Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

On public complacency

While doing some hideously overdue file cleanup, I stumbled across a paper in a dusty corner of hard drive, Understanding Public Complacency About Climate Change: Adults’ mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter. See that link for the PDF of the paper.

The paper’s abstract:

Public attitudes about climate change reveal a contradiction. Surveys show most Americans believe climate change poses serious risks but also that reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions sufficient to stabilize atmospheric GHG concentrations can be deferred until there is greater evidence that climate change is harmful. US policymakers likewise argue it is prudent to wait and see whether climate change will cause substantial economic harm before undertaking policies to reduce emissions. Such wait-and-see policies erroneously presume climate change can be reversed quickly should harm become evident, underestimating substantial delays in the climate’s response to anthropogenic forcing. We report experiments with highly educated adults – graduate students at MIT – showing widespread misunderstanding of the fundamental stock and flow relationships, including mass balance principles, that lead to long response delays. GHG emissions are now about twice the rate of GHG removal from the atmosphere. GHG concentrations will therefore continue to rise even if emissions fall, stabilizing only when emissions equal removal. In contrast, most subjects believe atmospheric GHG concentrations can be stabilized while emissions into the atmosphere
continuously exceed the removal of GHGs from it. These beliefs – analogous to arguing a bathtub filled faster than it drains will never overflow – support wait-and-see policies but violate conservation of matter. Low public support for mitigation policies may arise from misconceptions of climate dynamics rather than high discount rates or uncertainty about the impact of climate change. Implications for education and communication between scientists and nonscientists (the public and policymakers) are discussed.

And its conclusion:

In democracies, public opinion constrains the ability of governments to implement policies consistent with the best available scientific knowledge. Successful implementation of policies to address problems such as climate change requires “broader public understanding of the need to limit carbon dioxide emissions…and an approach to public communication, regulation, monitoring, and emergency response that is open and respectful of public concerns” Palmgren et al. 2004, p. 6449).

We carried out experiments to assess whether highly educated adults understand basic processes affecting the climate, specifically, the relationship between atmospheric GHG concentrations and flows of greenhouse gases into and out of the atmosphere. Though the subjects, graduate students at MIT, were highly educated, particularly in mathematics and the sciences, results showed widespread misunderstanding of mass balance principles and the concept of accumulation. Instead, most subjects relied on pattern matching to judge climate dynamics. The belief that emissions, atmospheric CO2, and temperature are correlated leads to the erroneous conclusion that a drop in emissions would soon cause a drop in CO2 concentrations and mean global temperature. Mean surface temperature keeps rising as long as radiative forcing (minus net heat transfer to the deep ocean) is positive, even if atmospheric CO2– and hence net forcing – falls. Atmospheric CO2 keeps rising even as emissions fall – as long as emissions exceed removal. Because emissions are now roughly double net removal, stabilizing emissions near current rates will lead to continued increases in atmospheric CO2.

In contrast, most subjects believe atmospheric CO2 can be stabilized by stabilizing emis-sions at or above current rates, and while emissions continuously exceed removal. Such beliefs – analogous to arguing a bathtub filled faster than it drains will never overflow – sup-port wait-and-see policies, but violate basic laws of physics. People of good faith can debate the costs and benefits of policies to mitigate climate change, but policy should not be based on mental models that violate the most fundamental physical principles. The results suggest the scientific community should devote greater resources to developing public understanding of these principles to provide a sound basis for assessment of climate policy proposals.

Highly recommended, especially if you find yourself possessed of an excess of giddiness and need to be clubbed and dragged to a more sober level of world view.

The core issue here, the widespread misunderstanding of the stock/flow relationships in climate change, is something I’ve been howling at the moon over for years, as you, Dear and Tortured Reader, know all too well.

Another manifestation of this conceptual hurdle can be seen in the urgency of peak oil vs. climate change, as perceived by those who study both topics.

People who become engaged with peak oil tend to become very worried very soon; it’s not hard to grasp the basic notion that oil is Really, Really Important to modern economies, there’s a finite amount of it, and we’re using it at a horrendous clip. We deal with very similar stock/flow issues all the time in our everyday lives, from how much gasoline is in our vehicle’s tank to who’s going to get the last slice of pizza. But as people learn more about it, they become less alarmed for a variety of reasons. Partly this is due to increased oil production in places like the US, and partly, I think, it’s due to an understanding that we can cut our oil consumption a lot in a very short time frame, if needed. One of the oft-heard lamentations of peak oil adherents is that we waste an insane amount of oil, which is true. But that waste is also a cushion; our oil demand is “soft” and can change significantly without a wholesale infrastructure change.

Climate change is a wholly different animal, and it’s particularly nasty because it doesn’t play by the same rules as the situations people most often think of in terms of emissions — smog-forming tailpipe emissions and other short-lived air pollutants. As I so often say here and in presentations, “Love is fleeting, but CO2 is forever.” But on top of that we have the notion of thermal disequilibrium; if we somehow managed the econo-techno-socio miracle of cutting emissions overnight by enough to level off the atmospheric CO2 level (ignoring the natural yearly cycle, of course), then we’d see continued heating for decades to centuries. Our continued emissions keep throwing more blankets on the bed, and the temperature under the blankets hasn’t caught up yet; if we stop adding more blankets we’ll continue to heat up.

When people become engaged with climate change, I find that their sense of urgency often starts out very low, and they assume that (as the above paper says) it’s a real and serious problem, but one that can be fixed later, in something akin to humanity pulling an all-nighter to finish a paper. That model doesn’t work, of course, because the longer we wait the more that we have to do. That 10-page paper, if deferred, grows into a 12- or 15- or 20-page effort, all with the same deadline.

As people learn more about climate change, they typically come to understand the lock-in effects of the basic physics of the atmosphere plus that of infrastructure, and their sense of urgency rises, sometimes dramatically. But that slow-motion epiphany doesn’t happen without real work on their part to educate themselves, and there’s the rub. We live in a world where the siren call of frippery is never more than a click on a browser or TV remote control away, where we live at the mercy of our absurdly packed daily schedules that we can never manage to lift our gaze, focus on the longer term, and deeply consider what we’re doing to ourselves and our kids in the future via today’s mindless actions.

This conceptual hurdle will be overcome, of course. It’s probably the one detail about climate chaos that I’m most sure of. The problem is how much pain we will have to suffer and how much more will we lock in over the ensuing century before we have our epiphany. And that leaves me with the haunting question: What can you and I do to hasten that awakening?

2 comments to On public complacency

  • JV

    I still find the water situation more significant than GHG’s.

    • Lou

      You do realize, I hope, that water and greenhouse gas emissions are tightly linked, and that the surest way to continue to disturb the water cycle is by emitting more GHG?