Categories
climate change computing systems

Understanding systems

Steve Easterbrook

The 95% certainty is itself problematic, because it is a very high level summary of lots of different details…if you pick the science apart there are some areas where we are much more certain than that, and there are other areas where there is a lot uncertainty…the basics of how the greenhouse effect works and then what happens if you add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere – that’s not 95% certain, that’s 100% certain. It’s a stable piece of science that’s been around more than 100 years.

Dr Steve Easterbrook studies contributions of computing and software to the challenge of dealing with climate change at the University of Toronto. His focus is on climate informatics, in particular, how climate scientists develop computational models to improve their understanding of earth systems and climate change.

Talking points:

Large complex pieces of software that have been built over many many years by large teams of people.

Each climate model is something like a million lines of code, that has taken 10-20 years to build…and there are around 25 models being built around the world…and they take different approaches. Each is building coupled systems, they sometimes swap parts.

Contributing to the models is a long slow peer-reviewed process.

What surprised me the most, I thought the models are for predicting the future – that’s what we see in the media, we see these projections of climate change over the coming century…I thought these people were essentially futurologists, how is this going to play out in the medium and long term…but it turns out they build the models to do experiments…comparing how well the model performs with observational data of recent past or even the distant past.

How they do experiments, they might have an area in the model that they know is weak, that it doesn’t match the observational data very well..so they’ll set this up as a formal experiment, they’ll create a hypothesis that says “here’s a way of improving the model by changing the way it simulates a particular part of the process”…so the hypothesis is that changing model the will improve how it simulates a particular part of the climate….my favourite example is getting the Indian Monsoons right…they run these as experiments with the existing model as the control, then go through a peer review to get the change included in the model…so on a day to day basis, almost everything they do is set up as an experiment.

With a faster machine they increase the resolution, each simulation takes two weeks.

Simulating typical weather, not what it going to do on any given day

For some scientists the broader politicisation is very frustrating, they want to keep their heads down…they’re not trained to communicate their work to wider audiences.
The other reaction is people that want to get out and give their side of the story because they feel the media does a very poor job at representing the science and what the scientists do.

The science is unbelievably complicated.

There’s an asymmetry, saying “it’s all bunkum” or more subtly “we’re not sure enough, there’s too many uncertainties, we shouldn’t take action yet”…that’s a very easy message to say, especially when faced with a complex science, especially when the public hears “this is a complex science, how can the scientists be that sure?”.

The 95% certainty is itself problematic, because it is a very high level summary of lots of different details…if you pick the science apart there are some areas where we are much more certain than that, and there are other areas where there is a lot uncertainty…the basics of how the greenhouse effect works and then what happens if you add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere – that’s not 95% certain, that’s 100% certain. It’s a stable piece of science that’s been around more than 100 years.

Scientists like to become famous by overturning existing bodies of knowledge, and when a piece of science endures for 100 years or more, we’re not 95% sure, this is uncontentious science in anyway whatsoever.

The broad story that if we keep on adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere the planet will keep on warming, there’s no doubt in the scientific community about that, the uncertainty is around exactly how much warming and exactly when will it occur.

The big picture there is no doubt about, the uncertainty is about the details.

The email leak has brought many of the climate scientists to the realisation that they have to do a better job of the communication, they can’t leave it to others to do because there aren’t any others..there aren’t other communities that understand the science enough to explain it.

I’d like to see more telling the story of what what scientists do on a day-to-day basis in terms that other people can understand.

The more you change the climate, the less you can be sure that the models are capturing it correctly.

Tipping points are really hard to predict, we can see that they might be there, but making predictions about exactly when they would occur is really hard.

It might be counter-productive…to put a date on climate change such as a 5 window to take action…because as the end of that window approaches you undermine your entire message, because people take from that “5 years and then disaster occurs, we’ve got to 5 years and where’s the disaster?”…the right message is climate change is already with us, and it’s causing all sorts of chaos around the world, it’s just not evenly distributed.

Specific windows are a bad idea…specific goals as well, 2 degrees of warming, we’re approaching that now, or at least we’re approaching the point where we are locked into two degrees of warming…as we get closer and closer to the point of no return, what’s the message about that? well we were wrong about 2 degrees, maybe we can go to 2 and a half, maybe 3…and you are completely undermining the message about consequences when you set these thresholds -it’s an incremental change, it will occur and it is occurring at different rates and different severities around the world.

Climate change is an incremental problem with a huge degree of inertia, we have to act now to affect what the world is going to be like in fifty years time, that’s really hard for people to comprehend, on the other hand, if we talk to people about making our cities cleaner, making the air cleaner, that’s a very easy message and where there are immediate impacts, so one of the things we can do around climate change is work on solutions that have those immediate benefits, but that also contribute towards the longer term problem.

Climate change is the elephant in the room, no matter what we achieve in terms of sustainability, if we don’t tackle climate change then it’s going to be serious, it’s going to undermine our other efforts, but on the other hand you could turn that around, and say why don’t we build a network of sustainability initiatives that together add up to more than the sum of the parts, that add up to a solution to climate change, even though if you pick them apart and attempt to measure them…they don’t appear to add up. And that’s important because we can’t get them to add up…if you look at what the IPCC says we need to stay below 2 degrees of warming, it looks like it’s impossible. Because if you don’t start somewhere and if you don’t start building efforts that get people engaged then you won’t achieve anything so it becomes self defeating.

The more I’ve worked with climate change and thinking about solutions, the more I’m tending to thinking about sustainability in it’s broader sense as opposed to direct action on climate change.

Even if people don’t really understand (the science) then give them things they can do as individuals and communities

Get people thinking about change first, and doing things that are new, getting used to the idea that change is necessary.

A farmers market gets people talking… in terms of carbon accounting it might look like nothing, but in terms of getting people changing what they do and thinking about what other changes are needed, I think it’s massive.

Resources
Climate Science Rapid Response Team

Joel Pett’s “What if it’s all a hoax and we create a better world for nothing” cartoon.

More SustainableLens on the work of climatologists and climate models: Naomi Oreskes, Andrew Tait.

Categories
climate change politics psychology

Increasing IQs but bewildered in a complex world

Jim Flynn

Despite our increasing IQ, the bombardment of conflicting information combined with a paucity of training in critical thought renders us bewildered cynics, unable to manage our increasing complex world

Emeritus Professor of Political Studies at the University of Otago James (Jim) Flynn researches intelligence and is well known for his discovery of the Flynn effect, the continued year-after-year increase of IQ scores.  His research interests include humane ideals and ideological debate, classics of political philosophy, and race, class and IQ.   His books combine political and moral philosophy with psychology to examine problems such as justifying humane ideals and whether it makes sense to rank races and classes by merit.  Flynn campaigns passionately for left-wing causes, and became an initiating member of both the NewLabour Party and of the Alliance.   He is currently working on a book on climate change.

Our fundamental question to Prof Flynn is if people are getting smarter, how come we’re making such a mess?

Talking points:

We are seeing a gain in ability to solve cognitively challenging problems in an increasingly complex world around them.

Universities are failing to train critical thought.

I intended studying maths, but I realised it was too much like chess – an interesting diversion.  To engage in real problems that mattered, the hard ethical problems I moved to political philosophy.

Young people are being bombarded with information, without the tools to manage this they are turning off, becoming cynics – less politically active, less informed.

Young people today are no more liberated than a medieval serf.  A medieval serf didn’t have the equipment to think beyond what society told him, these young people may be cynics, but they don’t have the conceptual skills and the information and the historical depth to their thinking to really counter the modern world.

It’s a very bewildering world if you cant find any guideposts to find your way through it.

Universities aren’t giving a critical toolset – you know a lot about spanish literature, or geography or torts, but then you are let loose on the world without a trained mind to analyse it.

One of the chief confusions among students is they are being given conflicting information on climate change – perhaps the greatest issue of our time.

Today with globalisation, climate change we have infinitely more complex issues in the past…today we are menaced by problems that we weren’t in the past

Many things disillusion you when you study climate change,  I have always preached against materialism – that is defining yourself by your possessions, and I continue to do so, because every one of them that doesn’t want a 10,000 sq foot house and a new car every year and wants to serve people, be humane, every one votes with their feet, the more of those people there are, the better of we’ll be. On the other hand, climate change may well derail the world in terms of industrial productivity.

If only I could turn everyone into a humanist…

If you reconcile yourself to the fact that the first world is not going to share with the third world, and the only way that people are going to come out of poverty is that industrialisation keeps marching on and some of it manages to filter its way into the third world, you’re in the ludicrous position of saying that I want the world’s gross national production to continue to increase over the rest of this century. It’s not my ideal but its the only way I can see…we need to get nations in Africa/SE Asia to adopt middle class aspirations…or else we’re going to breed ourselves out of space.  So despite my anti-materialism, I want the industrial machine of the world not to fall apart.  I would prefer that there is industrial progress, that filters into Africa,and gives them the aspirations that means we won’t have this terrible population explosion.

Everyone wants a growth economy, no one wants to see their standard of living diminish.  The only way you can have a growth economy is to freeze temperature at its present level through climate engineering, to stop emissions increasing over the next 50 years, and then at about the 50 year point(because we won’t be able to hold it forever), and make sure that by then we have moved to a more…cleaner and more equitable society.

You can’t exploit the earth forever.

Am I optimistic? No.  I feel there’s a chance.  I’m presenting a third way that means you could at least write scenario that would get us out of this mess.  Clean energy by 2050, do away with carb0n based fuels by 2100,  hold the temperature down in the meantime with climate engineering, thanks to industrial progress in the meantime that has set Africa on the way to middle class aspirations to peak our population.  There are a lot of ifs in there aren’t there!  But at least it’s coherent and better than what we’re doing.  What we are doing is just crazy – there’s no chance at all of this working.

You can’t work for an ideal until you know what is possible.

 

 

 

Categories
climate change policy

Climate change diplomacy

adrianMacey_formal-01

 We have a target gazetted to reduce emissions by half by 2050, and if you look at projections, they’re way up, double by 2050.  How do you join those things up?  There’s currently no government statements around that.  The target was put in place in 2011 but since then it’s hard to find any mention in official government statements, or any action by government departments.

A New Zealand diplomat with postings including Bankok, TokelauParis and Geneva, Dr Adrian Macey was New Zealand’s first climate change ambassador Dr Adrian Macey.  He describes his proudest achievement as chairing the UNFCCC Kyoto Protocol negotiations during the critical year where it was established that there would be a second commitment period.   Dr Macey is currently with Victoria University’s Institute for Governance.

Talking points:

As a diplomat you follow the will of the government of the day but you always avoid closing options

You can see climate change as a moral issue – responsibility for future generations – you can also see it as an opportunity – if your city is using lower carbon, lower energy, that’s more money staying in the local pool.

Consumers have some ability to affect things, but it’s very hard in the absence of long-term central government policy

When you put together all the pledges that everyone has made, it doesn’t add up to what we need to do to keep warming down to 2 degrees.

Developing countries need money on the table to support their efforts on mitigation and adaptation.  The developed countries need to take historic responsibility.

The language used is important, “grave concern” was useful to change minds.

Three factors helpful in current rounds: greater certainty, plain language, mainstream estimates.  Still worrying, doesn’t mean complacency, but looks more manageable from a policy sense.

Perverse tendency, you can’t use the fear for too long.  There’re two levers civil society has tried to use, one is fear of terrible consequences and the other is guilt or shame – you should be doing more, it’s your duty to future generations or other countries – neither of those levers can be effective indefinitely.   We’re coming back to rethinking by civil society, using another register.  One example is Greenpeace’s report on the future of energy,  looking at the future of renewable energy – that’s appealing to a different part of government.  Governments have an interest in having sensible policies, and if something looks rational and achievable – and not constant hammering about guilt and shame – then maybe that’s going to prove a more effective way through.

We need massive changes in the energy system it’s not something the citizen as an individual has much control over…individual choices of consumers – buying something with a slightly lower footprint –  are not quantitatively all that important, though they are from a moral perspective, but the big shift we’ve got to do is get off fossil fuels.

The transport sector is the one we’ve got to deal with.  The difficulty is that our country is long, narrow and not very highly populated – but that’s the obvious area for gains.

Businesses that have a stake in our “clean green reputation” – those people are in a position to try to influence government.  If they think that where we’re heading is a bit out of kilter with that image we have of ourselves as we start to lag behind.

There’s no easy glib response, that if a few 10,000 of you do x, then you’re going to make a massive effect, we have to get at the energy systems.

Rich countries need to accept historical responsibility,

 

 

 

Categories
climate change communication policy politics

Shifting the paradigm

Nathan Argent

Nathan Argent is the Chief Policy Advisor for Greenpeace New Zealand. He says we need to challenge the current narrative, that fossil fuels are the future: “New Zealand can get back it’s Mojo, putting us back on the world stage for being the innovators of a smarter greener society, that’s the challenge for us”.

Talking points:

(Am I an activist) An activist largely depends on peoples’ definition an perception of what an activist does. The young me was definitely an activist, I’ve been with Greenpeace now for nearly 12 years. Am I active in trying to change the way we do business, the way we power our homes – that we do in in a much smarter cleaner way, that we reduce pollution? then yes, I’m an activist in that sense, But I think as I’m becoming older and my experience and knowledge has grown, I’m probably more of a pragmatist..pragmatic but in a disruptive sense.

I’m probably more of a pragmatist..pragmatic but in a disruptive sense. Thinking about the landscape, thinking what are the pragmatic ways that we can reach our goals, but ensuring that those goals are always pushing the boundaries of change. Trying to disrupt the ways we do things, trying to shift the paradigm.

One side to Greenpeace, we need to be out there agitating, and we are reliant on the vast number of people who come to us to volunteer to be part of the grassroots activist movement, but we are also an organisation that has to through necessity sit at the boardroom table and engage with business, and push business in the right direction – and sometimes hold their hand if need be.

Sometimes once we’ve put someone on the front pages if need be – if they’ve done something wrong, my job is to go in there to work them to get it right – to embed more sustainable ways of doing business.

We are an activist organisation, but there’s also a degree of pragmatism as well.

The lions share, 90% of our work is solutions focussed – thinking about he science, working with experts, academia to think about the best and quickest way that we can deliver those solutions to our environmental challenges, the greatest of all being climate change. A lot of our solution side work never gets any pick up. The media perception of us and that’s largely the lens through which people see us is all about us breaking the law or climbing onto ships to stop them coming into port, so we need to think about how we tell our story better, but sometimes the substance of that solutions is seen as not really newsworthy when I would like to see that it should be.

People on the phone think “oh no, Greenpeace is on the phone what have I done wrong”, when that’s not the case at all, I see them as an important stakeholder in the problem and want to work with them to try and find that solution.

Our role is to keep pushing the envelope. There is a real sense of urgency about the work we need to do. Not just as an organisation, but there’s a sense of urgency that we’re not doing enough as a society to deal with the problems we have. And that’s when we go back to being the activist organisation, we need to keep pushing the envelope, we need to keep spiking interest in those issues, so that we create the space for that conversations to be had and for those solutions to be found.

At the moment we (NZ) has got a government tat is very pre-occupied in investing all its political capital in resource extraction, typically oil and gas, and that’s largely overlooking that fact that New Zealand as a country has become very good at through several generations at generating clean green energy. We are also very good at pioneering innovation…(yet we’re investing in inviting oil and gas companies to come here).

Given that there’s a growing sense of urgency globally about climate change, and countries and businesses around the world are investing the types of technology that New Zealand is very good at…we would rather see the NZ government put its emphasis on supporting our own engineers and innovators now before it becomes too late.

We don’t endorse any party…we will work with anybody who is prepared to have a conversation about delivering those progressive policies that we need to embed. But, by the same token, as a lobby group we are politically active, and we will criticise a government for not doing the right thing.

The current government in NZ has been woeful on its efforts to tackle climate change, their rolling back of environmental safeguards across the board, our emissions profile is going up instead of down, and we’re not growing our clean energy potential in the way that we should be, so we will be critical of that.

We need to fundamentally challenge the paradigm, we can’t continue to grow and grow and grow infinitely and and just tweak it to a cleaner smarter way. Perhaps growth is too often used to talk about the economy. As part of a transition – this is the practical side of Greenpeace – the radical side of us would say we need to fundamentally address growth, and really think about how we sustain ourselves and embed the environment and understand that the environment is core to everything that we do and we are dependent on our environment. But I think that as part of the transition we need to position ourselves in the debate.

Climate change is the greatest challenge we face, if you look an environmental, or developmental challenges – even if you can separate the two and I don’t think you can – climate change will lead to displaced populations, lack of water resources, more extreme weather events – the impacts are very broad, very widespread and will have severe consequences for many regions or the world.

The way we see it is, all roads lead to dealing with this overwhelming challenge that is climate change.

Climate change is the symptom of everything we do.

The scientific community needs to become better at communicating what they do.

There should no longer be any oxygen for the climate denial debate.

Conversation is dictated by me trying to reason with them about the scientific certainty about climate change, when I’d much rather be talking about what we could all do to deal with the problem. Accept that there is a problem we need to get on and do something collectively, and dealing with the problem doesn’t need to be that painful.

In the longer term it makes sense to do things in a cleaner, smarter cheaper way. If we get locked into a high carbon economy, that’s going to cots you and I a lot of money – there’s going to be a lot of stranded assets. So why not start now.

It’s about putting in place those safe-guards so our kids have got a future to look forward to- that we don’t have oil washing up on our beaches, that we’re no longer inhaling pollutants in the cities we live in, it all makes sense, why would we disagree with it when the outcomes are better for everybody, and most importantly the planet.

Is it the neo-liberal ideology that the markets will come up with a solution? Markets are the problem. Climate change is an absolute market failure. And the market hasn’t come up with a solution.

Plans to feed the world from NZ with dairy product… completely fails to recognise the limits of our country. We can’t multiply our dairy industry by a factor of two or three to meet these needs. It would ruin New Zealand.

Until there’s a price on activity, and you can continue to externalise costs so that the rest of the taxpayers have to pay because we suffer because we can’t swim in the rivers of the taxpayer has to pay for clean-up programmes, until you start making the farmers pay for the resource use, then there’s no incentive for them to do things in a cleaner way.

(On carbon pricing increasing the cost to families) It’s a politically paralysing story to tell when it’s an incomplete story. There’s always a lack of political will to do something if it’s going to hit the taxpayer in the pocket and this is often a reason for not doing stuff. The cost needs to be kept with the producer, but the whole premise of increasing cost is to make them change their behaviour, but the system seems to be incomplete.

Our actions are often bourne of frustration – it’s the final tool we’ve got in our toolbox when dialogue has broken down.

We do have to put things in the public eye. Sometimes the most effective thing in moving a company is consumer pressure. Unless consumers know that there’s a problem with the products, and that through their buying power they can change the company’s policy, so sometimes that’s the most effective thing.

Companies are acutely sensitive to their brand. We use that a lot and we’re not shy about saying so. Sometimes putting a company on the front page of a paper is the most effective way you can get them to move – and move really quickly.

This can transform an industry, as a major player doing the right thing, and telling their customers they’re doing the right thing they get an advantage, and that can be the gravity or the catalyst for others to be doing the right thing so it has a positive knock-on effect.

(On criticism of anti-oil protesters driving cars) It is demotivating , because people think “Well, yeah, actually I did drive my car here. Does that make me a hypocrite?”, well no I don’t think it does. We all pay taxes, do we not have a right to say where our taxes should be spent, whether it’s on education or arms. The system is not working, it’s failing, pollution is an absolute failure of the current system we live in, does that mean we’re not allowed to ask questions and challenge that and ask that it be done in a better smarter way. Ideally we’d all drive electric cars to those protests, but currently we can’t because the system doesn’t allow that. But surely we’re entitled as individuals to ask that we do change the system. Then we won’t need to drive to protests, or banners on the beach, because there won’t be a need to do so.

Other Sustainable Lens conversations mentioned in this podcast:

Mike Sammons
Naomi Oreskes
Rob Burton.

Categories
climate change oil politics

The rise of the hyphenated activist

Anadarko's drill ship the Noble Bob Douglas drilling off the Otago Coast.  Credit: Damian Newell aboard the Oil Free Otago flotilla.

Dr Patricia Widener hails from the Sociology Department of Florida Atlantic University. She studies the effect of the oil industry on communities.

Talking points

I study the conflict and contamination as communities respond to the oil industry.

Even the threat of an oil industry can damage a sense of place

For many places the oil industry is not something people have considered

New communities are being forced to assess what oil means to them. In a way oil has been invisible to us, its always been available to us, it’s such a part of our lives we don’t critically think of all of the meanings petroleum until these new projects are announced.

Oil splits communities.

If people are afraid to take a strong position, that’s a problem, that’s an environment that is not conducive to everyone discussing it, debating it forming their own opinions about it.

If they are not shy about holding a position, but afraid that they’ll be rejected, a stigma for that position. In a democracy shouldn’t be happening, in a democracy, everyone should be comfortable talking about their position, how they got to that position and why they feel strongly about it.

People can be criticised for taking a position against a project – but that’s democracy.

Small businesses in business associations

Communities are not able to assess projects on a equal playing field, they only have tidbits of information.

We say we are aware of climate change and we are addressing it, and yet we are increasing fossil fuel production. To a community that makes no sense. It is confusing for community members who need to make decisions on specific projects that potentially will produce greenhouse gases.

National responses are very mixed, but a community itself has to make a decision on an actual project. It’s not an abstract conversation, it’s a specific project – or potential project that’s coming in.

Both signals are happening. Yes we’re dealing with climate change, yes we’re increasing fossil fuels production and use. Both of these are happening at the same time. People, agencies, governments are saying both without connecting what that actually means.

I’m concerned about the focus on individual energy use, while at the same time giving industry a pass.

Until there are locally alternatives to driving the car – we’re mobile people – we do need to transition, and it’s not happening.

It is a diversion and it is easy to focus on and target the individual, and blame the individual for the problem. And this serves industry to target the individual.

It serves as a diversion to get the eyes, the gaze, the critical thinking away from industry and onto households and individuals.

We still need to drive less, the developed wealthy world, we live beyond our means, beyond the world’s means.

Oil is pleasing, it is so close to our lifestyles, the pleasurable parts of our lifestyles, but we need to be thinking about what it means when other areas or other communities are negatively impacted.

It is really difficult for us to think about how what is pleasing to us may cause someone else’s suffering. We don’t want to dwell on that so we give industry a pass.

We see oil wealth and hope that it is going to solve problems, but it can lead to inequality – it doesn’t mean it is going to reduce poverty and inequality.

Rather than individuals’ choices, the focus has to be on the political economy of oil – to make changes there.

Democracies need spaces.

(On potential for oil jobs in countries of abject poverty) It’s really hard for someone who has a job and isn’t experiencing dire poverty to criticise someone for wanting a (oil) job someone needing a job for themselves and their family, but could there not be developments for other jobs? Ones that are do contribute to the community, that do build livelihood, economic security and sustainability. A concern is when it (an oil job) becomes the only option, and there are no other options for the community – and they are risky jobs.

We need to make connections. The extraction, production, consumption and disposal – that’s the flow of the product, and along the entirety of a product’s life are inequalities, injustices and risks. If we think of ourselves as part of a global society – and we’d like to think we do, then we’re obligated to think of the harms associated with our products.

We can also see a flow of activism or resistance along the flow of petroleum.

We need to disengage from the industry that is causing harm. But we’re in a protracted age of oil, we have a fossil fuel addition. So despite climate change awareness, despite increasing knowledge of harms…we haven’t stopped or slowed down.

The political economy of oil is so entrenched, communities would struggle to resist it.

Industry is working on extraction to depletion.

Ask decision makers: what are you doing about climate change, how is increasing fossil fuel production an answer? I’m not hearing anyone answering this. It is staggering that projects are getting the green light without that question being answered.

What does it mean when we are producing something with global (negative) impacts, are you comfortable with that? And increasingly people are not comfortable with that.

(Am I an activist?). Yes, I’m a sociologist-activist.

We’re seeing the rise of the hyphenated activist…the professor-activist, the lawyer-activist, the farmer-activist, the grandparent-activist, the student-activist. A lot of people are doing both, and they’re doing both because these problems are coming closer to where they live, work, study and play. At that point, when you take a position on something, you have a multiple presence – you are what you are and you’re an activist, or advocate. Not against, but advocating for. For communities, for environment, advocates for – not against.

Be informed, to increase awareness about environment and community, take a position on that, and be heard with regards that position. Democracies rely on that.

Photo: Anadarko’s drill ship the Noble Bob Douglas drilling off the Otago Coast. Credit: Oil Free Otago flotilla.

Categories
climate change science

Historian of climate science

Naomi Oreskes

Ever wondered why science and politics don’t play nice? Naomi Oreskes tells us why in this history of climate science.

The naive vision of ‘we do the facts then hand it over to the policy makers and they act on it’. That would be great in a perfect world, and it worked for ozone so scientists could be forgiven for thinking that was realistic, but it hasn’t worked this time around.

Naomi Oreskes is Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard. Professor Oreskes’s research focuses on the earth and environmental sciences, with a particular interest in understanding scientific consensus and dissent. Her 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco to Global warming , co-authored with Erik M. Conway, was shortlisted for the Los Angeles Time Book Prize, and received the 2011 Watson-David Prize from the History of Science Society.

In this conversation, Naomi tells us of the bad luck of the coincidental rises of neo-liberal economics and the emergence of the global environmental issues

Talking points

We see a tendency to err on side of least drama

What we call science has changed dramatically over time

Narrowing of focus of science…the rise of specialisations, a powerful tool but comes at cost of broader perspectives.

After 1940s, increasing recognition of role of science and technology in modern warfare…not entirely new but…becomes much stronger.

Disassociation begins to take place where scientists don’t talk about the larger geo-political context of their work

We might like to believe that there is a litmus test for the truth…the reality is that it doesn’t really work that way.

The insight of Kuhn…consensus.

Continental drift…as a model for how scientists judge evidence independent of political interference (was originally uncontroversial before people realised had age of earth implications).

Climate change not a paradigm shift because didn’t replace an alternative

Climate change is applied physics and chemistry.

By 1965 signals that carbon in the atmosphere was increasing…(but)… most scientists thought we wouldn’t be able to detect climate change from increased greenhouse gases until the 21st Century.

The surprise in the story was when it occurred sooner. when already the the late 1980s and early 1990s the effects were beginning to be seen.

When was it first described as problem:

In 1957 he (Roger Revelle) gave an interview with Time Magazine where said one reason why we should care about this is that a warmer world will lead to sea-level rise

There is no question that Revelle thought it could be a problem, he wasn’t 100% sure that it would be a problem and how soon it would be a problem.

The idea that it (anthropogenic climate change) could be a problem was on the table going back to the late 1950s.

Gordon MacDonald was one of the first in the US to say that climate change could be a problem. He wrote about it in the 1960s and called it inadvertent weather modification.

At that time he’s a relatively quiet voice, its not a big issue in the environmental movement as a political issue but it turns out to be really really important politically…today in the US the Environmental Protection Agency has the legal authority to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, this has been affirmed by the Supreme Court and we are waiting for the EPA to do this.

The Clean Air Act 1973 includes weather and climate in the issues the Act has authority over… that is because people already understood at that time that pollution had the potential to cause changes in weather and climate. And that work was largely done by Gordon MacDonald.

By the 1980s climate modellers are building climate models that they now think are good enough to be able to predict what the climate signals should look like if there were no additional greenhouse gases in the atmosphere versus what it actually does look like. In 1988 James Hansen and his colleagues published a paper in which they said that they believed climate change had become detectable. (That was controversial but it reached public awareness).

In the next few years there’s this tremendous political momentum begins to build and its that momentum that also triggers the backlash…a right-wing turn against science.

This is the bad luck story – what historians call a history contingency…the growth of neo-liberal economics happened just around the same time as scientists begin to find evidence of some really major global environmental problems. So as environmental concerns moved from local to global issues…gigantic issues with huge economic consequence…just at the same time as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan are promoting deregulation in the economic environment, scientists are pointing out these very major potentially grave environmental threats, and how do you prevent acid rain…climate change…protect the ozone…? Well the answer is regulation, and sometimes really big scale regulation like international conventions with significant political implications. So we were beginning to see the advocates of free market policies turning against science.

People who up until then had generally supported science as supporting industry…the business community valued science because it helped create technology, now you see large sectors of the business community beginning turn against science. And that is the historic Greek tragedy part of the story, things go downhill from there very seriously and very quickly.

Critical analysis is one thing, dishonest attack is another.

Scientists have been conservative in their estimates of the rate and degree of climate change over the last 30 years.

The whole issue of climate change is now so political and so difficult that I think a lot of people in the scientific community are kind of spooked. And they’re nervous and they don’t really know how to respond. And I think a lot of scientists think that if they’re just very cautious and very careful and very conservative that that will preserve and protect their credibility.

Absolutely scientists should be conservative and should not make claims they can not support with evidence and high quality data…the question is once you have that data, what do you say about it? And if you don’t think the world is responding, if you don’t think the world gets it, then that tells me that you aren’t communicating it clearly enough.

How do we communicate clearly in ways that are effective and truthful and correct? It’s not an argument in favour of exaggerating the science or saying things that aren’t true. It’s about taking what we believe to be true and communicating it clearly.

But now you’re up against the largest, most successful, most profitable business in the history of mankind, you’re up against an economic system that depends on burning fossil fuels, you’re up against a lifestyle – every rich person in the world because we live off the energy stored in fossil fuels, and I don’t mean rich-rich, I mean all of us, every person who lives in the West.

Can science compete against the business system with vested interests in us over-consuming? That’s the $64,000 question…that is the question that will determine the what happens in the next 100 years. If we can’t figure out a way to act upon what we know then we’re going to see a lot of pain and suffering.

The naive vision of ‘we do the facts then hand it over to the policy makers and they act on it’. That would be great in a perfect world, and it worked for ozone so scientists could be forgiven for thinking that was realistic, but it hasn’t worked this time around.

(Am I an activist?). Not really, I teach classes and do my research. Students often ask me…”what should they do?” and I always say you have to figure that out for yourself – based on who you are, what your temperament is, what your personality is, what your talents are, what resources you have at your disposal…so I’m a scholar, and I love doing the work I do. …. I feel like I’ve ended up in a place that has worked out being meaningful, and valuable, and I think the best thing I can do is keep on doing what I’m doing.

We went from ‘most of the observed warming is likely to be…’, to ‘most of the observed warming is very likely to be…’ and now ‘it’s extremely likely…’…likely, very likely, extremely likely I think these are shades of difference that the scientific community thinks are terribly important but that most people outside the scientific community don’t really see that that’s so significant…

Naomi was in Dunedin for the Science Teller Festival organised by the Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago. We are grateful for the organisers of the Festival in their help in arranging this episode of Sustainable Lens.

Categories
climate change communication

Communicating climate science

Andrew Tait

I’m driven by the communication of science – how information is used – can it influence somebody? can it open people’s eyes to possibilities?

Dr Andrew Tait is a Principal Scientist in the climate team at NIWA. A geographer, he focusses on the application of climate information. We talk about his role and the challenges of communicating science.

Talking points:

Objectivity is needed rather than an emotional response

Denialism is beyond what a scientist can really handle. They’ve got a world view and if your information doesn’t fit that worldview the they’re just closed to it

Climate information is a part of the landscape of being able to do what you do sustainably

I’m impressed by the adoption of sustainable principles – as a nation we’re managing drought on a large scale – this has been a change in thinking

People appreciate the effort you make to try to connect with them, and saying if you want to be able to making the best decisions you possibly can then please take account of this information

The enormity of decision making such as sea level rise – boy oh boy – it evokes interesting and sometimes heated discussions with people concerned for the future value of their properties

Have to ask the question, would we be better off if we didn’t know, or didn’t attempt to know just because there may be significant implications?

There’s got to be a strategic push for people to actually start doing the work – seriously thinking about implications. We have a hesitancy to start doing that work because of perceived implications of what the results might show

I’m driven by the communication of science – how information is used – can it influence somebody? can it open people’s eyes to possibilities?

(Do you make a point of staying out of the political?) For sure. (safe is a politically charged term, should scientists use such terms?). To me is going beyond what a scientist should be doing, but there’s a frustration for a scientist who wants to provide the best information they possibly can for a decision-maker to use and seeing that the information isn’t being used well. There’s a big frustration there, and I can understand why others, particularly if they’ve got a global soapbox will, and have got into this debate – that of why isn’t more being done? From my perspective I’m not prepared to get into that area. I want to help as much as I possibly can. … We’re such a small community of scientists, that we do get involved in discussions with policy makers at all levels – and we can be at the personal level of talking to a minister, or a CEO. But they don’t want us to be telling them what to do. I don’t think anyone wants someone coming in from an ivory tower telling them what to do. But people appreciate the effort that we make to try to connect with them – to say, if you want to making the best decisions you possibly can, then please take account of this information and understand how it was derived and what its implications are. The scientist can do a lot to make that bridge.

The old model of scientist as the remote expert is gone, people are part of the system so they have to part of the research

Categories
climate change

Reluctant activist

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben is a reluctant activist. But he is very good at it. The founder of the 350.org movement, Bill is currently in New Zealand hosted by 350 Aotearoa as part of his Do the math campaign.   Sustainable Lens went along for a listen and a chat.

Here are some of our favourite bits:

Asking for same liveable planet people always had isn’t radical. Changing the global system for profit is radical.

Jail over climate change wasn’t the end of the world, the end of the world is end of the world.

We can’t outspend the other guys, we have to find other currencies to work in.

The fossil fuel industry is no longer a normal industry.  Being against the laws of physics makes it a rogue industry.  Either Exxon has to bend or laws of Physics.

Time to stop tinkering. How do we make it possible for politicians make the system changes we need?

Misplaced kindness: NZ subsidising richest industry on earth to come drill here.

We don’t lack technology, just political will.

Desmond Tutu:  Climate change a deeply moral issue: if wrong to wreck planet, it’s wrong to profit from it.

In China 25% get their hot water from solar. In US is less than 1% and is mostly used for swimming pools.

Why are we continuing to explore for oil when existing oil reserves are  five times more than a 2 degree warming?

If 1 degree warming melts the Arctic, we’re fools to be experimenting with the earth to find out what 2 degrees will do.

Hurricane Sandy insight into utter vulnerability of our systems to climate change.

We’ve taken one of the biggest physical features on earth and broken it. Bill McKibben on effect of climate change on Arctic ice

Bill McKibben: loves Dunedin, but on a rational planet shouldn’t have to have come back.

 

Bill was last in Dunedin in 2009, we spoke with him then too, before we were on the radio.

Categories
climate change

Shifting political opinion

Louis Chambers

Deeply perturbed about the direction the country is headed, but optimistic for change

We first met Louis Chambers nearly two years ago when he was busily helping establish Generation Zero. Then, he (along with Bridget O’Leary) told us that “Generation Zero will be the generation to oversee the transformation to a zero carbon world”. We were taken by their positive focus and informed approach. So after two years, an election and a graduation later (LLB/BA no less), we asked Louis back for an update before he embarks on his Rhodes Scholarship. Are they managing to stay positive? Where have they been most effective? And how do they see Generation Zero sustaining itself under the inevitable pressure of getting a haircut and getting a real job?

The only game, Louis says, is to shift political opinion. Generation Zero focusses on issues that affect us today, and engaging people with things they can do.

Louis can also be heard on part 2 of our Wise Response special.

Categories
climate change ecology economics health politics

Wise Response (Part 2)

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Previously on Sustainable Lens Emeritus Professor Sir Alan Mark (pod) described work towards the Wise Response campaign.   This call to face up to New Zealand’s critical risks was launched in Dunedin recently with a series of speeches. Sustainable Lens highlights these messages (Part 1 last week).

  • Russell Tregonning: (OraTaiao: The New Zealand Climate and Health Council). Climate change is the #1 threat to health.   NZ a global free loader.
  • Neville Peat : Each generation defines “natural” without realising baseline has shifted – unwittingly we are accepting less and less.  These baseline shift results in community amnesia.  We need a baseline assessment of true relationship of economy & ecology.   Danger of DOC’s dual role of conservation & tourism.  Community fatigue while government dodges responsibility
  • Professor Tim Hazeldine:  Economics is our friend. Problem is not enough market (why are we subsidising polluters?)
  • Louis Chambers:  Generation Zero is not doing this because we’ve nothing better to do, we’re doing it because we must.   It needs an all systems, all society transformation.   We must find allies; change culture; strategic microcosms; clarify vision; pick strategic battles; repeat until we win.
Categories
climate change conservation biology ecology economics maori politics science

Wise Response (Part 1)

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Previously on Sustainable Lens Emeritus Professor Sir Alan Mark (pod) described work towards the Wise Response campaign.  This call to face up to New Zealand’s critical risks, was launched in Dunedin recently with a series of speeches.  This week and next on Sustainable Lens we highlight those messages:

  • Hoani Langsbury What sustains life essence?
  • Professor Peter Barrett We’re creating an event of geological magnitude (greenhouse but with remnant ice sheets – so energy transfer)
  • Associate Professor Susan Krumdieck Beyond myths of market: we have no choice but to reduce demand, only whether this is graceful or not. Every professional needs to make changes to provide products and services in new reality.
  • Dr Mike Joy Impacts of massive increase of industrialised dairy farming.  Intensified cows have footprint of 84 million humans need to cost impacts.  25¢ Phosphate fertilizer cost $100 to remove.  Ecological debt $20 for 1kg milk fat.

 

Categories
climate change energy peak oil

energy, and the growth delusion

Bob_Lloyd_sq

Associate Professor Bob Lloyd is Director of the Energy Studies Programme at the University of Otago. This interview is a tour de force of the role of energy and its importance in a sustainable world. We revisit the tragedy of the commons, understand the Jevons paradox, and examine why growth is a delusion.

Categories
climate change ecology

Climate change impacts ecosystems

Lesley Hughes

Professor Lesley Hughes is an ecologist in the Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University who researches the impacts of climate change on species and ecosystems. She is a lead author on the IPCC fourth and fifth assessment reports, a member of the Australian Government’s Land Sector Carbon & Biodiversity Board and commissioner on the federal Climate Commission.

Categories
climate change politics

Positive enthusiasm and participation

Smart, young and the right mix of serious fun. Alec Dawson talks with us about Generation Zero‘s incredibly successful first year. He says that climate change is the challenge of the generation, and responding to it is a matter of inter-generational justice. Despite – or perhaps because of – the seriousness of the threat, Generation Zero is resolutely positive with enthusiasm and participation at the core.

Shane’s number of the week: 21 is the number of opportunities for Green Growth identified in the recent Pure Advantage report.

Sam’s joined-up-thinking: It’s the end of the academic year and that means showcases of student work. Sam talks about three successful capstone projects from the Bachelor of Information Technology: ExoExplore – a citizen science app framework, FarmBase – an integrated system for agribusiness and environmental data, and Panda Island – a game to support the Peace Foundation’s Cool Schools programme.

Categories
climate change green party

Dr Kennedy Graham MP

Dr Kennedy Graham is a Green MP. After a distinguished diplomatic and academic career he is now Green spokesperson for lots of things (I summarise here as global issues).

Dr Graham describes his personal journey of working the diplomatic circles while the “people’s environmental movement” progressed from local to global concerns. The “crunch that is going to come” precipitated a move to a move activist role. The perfect storm of a massive increase in population, increasing individual consumption, and a social system entirely dependent on fossil fuels combine to mean we need to engender a massive change to how we live.

The nature of the challenge is unfortunately not reflected in public statements Dr Graham heard at the Rio 20 conference. He is disappointed by the ‘more of the same’ approach promoted by New Zealand’s Amy Adams. He is critical of the approach he describes at tinkering at the edges of a system that is fundamentally wrong. Indeed NZ’s formal position is one of no paradigm change.

Despite – or perhaps because of – a career in the diplomatic service, Dr Graham is critical of the structural dysfunctionality in the United Nations. Our global overshoot is a global problem, he says, “but we are attempting to solve it with 193 squabbling independent nation states all seeking to maximise their natural advantage against each other”. This “competitive pursuit guarantees ecological overshoot”.

We are, Graham says, in a “twilight zone that is part denial, part Gallic shrug of indifference, part catatonic fear”. We need to change how our species lives and our global machinery. We need to change our individual consumption.

Shane’s number of the week: 96%. That’s a 96% reduction in the use of supermarket plastic bags in Wales with the introduction of a small charge and the plastic bag becoming a social no no.

Shane’s other number of the week: 3215. That’s the number of records for the daily maximum temperature in the US in June.

Categories
behaviour change climate change

Dr Stephen Hill

Despite being an engineer by training, Dr Stephen Hill argues that a sustainable future is one of better social systems, not one of technical fixes.

Within that social system Stephen explores tensions in environmental management. For example, while the history of the environmental movement stems from place based protection, the development of renewable energy is largely motivated by a drive for carbon reduction. This tension comes to a head over proposals for wind farms. While in New Zealand he has been exploring the wind farm debates, and provides insights based on comparison to developments in Canada.

We ask if there a sweet spot between science and environmental policy? and discuss trade offs, social friction, vested interests, and fundamental tensions.

While we can influence and even change behaviours through manipulating markets – carbon pricing etc (and there’s no political appetite for this), the real change comes from changing attitudes. Attitudes, though, Stephen says, change really slowly.

Stephen describes some watershed moments in his career:

  • The earth shattering realisation upon reading the Brundtland report “Our Common Future” of the consquences of the population versus ecosystem services relationship.
  • Going to a talk by Steven Schneieder.
  • Working with Dixon Thompson – environmental management is about managing people.

Shane’s number of the week: 6. That’s six months to plug the leakage of natural gas from the Elgin well off Scotland.

Sam’s joined-up-thinking: We’ve talked about externalities before. Most of the impact of our activity isn’t internalised as a direct cost. Now KPMG has calculated how much that is – 41% of value. This means the true cost of a $100 product should be $141. This footprint relative to earnings is getting worse – rising by 50% in the eight years to 2010. It varies by sector too, for electricity; mining, marine and airlines, the unaccounted true cost is more than half the value. For food, the missing environmental cost is more than the value. In reality these costs are not borne by the companies, rather these impacts are carried by others (see full KPMG report).

Trainspotting: We apologise for leading the very optimistic Dr Hill down a line focussing on global problems. We agree – on the optimistic side, humans as a species are very adaptable.

Categories
climate change government

Prof Jonathan Boston

Prof Jonathan Boston

Know your Kyoto from your Durban? How about your COP from your UNFCCC? How do burping cows come into multi-lateral agreements? In this interview Prof Jonathan Boston untangles the mysteries of global climate change negotiations. He presents an ideal model and a way forward.

Earlier in the week, Prof Boston gave a public lecture, here are some of the slides.

Trainspotting: A long interview so Shane’s number of the week, and Sam’s joined up thinking will have to wait a week.

Categories
climate change politics

Bridget O’Leary and Louis Chambers

Bridget O’Leary and Louis Chambers tell us how Generation Zero will be the generation to oversee the transformation to a zero carbon world. This positively focussed youth movement aims to see zero net carbon emissions by 2050. With their positive and informed approach they have us convinced – politicians take note of this spirited youth voice – they’re coming to an election near you.

Shane’s number of the week:130,000 tonnes of palm oil imported into Australia every year.

Sam’s joined-up-thinking: Dr John C. Thomas is a senior researcher at IBM where he helps lead the people side of the Smarter Cities programme. Sam talked with John about the potential for pattern languages in sustainability (entire interview with John>>).

We liked the term “youth washing” which Anton stumbled upon in this interview. While it is not new (see here), we think it has legs.