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Would Things Be Different If the Public had Perfect Information on Climate Science and Solutions?

By Joe Romm on October 9, 2011 at 12:23 pm

"Would Things Be Different If the Public had Perfect Information on Climate Science and Solutions?"

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Last week, I wrote about the important Dunlap-McRight paper that found organized climate change denial “Played a Crucial Role in Blocking Domestic Legislation.”

Although this is a pretty obvious conclusion to objective observers, the false-equivalence bunch, led by blogger Andy Revkin, couldn’t bring themselves to report on it without giving the professional disinformers equal time.

John Rennie, the former editor in chief of Scientific American, slammed Revkin’s piece in a must-read post, “Revkin’s False Equivalence on Climate Message Machines.”  Rennie was particularly critical of Revkin’s equating the climate denial machine with a laughable “climate alarmism machine” (whipped up by an Australian disinformer), which equates those who spread outright anti-scientific disinformation (often funded by fossil-fuel interests) with the serious work of climate scientists and governments (and others) who make use of that genuine, scientific work.

But what ultimately caught my eye in Revkin’s post is that he linked to a 2009 Climate Progress post I wrote [in response to a Revkin piece], “What If the Public had Perfect Climate Information?“  Revkin writes:

It’s also important to examine whether a world without such efforts — in which citizens had a clear view of both what is known, and uncertain, about the human factor in shaping climate-related risks — would appreciably change. Some insist the answer is yes [link to CP]. Given the deep-rooted human bias to the near and now and other aspects of our “inconvenient mind,” I’m not nearly so sure (although this doesn’t stop me from working on this challenge, of course).

It continues to boggle the mind that a professional reporter would seriously believe that if the public fully understood the subject — yes, including those things that are highly certain and those that are less so — that they would not support strong, prompt actions to reduce emissions.  But, then, Revkin continues to this day to only endorse his vague R&D-focused “energy quest” and criticize those of us (including the National Academy of Science) who push for strong emissions reductions starting now.  Since Revkin refuses to this day to tell us what level of concentrations he thinks the world should aim for –  even a broad range, say 450 ppm to 550 ppm — Revkin retains the luxury of attacking those who are willing to state what their target is while maintaining a faux high ground that they are being politically unrealistic while he can pretend his essentially do-nothing strategy is scientifically or morally viable, which it ain’t.

Of course, the public already supports far more action now than is tolerated by the anti-science crowd or the political party they have a hammerlock control of — see Mandatory Cuts in Carbon Pollution Favored by Over 70% of Voters and Small Businesses — and Even 49% of Fox Viewers. But  since they don’t fully understand the dire cost of inaction — and the  relatively low cost of action using existing or emerging technologies — their  is no serious political penalty imposed on those who spread lies or counsel delay.

What follows is an update of my 2009 post.  I am  very interested in your answer to the headline question.

Revkin asks me via Dot Earth, “What if The Public had Perfect Climate Information?”  Ahh, the hypothetical question that launches us into an alternative history.  Reminds me of that Saturday Night Live routine, “What if Spartacus had a Piper Cub?”

I’d love your answer.  Here’s mine.

If the entire public had perfect information on all matters related to climate — the science and the solutions — we would certainly be on a path to below 450 ppm  (see, for instance, Scientists find “net present value of climate change impacts” of $1240 TRILLION on current emissions path, making mitigation to under 450 ppm a must).

Indeed, I’d argue that having perfect information on the solutions is at least as important as having perfect information on the problem.  Probably the single biggest reason for the lack of deployment of energy-efficient technology is lack of perfect information.

Let’s set aside that there is no definition of what one means by “perfect information.”   The term implies we’re in the hypothetical ideal state here.

Also, the possession of perfect information 30 years ago would completely change the amount of information we have today.  This I think is a very important point.

If the public had perfect information on climate — and by public I am, of course, including the media and politicians — then we would certainly have put a great deal more money into climate science, observations, satellites, and the like starting at least 3 decades ago, when it became clear to the scientific community that the threat of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions was real and serious.

Remember, the National Research Council’s 1979 review of the science (“Killing the myth of the 1970s global cooling scientific consensus“:

In this case, the panel concluded that the potential damage from greenhouse gases was real and should not be ignored. The potential for cooling, the threat of aerosols, or the possibility of an ice age shows up nowhere in the report. Warming from doubled CO2 of 1.5°-4.5°C was possible, the panel reported. While there were huge uncertainties, Verner Suomi, chairman of the National Research Council’s Climate Research Board, wrote in the report’s foreword that he believed there was enough evidence to support action: “A wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late” (Charney et al. 1979).

Obviously, if everybody had even that amount of information in 1979, we would have charted a very different course.  We would have immediately started investing heavily in low-carbon RD&D — a strategy many embrace today based on imperfect information.

Ironically, President Carter did start such heavy alternative energy investment (though not aimed at carbon), but Reagan tragically slashed the budget 70% to 90%, from which it never recovered.

As our understanding of the risks became clearer in the 1980s, we would have ramped up RD&D funding and started making aggressive deployment in technology up the carbon cost curve, starting with the lowest cost strategies — “best buys first” as my old colleague Amory Lovins used to say.  That is especially true because most independent studies done by groups that are funded by the disinformers and their allies find the cost of action to be quite low (see “Introduction to climate economics: Why even strong climate action has such a low total cost — one tenth of a penny on the dollar“).

Public policy built around perfect climate information would not merely encounter dramatically fewer market barriers, it would presumably be built around a best estimate of the cost to society of carbon dioxide emissions.  That estimate would take into account our understanding that even a low probability of high-impact negative outcomes implies the need for a much higher CO2 cost than the kind of simple cost-benefit analyses we typically see (see Harvard economist: Climate cost-benefit analyses are “unusually misleading,” warns colleagues “we may be deluding ourselves and others”).

That also means we would have properly valued ecosystem services, including the tropical rain forests, and they would be oing a heckuva lot better today.

As the world worked together to understand the science and adopt the most cost-effective solutions — while spending money to developed yet more solutions — we would have seen that emissions reduction is inexpensive and straightforward, especially when you take a long time horizon.  That’s in my experience over the past two decades working with businesses to develop and deploy low carbon technologies, as I have documented at great length — see my book Cool Companies: How the best businesses boost profits and productivity by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

As everybody saw the multiple benefits of embracing energy efficiency, advanced control systems, variable speed drive motors, daylighting, production processes, and the like in terms of both energy savings and productivity gains, this would quickly have become the norm around the planet.

As for renewables, I can’t even imagine how cheap Concentrated solar thermal power Solar Baseload would be if Luz had not been allowed to die two decades ago!  If you don’t know that story, well, it’s a sad one, but we might have had carbon-free load-following power suitable for use around the planet at under 10 cents a kilowatt hour in the 1990s.

By the 2000s, the world would certainly have been on a path below 550 ppm and as it became increasingly clear that aspects of the climate system were more sensitive than we expected, we would have moved to the 450 ppm path or lower, which would be considerably easier to do since we were on a lower emissions pathway to start with and had so many more clean energy options.

I’m not certain how productive it is to spend a lot of time in the imaginary world of perfect information.  But it is worth spending enough time to realize just how destructive the disinformation campaign and the enabling media coverage has been, which was the point of my original post, “Apparently you can write an entire article on how the public doesn’t get climate science without mentioning the disinformation campaign or the media’s failings.”

UPDATE:  Since this post was written, we have still failed to take action (which is to say that we have failed to overcome the extraconstitutional, anti-democratic, 60-vote “requirement” in the Senate that gives the denial machine so much leverage).

Yet, the science has gotten more dire in its projections of what will likely happen if we keep on  our current path of unrestricted emissions — see An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces.

mit-wheels.gif

Humanity’s Choice (via M.I.T.):  Inaction (“No Policy”) eliminates most of the uncertainty about whether or not future warming will be catastrophic.  Aggressive emissions reductions dramatically improves humanity’s chances.

At the same time, the cost of the solutions have dropped considerably — see Solar is the “Fastest Growing Industry in America” and Made Record Cost Reductions in 2010.

And, of course, media coverage has gotten measurable worse — see Silence of the Lambs: Media herd’s coverage of climate change “fell off the map” in 2010. But that is no doubt just a coincidence.

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57 Responses to Would Things Be Different If the Public had Perfect Information on Climate Science and Solutions?

  1. todd tanner says:

    We’d be far better off if the public at large had accurate information on climate & energy. At the same time, accurate information about a problem doesn’t necessarily ensure an intelligent response. Unless someone (the media, politicians, scientists, religious leaders, etc.) makes a point of framing the information in a way that the vast majority of us can understand and relate to, and unless those same folks lay out common-sense solutions, it’s unlikely that we’ll come up with an effective response.

    The good news is that we have all the tools to make our case and move toward a sustainable future. The bad news is that we live in the real world, and the American public is unlikely to have perfect information on climate change anytime soon.

  2. Davos says:

    Contrary to what might be said at times, the large majority of smokers DO have the information they need regarding smoking. A huge percentage of smokers know it’s bad for them, and will ultimately kill them– but will still not quit, either because they don’t care enough, are hopelessly addicted, or still prefer to smoke despite it leading to death.

    There’s a completely valid parallel in green energy response that often gets ignored, disavowed, or disparaged. In areas where economic survival depends upon dirty energy industry, it simply doesn’t matter how much accurate knowledge of precise and certain death that awaits the planet in the not-too-distant future… the folks who live local to those industries are NOT going to support the demise of the industry without its replacement with a solution that is equitable in terms of [location, salary, and education/training requirements]. This should not be surprising, or a source of disparagement to the people who live in such difficult situations (like West Virginia).

    So therefore, with full accurate knowledge of a future catastrophy in which one specific location might still fare better than a distant other location, struggling local citizens will always still choose to avoid a present catastrophy that directly affects them and their need to economically provide. This supercedes their own health concerns, their drinking water, and the future environment of their children (or their own).

    For everyone else (which is a much larger slice of people), they don’t have this line of reasoning.

    • Mike Roddy says:

      Can’t say I agree, Davos. Oregon Coast residents hate the timber companies. The Navajo hate the coal companies, especially Peabody.

      Some are trapped by jobs, but kicking them out would be popular locally. This is reflected in polls. Those who claim to be speaking up for the logger and the miner are just executives and shareholders lying about this just like they lie about other things.

    • John McCormick says:

      Davos, you are speaking reality and it hurts to agree with you.

  3. Leif says:

    Looking for perfect information is indeed a non-starter because the best we have is the science of the present, which is always growing as it should. Even the Airline industry still has crashes. Not having a well funded out right lying denier faction is where it is at IMO. (Where is the eco-cide Court?) Just as it is illegal to cry “fire” in a theater, so it is to not warn others of clear danger. Science is the closest thing humanity has to arbitrate the danger of complex system interaction. When 97 out of 100 international Doctors in any discipline start telling you that your environmental foundation has major cracks, I take notice. When the other 3% largely work for the vestige interests of stratospheric profits exploiting the commons, I also take notice. We are talking about the future of humanity here, not whether a well payed test pilot, with redundant safety back-up systems, will crash a X-plane in the desert.

  4. DRT says:

    Would things be different? Yes. Certainly we’d be in a better place. Certainly understanding how we got to where we are is important. But we are where we are so the more interesting question to me is the perennial question: what are we going to do now?

  5. Ron Broberg says:

    The answer is ‘no.’

    The fallacy here is the assumption that people are rational beings, rational in the sense of ‘logic machines.’ They are not.

    A huge amount of information is available online to anybody interested in looking for it. Google scholar. The IPCC reports. The USGCRP. Etc.

    Most people are not interested in reading science publications or scientific reviews. Instead, they want a digest: “What’s going to happen?” “What should we do?” The first is a summary of what we know (and there remain broad areas of uncertainty here). The second is a policy question which science can inform but not answer.

    To get those answers, they are going to turn to sources they trust to digest the answers for them. News media. Talk shows. Blogs. In a few cases, religious authorities. Unwilling or incapable of reaching for primary sources, they will rely on these filtered sources.

    Even the few willing to go for primary sources will still have subconscious filtering mechanisms in place because people are not logic machines. We each have an existing narrative into which we fit the facts and observations we encounter each day. Very few people have a personal narrative in which a primary theme is: Today, I am going to base my actions primarily on an impartial analysis of scientific information

    So why do large sections of the general public not trust the IPCC, USGCRP, or scientific publications? Because for many, their primary narratives in public policy are anti-government. The IPCC is UN affiliated. The USGCRP is federal program. The universities are hotbeds of liberalism and rely on government money. For many people, most people, politic narratives dominate their science-based narratives and no increase in climate information is going to move them.

    • Tim says:

      I think everything you say is correct, but I assumed that the question posed (concerning perfect information) meant that all news sources gave accurate information – including the right-wing/corporate noise machine: Fox News, the WSJ, the Washington Times, the Heritage Foundation, etc. If one interprets the question that way, then the major impediment to action is the “smoker” effect. Very little of the right-wing noise machine contests the dangers of smoking any longer. Yet people still smoke. On balance, however, I think that in the imaginary world where fossil-fuel-corporation-owned-prostitutes suddenly disappear and the all the media tells the truth, action on climate change would occur.

      As my wife and I always used to say, “tell me about the rabbits, George.”

      • Ron Broberg says:

        I think your “many people who know the dangers of smoking continue smoking” is an interesting example. Different people ‘weigh’ the risks and benefits differently basde on their personal values systems and the social narratives they are involved in. The perceived value of a drag this minute is weighed against perceived costs down the road. And not all of those costs and benefits are economic. I didn’t worry about the economic benefits of the puff – I felt more relaxed, less stressed, maybe even sexier. And connected to my peers while sharing that time behind the kitchen. (I was an intermittent smoker when I cooked for a living – long, long ago) The perceived benefits are driven by brain chemistry and images from advertisements, movies, and friends. Very little to do with rational decision making. I gave it up when I moved to less stressful work.

        Even with wide spread acceptance of the science and the risks, global cigarette consumption continues to grow.
        http://www.tobaccoatlas.org/images/charts/Chap7_ConsumptionHistory.jpg

      • Ernest says:

        I agree with the point that human beings are not “rational”.

        However, if we take the premise that if WSJ and FOX news supports action on climate change, I tend to favor saying “yes” that things would be different, that there would be significant action on climate change. (Take climate change as a “national security” issue.) It’s not because the public agrees with the details of the logic on the “risks/costs/benefits” given certain “facts”. (Most people don’t have the time to make a detailed study of the arguments and counter-arguments.) The right wing public would say “yes” because their “trusted authorities” (WSJ and FOX), who share their values, say “yes”.

        The “logic” of the human mind tends to be “Bayesian” (a logic now that is heavily used in modern “machine learning”). It needs to make economical decisions in light of imperfect and incomplete information (which is the “normal” situation). Prior information, prior cognitive frameworks, prior experiences, prior values weight heavily into the consideration even given “new” information. It would take a lot of countervailing “new” information to overthrow the cognitive bias.

        The same can be said for the “left”. We have our “trusted authorities”, and look warily to arguments and “facts” proposed by those authorities that we don’t trust.

        • Davos says:

          I’m not all that sure that things would be all that different… We have a similar issue with Farm Subsidies that politicians have been trying to end for years and years. It doesn’t matter how uniform and unanimous the information is. It’s still going to be weighed against concerns that are immutable (short-term economics). Until proponents of legislation designed to initiate an economic paradigm shift have an answer to how those who are going to be directly affected in the short-term can be equitably compensated in the short-term, the legislation will have difficulty passing the senate, and will only become law by judicial rule or end-around regulation.

          There are at least 10 “Coal States” … That puts 20 senators in play to partner with ideological colleagues in filibustering or voting down legislation required to instigate this sort of change in economics. Farm bill proponents have noticed the same sort of hill within its sector.

          “It’s the [short-term][local] economy, stupid” and current green-energy initiatives don’t have an answer for it.

          • Ernest says:

            I like this answer even better. There are a lot of countries that recognize the validity of climate science (EU, China, India, …) Yet taking the necessary action to actually deal with the problem in a significant way falls short of what is required …

  6. myna lee johnstone says:

    we have accurate info on the devastation automobiles cause and the exhorbitant social costs of driving
    everyone ,almost.is still driving

  7. Some European says:

    The same question also caught my eye in the article. I think the answer is ‘yes’ for one simple reason: we would have moved from debating whether the problem was even real to debating which is the best way to deal with it, 20 years ago. Regardless of what the choices that would eventually have been made by local and national governments, we would already be on a downward emissions trajectory.
    Nobody’s debating whether the Earth is round or flat and the very idea seems absurd. We have wasted valuable time and energy on an absurd debate.
    I think there is no question whatsoever that the organized climate denial campaign has been enormously successful at its only goal: stalling global action to reduce fossil fuel consumption, thereby both increasing corporate profits for the few and the death count for the many.

  8. And the difference between having “perfect” information and “real good” information is what exactly?

    It’s like the line from the parable and Dives after Dives requests that Lazarus be sent back from the dead, “They have Moses and the Prophets. Let them heed them. If they ignore Moses and the Prophets, they will not believe even if a man comes back from the dead.”

  9. Neven says:

    If the entire public had perfect information on all matters related to climate…

    …we’d need a couple of million extra therapists.

  10. prokaryotes says:

    False climate change data a Crime Against Humanity

    Publication of deliberately false climate change data literally ought — i.e., MUST — be treated, not as a peccadillo, but as a Crime Against Humanity. My remark here is not an expression of an emotion, but of an intellectual and humanitarian reaction of a scientist to falsification of data that could be as bad in its effect as long-term global warming itself, by permitting the latter to thrive, and acquire an egregious and panhumanly disastrous momentum. If this were World War III such people would be shot, and with far, far greater warrant than even those human catastrophes.

    A scientist is a kind of Protective Angel for Humanity. Why? Simply because he lives and breathes for Truth.

    ——— * ———

    As for the falsifiers of data, or criminal social parasites, let me switch from the second to the first of my scientific careers, long ago at M.I.T., where I was — a then VERY rare! — theorist in neuroscience, trying to make sense of the human brain as a whole and all the astonishing behavior and abilities it gives rise to. A SIDE interest of mine, then and later, was the queer and baffling, and decidedly chilling, phenomenon of the psychopath, a.k.a. sociopath. The essential trait of such people is that have little or no conscience, and yet they can be at the same time profoundly convincing to the layman — i.e., virtually all of us.

    The incidence of these curious and horrific people in the body of the whole of humanity is estimated to be of the order of 1/200. This is misleading, however, because the pathology is a matter of degree, or properly illustrated by an intensity-frequency curve. To put it simply, a psychopath can and does lie without a blink, either external or internal. And often does so for profit or simply out of total indifference to the harm he works upon the innocent and the virtuous. I have little doubt that the purveyors of purposefully, and dangerously, falsified Global Warming data ARE in many instances psychopaths, whose falsifications tend to put ALL of us at risk. Even heads of great corporations can be, in various ways and degrees, psychopathic. (Psychopathy probably had some partly useful — personal OR social — function in the long-ago past of Homo sapiens. It is certainly common enough in our politicians nowadays!)

    POSTSCRIPT

    Two decades ago I was neutral, but skeptical, about global warming. Later I realized that we simply could not tolerate the risks it potentially posed.

    One does not play games, or take chances, when essentially the whole of civilization and humanity MAY be in peril. None of us can escape from the need for such caution, and where even the very survival of our species over Eternity may just be confronted with the possibility of extinction through carelessness or ignorance, or a shallow and selfish morality, or ideology or skepticism, or a universal involvement in petty and personal disputes between men fighting in diapers. (Phenomena we have seen often enough in World Wars and in Wars Ancient, but no less pathetic and mindless.) In short, All of the Future hangs by a single tenuous thread from each and ever Present. — Patrick Michael Gunkel (Princeton, NJ). http://climateforce.net/2011/07/05/false-climate-change-data-a-crime-against-humanity/

  11. David B. Benson says:

    Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk, by Massimo Pugliucci. Univ. Chicago Press, 2010.

    Don’t think it would change behavior very much. Some are just set-in-their-ways.

    [Excuse me while I go out to have a smoke.]

  12. Joan Savage says:

    It would make a difference, but not enough. The cognitive certainties of information and solutions are only the means.

    What has to mobilize are the motives, and quickly, before the opportunities run out.

    A sign of brilliance is to select a course of action with a good probability of success, without waiting interminably for more complete data or more detailed plans.

    If a preponderance of decision-makers lurch out of hibernation and act, however imperfectly, not always agreeing with each other, the cumulative process can work more effectively than the solutions conceived by a few, no matter how detailed and ingenious.

  13. Peter Mizla says:

    Modern society does not allow many the time to investigate the full details of climate science.

    I have met highly educated people who know very little- or have a vague understanding.

    The Media has failed miserably in giving the public the truth. The ‘average’ person has every opportunity to learn- the information on line from NASA, NOAA, The IPCC, The National Academy of Science as well as this blog and others makes the science very clear, without heavy scientific jargon.

    Most people will not begin to really seek more information until their own lives begin to be changed deleteriously. How long this takes is anyone’s guess.

  14. Ron Broberg says:

    From a series of brief essays elicited from economists.

    The nature of family relationships is only one example. [rb: of cultural traits with economic significance] Another widely studied cultural trait is trust. The importance of trust in economics cannot be underemphasized. [rb: overemphasized?] In Ken Arrow’s words “Virtually every commercial transaction has within itself an element of trust, certainly any transaction conducted over a period of time. It can be plausibly argued that much of the economic backwardness in the world can be explained by the lack of mutual confidence.” What determines trust, its evolution, its implications have been at the core of research in Cultural Economics. Work on trust spans from corporate finance to growth and development, to international trade, where bilateral trust makings countries has been shown to determine trade patterns. This point highlights another fundamental issue: individual trust and interact better with those who are more similar to themselves. The latter consideration has important implication for issue concerning the costs and benefits of ethnic fragmentation.

    - Alberto F. Alesina

    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1888513

    h/t
    http://www.economicprincipals.com/issues/2011.10.02/1296.html

  15. Mike Roddy says:

    I’m uncomfortable with the “perfect information” paradigm. Awareness of “the most solid evidence” is good enough.

    The “debate” is a mirage, and I’m glad you are pointing out one of its worst cheerleaders, Andy Revkin. Educated people speak about this differently. A frightening future is well understood by those who took the trouble to do their reading. This same information, even in simple and understandable form, is either blocked or presented as an opinion in our media.

    That whole gestalt is the problem- the media, politicians, and bankers who are owned by oil companies and wealthy investors. If we knew with high certainty that it was going to be 5C and 1.5M sea level rise this century, people would get upset and act. This has not happened because some really rotten groups and individuals are preventing it. Even the schools have been affected.

    When the people run this country again, a lot of things could change. Otherwise, we’re on an obvious suicide mission. The oil companies are not only greedy, they are pathological. It’s up to us to stand up to them.

  16. Merrelyn Emery says:

    People do not need perfect information or anything close. What they do need is the very most basic science – that GHGs trap heat which is energy.

    When this is understood, it is easy to see how the consequences of more extreme storms, heavier rain etc follow. It is also easy to see through the ridiculous claims of the deniers.

    The denial machine has exploited our failure to properly educate our populations in basic science. And saying that the science is so complex isn’t helping.

    The global climate system is undeniably complex but starting a conversation with the public at this level when they lack even the basics is worse than useless because it dwells on the uncertainties which the deniers again exploit.

    However, it’s never too late and what we need now is a strategy that educates in the basics while capitalizing on the growing perception that it is all going wrong out there, just as the science predicted, ME

  17. adelady says:

    I don’t think the comparison with smoking and driving are quite as strong as stated.

    Drivers generally believe that seatbelts and child restraints are a good idea – to the point that they support them being mandatory on new cars. Most smokers distinguish between their own choice/addiction and social action to reduce the incidence of the addiction purveyors recruiting new smokers.

    The better parallel would be asbestos. There’s still heaps of it available to be mined, it would always be cheap to use as a building material and it was ideal for some industrial applications. And we simply stopped doing it because it’s so dangerous to people.

    One thing we forget. People may not be ready to make a personal effort to avoid or correct something dangerous. But if they’re convinced, they will support policies that make it easy or cheap or ‘invisible’ to do the better thing rather than the dangerous one.

    If buildings had been gradually installing solar roofing over the last few decades, people now would be looking for that when they bought houses. They wouldn’t have to agonise over whether to instal it, what would the neighbours think, or any of that. They’d take it for granted. Same thing goes for low consumption cars. If every vehicle available got double the mileage they now do, what would be different from the point of view of the ordinary driver? Absolutely nothing.

    The big difference in a ‘perfect knowledge’ world would be that people prefer good technology – and they have ‘perfect knowledge’ of what is possible. They would also understand why certain policies are better than others. And they would support the better ones.

  18. Raul M. says:

    Why should I expect that the entire information providers could attempt to inform the whole world that the people should have improved criteria for decision processes. Why things could be better to step away from addictions and toward additions. Some could even study addiction therapy to learn successful steps for therapists to have more success in helping people step away from harmful ways.
    Some might suggest a hobby to help the individual pass the time.
    But the save the world theme, there are probably many who would claim to have the copyrights to that.

  19. Edith Wiethorn says:

    I think people would respond positively to more practical information about what the leaders in global responses to peak oil & climate change are accomplishing. Right there you stimulate two basic factors of human nature that don’t require an individual to be cutting-edge-perceptive & they are the comfort of precedent, plus competitiveness. Today Tim O’Reilly posted a good case-in-point with this subject line on Google Plus: What if Solar Was Subsidized Like Fossil Fuels? linked to a pithy info-graphic page comparing solar input & output in the US & Germany. We need a consistent, well-placed voice for this kind of series to provide issue-focus during the upcoming election campaigning.
    https://plus.google.com/107033731246200681024/posts http://1bog.org/files/2010/10/what_if_solar_was_subsidized_like_fossil_fuels_sm.jpg

  20. Max says:

    Let’s not forget that when CFCs were found to cause an ozone hole the world acted. An imperfect analogy I know but it does puzzle me why it isn’t used more frequently to shame the Republicans now with the behavior of those Republicans in the past who didn’t deny the scientific evidence of the harm that CFCs were and are causing.

  21. Max says:

    When the Antarctic ozone hole opened in the 90s people didn’t deny that it was there even though is is only visible with specialized isntruments. Now we have an ice hole over the arctic that is readily observable with photographs.

  22. Clinton M says:

    Let’s not over-think the marketing of climate science facts, after all denialism is easy and effective to market while education on such a topic is not.

    I’ve maintained for a LONG TIME that the problem can be condensed down to length of message.

    This post plus comments is at 13-pages of letter-format type and growing.

    Who is that targeted at? Surely not the target audience!

    I’m trying to find people willing to work on this, willing to collaborate on getting a simple, condensed message that is easily distributed at low cost.

    Via an 8×11″ piece of paper. But nobody is stepping up to help. What is wrong with all of us?

    Climate hawks need to be able to summarize and influence public opinion with something simple, low-cost, and capable of mass production. This climate tool must be catching to the eye, not complicated, and contain enough “meat” to get the job done.

    With all the brain power devoted to this subject, why can’t we come up with something for the masses that can be mass-produced?

    You want more coverage? Start covering more people. Simple, low-cost, with the rib-sticking appeal of oatmeal.

    One letter sized sheet. Clear facts. WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR? Put it in your back pocket, hand it out like candy.

    • mulp says:

      The simple message on the environment and economy is best described in pictures captioned “Capitalism” and “Pillage and Plunder”.

      The mountain top valley fill picture is pillage and plunder, and capitalism is a wind farm. The college graduation is capitalism and the unemployment office is pillage and plunder. The engineer and scientist is capitalism and the minimum wage worker is pillage and plunder. The oil well is pillage and plunder and the solar array is capitalism. The Mississippi bridge falling in Minneapolis is pillage and plunder and the state of the art new bridge completed 14 months later is capitalism. The freight rail rumbling slowly through town blocking traffic is pillage and plunder while the express freights delivering fresh farm products to market back in the 20s and 30s were capitalism.

      For three decades the balance between capitalism and pillage and plunder has shifted sharply to pillage and plunder. Pillage and plunder was the traditional economic driving force of the organized masses against the capitalists.

  23. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Clinton, while you are working on your one pager, here’s a bumper sticker:

    “Climate disasters are here
    -as predicted by science”

  24. CW says:

    CP recently had a post quoting a German who suggested that his country is progressing faster on climate action because they don’t have the Koch brothers (i.e. they don’t suffer from the degree of organized and funded disinformation found in the USA). My reaction was, “Yes, true, but they also have a more democratic electoral system.” So to me, information is huge but the context in which it is used is equally important. I suspect that even in a perfect information world the American electoral system would still act as a brake to the speed of the expression of the will of the majority because of its nutty structure and rules. A brake only though, better information would speed progress for sure.

  25. Bill Goedecke says:

    People will change when they have a vision on how to live differently, with different motivations than our current society provides. Just providing information will not move anyone in another direction. Even Climate Progress agrees with the society on motivations, as the focus is on green jobs, a green economy. There is no questioning of our underlying drive for profit and accumulation, just a suggestion that the ‘green economy’ will replace our current economic mix.

    If the motivation is entirely economic, then people will ‘rationally’ follow sunk costs. If you read basic macroeconomics, it suggests that people make decisions based on marginal benefit. Marginal benefit will always look towards existing capital – meaning that if the oil industry is providing good paying jobs, then people will look to that existing source for livelihood.

    Thinking about Carter, he was disparaged for being morose – Reagan came and gave what the people wanted – a fantasy – a ‘morning in America’ – too bad. Carter was doing good work and he was very direct about our situation. With Reagan our society really began to go down our current path in terms of the financialization of the economy with the run-up of debt. I wish I could be more hopeful. But society is making its choices everyday which are purely economic and aggressive. Just remember – our society is still investing in nuclear weapons (for example).

  26. John Kazer says:

    I have to agree with Davos.

    This is primarily a question of behaviour and psychology. The continuing mistake that is made is to think that most decisions are made on the basis of reasoning about information – it is a very well known principle in psychology and neuroscience that this is simply not true. This is also the (almost) entire basis of the advertising industry.

    Throwing more information and data at the problem won’t make any difference unless the ability to make alternative emotional decisions about the problem is changed.

  27. Peter Mizla says:

    Revkin will not make a commitment on C02 levels- surprising? He seems to be looking at ACC from a 2002 perspective. In July I recall over at his NYT Blog saying he did not think ice in the arctic would melt below 2010 levels (seemingly in denial that the melting thus far is 30 years ahead of IPCC estimates in 2007.

    Revkins understanding of paleo climates seems limited as well. Somehow I feel he is afraid of Jim Hansen’s increasingly refined C02 levels, in relationship to arctic & Antarctic melting, climate sensitivity-

    C02 will breeze by 400ppm in 4-5 years- Revkins silence should prove deafening.

  28. Spike says:

    A superb piece by Naomi Klein linking the socio-economic and environmental crises of our times here, well worth a read.

    I particularly admired this part:

    “We all know, or at least sense, that the world is upside down: we act as if there is no end to what is actually finite: fossil fuels and the atmospheric space to absorb their emissions. And we act as if there are strict and immovable limits to what is actually bountiful: the financial resources to build the kind of society we need.

    The task of our time is to turn this round: to challenge this false scarcity. To insist that we can afford to build a decent, inclusive society – while at the same time respect the real limits to what the earth can take.

    What climate change means is that we have to do this on a deadline. This time our movement cannot get distracted, divided, burned out or swept away by events. This time we have to succeed. And I’m not talking about regulating the banks and increasing taxes on the rich, though that’s important.”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/07/fight-climate-change-99

  29. Mike#22 says:

    There is a lot of strain building up between the facts about Global Warming, and the public’s ignorance of them. One can see the unnatural effect the denial machine has had on keeping people ignorant, and there are other reasons for this general ignorance as well. The problem is much larger than people are used to thinking about. The solutions, while straightforward, require national and international efforts–hardly the kind of projects most people contemplate in making up the day’s to do list. And fossil fuels are so much fun to use (as long as you don’t mind the smell and the noise).

  30. Anne says:

    re: #28 – Naomi Klein is observing the Orwellian nature of our society, where it’s always “opposite day” – down is up, right is left, yes is no. Successful brainwashing.

    What about a discussion that attempts to either prove or disprove the following null hypothesis:

    “Homo sapiens are, as a species, genetically programmed to self-destruct.”

    The evidence supporting this hypothesis is abundant. With notable exceptions, this harsh and tragic reality appears to be the case. I’d love to be proven wrong, though!

    • Bill Goedecke says:

      In the San Francisco Bay Area human beings lived here for 10,000 years – I have read. When the Spanish came here, the land was reportedly abundant in wildlife. It is the European society that has destroyed the natural abundance. Why? The fact that people have lived here for 10,000 years disproves your null hypothesis. It is my hypothesis that it is within the European society and the culture that came out of it that our orientation to ‘self-destruct’ arises.

    • John Kazer says:

      Bill: Any animal given free-rein will over-consume. This is classic predator-prey and small island ecosystem theory. Why should we think that humans are any different?

      The only time that any animal species can be considered “in balance” with nature (whatever that is) is when resources and death limit expansion. This is the way of evolution.

      So the reasoning that there were eco-friendly locals in California for thousands of years whilst it took Europeans months to damage the ecosystem is a myth. It was a matter of technology not attitude.

  31. Sundance says:

    I don’t think things would be different with perfect information on climate science. People are also not interested in perfect information on solutions but rather they are interested only in information on perfect solutions. Such a solution would provide clean energy that would lower their electrical bills in REAL terms. In other words people are interested in a solution that allows large developing nations to provide electricity at a cost of 5 cents/kWh with no government incentives, carbon trading or carbon taxes.

    • John Kazer says:

      I couldn’t agree more. Offer a sensible view of a future that works, without burdening folk endlessly with tales of woe.

      There is so much talk of renewable energy costing money etc. that we forget to note that this is a result of selling the wrong message – instead, what will life be like in the future given BAU versus the benefits of a resource efficient life?

  32. Sasparilla says:

    I think this one is easy. 5 years ago we had Republicans in the US willing to move forward on climate change action – and that was with all the denier junk going on (the denier interests have since made that impossible, but that was not the case till the last few years). Change what was coming out of Fox News and the WSJ all along and sure we would have been moving forward and as it kept turning out to be worse than we thought we would have pushed harder.

    Would we have made it? I’m not sure, but we would have had a much much better chance than we do in the reality we have.

    Andy Revkin….what to say…I’m sure the Koch’s are very fond of Andy Revkin. He has played a huge hand in assisting the denier interests (Koch’s, fossil fuels etc.) by giving voice and legitimacy in the NYTimes to the notion that the science of climate change is questionable over the years even as it has become more solid and undeniable. He’s played his part ensuring action hasn’t occurred as the clock ticks away.

  33. Brooks Bridges says:

    Obviously yes. Why do we have to learn basic truths over and over? This brilliant passage from “Mien Kampf” says it all:
    All this was inspired by the principle–which is quite true within itself–that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.

  34. kermit says:

    The Fundamentalists I grew up with were not convinced of anything by having access to pretty good information. They were influenced by authorities they trusted, i.e. senior family members, their preacher, and a handful of public figures. They had no trouble sacrificing for World War II. They’ve (mostly) always worked hard, they were willing to leave home for extended periods and even die for their tribe.

    If we’re going to make wishes, it’s not perfect knowledge we need to wish for – we have pretty good knowledge now, and these folks aren’t convinced by evidence and reason anyway.

    What we need to wish for is a silencing of the monied sociopaths and their agents of propaganda, and to persuade the biblical literalist preachers to say “Folks, we’re going to have to tighten our belts again and get to work but we’ll get through this just like we have so many times before.”

    You can’t reason with them. They’re not addicted to oil and cheap toys; they are instead committed to tribal identity. No hippie tree-hugging liberal scientist with the Devil’s facts can convince them. Just the right voices of authority.

    “We can’t hurt God’s creation” can easily be flipped to “We have a duty to take care of God’s creation”.

    And I assure you, as disturbing as this can be, these folks number in the tens of millions, and make up the bulk of the Tea Party.

    • John Kazer says:

      There are many churchs here in the UK (and I presume in the US too) that do a great deal of environmental work – perhaps the real debate for the religously minded community is an internal one?

      To what extent are they independent agents with a responsibility to the future versus agents who abrogate responsibility to a higher power?

  35. Joe Bftsplk says:

    Recently in a comment below his blog post Perceiving the Anthropocene, Revkin opined that the future doesn’t look so bad.

    “Even with the trajectories the way they are, my view is to get over the expectation we’ll add new items to our cognitive toolkit in time for a mainly science-based response to these risks. That means maximizing our intellectual capital, innovative potential and ability to share and shape ideas, and to nudge in smart directions through no-brainer policies as much as possible. I think there’s a decent chance, if these things are done, that we’ll surprise ourselves on the upside.”

    I guess he’s confident he’ll be dead before too much real sh*t hits the fan.

    • Joe Romm says:

      The only upside we’ll surprise ourselves on is the temperature upside.

    • I have no idea what Revkin could possibly imagine “no-brainer policies” might involve. There’s no conceivable policy that doesn’t involve heavily reducing carbon. That’s going to require substantial change and effort. Apparently he imagines that “science-based” responses will actually involve magic. (“Oh, all we needed to do was throw this little chromium switch …”)

      My usual response to reading Revkin is to remember the famous Upton Sinclair dictum about how hard it is to get someone to understand something when their paycheck depends upon their not understanding it.

  36. Bob LaVelle says:

    I’m done with Revkin. He’s a child playing both sides of the street. He trades in blog hits, obfuscation and titillation, not science reporting.

  37. Roger says:

    Well, it would be worth experimenting with an essentially free close approximation of giving the public perfect information.

    Why not? We might be able to preserve a livable climate, avoiding ‘hell and high water!’ How could this be done? Hmm…

    How about everyone focusing on one very simple ‘ask’ of the leader of the free world, aka, Obama. Here’s the ask:

    Go on prime-time, national TV to give an unprecedented but totally appropriate “State of the Climate” address to our citizens.

    Obama should ‘come clean’ and tell Americans what John Holdren (and other Obama advisors) tell us Obama knows. Namely, that global warming is real, a serious threat, a huge opportunity, and something that needs our urgent attention, now.

    He could then go on to, IMHO, declare war on climate change, identify and deal with the people and corporations that have been funding the climate disinformation campaign, outline the basic steps that he is taking to get America, and the world, back on track, and so on.

    To support this idea, call the White House at 202-456-1111, or go to whitehouse.gov and leave a comment, or go to, and ‘like’ it at http://www.facebook.com/climateaddress.

    Why waste time with underlings and half measures? If a livable climate is at stake, let’s all, just once, agree to focus on the man at the top. He’s got to know it’s the right thing to do. He’s got a wife, kids, a gift with words, the ability to offer hope…

    Warmly,
    Roger

  38. John Kazer says:

    I still think much of the above debate is missing the point. The deniers are running an emotional campaign, with little recourse to facts in any sense.

    People listen to the message and the tone, fighting this with figures, numbers and reasoning is to talk a different language and therefore not engage people in the same conversation at all.

  39. Jay Alt says:

    I did not follow all the links or reread your article, but I think it is easy to overestimate the difference that good information would make. You present a mix of article types here, but I wonder at times if there’s an assumption that facts will motivate enough people.
    Campaigns to stop smoking were mentioned and are appropriate given the level of our addiction. But consider the College and University President’s Climate Commitment.
    http://www.presidentsclimatecommitment.org/

    About six hundred presidents have signed up their schools. Reports and plans are made. Students push hard for action and vote in the fees to help fund it. There is little push-back from fossil fuel interests, at least on-campus. IPCC long-term goals are heartily embraced and written into the campus plans. There can be loads of expertise available at high level research schools. But the plans contain many outs and exceptions. And aside from a few small schools with exceptional individuals like Oberlin or Middlebury, my take is that progress has been very, very slow. Why should this be so under such ‘ideal’ conditions?