Despite wars and other distractions, Climate Change continues. Despite one hand - other hand reporting, Climate Change evidence mounts. Despite liars and deniers, Climate Change is real. The debate is over - at least the part driven by facts and not willful ignorance or deceit. The only uncertainty left is how fast it's going to progress, how bad it's going to get, and what we as a species are going to do about it.
The overwhelming consensus in the scientific community is:
1) The Earth is undergoing Global Climate Change.
2) It's being driven by Global Warming.
3) Global Warming is caused by humans burning fossil fuels - coal, oil, gas.
4) If we keep burning fossil fuels at our present rate we will cook the planet.
While there may be some fiddling about the details of each of those four points, their sum total can not be ignored. We are changing the climate of the planet and even if not a single BTU of carbon fuel was burned from this moment on, the effects of that already burned will be felt for decades to come. The only rational course of action at this time is to A) reduce our use of fossil fuels as rapidly as possible, and B) start taking steps to mitigate the consequences of the damage already done.
There's good news and bad news. It's going to require comprehensive changes in the way we use energy. It's going to affect almost every aspect of the way we live. It's going to call for new technologies and more research. It's going to call for international cooperation and regulation. And to quote Bill Nye, "We need to do everything all at once." But - there ARE answers. That's the good news.
The bad news is the real challenge facing us - for which you'll have to follow me past the Orange Omnilepticon.
The FactsLet's repeat this one more time: the science on Global Warming and Climate Change is pretty much indisputable at this point. The only remaining uncertainties are how fast they're going to progress, and how they're going to manifest through the climate systems of the planet. In other words, it's no longer IF, it's WHEN and HOW. Here's an understated but sobering summary of a joint report from the British Royal Society and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. (3.6 Mb pdf file here.)
Given the consensus that human activity is putting too much CO2 into the atmosphere, and that it's going to make the entire planet increasingly subject to extreme weather and inhospitable climate shifts, the answer should be obvious: STOP DOING THAT!!!
Stop burning fossil fuels, start shifting to alternate carbon-free sources of energy, start working on sustainability, put more into research and monitoring the planet, etc. etc. We have plenty of technological answers already on hand, we're getting more data all the time, our scientific knowledge is growing.. Climate Change is a big problem, no kidding, but we have answers to most of the problems except one.
The real challenge is human nature, and the politics that go with it. How well everything else will turn out depends on how well we address that.That's the real challenge. At the core of it all, that's always been the fundamental challenge every human society comes up against sooner or later: how do people with conflicting beliefs and interests come together to solve problems that threaten them all?
Facts Are Not EnoughThere seems to be more than a little consternation among the reality-based community regarding the continuing denial of Global Warming & Climate Change by a significant segment of the population. Exclude those with mercenary motives from the mix (The Lying Deniers) and those with an ideological axe to grind (the Denialistas), there's still a fair number of people who are not convinced even though nearly 100% of the scientific community agrees we have a real problem.
There's a further spectrum of disagreement, ranging from those who concede Global Warming is happening, but don't believe it has anything to do with human activities, or who do believe humans are at least partly to blame but don't believe there's anything that could/should be done because it'd be too expensive, or ineffective, or because the cure would be worse than the disease, etc. etc. etc.
Mind, these are all people living in a world that has been transformed by science and technology, a world that can't operate without it. And yet, there's a seeming disconnect; people act as though it's something that can be opted out of, that it has nothing to do with them, that it's something that can be ignored if it proves inconvenient, or that it's something they are powerless to change. What is happening here?
Past As PrologueLet's take a little detour that might shed some light on this. Back in the 1950's the second novel to win a Hugo Award was a story by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley titled They'd Rather Be Right. It has been the subject of some scathing critical reviews for various reasons, and yet it has some disturbing elements that might make you wonder if the authors had somehow gained foreknowledge of where we are today. It's more than a little prophetic, because the problems they were writing about are still with us today, and we don't seem any closer to solving them.
The plot summary is: a team of scientists at a university have developed a revolutionary new cybernetic device, nick-named Bossy, as part of a government-sponsered research project. It has been loaded with every known bit of human scientific knowledge, and equipped with algorithms that cross-correlates it all, verifies it, and rejects anything that can not be reconciled with the rest. Bossy does not know everything, but what it does know is correct and without internal contradictions. Period. (If this seems a little bit much, well we're getting a lot closer to Bossy these days.)
Just as they are about to put it into operation, there's an outbreak of mass hysteria; Bossy has somehow become perceived by the general populace as a threat. It'll be used for mind control, is an attack on religion, will be used to create monsters, and so on. Think of your average tabloid scare headlines, and you get the picture. It's a rejection of rationality and science, uncomfortably anticipating the assault on reason we're experiencing today. The two lead scientists and an assistant barely manage to get Bossy packed up and shipped out before the mob (and the authorities) can swoop down on them. (Think Homeland Security, FBI, NSA, etc.)
As it happens, that assistant happens to be a telepath; it was his insight into the human mind that made possible the breakthroughs that created Bossy. He'd known ahead of time what would happen and made arrangements. Under his leadership, the three join up, reassemble Bossy in secret, and begin Bossy's first real test. The gimmick the plot turns on, given Bossy and a telepath to set it up, is what happens when the human mind has all of its inner store of conflicting beliefs, rationalizations and misperceptions removed and replaced with an accurate understanding of the world?
Bossy is used to perform therapy on a volunteer, a psychosomatic therapy. The idea is, physical ailments can be addressed by removing the underlying psychological stresses causing them from the mind, which manifest as illness and aging. Where a human therapist might take months or years to identify and remove such stresses one by one, Bossy can do it far more rapidly and without bias. The volunteer, Mabel, is an aged former prostitute who ekes out a quiet living based on real estate properties and connections in the shadow economy. She agrees to undergo the experiment because of health issues. Bossy is interfaced with her mind, and then the real fun begins.
The course of treatment, continuous therapy 24/7, unfolds over ten days. As Bossy begins to remove all of the conflicts within her mind, her body responds by reversing years of aging, until she ends up returned to perfect health with the body of a young woman - and a mind which contains only proven knowledge and conclusions based on it. She still retains all of her memories, but now she has the Big Picture to make sense of how they all fit together - and how they don't. Clear the mind, heal the body. Except there's a catch.
A second attempt at rejuvenation with one of the two scientists fails. This is where the title of the book comes from: They'd Rather Be Right. As it turns out, Bossy's therapy can only succeed when the patient is willing to give up beliefs that are in conflict with reality. If a patient holds a belief too strongly to change his or her mind despite its conflict with the facts (and Bossy has all of the known facts), the conflict generates stress that blocks the therapy. Mabel was willing to change her mind in response to new knowledge because she had too much direct experience in her own life that what she'd been told and believed didn't add up; the scientist hadn't.
WTF Does This Have To Do With Climate Change!?!?!!!The parallel between this and the problem of persuading people to act on Climate Change is not really all that obscure. We have a huge body of evidence that Climate Change is happening, pitched against any number of minds stubbornly clinging to what they know - even if it ain't so. (Plus a dedicated infrastructure reinforcing that weaponized ignorance.) We don't have Bossy, and they'd probably tear her apart rather than undergo therapy if it meant giving up what they believe to be unquestionably true. (The unquestioning is a defining characteristic of this group.)
The novel has a key passage spelling out the problem. The group around Bossy ends up taking shelter under the wing of an enlightened industrialist billionaire; he has his own reasons for trying to combat a society that seems determined to embrace ignorance and sink into another Dark Age. He hands the problem of reversing public fear of Bossy over to his publicist [Steve Flynn], who explains it:
"Look you guys," he said irreverently. "Why don't you scientists come down out of the clouds? You got to have publicity, man. Look… look what happens. You guys spend half, three quarters of your life holed up somewhere. Then you finally discover something. Maybe it's important," he shrugged. "Maybe it isn't. I wouldn't know. So you make a timid little announcement to a couple dozen long hairs, at some meeting."Can you imagine where science would be today if the same level of time, resources, and money were put into promoting it, as went into this bit of publicizing?
He took out a cigarette and lit it with a gold lighter which made a loud snap.
"Then you go back to your hole and die quietly. Nine times out of ten that's the last of it. But, say you're lucky. Say it's picked up by some desperate newspaper science reporter. Say you're still lucky, that you hit a long shot. Say the commenters pick it up. Now these commentators, they just about know a test tube from an aspirin tablet. But they got opinions. Got opinions? They make opinions, brother!"
He spread his hands wide before the fascinated eyes of Billings and Hoskins. [The two scientists]. Clearly the gesture covered a vast area.
"All over the country, all over the world, maybe, they rush to the microphones to tell people what to think about this discovery. They hash it over, forwards and backwards. Maybe they think it is good for a full thirteen minutes, maybe only to lead up to the first commercial. And each one of them has his own opinion, right? What happens?"
He shrugged again, as if the answer were self-evident, and because he saw by their expressions it was not, he spelled it out for them.
"The people get confused at hearing these different opinions. The more they hear, the more they get confused. When you get people confused, they get sore. Best way on earth to get a guy sore, give him a slow burn. But they don't get sore at the commentators. They get sore at the idea, itself. They get sore at science, itself. They get sore because somebody says he can think straighter than they can. They get very sore when you tell them that. They don't like it. They don't like the guy who can do it."
He grinned then, and winked at them - man to man.
"Besides sex, the one thing the public does best is get sore. When you get sore you look around for something to get sore at. So either they get sore at you, or they get sore at the guys who are against you. But you got to tell them which it is to be, because they don't know. Trouble with you scientists is, you don't know anything about people, not anything at all."
He waved his burning cigarette in the air.
"You know what?" he asked conversationally. "Every time there's a grant for research, they ought to make as big a one for the publicity to sell it to the public. That's the only way you're ever going to make thinking popular. How are you going to make thinking popular unless you popularize it? It stands to reason. You got to get out there in front and give your pitch along with the television queens, and politicians, and cigarettes, and razor blades. Otherwise, how's the public going to know? How's it going to make up its mind?"
Art Anticipating LifeConsidering that They'd Rather Be Right was written more than a half century ago, Steve's summary of the problem with science in the mind of the common man, especially as mediated by the media, is still remarkably on point. Facts by themselves do not convince people, especially when they have a strong emotional commitment to views those facts contradict. NPR recently had a fascinating report on a study that detailed how facts can actually end up reinforcing views that run counter to them. Instead of Climate Change, the topic is vaccines - but the psychological mechanisms are comparable.
BRENDAN NYHAN: It's much harder to change people's minds than we might have thought. Giving people corrected information is often ineffective with the people whose minds we'd like to change, and in some cases it actually can make the problem worse.emphasis added
GREENE: So he's testing out, finding that people just won't change their minds about what they think they know in the public health realm. And what does he mean by this actually might make the problem worse when you try to spread a message?
VEDANTAM: Well, that's the disturbing part of the study, David. It sounds like it's not just the messages as designed, but that they might actually be counterproductive. So Nyhan and his colleagues have conducted a survey of more than 1,700 parents across the United States. They first evaluated the parents about their views on vaccine safety and then they provide the parents with the information about vaccine safety - specifically about the MMR vaccine - this is the vaccine that protects children against measles, mumps and rubella - and what they find is that the message is superficially effective. So parents who hear the message become more likely to think that the vaccine is safe. But - there's a very big but...
NYHAN: Unfortunately, giving people corrected information also made them less likely to say they would vaccinate a future child with MMR vaccine. And that effect was concentrated among those parents with the least favorable vaccine attitudes.
GREENE: Shankar, I'm struggling to make sense of this. I mean you have parents who are believing that the vaccines were safer and those parents are less likely to want to get their kids vaccinated?
VEDANTAM: Well, I think, David, what Nyhan seems to be finding is that when you're confronted by information that you don't like, at a certain level you accept that the information might be true, but it damages your sense of self-esteem. It damages something about your identity. And so what you do is you fight back against the new information. You try and martial other kinds of information that would counter the new information coming in. In the political realm, Nyhan is exploring the possibility that if you boost people's self-esteem before you give them this disconfirming information, it might help them take in the new information because they don't feel as threatened as they might have been otherwise.
GREENE: This is a matter of people not wanting to acknowledge that they may have been wrong about something for many years.
VEDANTAM: That's right. And also that if they were to acknowledge that they have been wrong, it might mean large changes in, not just their behavior, but their sense of who they are and their sense of identity.
Humans have an instinctive desire to feel comfortable about themselves; critical self examination is not a general human strong point. The problem with arguments based solely on facts is that humans are only partially motivated by facts; emotional responses are what really drive us. (This is a standard trope in science fiction; the conflict is embodied in this well-known character.)
The World is Made of Stories; Change the Story, Change The WorldIt's also very difficult for most humans to balance immediate threats and consequences against threats and consequences that have a delayed impact. Saving for retirement for example is something that people are supposed to do ASAP in their careers. Most people find it very difficult because A) there are so many things that need attention and money RIGHT NOW!!! and B) retirement doesn't seem real until it's imminent. (One big reason for Social Security - government can be structured to address problems over long spans of time, while humans struggle just to cope with their immediate needs.) Climate Change is something we need to act on now - but the consequences are still too remote for most people to feel any urgency.
And feeling urgency is critical to motivate people. Everyone knows the importance of diet, weight control and exercise for health - yet how many people do nothing until that first heart attack or stroke? The global analog is not something we really want to experience, but that seems to be the way we're headed. The trick is to find ways to get people to make emotional as well as factual connections in their own lives here and now with Climate Change; the Lying Deniers and the Denialistas certainly have, when it comes to ramping up resistance.
Tell someone the polar ice caps might melt completely in 20 years, and their response might well be "Tough on polar bears. So what?" Tell them that keeping the ice caps from melting means they'll pay more for gasoline NOW or their job might be put at risk NOW, and is it really hard to guess which way they'll jump?
Tell them they're paying more for groceries NOW because of weather, tell them they're paying more for heating propane NOW because of weather, tell them they're paying more for insurance NOW because of weather, tell them their water is not safe to drink NOW because of fossil fuels that are also making the weather crazy, tell them the Pentagon is worried about wars breaking out because of weather NOW, tell them staying tied to fossil fuels is making the country weaker NOW, and you might start to get their attention.
Anecdotes are not evidence, but stories are how people make sense of the world. Give them a good story and they'll get it. Dedicated scientists warning the Greenland Ice Cap is melting is one thing, but what does that mean to them? Give them a story about a man whose job is rescuing people in the mountains in winter, they can understand that - and they can follow it when he says he and his fellow rescue workers around the world are seeing something really wrong with the weather.
Mr MacInnes, who has written extensively on hillwalking and climbing, said climate change could be a cause of this year's heavy snowfalls. He said he had been critical of climate change science in the past.While the NPR story about vaccines above shows how science is starting to come to grips with how to change people's minds, the advertising industry has been doing it since forever. One reason They'd Rather Be Right seems so topical now is that the 1950's were a time when Madison Avenue and marketing were becoming very prominent in turning America into a consumer culture. The more things change… Consider this reminiscence by Steve Flynn about his career as a publicist, as a prelude to laying out a campaign for Bossy.
"I wrote an apology to the people who predicted climate change," he said.
"I thought it was just a historical pattern, it probably is to a large extent, but I did kind of poo-pooed the idea of climate change."
The veteran mountaineer added: "This snow is not just something happening in Scotland.
"This turmoil is throughout the world. I have been in contact with people from all over the world, people in rescue teams, and they have got the same pattern - even more pronounced than us."
"I've done a lot of things," Steve Flynn confided to Joe. [The assistant and telepath] "I've taken no-talent girls from Corncob, Kansas, and made them into sultry-eyed stars of TV. I've turned income tax chiselers into great hearted philanthropists. My campaign of making a public enemy into a governor, and a governor into a public enemy was a thing of sheer beauty. But this is my best, Joe. This is my masterpiece. This will always stand as the best of Steve Flynn."If those words don't resonate for you in these days of permanent campaigns, sound bites, and spin, you haven't been paying attention. This is how a Chris Christie or a Scott Walker gets elected. This is how a fraud like Paul Ryan gets taken seriously as a fiscal expert. Crafting narratives is just another form of story telling - but not one that can be disregarded.
Here's a couple of good ones from Robert Krulwich at NPR. When talking about Climate Change consequences, have you heard the one about running trees?
In 2009, they came up with an answer, published in the science journal, Nature. As a global average, they said, temperatures are changing at a rate of 0.42 kilometers — or roughly, a quarter mile a year, which means that if you are standing on a patch of earth, climate zones are moving at a rate (on average) of about 3.8 feet every day.Or consider this meditation from Krulwich on what the planet is going to look like, and who's in charge:
Think about this for a moment. For birds, butterflies, bears — critters with legs and wings — catching up with your old climate (as it moves away from you at 3.8 feet a day) seems very doable. If you're a lot smaller — a snail, a beetle — it's harder. And if you can only wiggle, like an earthworm, it's even rougher.
A hundred million years from now, when we're all dead and gone, a team of geologists will be digging in a field somewhere …It's not just enough to warn people about the bad things that will happen to them here and now, and in the future, from Climate Change; it wouldn't hurt to start crafting narratives about ways people can benefit from fighting Climate Change. Things like relocation assistance to get people out of flood plains; helping people cope with consequences of climate change, demonstrations that going green can create jobs and save communities. If we're going to talk about looming disaster, we also need to start talking about a social safety net and other things to get us through them. We need stories with room for heroes and happy endings, not just more facts. We need to make the case that people have more to gain than lose IF they take action now. It's a matter of strategy.
... and they will discover, buried in the rocks below, a thin layer of sediment — very thin, about the width of a cigarette paper, says British stratigrapher Jan Zalasiewicz. That skinny strip, when they look close, will send what's called a "biostratigraphic signal" that something enormous happened back in our era, something life-changing, planet-reorganizing, even Earth-shaping. The evidence, when they look closely, will be visible in that same skinny layer all over the world. In her new book, The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert describes what they'll find.
For starters, Kolbert says, below this layer, geologists will see fossil remnants of all kinds of large animals: elephants, buffalo, rhinos, lions, tigers, whales, giant turtles (and deeper down, even earlier — saber-toothed tigers, mammoths and giant sloths). Their big bones will litter those older rocks. But above this layer — after our era — they disappear. Something killed off Earth's megafauna.
The deniers are deliberately spreading fear and uncertainty - we need to differentiate ourselves from them. While our message is also scary, we need to give people a way to tell the difference. We need to show people we have a way forward, and that it will take them to a better future, one with jobs, a higher standard of living, a secure environment for them and their children, and a way for them to make it happen. We need to give people a way to know that their own actions are making a difference - IF they will only act.
Who Do You Trust?Science is having a hard time dealing with the Lying Deniers and the Denialistas by attempting to limit the discussion to facts. It's not really a surprise - it's how scientists are trained to do their jobs after all: just the facts and conclusions than can be supported by them, questions limited to only what can be accurately measured and reproduced, gaps in knowledge filled in, errors uncovered, admitted, and corrected. But…
As has been pointed out, most people who are not scientists need more than facts. They need emotional connections to put those facts into a context they can understand in terms of their own lives. They need stories to make sense of them. And they need people they trust, people whose word they'll take because they just don't have time, money, or expertise to verify those facts and conclusions for themselves. It calls for an act of faith - and that's something most scientists are not comfortable with. Their whole orientation is about taking nothing on faith.
Faith is something the Lying Deniers have no interest in keeping. Their interest is simply that - their own self interest. We're talking about people whose primary interest in denying Climate Change is because they're making money from it. The fossil fuel industry is full of them, of course. But, it goes beyond that. Taking Climate Change seriously threatens to set off some massive financial time bombs. The BBC has some rather alarming news on this here, here, and here. New Scientist has a bit more explicit exposition here.
Needless to say, it's why people like these are willing to throw large amounts of money at creating Climate Change Confusion. There's big money in promoting snake oil. Considering the charge that Climate Change is a hoax driven by scientists seeking to extort money for research, one can only marvel at the chutzpah here.
The Denialistas are in some senses far worse. While the Lying Deniers have a financial incentive, the Denialistas are those for whom denying Climate Change is part of a larger agenda. Their interest is even more basic: power. They are part and parcel of the modern conservative movement which has gone toxic. Their opposition to addressing Climate Change is rooted in their ideology. They are authoritarian in nature: top down, rigid control freaks oriented around fear and anger, and explicitly anti-government. They reject community; they deny society. They are anti-science because facts are not on their side. And they use emotions as the basis for their appeal, all the way back to "In your heart, you know he's right." (Which brought the rejoinder "In your guts, you know he's nuts.")
Their universe is a simple one. If you are not for them, you are against them - and are an enemy to be destroyed. Their base is motivated by a simplistic world view. Consider this reaction to the Affordable Care Act among the kind of people who stand to gain the most from it:
It will take a lot more than a pot of white beans to get Broussard to vote for one particular candidate this November: Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu. The dealbreaker for him was when she voted for the Affordable Care Act.emphasis added
Broussard has all kinds of problems with the law itself — that it's wrong to force people to buy insurance, that it will make businesses hire less. But there's something else that bothers him: The law is the signature achievement of a man Broussard never wanted to see become president.
"I don't vote for black people, lady," he says. "No, ma'am. I don't vote for black people. They got their place, I got my place. That's the way I was raised."
This is how identity politics handles facts and reason on issues that challenge that identity.
Somewhat more understandable are those who see it as a pocket book issue:
Plaisance, a diesel mechanic who services boats for the oil companies, says he's willing to overlook Obamacare, as much as he hates it, because of all the ways Landrieu has helped his industry. She's pushing to increase Louisiana's royalties from offshore oil revenues, and he remembers how fiercely she opposed the moratorium on offshore drilling right after the BP oil spill. He was really grateful for that.emphasis added
"Yes ma'am, because we work on the supply boats," Plaisance says. "If the supply boats don't run, then we don't have a job. So it's kind of, oil field don't work, we don't work."
While this too is a about ACA, it's not hard to guess how Climate Change would be prioritized by Plaisance. You really can't tell someone they have to lose their job to save the planet, not if you want to get their support. You have to give them an alternative. You have to give them better choices.
In case you haven't noticed, right wing conservative Denialistas have worked very hard to brand Climate Change a liberal-progressive-socialist-communist-etc.-etc. conspiracy. "They" want to use it as an excuse to create a massive government tyranny that will control every aspect of people's lives, conservatives warn their followers. It will cost jobs, raise taxes, and all kinds of terrible things. (Never mind that Climate Change is already starting to deliver terrible things.)
Further, conservatives go out of their way to personally attack and discredit anyone who contradicts this version of reality, on the simple logic that if you can't win on facts, kill the messenger. If conservative ideology hadn't completely jumped the shark, the debate over Climate Change would be over who has the better answers to deal with it, conservatives or liberals. Climate Change is truly non-partisan; weather doesn't care who it happens to.
For conservatives, denialism of Climate Change is a knee-jerk reflex at its worst and a tacit admission that conservative ideology simply can't deal with it, neither with free markets, God, or guns. Science of any kind is more than they can deal with.
In Kansas and Kentucky, both of which would eventually adopt the NGSS, the measure previously drew opposition from right-wing groups that opposed its teachings of climate change and evolution as fact.The problem with a world increasingly driven by science (or that SHOULD be driven by science) is that science collides more and more with politics - which these days is increasingly about money. Scientists might have some exposure to the idea of educating others, but they're not really trained for the political combat it takes to win hearts and minds; money is and it can afford to hire the best mercenaries. (Only now are we starting to see some push-back.)
“Outsiders are telling public school families that we must follow the rich man’s elitist religion of evolution, that we no longer have what the Kentucky Constitution says is the right to worship almighty God,” Baptist minister and NGSS opponent Matt Singleton said at a Kentucky hearing in July. “Instead, this fascist method teaches that our children are the property of the state.”
Authoritarians are all about stifling debate: "Shut up and do what I tell you." Scientists are always open to debate - if it's honest. Authoritarian followers are expected to swallow down everything their leaders tell them, and disregard anything that comes from elsewhere. (That's the only way the opinions of someone like this or this could ever get a hearing on Climate Change, despite the fact that they are text book examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect.)
For authoritarians, it's all about who gets to be the one giving the marching orders, the voice giving the commands the followers are expected to obey. That, and silencing opposing voices. CPAC right now is rather like American Idol for conservatives; they're all vying to get the votes of the audience and the Big Money judges looking for politicians to invest in. (Charles P. Pierce on CPAC here.) The Left has nothing like it.
Finding A VoiceSeveral weeks ago, the Sunday morning talking head shows all addressed Climate Change, partly in response to the horrendous winter weather up to that date. (Hat tip to Adam Siegel for finding this) ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC each had a segment featuring speakers for different view points. ABC and CBS had professionals speaking about climate; FOX was completely given over to denialistas. NBC pitted Bill Nye the Science Guy against Congressional Denialista Marsha Blackburn in a 'debate'. All of them were instructional in different ways; I highly recommend watching all four of them for comparison purposes - video for all is at the link.
The National Wildlife Federation senior communications manager Miles Grant graded the four shows. (As of this writing, I'm apparently the only one to comment on his conclusions.) My own evaluation of the performances varied from Grant's - I thought Nye did a better job than Grant gives him credit for. I posted about it here and got quite a response in comments.
Several commenters came down hard on Bill Nye for two 'sins'. By participating in what was billed as a debate, he was legitimizing the views of his opponent, denialista Marsha Blackburn. Second, he's not a climate scientist, so he lacked credibility in their eyes. In effect, he was set up and 'played'. While there is some validity to those charges, I'd like to offer some observations of my own in the context of this diary.
First, give Nye credit for showing up. He's not a politician, and appearing on what is a show about politics took him out of his comfort zone. Second, he was definite on stating there is no longer any real disagreement in the science community about climate change. He repeated it several times, staying on message. Third, He directly challenged Blackburn, calling on her to lead instead of denying. “There is no debate in the scientific community. And I encourage the Congresswoman to really look at the facts,” Nye urged Rep. Blackburn. “You are a leader. We need you to change things, not deny what’s happening.” Fourth, he went past the scientific arguments to address the political side of the issue, in ways intended to engage ordinary people.
Nye started right out by noting that dealing with Climate Change didn't mean killing jobs. As an example, he pointed out inventing better batteries would be a real commercial opportunity. He stated as an American, he wanted to see his country lead the world on this issue, taking it beyond science and addressing it on patriotic grounds. This too was a challenge to Blackburn and the denialistas. While the climate professionals on CBS and NBC may have been quite clear on the facts of Climate Change, Nye did a better job of throwing out connections for non-scientists to engage on Climate Change on their terms. Nye may not be a meteorologist or climatologist or a politician, but he has spent years communicating science to non-scientists. We need that skill badly.
Conservatives are all about who they trust; Nye comes with a track record and an audience who is familiar with him. The shows aired several weeks ago; odds are most people can't remember who spoke for science on the other shows - but they just might remember Bill Nye.
In an age when science has become integral to matters of public policy, it behooves scientists to acknowledge the complaints of publicist Steve Flynn. It's not good enough to do solid science, publish in the right journals, collaborate with the right colleagues. Scientists have to be prepared to deal with the larger public and go toe to toe with politicians. They have to be able to engage in debate and hold their own. There are those who will see it as career suicide, and a risk to scientific integrity. So be it - because abandoning the field to bible bangers, snake oil salesmen, political hacks and demagogues is a betrayal of science as surely as falsifying data or plagiarizing the work of others.
While Carl Sagan is revered today, it's important to note there were those who disparaged him as a publicity hunter and light weight. As scientist and popular author Gregory Benford notes, Sagan was rejected for membership in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
...Each section of the Academy votes separately on all candidates, and the astronomy division voted the fellow in. But there were negative votes from other divisions, notably the particle physicists. They disliked his public persona, some said. They complained that he was arrogant and an egomaniac, and said he was really not up to caliber, despite his fame. Clearly, envy played some role. Rumors flew.And yet,
Rarely is a candidate turned down, but it happened that time. So it is that Carl Sagan was not a fellow of our National Academy.
...Who has replaced him? No major interpreter of astronomy has taken his place. Indeed, there is no widely recognized scientist in our popular discourse. At least we have many good writers about science — E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, John McPhee, Neil Tyson, Stephen Weinberg, Brian Greene, Lisa Randall, others. Note they are mostly biologists and field theory folk, two recently geewhiz subjects. They’re mostly men, too.Sagan's legacy is all the more impressive as we feel the absence of anyone who could do what he did. To be sure, Neil de Grasse Tyson is taking up the Cosmos torch once again. What will he do with it?
But few of these undertake major TV productions, testify before Congress or draw a crowd the way an even minor rock star or politico does. Why?
Al Gore is still alive, still speaking on Climate Change, though you'd never know it from the mainstream media. Blue Girl wrote up hearing him speak recently, evangelizing for science and spreading the word to people who are heavily invested in communication through art.
Starting last Wednesday, the Folk Alliance International conference was held in Kansas City, where it will be held for the next four years and the daytime panels and lectures were capped off on Saturday afternoon with a presentation by music enthusiast, former Vice President and climate change activist Al Gore.Scientists don't have to do all the heavy lifting on messaging all by themselves - there are people out there with the skills to help make it happen.
He spoke to a packed Grand Ballroom at the Westin Crown Center for about an hour, and the audience could not have been more receptive or friendlier. He was clearly a man at ease, who knew he was among friends, and this was conveyed by a warm, engaging and easy manner. It was enough to make me wonder "Where was this guy in 2000? This guy would have carried his home state, or at least most of those Nader voters and that would have been enough." But he opted not to call for armed rebellion after the Supreme Court ruled, so to dwell on what might have been is folly and I dropped it before I got paralyzingly depressed.
What is within our power to change, as he pointed out, is the future, and then he made the people in that room - the artists, the songwriters, the musicians, the writers - responsible for making sure we each and every one understood that we are integral to making sure that we, as a society, choose the right pathways as we move forward. He is still, he says, a willful optimist about the issue of climate change, because the future is what we choose to make it and he is hopeful that enough people are waking up to the reality of anthropogenic global warming that critical mass will be achieved and the right choices will be made.
Where The Debate Needs To BeThe science debate about Global Warming and Climate Change is over. The science is conclusive. The problem now isn't the science; it's the politics and we need to engage on that basis. We have the facts on our side: every day brings more evidence. Every day it gets harder for the deniers to pretend nothing is happening. Their excuses are increasingly threadbare and their desperation is increasingly frantic. If anything they're becoming more blatant about their obstructionism as the stakes increase.
What we need to do now is more than just communicate the facts of Climate Change to people. We have to inspire them in ways that engage their emotions as well as their minds, give them true stories they can understand in terms of their own lives and daily routines, find ways for them to engage on the issue to force action while there is still time, and give them hope for a better future.
It's not rocket science - it's political science.