Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

Is climate change a choice between education and surrender?

I normally don’t do this sort of thing, but because a topic came up on another site — ClimateProgress — that I’ve been thinking about a great deal lately, I wanted to quote a comment I left and a response to it by someone else, and see where it leads us.

The CP post, Climate Sensitivity Stunner: Last Time CO2 Levels Hit 400 Parts Per Million The Arctic Was 14°F Warmer!, is certainly worth a read on its own, and I very highly recommend it. As you can tell from the title, it’s not exactly happy news, and it could well be one of the scariest things you’ve read about climate change in some time.

The issue at hand is not the content of Joe Romm’s post, but a familiar-to-TCOE-readers topic, the value of education in climate activism. I brought it up, in comment #15, in which I said (quoted in full, with one very minor error corrected):

It’s the gaps, stupid.

For some time people have noted that we have a cognitive gap problem. Specifically, scientists know a lot more about our climate situation than do mainstream voters and consumers. This is the battle that consumes so many of us: Trying to educate people about the nasty realities of climate change in an effort to activate them.

There’s also a second gap that doesn’t get as much attention, at least among climate communicators, and that’s the [gap] between how the environment really works and what scientists, despite their tireless, and often heroic, efforts have figured out already. As scientists make these ongoing “it’s worse than we thought” discoveries, we continue to close this second gap, even as we realize that our prior mental models of environmental mechanisms were not just wrong, but typically far too optimistic. The caution on the part of scientists is normally a very good thing, of course, as we don’t want to leap to conclusions and constantly have to reverse course on what the science suggests public policies should be, for example. But given the hideously short time we have to deal with climate change and prevent consequences that read like a laughably bad science fiction story from the 1950′s, that delay is, to put it mildly, unfortunate.

The response, from someone unknown to me but using the nom de ‘net of Gestur:

Respectfully, Lou—and I do mean with a lot of respect for you since you’ve easily garnered that from your many insightful comments here and elsewhere—I’m going to disagree with you that the problem of climate change inaction is critically an information deficit one. This whole area of why people aren’t acting to change their own life styles and why there isn’t more public agitation (i.e. beyond simple voiced support in surveys) to get meaningful changes in laws is fraught with identification problems for assessing causality. And I haven’t some clever econometric tool up my sleeve to help me sort out this causality knot. But this winter I’ve read and then thought a lot about a couple of books that more or less focus on this very issue and they’ve opened up a new way of thinking about this topic for me. [One by the English psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe, “Engaging With Climate Change” and the second by the American sociologist Kari Norgaard, “Living in Denial”]. Using the psychoanalysts’ term for people who have knowledge about something but choose not to make use of it, disavowal, people in disavowal, and I think we’re talking about the majority of people in this country, know as much as they want to know, is how I would succinctly put it. And that’s not much, I grant you, as I’m sure many surveys would indicate is the case for this informational deficit. But that’s a long ways from establishing that this information deficit is causal as concerns climate inaction, etc. So I’d pose the question abstractly: why don’t people know more about CC?

While I concede that it may have some causal role, my personal view these days is that this deficit of information is likely to be a relatively minor player. Mostly it’s a reflection of something else.

Counterexamples are often useful and used in thinking about causality and for me it’s very insightful to consider how much people know—and have known historically—about how smoking tobacco induces lung cancer and CVD. And I mean the kind of technical knowledge that medical research professionals know: the theories of how it acts on cells in the lung and arteries. And I’d be surprised if many non-medical people know much about these technical matters, and yet we’ve managed to get population smoking rates down quite a bit from earlier periods. Lots of things to think about here vis-à-vis the situation with climate change, as many have done. But I’m interested just in this question of information or technical knowledge per se for changing behaviors. Of course we finally forced the tobacco companies to print warnings on their packages and a flurry of public health announcements came out warning people of the dangers of cigarette smoking, and of course we had the big court cases against the tobacco companies. All of this, and perhaps more, I’m sure had a significant impact on our population smoking rate. And you might choose to call this information, but it wasn’t the technical information about how tobacco actually brings about cancer and heart disease. Publicity yes, and dire warnings, that too.

So I harbor some real doubts about how important the technical information deficit might prove to be in changing behaviors vis-à-vis climate change. Unfortunately, I think it’s a deeper, much more complex issue of what motivates us collectively and especially individually in the 21st Century—our basic psychological makeup—that has the larger causal role here.

This is interesting, to say the least. Hence this post and my attempt to trigger some conversation.

The point that mainstreamers know as much about climate change as they want to is unarguably true. In the age of the Internet, virtually anyone in the US can learn enough about climate change or crocheting or Genghis Khan or thermal management of space satellites or anything else you can name to become a certified armchair expert. The fact that so few people are interested in climate change to take that simple and largely painless step clearly indicates that they simply don’t see the value in expending that small amount of effort and time. In microeconomic terms, they perceive that the marginal cost of doing that nugget of self-education is greater than the marginal utility of the knowledge gained (plus the peripheral benefits, like the satisfaction of learning something, etc.).

The smoking issue hits home with me, as I lost my father to lung cancer when I was 12. My perception of smoking as a public health issue is that the scary, bottom-line information about the smoking/cancer link probably did have a positive effect, possibly because so many smokers have small children who overtly or simply through their presence pressured their parent(s) into quitting. And then, of course, there’s the taxing of tobacco products, a step I wholeheartedly support and would like to see increased until smoking all but disappears in the US and tobacco growers are forced to convert their fields to grow something else, perhaps food.

I can’t comment on the two books Gestur mentions. While I’ve heard of both, I haven’t read them. But this exchange has definitely bubbled them much higher on my reading list.

My education re: climate change, I need to be clearer. I am not advocating that everyone be required to take and pass several college courses in climate science. In fact, what I’m advocating is much more along the lines of the smoking information that Gestur references — conclusions, the “connect the dots”/”do the math” sort of thing I try to emphasize here.

But is there even any point in doing that? In other words, are all these blogs and tweets and facebook postings (complete with the ever-cloying “likes”) really doing any good, or are we all engaged in nothing more than a glorified hobby, a highly distributed form of sport or mental masturbation? At times, I honestly don’t know. I’ve made the point many times online and via in-person communications that I’m shocked to see how shocked are even some hard core environmentalists, the greenest of the green, when they find out that CO2 has such a hideously long atmospheric lifetime. That one fact often elicits looks of horror, denial, and argument. When I then ladle on top of it the details about thermal disequilibrium — all that “heating still in the pipeline” stuff we always talk about — and tell them about the 1.7 trillion tons of carbon in the Arctic permafrost that’s just itching to be set free plus the immense amount of hydrates plus the aerosol whiplash[1], they practically want to kill themselves just to make it stop.

And that’s among the people in our tribe, our fellow greenies. Try it with mainstreamers and they wave it off as so much partisan wonkery and sprint back to their comfort zone, wallowing in the millimeter-deep puddle that is modern consumer culture.

The breadth, depth, and perverse complexity of climate science means that we can’t merely tell people “It’s gonna be really, really bad if you don’t leap into action!” and expect positive results. Climate change truly is a super wicked problem, which means mere sloganeering won’t do the job. We have to find a way to teach people what horrors lie behind that sterile sounding term as it applies to the situation we’ve created over the last 250 years with our emissions. We can scare people into action, but not via visceral reaction and raw emotion; we have to engage their intellect, give them the tools and facts to construct an accurate mental model. We have to help them place a critical mass of tiles in a vast mosaic mural, and then point out the terrifying picture they create.

So why even fight this fight? Why keep pushing this same boulder up the same steep and muddy hill? For me, the answer is the simplest possible reason: The odds of success might be exceedingly dismal but education is still our only chance.

Politicians, corporations, and many other concentrations of political and economic power have strong incentives either to avoid all action on climate change or to kick the can down the road to the next group of people in charge. They will do nothing substantive about this issue until one of two things happens:

First, the real-world impacts become so painful, so expensive, and so obviously connected to climate change and therefore our emissions in the minds of the masses that they have to address it or lose more votes and/or money than they would by sticking to business as usual. Again, it’s microeconomics 101: When they perceive that failing to act (or using whatever means necessary to block action) has unacceptable costs for them[2], then they will change course with whiplash-inducing speed.

Second, enough customers and voters demand action before the fecal matter hits the rotating impeller to force the same changes.

Clearly, the more individuals among the voting and consuming masses there are who understand the basics of climate change, and the better they understand it, the better are our odds of getting the right response out of them and the people we need them to influence in government and business in either scenario.

Is it naive to cling to the education and activation of disinterested strangers like a man on the deck of a ship in a hurricane frantically clutching a mast or railing or anything within reach? Probably, and possibly to a greater extent than I’m willing to admit to you, Dear Readers, or even to myself.

But as best I can tell, education is the only game in town, and I’m absolutely positive that if we sit back, do nothing, and go with the first scenario above and wait for the tsunamis of pain to start hitting us (and yes, I’m saying they haven’t even begun yet, even if we can see them on the horizon), then we will be so screwed that we’ll have turned climate change from a serious and expensive problem into one that could literally be an existential threat for billions of human beings and modern civilization as those of us lucky enough to live in “developed countries” have come to know it.

[1] For those just joining the conversation, aerosol whiplash refers to the fact that burning fossil fuels, especially coal, emits sulfur which acts to cool the atmosphere and partially offset the heat retention from the greenhouse effect. Stop burning coal and the aerosols will wash out of the air very quickly, in a matter of months to a year or two, but the CO2 will be with us for decades to centuries, meaning we’ll suddenly get a jump in warming by eliminating the aerosol parasol.

[2] “For them” is obviously the loaded detail in that sentence. Those who have studied economics have no doubt said — “Hey! That’s a veiled reference to utility functions!” — and you would be right. In essence, what I’m saying is that difference entities, be they individual consumers, small businesses, local governments, federal governments, large corporations, or whatever, each have their own value system and way of evaluating the world, their place in it, and what they value. In many cases it’s pretty obvious what drives some entities, e.g. WalMart, while in many others some psychoanalysis of the entity is in order.

2 comments to Is climate change a choice between education and surrender?

  • Regarding your first footnote: this is something I also thought until recently when I was put right in comments on, I think, Steve Easterbrook’s blog which doesn’t seem to be working at the moment but I think it was this post:

    Anyway, the idea is that, yes, aerosols are causing cooling and that will go away with reduced fossil fuel burning. However, there are also a lot of short-lived non-CO₂ greenhouse gases which will also go away roughly cancelling out the effect.

    I wish I had a bit more solid reference on the subject but I can suggest keeping you eyes open for discussions of this.

  • Anthony Paul

    Over at Grist, David Roberts has an article titled “What climate hawks can (and can’t) learn from public-health campaigns” that (I think) overlaps your concerns. I’m afraid that it (and the article it refers to and links to) says that education is not “the” answer. To the extent that the articles suggest an approach, it appears to me to be both messy and counter-intuitive when compared with the rational-sounding education approach. Over the last several years I’ve become convinced that rationality in humans is overrated.