The Pitfalls of General Reporting: A Case Study

Today’s edition of Nature included an alarming paper, indicating record ozone loss in the Arctic due to an unusually long period of cold temperatures in the lower stratosphere.

On the same day, coverage of the story by the Canadian Press included a fundamental error that is already contributing to public confusion about the reality of climate change.

Counter-intuitively, while global warming causes temperatures in the troposphere (the lowest layer of the atmosphere) to rise, it causes temperatures in the stratosphere (the next layer up), as well as every layer above that, to fall. The exact mechanics are complex, but the pattern of a warming troposphere and a cooling stratosphere has been both predicted and observed.

This pattern was observed in the Arctic this year. As the Nature paper mentions, the stratosphere was unusually cold in early 2011. The surface temperatures, however, were unusually warm, as data from NASA shows:

Mar-May 2011

Dec-Feb 2011

While we can’t know for sure whether or not the unusual stratospheric conditions were caused by climate change, this chain of cause and effect is entirely consistent with what we can expect in a warming world.

However, if all you read was an article by the Canadian Press, you could be forgiven for thinking differently.

The article states that the ozone loss was “caused by an unusually prolonged period of extremely low temperatures.” I’m going to assume that means surface temperatures, because nothing else is specified – and virtually every member of the public would assume that too. As we saw from the NASA maps, though, cold surface temperatures couldn’t be further from the truth.

The headline, which was probably written by the Winnipeg Free Press, rather than the Canadian Press, tops off the glaring misconception nicely:

Record Ozone loss over the Arctic caused by extremely cold weather: scientists

No, no, no. Weather happens in the troposphere, not the stratosphere. While the stratosphere was extremely cold, the troposphere certainly was not. It appears that the reporters assumed the word “stratosphere” in the paper’s abstract was completely unimportant. In fact, it changes the meaning of the story entirely.

The reaction to this article, as seen in the comments section, is predictable:

So with global warming our winters are colder?

First it’s global warming that is destroying Earth, now it’s being too cold?! I’m starting to think these guys know as much about this as weather guys know about forecasting the weather!

Al gore the biggest con man since the beginning of mankind!! This guys holdings leave a bigger carbon footprint than most small countries!!

I’m confused. I thought the north was getting warmer and that’s why the polar bears are roaming around Churchill looking for food. There isn’t ice for them to go fishing.

People are already confused, and deniers are already using this journalistic error as evidence that global warming is fake. All because a major science story was written by a general reporter who didn’t understand the study they were covering.

In Manitoba, high school students learn about the different layers of the atmosphere in the mandatory grade 10 science course. Now, reporters who can’t recall this information are writing science stories for the Canadian Press.

Another Sporadic Open Thread

I keep forgetting to put these up.

Possible topics for discussion:

  • La Niña is expected to continue into the winter. This is definitely not what southern U.S. states, such as Texas, want – after a summer of intense drought, the drying effect of La Niña on that area of the world won’t bring any relief.
  • For those of you going to AGU, an itinerary planner is now available to browse the program and save sessions you’re interested in. I am compiling an awesome-looking list of presentations by the likes of James Hansen, Wally Broecker and Gavin Schmidt. Our poster is entitled “The Software Architecture of Global Climate Models”, and is on the Thursday morning.
  • Has anyone read Earth, an Operator’s Manual by Richard Alley? If so, would you recommend it?


Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand

I recently finished reading Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand by Haydn Washington and Skeptical Science founder John Cook. Given that I am a longtime reader of (and occasional contributor to) Skeptical Science, I didn’t expect to find much in this book that was new to me. However, I was pleasantly surprised.

Right from Chapter 1, Washington and Cook discuss a relatively uncharted area among similar books: denial among people who accept the reality of climate change. Even if a given citizen doesn’t identify as a skeptic/contrarian/lukewarmer/realist/etc, they hold information about global warming at arm’s length. The helplessness and guilt they feel from the problem leads them to ignore it. This implicit variety of denial is a common “delusion”, the authors argue – people practice it all the time with problems related to their health, finances, or relationships – but when it threatens the welfare of our entire planet, it is a dangerous “pathology”.

Therefore, the “information deficit model” of public engagement – based on an assumption that political will for action is only lacking because citizens don’t have enough information about the problem – is incorrect. The barriers to public knowledge and action aren’t scientific as much as “psychological, emotional, and behavioural”, the authors conclude.

This material makes me uncomfortable. An information deficit model would work to convince me that action was needed on a problem, so I have been focusing on it throughout my communication efforts. However, not everyone thinks the way I do (which is probably a good thing). So what am I supposed to do instead? I don’t know how to turn off the scientist part of my brain when I’m thinking about science.

The book goes on to summarize the science of climate change, in the comprehensible manner we have come to expect from Skeptical Science. It also dips into the site’s main purpose – classifying and rebutting climate change myths – with several examples of denier arguments. I appreciate how up-to-date this book is, as it touches on several topics that are included in few, if any, of my other books: a Climategate rebuttal, as well as an acknowledgement that the Venus syndrome on Earth, while distant, might be possible – James Hansen would even say plausible.

A few paragraphs are dedicated to discussing and criticizing scientific postmodernism, which I think is sorely needed – does anyone else find it strange that a movement which was historically quite liberal is now being resurrected by the science-denying ranks of conservatives? Critiques of silver-bullet approaches to mitigation, such as nuclear power alone or clean coal, are also included.

In short, Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand is well worth a read. It lacks the gripping narrative of Gwynne Dyer or Gabrielle Walker, both of whom have the ability to make scientific information feel like a mystery novel rather than a textbook, but it is enjoyable nonetheless. It adds worthy social science topics, such as implicit denial and postmodernism, to the discussion, paired with a taste of what Skeptical Science does best.

Quality, Transparency, and Rigour

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports are likely the most cited documents on the subject of global warming. The organization, established by the United Nations, doesn’t do any original research – it simply summarizes the massive amount of scientific literature on the topic. Their reports, written and reviewed by volunteer scientists, and published approximately every six years, are a “one-stop shop” for credible information about climate change. When you have a question about climate science, it’s far easier to find the relevant section of the IPCC than it is to wade through thousands of results on Google Scholar.

The main problem with the IPCC, in my opinion, is that their reports are out of date as soon as they’re published, and then everyone has to wait another six years or so for the next version, which is subsequently out of date, and so on. Additionally, because there are so many authors, reviewers, and stakeholders involved in the IPCC, the reports come to reflect the lowest-common-denominator scientific understanding, rather than the median opinion of experts. In particular, government officials oversee the writing and reviewing of the Summary for Policymakers, to make sure that it’s relevant and clear. However, some governments are beginning to abuse their power in this process. The late Stephen Schneider, in his 2009 book Science as a Contact Sport, recounts his experiences with government representatives who absolutely refuse to allow certain conclusions to be published in the IPCC, regardless of their scientific backing.

The result is that the IPCC reports frequently underestimate the severity of climate change. For example, in the most recent report, the worst-case estimate of sea level rise by the end of this century was 0.59 m. Since then, scientists have revised this estimate to 1.9 m, but it won’t show up in the report until the next edition comes out around 2014.

Another example concerns Arctic sea ice: the worst-case scenario from the IPCC was an ice-free Arctic in the summer beginning around 2100. These estimates have come down so rapidly that there’s an outside chance the summer sea ice could be gone before the next IPCC report has a chance to correct it (presentation by Dr. David Barber, media coverage available here). It will more likely disappear around 2035, but that’s still a drastic change from what the IPCC said.

Despite this conservative stance, there are still some who think the IPCC is alarmist (this is usually paired with something about a New World Order and/or socialists using a carbon tax to take over the world). Naturally, the IPCC has become a favourite target of climate change deniers, who wish to obscure the reality of human-caused global warming. Last year, they claimed to have found all kinds of errors in the latest report, somehow proving that global warming wasn’t happening. In fact, most of these so-called “errors” were nothing of the sort, and the worst of the two real mistakes in the report involved a typo regarding which year certain glaicers were expected to disappear. Not bad, for a three-thousand-page document, but it created quite the media firestorm. Apparently scientists are expected to have 100% accuracy at all times, or else they are frauds.

Just a few weeks ago, the IPCC made some changes to their policies in response to these events. Their press release about the new policies featured the phrase “Boost Quality, Transparency and Rigour” in the title.

No, no, no. That’s not what the IPCC needs. These are very admirable goals, but they’re doing just fine as it is. Actions to “further minimize any possibility of errors in future reports” should not be their top priority. Further extending the review process will only further delay the publication of each report (making them even more out of date) and further enhance their lowest-common-denominator position. When you have an error rate on the order of 0.67 errors/1000 pages, should you spend your energy getting that all the way down to zero (a virtually impossible task) or on the real issues that need to be addressed?

I think the IPCC should adopt a continually-updating online version of their report. This would solve their chronic problem of being out of date, as well as help the organization adapt to the increasing role of the Internet in our world. Any future errors the deniers liked to yell about would be fixed immediately. Governments would be forming policies based on the best available evidence from today, not a decade ago. Everything would still be in one place, and version control would allow transparency to remain high.

The IPCC should also make it more clear when their estimates are too conservative. When a single sentence that didn’t even make it into the summary is shown to overestimate the problem, the climate science community ties itself up in knots trying to correct its tattered image. But prominent conclusions that underestimate the problem go unacknowledged for decades. If it were the other way around, can you imagine the field day deniers would have?

Luckily, the changes made to IPCC policy are not all aimed at appeasing the bullies. A long-overdue communications plan is in development: a rapid response team and Senior Communications Manager will develop formal strategies for public education and outreach. Hopefully, this will counteract the false claims and defamation the IPCC has been subject to since its creation.

Another new plan is to create an Executive Committee, composed of the Chair, Vice Chairs, Working Group Co-Chairs, and advisory members. This will “strengthen coordination and management of the IPCC” and allow for actions to be taken between reports, such as communication and responding to possible errors. A more structured administration will probably be helpful, given that the only people in the organization currently getting paid for their work are the office staff (even the Chair doesn’t make a cent). Coordinating overworked scientists who volunteer for a scientific undertaking that demands 100% accuracy can’t be an easy task.

Will the IPCC continue to be the best available source of credible information on climate change? Will its structure of endless review remain feasible in a world dominated by instant news? Should we continue to grant our governments control over the contents of scientific reports concerning an issue that they desperately want to avoid? Should we continue to play to the wants and needs of bullies? Or should we let scientists speak for themselves?

What Can One Person Do?

Next week, I will be giving a speech on climate change to the green committee of a local United Church. They are particularly interested in science and solutions, so I wrote the following script, drawing heavily from my previous presentations. I would really appreciate feedback and suggestions for this presentation.

Citations will be on the slides (which I haven’t made yet), so they’re not in the text of this script. Let me know if there’s a particular reference you’re wondering about, but they’re probably common knowledge within this community by now.


Climate change is depressing. I know that really well, because I’ve been studying it for over two years. I’m quite practiced at keeping the scary stuff contained in the analytical part of my brain, and not thinking of the implications – because the implications make you feel powerless. I’m sure that all of us here wish we could stop global warming on our own. So we work hard to reduce our carbon footprints, and then we feel guilty every time we take the car out or buy something that was made in China or turn up the heat a degree.

The truth is, though, the infrastructure of our society doesn’t support a low-carbon lifestyle. Look at the quality of public transit in Winnipeg, or the price of local food. We can work all we want at changing our practices, but it’s an uphill battle. If we change the infrastructure, though – if we put a price on carbon so that sustainable practices are cheaper and easier than using fossil fuels – people everywhere will subsequently change their practices.

Currently, governments – particularly in North America – aren’t too interested in sustainable infrastructure, because they don’t think people care. Politicians only say what they think people want to hear. So, should we go dress up as polar bears and protest in front of Parliament to show them we care? That might work, but they will probably just see us as crazy environmentalists, a fringe group. We need a critical mass of people that care about climate change, understand the problem, and want to fix it. An effective solution requires top-down organization, but that won’t happen until there’s a bottom-up, grassroots movement of people who care.

I believe that the most effective action one person can take in the fight against global warming is to talk to others and educate others. I believe most people are good, and sane, and reasonable. They do the best they can, given their level of awareness. If we increase that awareness, we’ll gain political will for a solution. And so, in an effort to practice what I preach, I’m going to talk to you about the issue.

The science that led us to the modern concern about climate change began all the way back in 1824, when a man named Joseph Fourier discovered the greenhouse effect. Gases such as carbon dioxide make up less than one percent of the Earth’s atmosphere, but they trap enough heat to keep the Earth over 30 degrees Celsius warmer than it would be otherwise.

Without greenhouse gases, there could be no life on Earth, so they’re a very good thing – until their concentration changes. If you double the amount of CO2 in the air, the planet will warm, on average, somewhere around 3 degrees. The first person to realize that humans could cause this kind of a change, through the burning of fossil fuels releasing CO2, was Svante Arrhenius, in 1897. So this is not a new theory by any means.

For a long time, scientists assumed that any CO2 we emitted would just get absorbed by the oceans. In 1957, Roger Revelle showed that wasn’t true. The very next year, Charles Keeling decided to test this out, and started measuring the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere. Now, Arrhenius had assumed that it would take thousands of years to double CO2 from the preindustrial value of 280 ppm (which we know from ice cores), but the way we’re going, we’ll get there in just a few decades. We’ve already reached 390 ppm. That might not seem like a lot, but 390 ppm of arsenic in your coffee would kill you. Small changes can have big effects.

Around the 1970s, scientists realized that people were exerting another influence on the climate. Many forms of air pollution, known as aerosols, have a cooling effect on the planet. In the 70s, the warming from greenhouse gases and the cooling from aerosols were cancelling each other out, and scientists were split as to which way it would go. There was one paper, by Stephen Schneider, which even said it could be possible to cause an ice age, if we put out enough aerosols and greenhouse gases stayed constant. However, as climate models improved, and governments started to regulate air pollution, a scientific consensus emerged that greenhouse gases would win out. Global warming was coming – it was just a question of when.

In 1988, James Hansen, who is arguably the top climate scientist in the world today, claimed it had arrived. In a famous testimony to the U.S. Congress, he said that “the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.” Many scientists weren’t so sure, and thought it was too early to make such a bold statement, but Hansen turned out to be right. Since about 1975, the world has been warming, more quickly than it has for at least the last 55 million years.

Over the past decade, scientists have even been able to rule out the possibility that the warming is caused by something else, like a natural cycle. Different causes of climate change have slightly different effects – like the pattern of warming in different layers of the atmosphere, the amount of warming in summer compared to winter, or at night compared to in the day, and so on. Ben Santer pioneered attribution studies: examining these effects in order to pinpoint a specific cause. And so far, nobody has been able to explain how the recent warming could not be caused by us.

Today, there is a remarkable amount of scientific agreement surrounding this issue. Between 97 and 98% of climate scientists, virtually 100% of peer-reviewed studies, and every scientific organization in the world agree that humans are causing the Earth to warm. The evidence for climate change is not a house of cards, where you take one piece out and the whole theory falls apart. It’s more like a mountain. Scrape a handful of pebbles off the top, but the mountain is still there.

However, if you take a step outside of the academic community, this convergence of evidence is more or less invisible. The majority of newspaper articles, from respected outlets like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, spend at least as much time arguing against this consensus as they do arguing for it. They present ideas such as “maybe it’s a natural cycle” or “CO2 has no effect on climate” that scientists disproved years ago. The media is stuck in the past. Some of them are only stuck in the 1980s, but others are stuck all the way back in 1800. Why is it like this?

Part of it comes from good, but misguided, intentions. When it comes to climate change, most journalists follow the rule of balance: presenting “two equal sides”, staying neutral, letting the reader form their own opinion. This works well when the so-called controversy is one of political or social nature, like tax levels or capital punishment. In these cases, there is no right answer, and people are usually split into two camps. But when the question at hand is one of science, there is a right answer – even if we haven’t found it yet – so some explanations are better than others, and some can be totally wrong. Would you let somebody form their own opinion on Newton’s Laws of Motion or the reality of photosynthesis? Sometimes scientists are split into two equal groups, but sometimes they’re split into three or four or even a dozen. How do you represent that as two equal sides? Sometimes, like we see with climate change, pretty much all the scientists are in agreement, and the two or three percent which aren’t don’t really publish, because they can’t back up their statements and nobody really takes them seriously. So framing these two groups as having equal weight in the scientific community is completely incorrect. It exaggerates the extreme minority, and suppresses everyone else. Being objective is not always the same as being neutral, and it’s particularly important to remember that when our future is at stake.

Another reason to frame climate science as controversial is that it makes for a much better story. Who really wants to read about scientists agreeing on everything? Journalists try to write stories that are exciting. Unfortunately, that goal can begin to overshadow accuracy.

Also, there are fewer journalists than there used to be, and there are almost no science journalists in the mainstream media – general reporters cover science issues instead. Also, a few decades ago, journalists used to get a week or two to write a story. Now they often have less than a day, because speed and availability of news has become more important than quality.

However, perhaps the most important – and disturbing – explanation for this inaccurate framing is that the media has been very compliant in spreading the message of climate change deniers. They call themselves skeptics, but I don’t think that’s accurate. A true skeptic will only accept a claim given sufficient evidence. That’s a good thing, and all scientists should be skeptics. But it’s easy to see that these people will never accept human-caused climate change, no matter what the evidence. At the same time, they blindly accept any shred of information that seems to support their cause, without applying any skepticism at all. That’s denial, so let’s not compliment them by calling them skeptics.

Climate change deniers will use whatever they can get – whether or not it’s legitimate, whether or not it’s honest – as proof that climate change is natural, or nonexistent, or a global conspiracy. They’ll tell you that volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans, but volcanoes actually emit about 1% of what we do. They’ll say that global warming has stopped because 2008 was cooler than 2007. If climatologists organize a public lecture in effort to communicate accurate scientific information, they’ll say that scientists are dogmatic and subscribe to censorship and will not allow any other opinions to be considered.

Some of these questionable sources are organizations, like a dozen or so lobby groups that have been paid a lot of money by oil companies to say that global warming is fake. Some of them are individuals, like US Senator James Inhofe, who was the environment chair under George W. Bush, and says that “global warming is the greatest hoax ever imposed upon the American people.” Some of them have financial motivations, and some of them have ideological motivations, but their motivations don’t really matter – all that matters is that they are saying things that are inaccurate, and misleading, and just plain wrong.

There has been a recent, and very disturbing, new tactic of deniers. Instead of attacking the science, they’ve begun to attack the integrity of individual scientists. In November 2009, they stole thirteen years of emails from a top climate research group in the UK, and spread stories all over the media that said scientists were caught fudging their data and censoring critics. Since then, they’ve been cleared of these charges by eight independent investigations, but you wouldn’t know it by reading the newspaper. For months, nearly every media outlet in the developed world spread what was, essentially, libel, and the only one that has formally apologized for its inaccurate coverage is the BBC.

In the meantime, there has been tremendous personal impact on the scientists involved. Many of them have received death threats, and Phil Jones, the director of the research group, was nearly driven to suicide. Another scientist, who wishes to remain anonymous, had a dead animal dumped on his doorstep and now travels with bodyguards. The Republican Party, which prides itself on fiscal responsibility, is pushing for more and more investigations, because they just can’t accept that the scientists are innocent…and James Inhofe, the “global warming is a hoax” guy, attempted to criminally prosecute seventeen researchers, most of whom had done nothing but occasionally correspond with the scientists who had their emails stolen. It’s McCarthyism all over again.

So this is where we are. Where are we going?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, which collects and summarizes all the scientific literature about climate change, said in 2007 that under a business-as-usual scenario, where we keep going the way we’re going, the world will warm somewhere around 4 degrees Celsius by 2100. Unfortunately, this report was out of date almost as soon as it was published, and has widely been criticized for being too conservative. The British Meteorological Office published an updated figure in 2009 that estimated we will reach 4 degrees by the 2070s.

I will still be alive then (I hope!). I will likely have kids and even grandkids by then. I’ve spent a lot of time researching climate change, and the prospect of a 4 degree rise is terrifying to me. At 4 degrees, we will have lost control of the climate – even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases, positive feedbacks in the climate system will make sure the warming continues. We will have committed somewhere between 40 and 70 percent of the world’s species to extinction. Prehistoric records indicate that we can expect 40 to 80 metres of eventual sea level rise – it will take thousands of years to get there, but many coastal cities will be swamped within the first century. Countries – maybe even developed countries – will be at war over food and water. All this…within my lifetime.

And look at our current response. We seem to be spending more time attacking the scientists who discovered the problem than we are negotiating policy to fix it. We should have started reducing our greenhouse gas emissions twenty years ago, but if we start now, and work really hard, we do have a shot at stopping the warming at a point where we stay in control. Technically, we can do it. It’s going to take an unprecedented amount of political will and international communication

Everybody wants to know, “What can I do?” to fix the problem. Now, magazines everywhere are happy to tell you “10 easy ways to reduce your carbon footprint” – ride your bike, and compost, and buy organic spinach. That’s not really going to help. Say that enough people reduce their demand on fossil fuels: supply and demand dictates that the price will go down, and someone else will say, “Hey, gas is cheap!” and use more of it. Grassroots sentiment isn’t going to be enough. We need a price on carbon, whether it’s a carbon tax or cap-and-trade…but governments won’t do that until a critical mass of people demand it.

So what can you do? You can work on achieving that critical mass. Engage the apathetic. Educate people. Talk to them about climate change – it’s scary stuff, but suck it up. We’re all going to need to face it. Help them to understand and care about the problem. Don’t worry about the crazy people who shout about socialist conspiracies, they’re not worth your time. They’re very loud, but there’s not really very many of them. And in the end, we all get one vote.

Where Activism Fails

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

This weekend, 10 000 young people converged in Washington, D.C. and protested the American government’s inaction on climate change. Students stood in front of government buildings wearing green hard hats, holding signs saying “Make Polluters Pay, Not the EPA”. Students stormed the House of Representatives and sang a song about climate change, to the tune of the American national anthem. Fifteen minutes with President Obama, who agreed with their concerns but said “I can’t do this alone”, was PowerShift 2011’s biggest accomplishment.

This isn’t working.

The climate change mitigation lobby is currently a fringe group, at least in North America. It’s mostly made up of university students who mimic the campus protests of the 1960s, creating images that scream “socialism” to baby boomers who witnessed the original events. Governments, which are mostly made up of said baby boomers, largely ignore such fringe groups. Elected officials say what they think people want to hear, and most people don’t seem to care about climate change.

So what should we do instead? We don’t have a lot of money or connections to wealthy businesses. Youth don’t even vote in large enough numbers for governments to care what they want. What we do have, however, are facts on our side. We have the weight of the entire scientific community, agreeing that humans are causing a potentially catastrophic climate change which will only be stopped by major international action.

Instead of attempting to communicate with elected officials by marching around in front of their offices with our faces painted, I think we should focus our efforts on the public. If governments think people don’t care about climate change, we have to reverse that trend.

I believe that anyone who truly understands this issue will care about it and want to fix it. Who could honestly examine the overwhelming evidence for anthropogenic climate change and still have reasonable doubts about its existence? Who wouldn’t want to prevent future wars, famines, extinctions, and waves of environmental refugees? Of course, there are the crazies who will scream about “climate scientists in Al Gore’s pocket” and “the world needs more CO2” no matter what we tell them, but we shouldn’t bother engaging with these people. Instead, we should engage with those who are constantly exposed to the crazies, and who are at risk of dismissing climate change because they think people are still debating its existence.

We need public education to create a social movement, but not like the “Green Movement” in 2007 when magazines everywhere advertised “10 easy ways to reduce your carbon footprint”. We need people to understand the severity of climate change, and to see that planting a tree and buying organic lettuce will not solve the problem. We need people to understand that meaningful action, such as putting a price on carbon, is necessary to solve the problem.

Climate change education will spread most easily through the media, whether it is mass media or new media. People need to be aware of the level of scientific support surrounding this issue, and the reality that climate scientists are not ignorant or fraudulent. Researchers know that correlation does not equal causation, and they know that the climate has changed in the past. Many people still take these arguments seriously, though, because they are thrown around and not challenged. We need to challenge the media outlets that have spread dangerous, libelous misinformation regarding climate change for years. We need to challenge them on the level of lawsuits, not on the level of writing letters to the editor.

It is vital to engage with the apathetic and show them why they should care. Apathetic youth are particularly problematic. Why should the government care about the needs of the next generation when most of its members don’t even vote? We have to make the youth vote strong enough that political parties will compete for its support, just like they do with the ethnic vote and the women’s vote. As Canadian comedian and political analyst Rick Mercer said, “If you are between the ages of 18 and 25, and want to scare the hell out of the people who run this country – this time around, do the unexpected: vote.”

When faced with a depressing reality, many will turn away and ignore the problem. However, the only way to prevent the scary stuff from happening is to suck it up and face it. Just because we wasted 20 years of potential action and got ourselves into a bad situation doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and give up. It’s never too late to act, because this bad situation can always get worse if we let it.

Climate Change Communicator of the Year Award

There’s just over a week left to vote in the Climate Change Communicator of the Year awards, run by the Centre for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University.

There are several familiar names among the nominees, including meteorology professor and frequent ClimateSight commenter Scott Mandia, the ever-brilliant Naomi Oreskes, and the growing organization of Skeptical Science.

Voting is quick and easy, and only requires an email address. Please be sure to cast your vote before April 15th and support the community!

Technology as Communication

The relationship between technology and climate change is complex and multi-faceted. It was technology, in the form of fossil fuel combustion, that got us into this problem. Many uninformed politicians hold out hope that technology will miraculously save us in the future, so we can continue burning fossil fuels at our current rate. However, if we keep going along with such an attitude, risky geoengineering technologies may be required to keep the warming at a tolerable level.

However, we should never throw our hands in the air and give up, because we can always prevent the warming from getting worse. 2 C warming would be bad, but 3 or 4 C would be much worse, and 5 or 6 C would be devastating. We already possess many low-carbon, or even zero-carbon, forms of energy that could begin to replace the fossil fuel economy. The only thing missing is political will, and the only reason it’s missing, in my opinion, is that not enough people understand the magnitude and urgency of the problem.

Here is where technology comes in again – for purposes of communication. We live in an age of information and global interconnection, so ideas can travel at an unprecedented rate. It’s one thing for scientists to write an article about climate change and distribute it online, but there are many other, more engaging, forms of communication that harness today’s software and graphic technologies. Let’s look at a few recent examples.

Data clearly shows that the world is warming, but spreadsheets of temperature measurements are a little dry for public consumption. Graphs are better, but still cater to people with very specific kinds of intelligence. Since not everyone likes math, the climate team at NASA compressed all of their data into a 26-second video that shows changes in surface temperature anomalies (deviations from the average) from 1880 to 2010. The sudden warming over the past few decades even catches me by surprise.

Take a look – red is warm and blue is cool:

A more interactive visual expression of data comes from Penn State University. In this Flash application, you can play around with the amount of warming, latitude range, and type of crop, and see how yields change both with and without adaptation (changing farming practices to suit the warmer climate). Try it out here. A similar approach, where the user has control over the data selection, has been adopted by NOAA’s Climate Services website. Scroll down to “Climate Dashboard”, and you can compare temperature, carbon dioxide levels, energy from the sun, sea level, and Arctic sea ice on any timescale from 1880 to the present.

Even static images can be effective expressions of data. Take a look at this infographic, which examines the social dimensions of climate change. It does a great job of showing the problem we face: public understanding depends on media coverage, which doesn’t accurately reflect the scientific consensus. Click for a larger version:

Global Warming - the debate

Finally, a new computer game called Fate of the World allows you to try your hand at solving climate change. It adopts the same data and projections used by scientists to demonstrate to users what we can expect in the coming century, and how that changes based on our actions. Changing our lightbulbs and riding our bikes isn’t going to be enough, and, as PC Gamer discovered, even pulling out all the stops – nuclear power, a smart grid, cap-and-trade – doesn’t get us home free. You can buy the game for about $10 here (PC only, a Mac version is coming in April). I haven’t tried this game, but it looks pretty interesting – sort of like Civilization. Here is the trailer:

Take a look at these non-traditional forms of communication. Pass them along, and make your own if you’re so inclined. We need all the help we can get.

Harmony: a New Way of Looking at our World

Even if you don’t have any intention of reading the new book by Prince Charles of Wales, it’s almost worth buying a copy just to admire it. Harmony: a New Way of Looking at our World is beautifully bound, with thick, glossy pages full of photographs that take you on a visual journey of the natural and architectural wonders of the world. Some, like the two-page spread of a humpback whale breaching, are joyful; others, such as the carcass of a young albatross, its digestive tract stuffed with plastic debris, are distressing.

The actual contents of the book were unique, but compelling. Rather than focusing on a particular issue and discussing it in depth, Prince Charles swept through just about every discipline you’d find in a modern university – agriculture, anthropology, architecture, art…and that’s only the A’s. This broad approach could easily have fallen into confusing disconnect, but he managed to connect each subject with what he referred to as a “golden thread”: a philosophical principle emphasizing the importance of following patterns seen in nature, and not trying to overwhelm or conquer it.

This approach is not really a “new way of looking at the world”, as the subtitle proclaims – in fact, it predates the dominant practice of Western society. For example, among indigenous civilizations that have modestly endured for many thousands of years, “not one…considers itself to be a master of creation”. Compare that to today’s industrialized society, which is only a few centuries old, and already views nature as a huge machine composed of independent parts which we can tweak at our will, rather than as a complex, dynamic system.

Prince Charles makes both emotional and scientific arguments to support his message, but he emphasizes the emotional ones first. I found this framing to be a turnoff, especially in the first chapter, which began, “This is a call to revolution. The Earth…is losing its balance and we humans are causing this to happen,” and continued from there. I couldn’t really take this narrative seriously, as I hadn’t yet heard his rational arguments, so the opening seemed far too dramatized. Perhaps others will find the initial appeals to emotion more effective than graphs and citations, but I was not impressed by them.

The meat of the book, however, was far better. Prince Charles explored a wide array of fascinating subjects that never managed to bore me. From the mathematical relationships found in the biosphere, to the importance of agricultural crop diversity in a changing climate, to the fascinating stream of engineering known as biomimicry, to the history of Islamic architecture…they may seem unrelated, but in fact all lead back to the importance of sustainability, in every sense of the word, and the incredible wisdom and beauty that can be found in nature.

The major flaw of Harmony, in my opinion, was the frequency of Prince Charles’ self-promotion. It seemed like nearly every second page contained a sentence similar to “(this particular problem) is very significant…and that is why I decided to start (some charity) to address it.” I think it’s wonderful that such a powerful and prolific figure is supporting projects for sustainability, but a better approach would have been to include an appendix of his charities at the end of the book. That way, the writing would have been less about him, and more about what he had to say.

There were also some obvious errors in the book, more serious than simple typos. 22 does not follow 13 in the Fibonacci Sequence, and the tilt of the Earth’s axis is not 24.5º (at least not at present). I expect these errors will be fixed in future editions.

The text’s discussion of climate change was fairly standard – think Al Gore’s slideshow, condensed into a few pages – but nonetheless very accurate and effective. There were some brief forays into paleoclimate which I enjoyed, too. Climate change was not the focus of this book, it was instead presented as a piece of a larger picture, but I appreciated the clarity with which it was addressed.

Although the scientific side of my mind is hyper-vigilant when I read nonfiction, I can relate to the deep affinity and spirituality people feel for the natural world. Nothing builds a sense of kinship like being out in the wilderness and recognizing how much smarter other species can be, in their own ways, than human beings. Nothing feels quite as healing as the quiet awe that strikes when a deer steps out onto the path ahead, or the joy and laughter that inevitably follow from watching songbirds. Nothing builds acceptance of the phenomenon of death like witnessing its omnipresence and necessity in any functioning ecosystem.

We could fill libraries with the economic, scientific, and health benefits of preserving nature in all its integrity. When it comes down to it, though, nature keeps us sane in the crazy world we have created for ourselves, and these emotional reasons are just as strong, if not stronger.

The Unofficial Climate Change Book Awards

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

As an aspiring climate scientist, I have read dozens of books about climate change over the past few years. Here are my all-time favourites, which I present with Unofficial Climate Change Book Awards. (Unfortunately, the prizes consist entirely of bragging rights.)

Best Analysis of Future Scenarios
Climate Wars, by Gwynne Dyer
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Most of us are aware of how climate change will impact the world: more extreme weather, prolonged floods and droughts, dwindling glaciers and sea ice. In this book, renowned Canadian journalist and military historian Gwynne Dyer goes one step further, and explores how these physical impacts might affect geopolitical relations. Will India and Pakistan engage in nuclear warfare over clean water? Will the United States and Russia begin a “Colder War” over Arctic sovereignty? Many of the scenarios he writes about are, frankly, terrifying, and all have a frightening grain of plausibility to them. Read the full review

Best Introduction to Climate Science
The Discovery of Global Warming, by Spencer Weart
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Scientists overwhelmingly agree that human-caused climate change is underway, but instead of simply stating this conclusion, Weart tells the story of how it was reached: tracing the theory from the 1800s to today. This innovative approach to science education, combined with Weart’s elegant prose, makes the book a joy to read. It doesn’t feel like a textbook, although it contains as much information as one. Read the full review

Best Exposé
Climate Cover-Up, by James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore
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If scientists are so sure about the reality of anthropogenic climate change, why does so much of the public think that it’s natural/nonexistent/a global conspiracy? Why does the media present the issue as an equal-sided scientific debate? This confusion didn’t just happen by accident – it was deliberately constructed. Over the past two decades, lobby groups representing industries or ideologies that seek to delay action on climate change have engaged in a campaign to spread doubt about the reality of the problem. This book, rather than throwing around baseless accusations, methodically examines the paper trail of this widespread campaign. Reading Climate Cover-Up is an infuriating but absolutely necessary journey to take. Read the full review

Best Policy Discussion
Storms of my Grandchildren, by Dr. James Hansen
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James Hansen is possibly the most prominent climate scientist alive today, and that title is well-deserved. Throughout his career at NASA, he has frequently made discoveries that were ahead of his time. Dr. Hansen is a very intrinsic scientist who doesn’t enjoy being in the spotlight or talking about policy, but he wrote this book for fear of his grandchildren looking back at his work and saying, “Opa understood what was happening, but he did not make it clear.” Although he couldn’t resist slipping in a few chapters about the current frontiers of climate science, the bulk of the book is about policy, featuring compelling arguments for expanded nuclear power, a moratorium on coal, and a rising price on carbon. Read the full review

Best Canadian Focus
Keeping Our Cool, by Dr. Andrew Weaver
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Andrew Weaver is Canada’s top climate modeller, and a fantastic role model for science communication. This book gives a high-level, yet accessible, explanation of the mathematics of climate change – if you have some basic knowledge of calculus and statistics, you should be fine. However, what really makes this book stand out is its focus on Canadian climate journalism and politics, a rare quality in a field dominated by American research. We all know about George W. Bush’s track record of inaction, but what has Prime Minister Stephen Harper done (or not done)? High-profile studies exist on American media coverage of global warming, but how does the Canadian press compare? Read the full review

Best Insider’s Account
Science as a Contact Sport, by Dr. Stephen Schneider
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The late Stephen Schneider, who unexpectedly died last summer of a heart attack, is a true pioneer of climate modelling. He has been active in the field since the 1970s, when computers became fast enough to handle mathematical models. This memoir explains what it’s like to be a climate scientist, and how that has changed over the years. In the 70s, Schneider and his colleagues filled their mind with purely analytical questions, but today, they have to deal with the media, politicians, and hate mail as well. Science used to just be about science, but now it’s about communication as well. Read the full review

Most Gripping
Snowball Earth, by Gabrielle Walker
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Gabrielle Walker is a brilliant woman, as she possesses the ability to make a book about geology every bit as gripping as a murder mystery. Granted, Snowball Earth, a recent theory of climatic conditions during the Precambrian Era, is fascinating. In short, the continents were arranged in such a manner that the Earth would swing back and forth between “Snowball Earth” (frozen oceans and frozen land all over, even at the Equator) and “Hothouse Earth” (massive global warming from volcanic emissions of carbon dioxide). Until this period of massive climatic swings, the only thing that lived on Earth was unicellular goop…but immediately following the Snowball Earth cycles, complex life appeared. Many scientists don’t think this evolutionary timing was a coincidence. It’s possible that multicellular organisms, including us, only exist because of an accident of plate tectonics. Read the full review

If you would like to contest any of my decisions for these awards, please feel free to do so in the comments!