“According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 72 percent of Americans believe the planet is warming. Seventy-seven percent support research into renewable energy. The same percentage believes that children should be taught about climate change in school.
The Yale maps offer surprisingly hopeful numbers, but what may seem even more surprising is what’s going on in some of the reddest places in the country, including Tennessee. People here are getting the message about what’s happening to the natural world — to the oceans, to the polar ice caps, to wildlife — and they want to do something about it. Our elected officials continue to promulgate lies that promote fossil fuels, but they no longer speak for most of us.
And even the red-state leaders can sometimes be brought around by popular support for conservation efforts. In January, Tennessee officials partnered with The Nature Conservancy to protect 43,000 acres of wildlife habitat — the largest conservation agreement in state history. Last year in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law The Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, which allocates $400 million to address and prevent habitat fragmentation. “Astoundingly,” the writer Megan Mayhew Bergman noted in The Guardian, “the state senate passed the act — which defines the boundaries of the corridor — with a vote of 40-0, and the house with a vote of 115-0.”
I can’t help but add a few caveats;
We have a long way to go, as acknowledged in the articles and video,
Our recent behavior, all around the world, seems to point in the other direction,
And we still concentrate our attention on climate change. Let’s say we do fix climate change; will we also fix biodiversity and pollution?
“Among the headline-grabbing wildfires, droughts and floods, it is easy to feel disheartened about climate change.
I felt this myself when a United Nations panel released the latest major report on global warming. It said that humanity was running out of time to avert some of the worst effects of a warming planet. Another report is coming tomorrow. So I called experts to find out whether my sense of doom was warranted.
To my relief, they pushed back against the notion of despair. The world, they argued, has made real progress on climate change and still has time to act. They said that any declaration of inevitable doom would be a barrier to action, alongside the denialism that Republican lawmakers have historically used to stall climate legislation. Such pushback is part of a budding movement: Activists who challenge climate dread recently took off on TikTok, my colleague Cara Buckley reported.
“Fear is useful to wake us up and make us pay attention,” Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, told me. “But if we don’t know what to do, it paralyzes us.”
In a climate change-focused survey of young people in 10 countries last year, 75 percent of respondents said the future was frightening. Some people now use therapy to calm their climate anxieties. Some have drastically changed their lives out of fear of a warming planet — even deciding not to have kids.
Climate change of course presents a huge challenge, threatening the world with more of the extreme weather we have seen over the past few years. And the situation is urgent: To meet President Biden’s climate goals, experts argue, Congress must pass the climate provisions of the Build Back Better Act this year.
But rather than seeing the climate challenge as overwhelming or hopeless, experts said, we should treat it as a call to action.
The world has made genuine progress in slowing climate change in recent years. In much of the world, solar and wind power are now cheaper than coal and gas. The cost of batteries has plummeted over the past few decades, making electric vehicles much more accessible. Governments and businesses are pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into clean energy.
Before 2015, the world was expected to warm by about four degrees Celsius by 2100. Today, the world is on track for three degrees Celsius. And if the world’s leaders meet their current commitments, the planet would warm by around two degrees Celsius.
That is not enough to declare victory. The standard goal world leaders have embraced to avoid the worst consequences of climate change is to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100. Unfortunately, that does look increasingly unreachable, experts said.
But every drop in degrees matters. One-tenth of a degree may sound like very little, but it could save lives — by preventing more wildfires, droughts, floods and conflicts over dwindling resources.
And while the best outcome now seems doubtful, so does the worst. Scientists have long worried about runaway warming that generates out-of-control weather, leaves regions uninhabitable and wrecks ecosystems. But projections right now suggest that scenario is unlikely, said Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State.
Experts and advocates want to capture legitimate concerns and funnel them into action. The world’s governments and biggest businesses have set goals to reduce greenhouse emissions in the coming decades, but they will need the public’s help and support.
One model for this is road safety. Drivers can reduce their chances of crashes by driving carefully, but even the safest can be hit. The U.S. reduced car-crash deaths over several decades by passing sweeping laws and rules that required seatbelts, airbags and collapsible steering wheels; punished drunken driving; built safer roads and more — a collective approach.
The same type of path can work for climate change, experts said. Cutting individual carbon footprints is less important than systemic changes that governments and companies enact to help people live more sustainably. While individual action helps, it is no match for the impact of entire civilizations that have built their economies around burning carbon sources for energy.
The need for a sweeping solution can make the problem feel too big and individuals too small, again feeding into despair.
But experts said that individuals could still make a difference, by playing into a collective approach. You can convince friends and family to take the issue seriously, changing what politicians and policies they support. You can become involved in politics (including at the local level, where many climate policies are carried out). You can actively post about global warming on social media. You can donate money to climate causes.
The bottom line, experts repeatedly told me: Don’t give up on the future. Look for productive ways to prevent impending doom.
Gas prices and Republican resistance have diminished Biden’s climate agenda.
..we seem determined to enter another brutish era in human history. We see it as democracies decline, as one country again invades another on some pretext, as nuclear war again becomes a valid alternative in international relations, as science and rationality are again targets of derision. We see greed, lies, corruption, torture and murder become expected, and worse, become accepted, human behaviors.
Discussions of climate change, biodiversity and pollution inevitably fade into the background given the barrage of other stories that compete for our attention; stories that shape our priorities and actions.
It’s laughable to jump from such global generalities to a nerdish blog entry. Despite being warned – as here – I will lay out a framework to become more aware of “stories” about the biosphere. My previous ideas on this subject were, to be generous, naive. I suggested we needed more stories. The reality is that we have way too many. While I will use some of my previous shorthand, my aim here is much more limited; I want to have a method to evaluate what is being communicated and what the likely outcome may be.
Allow me one more, very general, comment before getting to the point. Some argue that, on average, human conditions have improved; that we have better health, more wealth and more peace than at any time in our history. But history is bunk; for real this time. We have never had the population we have now. Only for the last 60 years have we had the power to destroy each other completely with nuclear weapons. We have never had the ability to communicate as we do now. And only since the industrial revolution have we been able to make such profound changes to the biosphere.
..I had the resources (and intellect, energy, artistry etc.) to analyze and visualize stories about the impact of changes in the biosphere on humans and human society I might end up with something like this:
One approach to create images like this is to use Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning technology to analyze large data sets in multiple dimensions and then to reduce those multiple dimensions to the flat page, to two dimensions.
We know that “biosphere stories” form a huge data set, growing every minute. (If anything we have an overload of data) To attempt such an analysis we need to define some subset. Next, and more difficult, is to define the dimensions along which we want to analyze the data.
But why would we even do such a thing? For the intellectual fun of it? Sure. But I believe there are at least two valid reasons to expend the effort:
By developing a framework of “dimensions” it will help assess the importance, validity and probable effects of a “story”.
By looking at patterns in the resulting picture we may recognize gaps to fill, and overemphasis in other places.
What follows is an attempt to define a subset and some dimensions.
To start we need to stipulate some basic conditions; axioms if you like. At the same time I will introduce some shorthand symbols. Symbols save typing and avoid the distraction of words; which as we know can mean just what we choose them to mean.
There exists exactly one universe of human imaginings; Society, Laws, Nations, Art, Religions, The Economy and so forth
H = Ⓑ ⋂ Ⓒ
Humans are the intersection of Ⓑ and Ⓒ
Curved arrows indicate the complexity within Ⓑ and Ⓒ
is real, bounded, consistent, in balance with the universe. It has existed and will exist, with or without H
is limitless, contradictory and unbalanced. If H were to somehow disappear (ΩCovid?) so would Ⓒ. Ⓒ is inhuman, maybe superhuman.
There’s an ironic symmetry here. Ⓒ, (think your cable company), often treats H with derision, forgetting that without H it would cease to exist. As H treats Ⓑ with derision are we forgetting that we may cease to exist?
The arrow between Ⓑ↔H represents physical Actions. The arrow between H↔Ⓒ represents Stories (S); information exchange [For more see Note 4]
Changes in Ⓑ cause changes in H, cause changes in Ⓒ and vice versa
An individual human (h) action will only make minimal difference
Significant changes in Ⓒ will be required to reverse or halt the changes in Ⓑ
The overall goal (G) is: To halt and, if possible, to reverse human degradation of the biosphere. [We believe this to be a necessary goal. At the same time we need to acknowledge it is a story in itself.]
Stories and Filters
Stories are the connection between H and Ⓒ. Arguably Ⓒ is nothing but stories! The inks, sounds and electromagnetic signals that carry stories are very “real”, a part of Ⓑ, but the essence of a story is just that; a story.
If we agree that only (big) changes in Ⓒ will make a difference and that Ⓒ is composed of stories then it makes sense to analyze S.
If we observe an individual; h, we can see only the story-in (Sin) and the output; EITHER Nothing at all OR Action and/or other Stories (Sout).
(e.g: Sin: “It’s good to plant trees”, Aout: Plants tree.
Sin: “Vote for x, they will support ecological action”, Sout:”I’m voting for x”. Actions may or may not follow).
We can only infer the filters and the received/retained story (SR/R), which may be radically different to the intent of Sin.
(e.g. Sin: ”Large cars emit lots of GHG”, SR/R: “My driving makes no difference. China is the problem”,Aout: Buys SUV)
Filters may be physical; Can h receive S at all? Has h got time? Access to the medium? Is h healthy enough to read, hear and understand?
Filters in the domain of Ⓒ are dynamic, powerful and complex. Essentially they are stories in themselves. f is worth a lot of our attention. [For more see Note 5]
All the above is probably obvious. But, if we want to analyze stories about the biosphere in multiple dimensions, we need to think about what dimensions to use. For a “real” analysis those dimensions will also need units and values/ranges assigned to them; that is a future step. Here is an outline:
SUBJECT and CONTENT
A direct analysis of the content of the story.
Ⓑ – typically technical works relating to aspects of Ⓑ. (e.g. Observed changes in ocean currents related to ocean temperature)
Ⓒ – related to separate aspects to Ⓒ (e.g. The impact of ESG management practices on stock valuation. Legal decisions on the power of governmental regulatory agencies)
Ⓑ AND Ⓒ – interactions between Ⓑ and Ⓒ (e.g. The impact of ocean temperature on fishing industry revenues and profitability. The impact of legal decisions on the levels of GHG emissions and other pollutants)
Given the discussion above the “Ⓑ AND Ⓒ” domain should be the initial target of an analysis
Topic and Content
Content Analysis – “standard” analysis and special analysis for trigger words
Consistency – with science, economics, history, social norms…
Peer review or other supporting facts
Original or Derivative
Based on previous similar work
Essentially a measure of the reliability of this information
Language (Availability of translations?)
Volume; sheer size, time required to read and absorb
Technical hurdles; required subject knowledge and level within that subject
Density; reading level etc.
Side Note: Stories opposed to our Goal, G, e.g. denial stories are typically very simple (“It’s a hoax!”) and accessible (A billboard with “No water, no food”). Stories in line with G tend to be more complicated – often much more. [Not quite in context, but I like this quote: “Once again, the Democrats showed up to a culture war gunfight brandishing a 2,000-page piece of legislation.” For more see Note 6]
Intended Audience – is this S aimed at an audience inclined toward, against or neutral with respect to G?
Intended Outcome – apparent and concealed/inferred (certain specific actions, general education, counter to a specific argument etc.)
Actual outcome or predicted?
If this is an after the event, actual, outcome how does it compare to the intent (and prediction)?
.. where does all this get us? Why don’t I get out and do something positive instead?
Despite its flaws I believe this method will help judge stories in a consistent manner. It will help in finding the real motives behind many stories. We will also identify areas where we should pay more attention.
The key, of course, is to actually do the hard work of analyzing some subset of biosphere stories and creating a “real” map.
Until we can do that let me go back to my “fictitious” diagram.
Here the vertical axis is subject matter, confined to stories that link the biosphere crisis and wider society as a whole (i.e. Ⓑ AND Ⓒ). The horizontal axis represents the impact of the story on an uncommitted reader. Will this story move that reader to act; to halt and, if possible, to reverse human degradation of the biosphere – or not?
Let’s look at the numbered areas of the diagram:
Climate Change and Energy stories are probably the most prolific of the biosphere stories. For the uncommitted reader more and more data on global warming and the likely effects will have little impact. What does have impact are more immediate concerns; weather events, fuel prices and the attractiveness of fuel efficient transport, cost and comfort benefits of energy conservation measures; (e.g.“You will be more comfortable all year in an insulated house”)
One reason why Climate Change stories predominate is that the whole puzzle can be presented as a technology and economics exercise. No need to change your lifestyle, no need to make any sacrifice; “2% of GDP will do it, We have the technological answers, Fusion is close to a breakthrough, Green hydrogen, Carbon Capture and Storage etc.”. All of these technology promises make our uncommitted reader more likely to act against our goal […in my opinion, through my filters, of course]
Stories about Pollution have, if anything, a negative effect. The problem is so intractable and the barriers to meaningful action so large that likely actions are negative; “If only 6% of my recycling actually gets recycled why should I bother, I take my plastic bags back to the shop but the container is filled with other people’s half eaten burgers*, we need drugs to keep us safe.”
[* That story is true: I brought my plastic bags to a Target store and found the “clean plastic only” recycle can overflowing. On top of the heap was a half eaten hamburger and a half full paper cup of soda. At Walmart the greeter told me they had to remove the recycling containers because of the amount of other material deposited there.]
Population – a white space on the diagram. Too hard, uncomfortable, not discussable.
“Growth” – that mantra of capitalism. Mathematically we cannot grow within the limited biosphere. The basic ideas of “The Limits to Growth” are as valid now as they were 50 years ago. We can grow, maybe without limit, in Ⓒ – maybe. And yet we are hooked on physical growth; bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger TV’s, more of everything…
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the reliance on fossil fuels. For producers, and shareholders, the on-going flow of profits trumps all. The availability and cost of energy ties into all the National Narratives. While there is a possible silver lining of speeding the introduction of renewables, the major actions right now are to secure fossil fuels. That leads to some strange political actions, as shown by this Texas story.
Another white space. Where are the stories showing the benefits, to “me”, now, of taking positive action? There are some. And there are some positive legal actions. But, through my filters, they are outweighed by the negative side of the diagram.
We may never carry out an analysis and create a “real” diagram of biosphere stories. But defining filters and dimensions for an analysis provides a template for looking at the likely impact of a story on different audiences.
“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”
“Future generations are going to forgive us our horrible genocidal wars, because it’ll pass too far in history. They will forgive us all of the earlier generations’ follies and the harm. But they will not forgive us having so carelessly thrown away a large part of the rest of life on our watch.”
“Climate crisis is not a scientific or technical problem, it is an issue of justice and political will”
“If progressives and climate activists want to have any hope of spurring the kind of movement necessary to shift political and economic interests away from fossil fuels, it’s time to put aside “believe science” and instead embrace a broad fight for justice.”
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
Maximilian Noichl, University of Vienna, Austria (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Both are images created by first analyzing large data sets in multiple dimensions using AI/Machine Learning technology. And, secondly reducing those multiple dimensions to the flat page, to two dimensions. The first diagram is a visualization of published papers on philosophy, the second of some 150,000 commonly assigned texts from Open Syllabus.
I do not pretend to understand the underlying technology, but am intrigued by the results; an unexpected synthesis and pattern of connections. Equally fascinating to me, are the absences of expected clusters and connections, the white spaces.
Note 3 – Overload
Is there really an overload?
A Google search on “Climate Change Information Overload” gives me 10 and a half million results.
The New York Times publishes an article on the subject in the Arts section.
The mind boggles if we add “Biodiversity Overload”, “Waste and Pollution Overload”, “Water Shortage Overload”, “People putting space crap into orbit to make sure we can’t get into space at all soon Overload”.
We understand the problems. We know the solutions. We should implement these solutions.
Yet we are resolved not to.
Because we are an irrational, greedy, cruel species with an attention span of, at best, minutes? Because we are so scared of someone else making a profit that we would rather bankrupt ourselves? Because we’re so overwhelmed by stories that we are paralyzed into inaction or goaded to denial?
I naively thought that we could overcome those barriers if only we told enough “good” stories. Obviously a silly idea. In hindsight it’s clear that more stories just add to the overload.
Note 4 – Humans – Humanity
Individual humans (h), belong to Humanity (H) and both are at the intersection of the biosphere (Ⓑ) and that whole man-made thing I call Ⓒ.
This is hugely simplified of course. On the Ⓑ side of the diagram I ignore the impact of things outside, like the sun, apart from saying Ⓑ is in balance with the universe. On the Ⓒ side I skirt around a whole heap of neuroscience and related things.
Ⓑ can only interact with h through “real” physical actions, in real-time. h can only interact with Ⓑ through physical actions. Everything else is stories.
There are a lot of logical frayed ends here, but some examples may help:
The prisoner in the dock, the stolen goods, the police report, the judges gavel, the sound of the gavel, the bars on the cell window; all are physical artifacts and actions – they belong to Ⓑ. The idea that some physical item belongs to h1 and for h2 to take it is an “offense”; that this offense then needs to be “proven” and “punished” according to some “rules” – all belongs to Ⓒ.
Oil under the ground is in Ⓑ, as are all the physical signs of how it came to be there. H, using ever more sophisticated tools, has looked at this physical evidence and from it created a story of time, plants, animals, heat, pressure and chemical reactions. The “book” containing that story belongs in Ⓑ. The imagination that led to the creation of the story, and the continued rediscovery through reading (and other media) by an individual h is firmly in Ⓒ.
The oil well pump, the pipeline, the electronic impulses transmitting profits, the yacht purchased through those profits, the fuel burnt by that yacht – all in Ⓑ. The idea that any h can “own” the land under which that oil lies and can ask for “money” in return for this resource, that took millenia to make, – that’s Ⓒ.
I also simplify the story about stories. Intuitively there should be a difference between stories told by an individual h and the stories pushed out by a corporation, which is an artifact in Ⓒ . But the essentials of the story, measured through our dimensions (or something like that) are the same.
What about stories told from h1 to h2? My argument here is that individuals, given their filters, are so similar to a corporation or government that we can treat the stories in the same manner. Sure, the audience reach and overall impact will vary enormously, but the information content will be similar. Logically that is very loose, I know. (More on filters in the next Note)
What about stories individuals tell themselves? We can only observe what goes in and what comes out. Maybe in some future we will be able to follow the activity of the neurons and “see” what is going on in there – for now it’s out of scope for this exercise.
When I say “ΔⒷ⇣↔ΔH⇣”; implying that humanity has degraded the biosphere that’s again very simplistic. First the biosphere does not get degraded, it “just is”. The biosphere “just was” when there were no animals. The biosphere “just was” 80 years ago when there were no atomic weapons and the human population was less than a third of what it is today. 80 years from now the biosphere will “just be”, whether those atomic weapons have been exploded or not, and whether the population is 10 billion, or 2 billion, or none for that matter.
By “ΔⒷ⇣↔ΔH⇣” I mean that we, H, have changed Ⓑ in a manner which H finds, or will find, detrimental. Many individual h’s have already been impacted negatively. Many others see opportunity for further wealth and comfort. The average impact is negative. But the powerful stories from the wealthy minority have, up to now, overridden the average.
This is why we can have legitimate, expert stories stating that there will be billions of climate refugees and, at the same time, average wealth will increase. The math is simple; rich people, in rich countries, will get richer; a lot richer to offset the poverty of the less fortunate. The ethics, the social change, the climate justice required to stop this degradation is not simple at all.
Note 5 – Filters
What I call “filters” spans so many fields, from basic anatomy to quantum theory, that what follows is a gross simplification. I want a simple formulation like f.Sin → SR/R to go with the diagram:
But there are complications:
The filter (f) has physical components; i.e. our senses have limited ranges, we are only awake at limited times, illness and age change the nature of f, etc.
f also has mental components; i.e. the stories we have retained so far (Strictly speaking these are now also physical as they are stored in our physical and chemical being.)
f.Sin → SR/R then becomes a dynamic system with f continually changed; f.Sin ⇆ SR/R
We could continue into this digression forever and discuss many interesting phenomena from childhood imprinting, social media polarization and cult behavior to neuroscience.
Leaving that temptation aside I have found the analogy to a camera useful in arriving at some dimensions for our theoretical study.
In a camera the final processed image (the received and retained information content) depends on:
Orientation of the camera – where are we looking?
Filters – what information do we subtract from the input
Field of view – how broad is our viewpoint?
Depth of field – are we concentrating on one level of information or many?
Focus – how closely do we look at detail?
Distortions – do we introduce distortions of our own?
Shutter – How much information do we let in? Will it overexpose the sensor? Will it leave any impression at all?
Sensor/Storage – what capacity does the sensor have to store the information? How permanent? How will a new S affect the earlier information?
Call this whole assembly f (of course…). I believe that understanding f will help us to specify appropriate dimensions for the analysis.
I also think that considering these filters allows us to better understand each other, and maybe explain some of the baffling responses to what are, to us, perfectly logical propositions. Even within the same society, in the same street, the filters may be radically different from one neighbor to the next. If we think coldly in terms of “f”, rather than get heated by perceived rejection, shortsightedness and belligerence, we may make more progress than we are now.
In this blog I harp on complexity and accessibility a number of times. [And then I publish a post like this, which baffles everybody, except maybe the writer].
The biosphere crisis is complicated. It just is. The stories are therefore also complicated and therefore much less accessible. In contrast denial or no-action stories are easy; a “No Water, No Food” billboard is easy to understand and totally accessible; you drive by at 70 miles per hour and it is immediately imprinted. The complexity behind that simple story is successfully hidden.
Opposite examples are the IPCC reports. Of course these are necessary documents. The reports reflect the input of thousands of dedicated experts around the globe. The reports do and will influence decision makers at all levels in government, business and the military.
Will they influence our non-committed reader? Probably not. Because they simply are not accessible and most of the reporting based on these reports is filtered out by the audience we most need to reach.
The summary contains 37 pages. A “technical summary” contains 96 pages and the full report covers 3675 pages.
The diagram below is part of the summary. I have spent a little time trying to understand it. I think it means ΔⒷ↔ΔH↔ΔⒸ [😄], but I could be wrong…
Note 7 – Texas Law
“Senate Bill 13, which went into effect in September , prohibits the state from contracting with or investing in companies that divest from oil, natural gas and coal companies. The law defines divestment as refusing to do business with a fossil fuel company because that company does not commit to environmental standards higher than expected by federal and state law.”
“The Limits to Growth” is a 1972 report commissioned by the Club of Rome. The report’s authors are Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, representing a team of 17 researchers. More detail at: The Limits to Growth – Wikipedia
Dennis Meadows presented an update at the University of Ulm/Germany in 2019 – the slides and a Youtube video are here:
This graph (by YaguraStation – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,) is a summation of the topic;
The resources graph has become more complex with the shortage of materials such as rare earth metals, lithium and so forth, which are critical to the required renewable energy infrastructure.
This could be all wrong. What if the technology experts were correct? Assume we mine the ocean floor, the fusion breakthrough happens, and, a little later, we mine the moon and terraform Mars. Will that solve everything? Thoughts for a future blog…
Note 9 …
Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
Here I look at some stories around the edges of COP26. My pluses and minuses on COP26 itself are:
More visibility of the problems and a shrinking cadre of outright deniers.
The China – USA effort to continue talks behind the scenes (which I think is the most important element in any possible solution)
The more enthusiastic actions by corporations (see Note 1) and 2nd level governments (states, provinces and cities)
Too little, too late
Backpedaling on coal and forests
The increasing polarization inside the USA (which threatens any progress made at COP26 and in the China-USA discussions)
We still do not have an inclusive view of the problems facing the biosphere. Sure, climate change by itself is an overwhelming subject. One could argue that including biodiversity, pollution and population in the discussion may weaken the focus on GHG emissions. In my opinion however, inclusion would sharpen the need for urgent action on this and all the other fronts.
I guess we went into COP26 with low expectations and left with much the same.
COP26 was widely reported and analyzed. A little further down in this blog entry are some of the articles, positive and negative, that caught my eye. But we also need to worry about the middle ground. There we have all the distractions that stop the biosphere crisis getting the priority it needs, ranging from huge topics like big power competition (China of course) all the way to consumption and entertainment trivia (The best apple pie, the worst Diana interpretation).
But there is something in the middle that causes me to worry. It’s the type of story that is not outright denial (although there is still enough of that), not even a call for inaction, but a wedge that can, and will be, used to justify inaction. Some examples are in COP26: The truth behind the new climate change denial. Another is this:
The text below is from an article in The Atlantic, with direct quotes from Brian O’Neill, one of the lead architects of the IPCC’s “Shared Socioeconomic Pathways,” or SSPs. [Square brackets indicate my insertions]
[Under SSP1, keeping global warming under 1.5℃], the global economy still expands but humanity “shifts toward a broader emphasis on human well-being, even at the expense of somewhat slower economic growth over the longer term.”
[Under SSP2, which most commentators see as the most likely result based on COP26] “social, economic, and technological trends do not shift markedly from historical patterns.”
So what does this SSP 2 world feel like? It depends … on who you are. … all the paths, even the hottest ones, show improvements in human well-being on average. IPCC scientists expect that average [!!] life expectancy will continue to rise, that poverty and hunger rates will continue to decline, and that average incomes will go up in every single plausible future, simply because they always have. … Climate change will ruin individual lives and kill individual people, and it may even drag down rates of improvement in human well-being, but on average , he said, “we’re generally in the climate-change field not talking about futures that are worse than today.”
But all the current physical impacts of climate change—drought, extreme heat, fire, storms, sea-level rise—would get significantly worse by 2100 under SSP 2. And say goodbye to coral reefs. “At 2.5 ℃ , it’s probably a world in which we don’t have them,” O’Neill said. “They don’t exist.” The Arctic? “My guess is that we would have a permanently ice-free Arctic in the summer. And so we would have all of the ecological consequences that would come along with that.”
But the world we are heading toward may be one in which the average human is living longer and making more money than ever, but some vulnerable humans and many nonhumans are collateral damage.
[Note the word “average” is used 5 times in the quotations above]
I find this a highly disturbing article. Most important, and the article acknowledges, this is totally unjust to the “collaterally damaged”. In addition there are some major flaws in the argument:
There is no accounting for the value of biodiversity; no coral reefs, no Arctic ice. More drought, fire and storm. They don’t count, apparently.
The IPCC report itself has some projection on the number of people expected to be in geographies outside the “human climate niche” – i.e. people who will likely become climate refugees (more in Note 2). By 2050 those numbers range from 1 Billion to nearly 4 Billion. Billions of climate refugees and “we’re generally in the climate-change field not talking about futures that are worse than today.” Really?
I may be reading things out of context, but “…not talking about futures that are worse than today”, in a journal with the reputation of the Atlantic, will be used by some to justify inaction. Why is this published without a strong refutation?
And while I’m bashing the media, at a more trivial level; if we want to get our stories out we do need to make them easy to understand.
Here is the heading and subheading from an article in the Guardian:
The use of mixed dimensions (% of emissions compared to emissions per capita) makes no sense.
Why not use the excellent graphics, and the numbers, from the original study? – below:
We need simple “stories”, be they written, verbal, pictorial or in any other form of communication. They need to reach an audience outside our bubble. They need to be concise, while backed up by solid data. It’s an obvious statement, but so hard to achieve. When even media outlets like the Guardian and the Atlantic struggle to create these stories it lends support to my contention that we need to focus more effort, more brain power on the creation of these stories. (My next blog will, hopefully, look at this in a bit more detail)
STORIES AROUND COP26
Here are extracts that I thought most telling. [As usual my additions are in square brackets]
“The handwaving and complexity obscure a simple truth: nation states must stop funding dirty industries”
“Even nations that claim to be leading the transition mean to keep drilling. In the US, Joe Biden promised to pause all new leases for oil and gas on public lands and in offshore waters. His government was sued by 14 Republican states. Though climate campaigners argue that Biden has many other tools for preventing such leases from being issued, he immediately folded, and his government has now begun the process of auctioning drilling rights in Alaskan waters and the Gulf of Mexico. It’s just the kind of weakness the Republicans were hoping to exploit”
“Germany [wearing the mantle of ecological righteousness] has promised to phase out coal production by 2038 (far too late, by the way). Yet it is still developing new deposits.”
[The Australian government approved three more coal projects shortly after being told they had a duty of care to the children of the world. Predictably, the Australian government appealed against the “duty of care” judgement. Stripping away the legal niceties that means the current Australian government, and their supporters, do not care about the future of their children – or any children for that matter. No wonder young people around the world are so vocal on this subject]
“A day after COP26 organizers celebrated a major pledge to protect the world’s forests, one of the most important signatories said it didn’t actually sign up to end deforestation by the end of the decade. Indonesia, the top producer of palm oil, said it only agreed to keep its forest cover steady over the period — meaning trees could still be cut down and replaced. Brazil, another key member, said it would only target “illegal” deforestation.”
“Indonesia also signed up to a pledge aimed at ending coal use, but a closer look at the terms shows it will be able to continue building coal plants at home. The [organizers] highlighted Poland as one of the major signatories of that same deal, but Warsaw said it won’t phase out coal until the 2040s — the same timescale it was already planning — casting doubt on how much value the new accord adds.”
“If even dug-in science deniers … can come around on climate issues when they are convinced that doing so would benefit their constituents in visible and measurable ways, then it’s conceivable that an environmentally sound future is possible even in regions now tightly tethered to fossil fuels. It’s even conceivable that renewable energy could cease to be a political issue and become simply a common-sense strategy for a country that doesn’t want to run the planet into the ground…”
The table below (from Wikipedia, but based on IPCC) shows 2050 projections of the number of people expected to live “outside the human climate niche” under various SSP and temperature rise combinations – i.e. Human individuals who will most likely become climate refugees to escape death.
“Science’s ability to understand our cells and airways cannot save us if we don’t also understand our society and how we can be led astray.”…..
“The assumption that some scientific breakthrough will swoop in to save the day is built too deeply into our national mythology — but as we’ve seen, again and again, it’s not true.”
If we substitute “the biosphere” for “our cells and airways” those quotes apply perfectly to the environmental, biospheric, crisis we are in.
So what is happening in our society, and how can we be led astray?
The Countdown Summit – TED’s first climate conference – is in session! On day one we were exposed to some big ideas;
“ …We’re in the middle of a crisis, the alarm bells have been ringing, and we can’t keep hitting the snooze button. “We’re not sleepwalking towards a cliff,” …. “We’re walking in a minefield.”
… [others]….”delivered some good news: We know what it takes to get to net-zero by 2050. All we need is the will and investment — from both the public and private sector — to put them into action. So what can ordinary people do to convince them? “Be political,” …. “Demand change from your leaders.
But isn’t that exactly the problem? “All we need is the will…”
There is little sign we really have that will. Even when we demand change from our leaders they refuse. For instance the Australian government approved three more coal projectsafter being told they had a duty of care to the children of the world.
As a distraction we have big power politics, with the US, UK, Australia nuclear submarine announcement as just one example. How much could be achieved with regard to the biosphere if the intellect and money devoted to these submarines were used elsewhere?
Why was this deal even contemplated? Here’s part of the answer:
“For more than a decade, Washington has struggled to prioritize what it calls great power competition with China — a contest for military and political dominance.” – so starts an opinion piece in the New York Times. It is clearly this competition along national, economic and racial lines that dominates the strategic thinking of our leaders. Do we want to continue pretending that there isn’t a much greater power – the biosphere – at play here. That is what we need to worry about, not political dominance. The biosphere does not care about nations, economies or races. Or any humans for that matter. But we better care about the biosphere.
[On a more irreverent note here is another explanation. BTW the biosphere also does not care about satire – I think]
Even within the environmental “industry” we miss the big picture. The upcoming Glasgow climate change event overshadows other such concerns as biodiversity and species extinction. This headline says it well; “The most important global meeting you’ve probably never heard of is now. Countries are gathering in an effort to stop a biodiversity collapse that scientists say could equal climate change as an existential crisis.”
The issues need to be dealt with on the ground, in detail, of course. But we need to keep the big picture in mind; the biosphere – the only one we have, in the whole universe – is becoming less “friendly” toward us. We can do something about it. It will take incredible will.
In the meantime other living things go extinct. Yes, extinction is part of the history of the biosphere. [Note Well – we are not exempt from extinction]. But each extinction means something is lost forever. Surely we can be bothered to minimize our impact.
He ends his article with a statement of faith; that we will win. “But we don’t know if that win will come in time to matter. Glasgow, in other words, is about pace: will it accelerate change, or will things stay on their same too-slow trajectory? Time will tell – it’s the most important variable by far.”
And time, in the US, is going by awfully fast. Last I looked at the side bar (here, on the right) it was 388 days until the next major election. The odds are that the Republicans will win the house and the senate. In effect that means a halt, or at least a significant slowdown, in US efforts to mitigate the damage done to the biosphere. Unless of course we vote in a different direction.
Warning: Children and Americans should watch this edited version. Australiens have been known to use vulgar language in some of their videos.
Yes, yes. Of course we have to use CCS as part of an overall strategy. But we’ve let things slide for so long that the technical discussion, even if entertaining, is over. What we need is the will. Anything to convince our leaders to take some real action. If humor will do it, let’s use that.
Today (15 August 2021) the New York Times published an editorial titled “Finding the Will to Stave Off a Darker Future”. A short quote gives the tenor of the article: “We knew, three decades ago, about global warming and its consequences. We suspected, even then, that the potentially catastrophic future forecast in the IPCC’s latest report, released on Monday — a report the U.N. secretary general, António Guterres, called a “code red for humanity” — could well come to pass.
The IPCC report referred to is the 6th Assessment Report, (AR6) which was widely reported and commented on around the world.
None of this comes as a surprise to anyone interested in the Environmental Crisis. At the same time we are flooded with more immediate news; The Taliban are in Kabul, Haiti had an earthquake to be followed by a tropical storm, Mediterranean Europe, Siberia and the US west suffer from fires and droughts, other places from floods. Covid19 is getting out of hand again.
Is there still some hope of action? Probably. Just as we knew the dangers at least 30 years ago, so we also knew the solutions. With technology improvements we have even more options now.
But, as with Covid, denial, doubt, appeals to rights and freedoms, and deference to “The Economy” persist.
Somehow we think the biosphere (or the Covid virus) cares about us. It does not. It just is. Our actions produce predictable reactions from the biosphere (and the virus).
If we mask, keep physical distance and vaccinate the virus becomes a manageable problem. If we claim “exemptions” the virus spreads and in spreading gives time for mutations, some of which become more of a problem for us.
If we keep pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, if we keep polluting, over-consuming, over-fishing, over-logging then the biosphere reacts in a predictable manner. Tipping points are part of that predictability.
We must stop. It is up to us to ensure we have the political and corporate leaders who can make that happen in an equitable manner. No matter which actions we choose as individuals, nations or corporations, the biosphere does not respect any exemptions. None. Not freedom, rights, religions, nationality, paternal wisdom, economic wealth or hardship. It just is and does.
Then on 8 November 2022 (one short year after COP26) the US elections will tell us if the USA will play a meaningful part in keeping the biosphere hospitable for us.
As the U.S.’s special envoy for climate, John Kerry has to comment on something like IPCC AR6. I caught a short interview with him on NPR (the 7 minute audio and a transcript are at How John Kerry Hopes To Combat Climate Change)
My key take-aways:
We have to do something – major, now. Just how this meshes with the moderate Democrat administration’s wish to also keep oil and gas supplies cheap and not impose any economic hardship on anybody remains unexplained.
The private sector is ahead of the government in moving to renewables and planning for the inevitable changes coming to the biosphere.
China is doing things to meet climate change. We can’t use China as an excuse to stall action on our part. I actually believe that China will become the world leader in battling climate change. We may not like their methods but the results will be there. I base this belief on some, albeit scant, experience:
The Chinese leadership, governmental and corporate, is technologically sophisticated and takes a long term view. (Unlike the US continual election cycle and quarterly number focus)
China will do whatever is in China’s (i.e. the Han Chinese) interest. Clearly a degraded biosphere is not in their interest (I guess that’s a tautology; it’s not in anybody’s interest)
Given their style of government, once decisions are made there will be no exceptions; rights of individuals and companies will be sacrificed for the greater good.
What’s the 1bio story? Keep going, be active, hold our leaders accountable.
The amount of waste we generate is scandalous. We know it’s wrong, but we go along with it. During most of 2020 my wife and I had a lot of food and other supplies delivered. The amount of plastic (and cardboard) waste just the two of us generated was embarrassing.
My particular annoyance is with trivial, beautifully engineered items that are designed to be thrown away. Like mechanical pencils, which are cheaper to buy and toss than to refill them with leads. Or those little white-out tape dispensers (see my previous comment about those) and what I found recently; a dimmer switch.
Now the switch itself is fine; it works, it saves electricity, we can change the mood of the room.
The packaging is OK. The instructions are OK, I guess, although nobody reads them and if they are needed they are online. The same company prints instructions for other switches on the inside of the packaging.
But that little thing on the lower left? It’s a second rocker switch and dimmer slide in almond color. The actual switch comes with a white panel clicked in place. If I wanted almond I would discard the white and insert the almond one. It’s a great idea!
BUT it means I must throw away a functional item of plastic (with a small steel spring). Somehow it grates. It indicates that the designers, engineers and marketing people have convenience, shelf space and ultimately profit as their leading criteria. The reduction of waste should get at least equal, if not primary, consideration.
As I said, my preoccupation is with trivial things. White-out dispensers will probably go the way of ink wells and crank handles.
But in other things we do generate a lot of waste. Suppliers and shippers don’t help. Do paper towels and toilet rolls really need inner and outer plastic wraps? What happened to those biodegradable packing “peanuts”? (Actually I see they are readily available.) So why not use those instead of single use air-filled plastic? (I know the answer to that as well: Cost/Profits!)
There seem to be two types of stories circulating about the environmental crisis right now. There’s the “We’ve lost, we’ve passed the tipping point” style, and then we have the “This is exciting! Look at all the technological possibilities” set.
Both genres at least acknowledge the science and recognize a need for action. It is so tempting to ignore the “It’s all a hoax / The economy is what matters” end of the spectrum. Unfortunately we need to keep it in the picture because so many voters and decision makers inhabit that space.
Doom or bright new technological future?
My inbuilt pessimism leans toward doom and that is supported by some new reports. But I also feel that is all the more reason to do more and do it now. Not soon, but now!
The technology stories – more solar, more wind, more batteries, smarter grid (central or local), hydrogen (and ammonia) of various colors – are interesting and exciting. They open up new possibilities and are necessary – but not sufficient! All seem to miss some major points:
They address climate change, specifically greenhouse gas effects, and ignore all the other factors like species loss, soil degradation, deforestation, pollution etc. Climate change is a cause of many of these other problems, but population growth, consumption habits, economic drives and political motives also play a major part.
They tacitly assume that it is necessary to generate and distribute energy at the same, or even higher level, than at present. At the limit that argument ends with all the world population consuming energy at the level of the industrialized nations. (And wouldn’t the profits from that consumption be great!). I believe that without major reductions in consumption none of the technology stories will prevent a ghastly future.
They are tailored for the people lucky enough to live in the rich, industrialized, countries (and if you’re poor in those countries they don’t apply either). Arguments of a hydrogen vs. battery transport infrastructure have no meaning to a huge portion of the world population.
Can we do more, can we do it now? And just how can we do it? That is exactly the point raised in the ghastly future paper: “…what political or economic system, or leadership, is prepared to handle the predicted disasters, or even capable of such action”?
There have to be answers. In democracies it means we need a significant change in voting patterns. It is not impossible; in times of war people have voted for leaders who have asked for, and enforced, sacrifices. Time to do it again. We can’t keep having “economic growth”, which means more consumption. The mathematics of the biosphere does not allow it.
The Colors Of Hydrogen
The potential “hydrogen economy” has relatively little exposure in the USA. It is a more common topic in Europe and Australia. There is much discussion about green or blue hydrogen. What does that mean? The diagram below gives a quick overview:
Blue and Gray are the same process, but gray releases the “waste” CO2 into the atmosphere, while blue captures and stores the CO2. The gas people say that makes blue practically green, but there are lots of loopholes and problems associated with CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) – so not really green.
Brown (also called black) is worse than grey because of the additional pollutants. And note how the diagram does not show the waste products for brown, or gray.
Green and pink are also the same process; electrolysis. Which gets us into the “Is nuclear power green?” argument. (No, it’s not)
Ammonia (NH3) is produced in large quantities, primarily as a fertilizer. Its role in the hydrogen economy is as a transport medium for hydrogen because it is much easier to store and transport than pure hydrogen. Producing ammonia starts with the hydrogen processes above. The hydrogen is then combined with nitrogen to produce ammonia via the Haber-Bosch process. When ammonia is referred to by color, it is based on the “color” of the hydrogen used to produce it.
If you are not familiar with the Fritz Haber story it is worth reading. In a nutshell; Nobel prize for the Haber-Bosch process, which allowed vastly increased food production and arguably saved millions from starvation, development of poison gas weapons in WW1 and development at his institute of Zyklon A.)
At the point of use the ammonia is converted back to hydrogen, with the nitrogen released. A promising process is described in this article.
The devil, as always, hides in the details. If you take truly green hydrogen and then power the Haber-Bosch process with more green electricity and transport the ammonia with gray fuels and then use pink electricity to release the hydrogen for end use, what color is that final hydrogen?
OK – we have lots of fun technological solutions, including “a renewable fuel made from sun, air and water” – so why all the doom? Because of:
Fires, drought and heat in the western USA
Smoke haze and smell all the way from the west of the continent to the east coast (Picture: Rt 84, CT, July 26, 2021)
Fires in Siberia, Brazil and seemingly everywhere else
The Amazonian rainforest turning from net CO2 sink to net emitter
Deadly floods in Germany, Belgium and Holland, etc.
All these items, and more, are referenced in World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency 2021. Some key items from the report are in the graphs below. It’s not all gloom; there are pledges, carbon pricing, fossil fuel disinvestments and so forth. But these measures have yet to show a measurable impact. Only Covid19 has had an effect – for all the wrong reasons.
A 2020 paper, by many of the same authors and cosigned by more than 11,000 other scientists, contains this statement: “The climate crisis is closely linked to excessive consumption of the wealthy lifestyle. The most affluent countries are mainly responsible for the historical GHG emissions and generally have the greatest per capita emissions”
We better do something now, before the future becomes inevitable. Sure, the rich will be OK. They will bemoan the loss of their favorite dive site or ski slope. They will complain of the exorbitant price of almond milk and the poor quality of the salmon. But they will make do with their air conditioned houses, shaded pools and electric cars.
It’s not going to be so nice for most of our children and grandchildren.
For some huge majority of the world population it will be very, very unpleasant – “ghastly” may well be the proper word.
And finally, what can we really do? Sure we can take steps to reduce personal consumption. But in a democratic nation the most potent action is – to VOTE – if at all possible.
I have tried for months to write a (1bio) story about the water situation in California. I want to blame my procrastination on the amount of information I need to digest, the speed at which things change, new reports emerge and other tasks claim my time.
But those are not the real reasons. Unlike global topics like biodiversity or the latest IPCC report this subject is too close to home, too personal, too emotional, too complicated. Decisions like where are we going to settle, what should we advise our family to do, will our health suffer if we stay where we are?
Questions like that must be similar for millions around the world. For us it’s a reasonably simple problem; more or less comfort, more or less money. The climate refugees drowning in the Mediteranean have arrived at a different answer at the stark extreme of the equation. Yes, that’s an alarmist view, but I hope it can lead to some tough questions – to ourselves and to our representatives.
What is the California water story? In a nutshell (almond or walnut…):
Too little water supply – and likely to be less.
Too much water demand – and likely to be more.
The problems are fully documented elsewhere. So what are the solutions?
Let “them” fight it out. They who have the most power will get the most water.
Who will we elect to steer us through this difficult and disruptive time?
We have the power to select our future. We can’t return to an idealized past. The idyllic Central Valley of marshes, lakes and pools, antelope and elk, bears, wolves and mountain lions is gone. We do need industrial agriculture to survive, but we need an intact biosphere even more. Somehow, very soon, we need to find a balance.
Quotes and Links:
“How do you measure 100m dead trees and the risk to forest fires that could be attributed to that drought? How do you measure the death of 95% of the Chinook salmon? How do you measure the impact on poor communities who were left without water? We don’t put dollar values on these things, and so we don’t directly see or feel the impact.”
“Citing as a pretext the supposed need to protect a three-inch baitfish called the Delta smelt, environmental organizations filed a succession of lawsuits beginning in the 1990s that forced the state to divert billions of gallons of water away from farmers and families…80 percent of the water from the Sierra Nevada snowpack is dumped into the Pacific Ocean, but if that number were merely reduced to 75 percent, there would be plenty of water for everyone—farmers, cities, and the environment.”