being both ill-informed about but concerned or cautious about the potential impact of climate change on people and the planet.
The fundamental finding– that collectively we are locked in a dysfunctional, irrational stalemate of values among fairly well educated elites– should come as no surprise.
Thus, while it is, for all intents and purposes, costless for any individual to form a perception of risk that is wrong but culturally congenial, it is not costless for society—indeed, it is very harmful to its collective welfare—for individuals in aggregate to form beliefs this way….Every individual benefits (in a welfare sense) when democratic policymaking reflects the best available science relating to risk and risk abatement. But what any particular individual happens to believe about such matters doesn’t make it any more—or less—likely that democratically responsive policymakers will adopt such policies; for that reason, it is much more sensible for him or her to form beliefs solely on the basis of whether those beliefs are culturally congenial. Yet when all individuals respond, rationally, to this set of incentives, they predictably compromise their collective interest in living in a society whose democratically responsive policy-makers avail themselves of the best available scientific information to promote their citizens’ welfare.
Kahan and colleagues’ solution is to develop forecasting and management tools for the science of science communications that can be used to predict controversies, such as the one the being waged between the Alarmed (Communitarian-Egalitarianists?) and the Dismissive (Hierarchy-Individualists?), with the later gathering for the Heartland Institute’s 6th annual International Conference on Climate Change.
Meanwhile, I still agree with Hunter Lovins that climate/energy literacy is imperative for survival and a societal goal worth investing in, especially in higher education, which Jon Miller has identified as a crucial leverage point for fostering civic science literacy. Fortunately, a strong majority of Americans have a high regard for scientists, think climate change education should be a priority and would like to know more themselves. But then there is a small but vocal minority that is concerned that climate and energy literacy runs counter to their values and beliefs and therefore is propaganda.
Andrew Hoffman’s article “Don’t ignore climate skeptics- talk to them differently” on the Christian Science Monitor website suggests that “More scientific data won’t convince doubters of climate change. But reframing the debate as one about values could make a difference.”
Far more than science is at play on climate change. At its root is a debate over culture, values, ideology, and worldviews. One of the strongest predictors of an American’s beliefs about global warming is political party affiliation. According to a 2009 Pew survey, 75 percent of Democrats believe there is solid evidence of global warming compared with only 35 percent of Republicans.
Climate change has been enmeshed in the culture wars where beliefs in science often align with beliefs on abortion, gun control, health care, evolution, or other issues that fall along the contemporary political divide.
Hoffman examined how skeptics frame their editorials and found three key themes:
For skeptics, climate change is inextricably tied to a belief that climate science and policy are a covert way for liberal environmentalists and the government to diminish citizens’ personal freedom.
A second prominent theme is a strong faith in the free market, an overriding fear that climate legislation will hinder economic progress, and a suspicion that green jobs and renewable energy are ploys to engineer the market.
The most intriguing theme is strong distrust of the scientific peer-review process and of scientists themselves: “Peer review” turns into “pal review,” and establishment scientist-editors only publish work by those whose scientific research findings agree with their own. Scientists themselves are seen as intellectual elites, studying issues that are beyond the reach of the ordinary person’s scrutiny. This should not come as a surprise, although it seems to have mystified many climate scientists.
Calling for a more enlightened debate by moving away from positions toward values, Hoffman notes that providing more “facts” can be counterproductive, leading to further entrenchment and polarization. He highlights as examples Secretary of Energy Chu’s focus on clean energy and jobs, the Pope’s call for addressing human impacts on climate and the environment in religious and moral terms, or the Military Advisory Board calling climate change a “threat multiplier.”
But, as we explored in the recent post about Al Gore’s essay in Rolling Stone on Climate of Denial, the polarization of the issue, particularly between what the Six Americas studies call the “Alarmed” who take human impacts on the climate system very seriously and the “Dismissive” who don’t is very intense and often nasty in tone. The Dismissive, who resent being called “Deniers” as much as the Alarmed hate being called “Alarmist,” duke it out in online forums and in the media.
But a recent study by Dan Kahan and colleagues suggests that scientific literacy itself may be in part to blame; those who know enough science to be dangerous often use it to further their own cultural perspectives, filtering the science through their particular cultural frames and biases. Kahan’s paper, The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons:Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change, summarizes survey results which indicate that:
On the whole, the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones. More importantly, greater scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with greater cultural polarization: Respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy and numeracy increased.
I’ll comment on these certainly provocative findings, which Kahan and his colleagues suggest is due to the conflict between individual and collective levels of rationality, in more detail in Part Deux.
But it strikes me that whether we are scientifically literate or not, Alarmed, Dismissive or somewhere in between, virtually all of us in the United States as part of the one billion primary emitters of heat trapping gases on the planet are inherently in denial.
Even if we are seriously alarmed, how many of us are “walking the talk” in terms of our carbon footprints, instead finding ways of rationalizing our copious air travel or comfortable lifestyles? And who, among those dismissive of “AGW” (code for “Anthropogenic Global Warming”) are willing to acknowledge that the nation and the world are woefully unprepared for disasters, whether natural or human-induced, and that we bare some responsibility to help those most in need?
Our affluence, however relative it may be for us individually, makes for a bubble in which we can debate scientific principles and policy prescriptions that reflect our particular cultural frames and values… while meanwhile, emissions of heat trapping gases continue to spew into the atmosphere, ice melts, sea level rises, the ocean acidifies, population continues its exponential rise, and the planet’s biosphere is radically altered by human activities.
And in the U.S. as we “debate” the science and policy implications from our often polarized cultural perspectives, little is being done to prepare for/adapt to (or help others prepare or adapt) to these global changes.
UPDATED: June 24, 2011
In his article Climate of Denial in the current issue of Rolling Stone (subtitled “Can science and the truth withstand the merchants of poison?”) Al Gore writes that the climate “debate” in the media reminds him of watching a rigged professional wrestling match when he was a lad: it looks real, sort of, and is very dramatic, but really it is choreographed violence as entertainment.
The evidence that it was real was palpable: “They’re really hurting each other! That’s real blood! Look a’there! They can’t fake that!” On the other hand, there was clearly a script (or in today’s language, a “narrative”), with good guys to cheer and bad guys to boo.
But the most unusual and in some ways most interesting character in these dramas was the referee: Whenever the bad guy committed a gross and obvious violation of the “rules” — such as they were — like using a metal folding chair to smack the good guy in the head, the referee always seemed to be preoccupied with one of the cornermen, or looking the other way. Yet whenever the good guy — after absorbing more abuse and unfairness than any reasonable person could tolerate — committed the slightest infraction, the referee was all over him. The answer to the question “Is it real?” seemed connected to the question of whether the referee was somehow confused about his role: Was he too an entertainer?
That is pretty much the role now being played by most of the news media in refereeing the current wrestling match over whether global warming is “real,” and whether it has any connection to the constant dumping of 90 million tons of heat-trapping emissions into the Earth’s thin shell of atmosphere every 24 hours.
Gore accurately predicts that when he criticizes President Obama’s lack of leadership on the issue of climate, as he does strongly in the essay, it will be used by critics:
Even writing an article like this one carries risks; opponents of the president will excerpt the criticism and strip it of context.
But in this case, the President has reality on his side. The scientific consensus is far stronger today than at any time in the past. Here is the truth: The Earth is round; Saddam Hussein did not attack us on 9/11; Elvis is dead; Obama was born in the United States; and the climate crisis is real. It is time to act.
Ironically, the 7000 word essay, passionate, rambling and unlikely to convince anyone who doubts that human activities are impacting the Earth’s climate and biosphere or prompt the President to use his bully pulpit, becomes part of the circus. An immediate case in point: the comment section of the Rolling Stone essay is a snarky verbal wrestling match between Climate Hawks and Anti-Gore advocates, with no referee in sight.
Predictably the news and blogs are already filled with the “news” of Gore’s criticism of Obama, and the White House has responded to point out the positive things the Administration has done to address climate and energy topics, which Gore also does in his essay before lamenting the missed opportunities to convey to the American public at large the urgency and seriousness of the climate/energy problem.
Andy Revkin provides detailed commentary on the essay and its impact (or lack thereof).
In all of these discussions, the role of climate literacy and education as an imperative for civic science literacy and preparing for changes that are already well underway is missing in action. Why isn’t the fact that climate change education has been a Presidential Priority since 2009 ever noted in these “debates”? Maybe it is just as well since their long term future and long-lasting impact is unknown.
It appears now that the recent crop of over 100 climate education and communication projects funded by US federal agencies may dry up with diminished funding and political polarization in the coming budget cycles. This leaves an open question: what will happen with the best practices, emerging talent and promising approaches that were developed by the various projects?
There is also a deeper question beyond the policy and political wrestling. Without solid climate science education and energy awareness, how can we as a society step outside the staged arena of theater and snipping in order to make truly informed choices, minimize very real risks, and empower ourselves as individuals and communities in order to build genuine resiliency into our lives?
A reader pointed me to an analysis by John Abraham of Gore’s essay:
Former Vice President Al Gore’s comments reflect a real frustration that is shared by scientists who are concerned about this issue. Every year, the evidence becomes stronger and stronger as our Earth warms, the seas rise, and the ice melts. Every year, the denial machine trots out new arguments that tries to explain away what we can see with our eyes. Every year, the ranks of the denialists get thinner and thinner and the stature of their members decreases.
Despite this overwhelming consensus amongst people who understand climate, there is a gulf found within the general public. Many people are either not concerned or are dismissive. Part of the apathy is a result of terrible media coverage and a well-funded industrial force against taking climate action. When our media defers to experts from think tanks as experts in climate science, everyone loses.
Al Gore’s statements reflected a hope that many scientists shared, that the new administration would champion the cause of environmental stewardship and would resist the forces of denial. Instead of taking a strong and public stand, the current administration has chosen to work within other frameworks, including using stimulus funding to promote renewable every and relying upon the EPA to work on greenhouse mitigation.
Years ago a mentor of mine suggested that news is neutral, and whether it is considered “good” or “bad” is in the eyes of the beholder at that particular moment of time. I was reminded of this when reading the press release from our colleagues at Yale and George Mason Universities who are involved with the Six Americas studies, which seems to be “bad news” for the most part:
Today we are releasing our latest report: Americans’ Actions to Conserve Energy, Reduce Waste, and Limit Global Warming in May 2011. Since June 2010, there has been a drop in a few energy conservation behaviors, but an increase in some consumer activism. For example:
45 percent of Americans report that they often or always set the thermostat to 68 degrees or cooler in the winter, an 11-point drop since 2010.
Americans say they are less likely to walk or bike, instead of driving, than in 2010.
Americans became slightly more pessimistic that their own, other Americans’, or people in industrialized countries’ actions to save energy would reduce global warming a lot or some.
45 percent of Americans say that they have rewarded companies that are taking steps to reduce global warming, by buying their products; an increase of 12 percent since June 2010.
Over the next 12 months, 55 percent of Americans intend to reward or punish companies for their global warming-related behavior, by either buying or boycotting their products.
18 percent of Americans say they have volunteered or donated money to an organization working to reduce global warming, while 13 percent have posted a comment online in response to a news story or blog about global warming.
10 percent of Americans have written a letter, email, or phoned a government official about global warming. Of these, 77 percent urged officials to take action, while 20 percent urged them not to take action to reduce global warming.
On NPR’s June 20th Morning Edition there were two pieces on the climate conundrum, one on the gap between the strong scientific consensus among climate scientists about human impacts on the climate system and what the public think. The other is about the Republican Presidential candidates views, or lack thereof, on addressing human induced climate change.
Meanwhile, last week former Representative Inglis, announced a conservative coalition to address climate change. Inglis, a Republican who recently lost his seat in a conservative district of South Carolina, had traveled to Antarctica with GOP Senators McCain and Collins and talked directly with climate scientists, who convinced him (and McCain and Collins) that climate change was serious and caused by human activities. Time will tell whether his effort will gain any traction.
I confess I’m not always personally able to take a neutral stance on news. But I’m old enough to know that the human dimension, like the climate system, is complex and non-linear and can shift abruptly, so it is crucial to have clear data points to measure the changes, whether up, down, good or bad.