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What if the public had perfect climate information?

By Joe Romm  

"What if the public had perfect climate information?"


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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.”


‹ Republicans demagogue against market-oriented climate measures they once supported

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56 Responses to What if the public had perfect climate information?

  1. This is one of the most refreshing posts to have appeared on CP in quite some time. Engaging in this hypothetical automatically leads to the question of why everyone doesn’t have perfect information on climate change.

    Beyond the campaigns of the disinformers, it’s interesting to think about how much “personal disinformation” is perpetrated by observers on themselves, whenever they perceive the deliverer of that information as someone who has a political or ideological slant with which they disagree. (E.g., the widespread shorthand among conservatives equating climate change with Al Gore.) Or: whenever they perceive that information as threatening to their or their children’s ability to make a living (again in the person of Gore / progressives).

    I wonder also what new schisms would arise if we all had perfect information: clearly, people who already have “perfect” information on the subject disagree on solutions, e.g. Gates’s focus on innovation versus your own focus on deployment.

    [JR: Thanks! If we had perfect information, I don't think there would be a schism, since we would be investing a staggering amount of money R&D -- more than enough to satisfy Gates -- and we would be deploying at a very high rate, based on a best estimate carbon price and minimal market barriers. I think it is only because we don't fully appreciate the dire nature of the problem and we perceive ourselves to live in a world of choices constrained by a dysfunctional political system that we bicker over scraps.

    Of course, in a world of perfect information all around, Gates would probably never have become a billionaire, if you know the details of the story of how he started....]

  2. Tim L. says:

    What if we had perfect journalists who actually checked facts and presented those facts clearly and compellingly, rather than hyping stories based on obviously disingenuous campaigns mounted by Big Oil? Indeed, if we had “perfect information,” would there even BE Big Oil?

  3. catman306 says:

    Joe, the lack of perfect information is only a problem for we who don’t want the human world to end. Mass blissful ignorance trumps cautious informed behavior. Staying happy now is far more important to most people than some future generation’s well-being. Information is for sissies. Emotion drives real men. We win. The future loses. It’s the Darwin effect. And those of us who are well informed don’t even get to find out how this all ends.

    I guess we’re just lucky.

  4. Andy says:

    This is what I posted on Dot Earth:

    I certainly agree that allowing the social sciences to influence and shape the mode and content of climate science (and policy) communication would be immensely useful. I personnally don’t think there is much to argue with there, and a lot of potential for improved communication and public understanding even now, as late in the game as we are.

    However, I would be curious to hear if you [Andy Revkin] think that the mainstream media has, overall, fairly represented the understanding of the scientific community that 1) global warming is happening, and 2) human GHG emissions are the primary driver of this warming; or if you think the mainstream media has, overall, had an inconsistent record and has at times (often?) given excessive weight to a fringe of climate skeptics/deniers (some of whom are not even scientists) who have been repeatedly discredited for purveying junk-science. Which of these two descriptions do you think best represents your view of the mainstream media’s coverage of climate science?

    To address the title of your post directly: IMO, the “imperfections” in the climate information available to the public give busy people an excuse to ignore the issue of climate change. After all, until the science is “settled,” it’s not really prudent to take (or support) action. It also gives politicians a similar, simple, and very politically effective excuse to hide behind whenever the question of climate change mitigation and adaptation policy rears its ugly head.

  5. Chris Winter says:

    I’m guessing that an adequate operational definition of “perfect climate information” is the understanding of climate that any reader of this blog has, or that Revkin (presumably) has.

    And you’re right, Joe, that we would be living in a very different world if the public had that sort of understanding of climate. Many more of them would be demanding that politicians get going on alternative energy and measures to cut CO2 emissions. There’d soon be more types of energy-miser appliances and fuel-saving vehicles on the market, more green energy jobs and a smart grid on the way (if all those things weren’t here already.)

    Indeed, I submit the changes would be more general and far-reaching, for better understanding implies better understanders.

  6. Andy says:

    Just added this as well at Dot Earth:

    A couple more brief thoughts in response to the title of this post:

    What if the recent 1 in 1,000 year storm and flood in Tennessee had been prominantly linked to climate change in the mainstream media? Or the recent 1 in 500 year storm in Oklahohma? Or the recent winter snow storms that shut down the East Coast (linked to climate change in an accurate way)? Or the recent heat waves sweeping the world? What if the mainstream media featured prominently some of the (truly frightening) climate science predictions of the consequences of a business-as-usual emissions trajectory?

    I do think that “perfect climate information,” provided consistently and accurately, would influence the landscape of the policy debate in this country.

    It is not the sum total of the problem, to be sure, but it is a contributing factor.

  7. S. Molnar says:

    Ah, but let’s not set aside that there is no definition of what one means by “perfect information.” Let’s assume most everyone these days has access to the intertubes, which contain all the information they need, including this website. Then, we must conclude that many (probably most) people choose to believe what they want to believe despite overwhelming evidence that it is false. As with so much in life, very few people accept perfect information when it conflicts with their prejudices; the organs of misinformation prosper because they have a willing audience, not because they are run by superior salesmen.

  8. mike roddy says:

    We already have case studies of countries whose people possess education about global warming that is close enough to be adequate, if not perfect. Examples include Brazil, Sweden, Germany, and even China. Instead of the percentage of people who accept the reality of dangerous climate change hovering around 50% as here (depending on the phrasing of the question), it’s in the 65-80% range in those countries, if I remember correctly.

    All of these countries have far better policies than we do, at least in some key areas. Germany is massively subsidizing solar, and Brazil, China, and Sweden are much better about building performance and actively exploring and implementing clean energy alternatives and mass transit.

    Unfortunately, based on these countries’ performances, even if US citizens had perfect information the needed action would fall far short. That’s illustrated by the fact that only Germany and Sweden have stabilized or reduced emissions, and not by the amount required. In all four countries’ cases, the cause of this sluggishness is continued use and even subsidizing of coal, or almost equally GHG emitting biofuels. The outsized influence of special interests and concentrated wealth is not confined to the US.

    A new approach may be called for. Perfect information would be outlining a precise range of GHG concentrations in 2040, along with a range of consequences and associated probabilities. IPCC, in other words, with more precision and considerably more pessimism, based on current data.

    It may be necessary for schools, governments, and media outlets to specifically outline future catastrophic consequences along with these probabilities- which is theoretically as perfect as it’s going to get. This approach is rarely attempted, because some have been persuaded that this will result in people becoming fatalistic, resulting in inaction.

    This opinion that leaders in all fields should not “frighten the horses”, as the rich used to say, is a disrespectful myth put out by the oil companies. People of the world are smarter and more caring than that. And it’s time that the truths of human emissions of CO2 leading to a disastrous and violent future for all of earth’s creatures are told directly and in detail. Repeatedly.

  9. Ron Broberg says:

    Most people (myself included) do not make rational choices.
    Most people (myself included) rationalize our “choices.”
    At least most of the time.
    It is the human biological/neurological reality.

  10. MarkB says:

    Revkin writes:

    “The media have been all over the map depending on the year or decade on how they convey science related to global warming. I agree with some of the findings of Max Boykoff (now at U of Colorado) that media descriptions of the state of confidence in the basic findings lagged the IPCC descriptions of the confidence in the science, but only until the fourth report — in 2007. From then on, if anything, the media — to my mind — shifted (even more so in Europe) to describing the basics as a done deal.”


    This is incredibly removed from reality and probably deserves its own post. While I could spend hours pulling up contrarian climate articles from the media with relative ease (NYTimes, NYPost, WaPost, WaTimes, FoxNews, CNN, Telegraph, BBC, Times (UK), etc. etc. etc.), I’m wondering if someone has already done that.

    I submitted a post that linked the graph from Michael Tobis.


    and mentioned Revkin’s material collectively was somewhere in between Slight Cost and Substantial Cost, but it hasn’t shown up on his blog as of yet.

  11. Raul says:

    True it not right to just walk out of the burning
    building saying they will find out it’s burning
    as they burn.
    Even though the actor has a different view than the
    audience, the actor should be able to drop the script
    and convince the audience that action is needed.

  12. Raul says:

    Thanks Joe the info shows depth of study.

  13. mike roddy says:

    Good one, Mark B, I gagged when I read that sentence from Revkin, too. Maybe he doesn’t read Tierney or Broder in his own newspaper, the “go to” guys at the Times on climate.

  14. KenL says:

    Seems to me this hypothetical question is flawed.

    We already HAVE perfect information.

    (perfect enough, anyways)

    The problem is that “having” it is not “believing in” it.

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his income depends on his not understanding it.” –H.L. Mencken

    Too many people still have jobs which depend, directly or indirectly, on fossil fuels.

  15. The Wonderer says:

    What if the public had good enough information?

    Oops, were already there.

  16. Will Koroluk says:

    S. Molnar #7, Ron Broberg #9 and KenL #15, all touch on the fallacy of believing that having perfect information will somehow stimulate perfect actions. People simply don’t behave that way.
    Erik Assadourian addresses the problem in the first chapter of The Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2010. He observes that we are shaped by the cultures we grew up in and live in, and usually act only within those cultures. The norms, values and traditions we grow up with become, to us, natural.
    “Thus,” Assadourian writes, “asking people who live in consumer cultures to curb consumption is akin to asking them to stop breathing–they can do it for a moment, but then, gasping, they will inhale again. Driving cars, flying in planes, having large homes using air conditioning. . . these are not decadent choices but simply natural parts of life–at least according to the cultural norms present in a growing number of consumer cultures in the world. . . .”
    These cultures aren’t sustainable, he notes, nor are they “innate manifestations of human nature.”
    So it’s a matter of cultural change, not simply an appeal to pure reason.
    His comments are in the first chapter of the book, but that chapter could well stand alone as a commentary of the problems of effecting change in consumer cultures.
    So even if we had perfect information, there is absolutely no guarantee that we will consider it and act rationally. Indeed, we probably wouldn’t even take the first step of considering it. Instead we would see it as a threat and would buttress ourselves against it.
    It’s a dismal view, but I’m in a dismal mood just now, since the G8 meeting last week treated climate change as a mere footnote, largely at the insistence of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He is not an unintelligent man, and has access to plenty of good information on the subject, but, for political reasons, chooses to do nothing.

  17. Leif says:

    Arctic amplifies Climate change by three times central latitude effects.


  18. Steve Wicke says:

    The perfect climate information existed 30 years ago but somewhere along the way got lost in Hawking’s black hole. I am still looking.:)

  19. adelady says:

    Information? Learn from the advertising industry. The general rule of thumb is that people must see or hear your message at least 23 times before they even recognise a brand name or a key word.

    And then what do you do if someone else is delivering an opposing message during this time? And if a couple of hundred someonelses are delivering undermining or opposing or swamping messages? A couple of thousands?

    The only way is to keep doing it and get better at it.

  20. Brad Arnold says:

    Frankly, I think the relationship between climate change (i.e. global warming) and cutting emissions is misunderstood. In other words, even if the public had perfect knowledge of climate change (i.e. understood how serious it was, and that it was caused by elevated levels of GHG in the air), they would still be misled by the current incorrect group think prescription of a severe carbon diet to reverse it.

    Here is what Climate Code Red says:

    –Human emissions have so far produced a global average temperature increase of 0.8 degree C.

    –There is another 0.6 degree C. to come due to “thermal inertia”, or lags in the system, taking the total long-term global warming induced by human emissions so far to 1.4 degree C.

    –If human total emissions continue as they are to 2030 (and don’t increase 60% as projected) this would likely add more than 0.4 degrees C. to the system in the next two decades, taking the long-term effect by 2030 to at least 1.7 degrees C. (A 0.3 degree C. increase is predicted for the period 2004-2014 alone by Smith, Cusack et al, 2007).

    –Then add the 0.3 degree C. albedo flip effect from the now imminent loss of the Arctic sea ice, and the rise in the system by 2030 is at least 2 degree. C, assuming very optimistically that emissions don’t increase at all above their present annual rate! When we consider the potential permafrost releases and the effect of carbon sinks losing capacity, we are on the road to a hellish future, not for what we will do, but WHAT WE HAVE ALREADY DONE.

    “The alternative (to geoengineering) is the acceptance of a massive natural cull of humanity and a return to an Earth that freely regulates itself but in the hot state.” –Dr James Lovelock, August 2008

  21. Hazbert says:

    I believe that Joe is correct in identifying the destruction wrought by the disinformation campaign against climate science, and its enabling media coverage, whose oxymoronic low point was for me marked by Sarah Palin’s op-ed (the logical contradiction of such a concept boggles the mind) in the Washington Post on cap-and-trade. having said that, I don’t think the matter is really as simple as Joe suggests.

    The fundamental debate I see here is between the point of view of classical economics which sees the public as a homogeneous collection of rational economic actors motivated by a combination of information, facts and their logically projected outcomes, and behavioral economics – which sees the public as an entirely different kettle of fish.

    The problem (and the logical dilemma in Joe’s argument) I think is exemplified by the part of his post that, referring to the eventual death of the debate about global cooling in the 1970s at the hands of robust scientific information, says (emphasis mine below)

    “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.”

    The first part of the quote reveals an optimism straight out of the handbook of classical economics. The second part is also instructive. It’s fair to presume that Carter took the action he did in part because he was well informed – he had access to good (if not perfect) information. So the question is: why did Reagan take the action he did? Obviously (since his action was subsequent to Carter’s), he had access to the same information that Carter had used to make his decision. But, Reagan essentially took the opposite action.

    This, to me, is the crux of the matter.

    Access to information is a condition that’s necessary, but not sufficient, to produce the outcome that classical economics would predict. People given good information about present actions and their influence on future outcomes do not necessarily do the right thing. Sometimes they do. Sometimes, they don’t.

    Take the problem of obesity, for example. The causes of non-pathological weight gain are well known; so is information on the necessary offsetting actions. With the advent of the internet, there has been, for the past decade, widespread public access to near-perfect information on how to avoid this particular problem. But, according to the World Health Organization, obesity is a growing problem, now of epidemic proportions globally.

    On the other side of the coin, the other important point here is that: I have never heard of a program of disinformation against the evils of obesity (clearly there’s a program of persuasion, by way of advertising and so on, to convince hapless burger-eaters to add layers of cheese and bacon to their already bulging double-decker burgers, but that’s not the same thing). So, by Joe’s argument, the existence of good information on the one hand and the absence of disinformation on the other should naturally tip the scales towards a slim, healthy population. This of course is the opposite of what has actually happened.

    A question is raised here. Is it that climate information is somehow different to information about other important stuff – so that perfect information in this realm would produce the desired outcome? I don’t know of any evidence to suggest that.

    A complicating factor I think is the possibility that there’s a sort of cognitive imbalance where information is concerned. The effects of the two extremes are not equivalent; and the negative effect of disinformation tends to be greater than the positive effect of perfect information (isn’t that one reason why many political scare tactics are effective?).

    Is this so? According to TIME’s November 26, 2006 cover story on risk:
    “Shadowed by peril as we are, you would think we’d get pretty good at distinguishing the risks likeliest to do us in from the ones that are statistical long shots. But you would be wrong. We agonize over avian flu, which to date has killed precisely no one in the U.S., but have to be cajoled into getting vaccinated for the common flu, which contributes to the deaths of 36,000 Americans each year. We wring our hands over the mad cow pathogen that might be (but almost certainly isn’t) in our hamburger and worry far less about the cholesterol that contributes to the heart disease that kills 700,000 of us annually.

    We pride ourselves on being the only species that understands the concept of risk, yet we have a confounding habit of worrying about mere possibilities while ignoring probabilities, building barricades against perceived dangers while leaving ourselves exposed to real ones.”

    I believe this represents a facet of the human condition, which isn’t perfect and is unlikely, anytime soon, to be changed by perfect information alone.

    Commenter adelady here sums it up thus:

    “Information? Learn from the advertising industry. The general rule of thumb is that people must see or hear your message at least 23 times before they even recognise a brand name or a key word. And then what do you do if someone else is delivering an opposing message during this time? And if a couple of hundred someonelses are delivering undermining or opposing or swamping messages? A couple of thousands? The only way is to keep doing it and get better at it.”

    So, what’s needed? Better information: definitely. Stronger fights against disinformation: absolutely. One of the mistakes I think President Obama made in the so-called health care ‘debate’ was that he did not immediately and repeatedly call out the idiotic death panels lie for what it was. But our information also needs to be better presented, vividly and repeatedly. At least twenty three times?

  22. Another early SNL skit was: “What if Eleanor Roosevelt could fly?”

    I suggest that we have perfect (enough) climate information to make decisions.

    What is horribly imperfect is the human capacity to apprehend this information. Denial is a form of psychological adjustment.

    Real perfect information would be able to penetrate these perceptual filters.

  23. #14 WitsEnd… your link is really fascinating and powerful:

    “Modern thought control is primarily dependent not on crude, conscious planning, but on the human capacity for self-deception. One of the biggest obstacles to social change is the propaganda system working undetected inside our own heads-mine included.”

  24. hapa says:

    everybody wants perfect information, nobody wants anyone else to have it, or to be held liable for the lopsided outcome. at the same time, nobody wants perfects information: it tends to make our dreams look stupid.

  25. Prokaryote says:

    “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”

    We would certainly be on a path to pre-industrial levels – below 350 ppm.

  26. Anonymous says:

    Andy Revkin;

    Have you noticed that all the comments are exceptional?

    Ken L.@ 15 and adelady @ 19 dissect the question you pose.

    We have perfect information. We know we have been and are being mis,dis,mal,un, and ruthlessly informed.

    Perfect information: On our current politically expedient trajectory anyone under the age of 40 is likely to witness the end of civilization. It’s possible that the collapse of agricultural production in the dear-old USA due to extreme heat and weather will precipitate (pun intended) a panic that will end any possible economic recovery.

    The comfortable will be afflicted.

    Say those words at the next penthouse soiree you attend and find out how sublime the fall is compared to meeting the pavement.

    We’re at the end of the reign of fossil fuels and it ain’t pretty.

    That’s “Perfect Information”.

  27. Whatshisname says:

    The Devil still wouldn’t get saved.

  28. Prokaryote says:

    More visuals needed.

    Science models and studies provide a glimpse into earth future. With the circumstance that nearly all estimates are underestimated so far, people really would act sooner rather than later, if they knew what’s brewing.

  29. ken levenson says:

    …Dot Earth would be an embarrassment to all and an affront to the public’s sense of scientific inquiry.

  30. ChinHsien says:

    After reading your post, I try to summarize my understanding to my facebook account and also paste to my blog:


    Most people here in Singapore / Malaysia still poorly understand the scientific evidence and impact of climate change. Even they are sometimes told about this, apparently they do not want to know much on it.

    Is there anyway to make more people know and concern and act on climate change? We need to immediately create more non-fossil-fuel-dependent jobs, develop green cities/countryside, to set models for those heavily addicted to fossil fuel.

  31. Wit's End says:

    This morning I see an amazing analysis of the complicity of the US media to our corporate/government overlords that might be instructive in this debate about information provided to the public – a study from Harvard’s School of Government about the willingness of the press to stop calling waterboarding torture once the American government started using it as an interrogation technique.


  32. Richard Brenne says:

    What if Eleanor Roosevelt flew Spartacus around in a Piper Cub?

    We’re all in denial about the effects of climate change. We ain’t seen nothin’ yet, and so we’re like someone jumping blindfolded off the Empire State Building who is ignorant enough to not know the consequences of the fall.

    This from Al Bartlett, who is in denial along with me, Joe, Jim Hansen, Bill McKibben and all the world-class commenters here at Climate Progress. Sure, they might be in the smallest percentage of denial, maybe the 50 per cent range. You do your work and think you understand what we’re facing, then go to the grocery store and everywhere else and think, “No, that can’t be right. This can’t all be ending in our lifetimes.” (First due to peak oil that is the jab that breaks our nose, then due to climate change that is the roundhouse right that knocks us out.)

    Of course the national and global average might be something more like 99.9 per cent denial.

    This natural denial is the starting point, because this is too big for most of us to get our thinking around. Also we don’t want to think about it, because climate change (and peak oil, and species loss, etc) so implicate our lifestyles, our national and global economies, all we think we’ve done and all we think we are.

    The only way to lessen denial is through the combination of education, honesty and the courage to face this most daunting issue. I see all three attributes here at Climate Progress more than anyplace, and at DotEarth I see it mostly in the Climate Progress regulars who haven’t become too discouraged to continue commenting there.

    Dude, 100 years from now when all of this (first peak oil, then climate change, species loss and all the rest) is agonizingly clear to anyone left who might be educated enough to get it, Jim Hansen and few others will be seen as having tried to communicate what was happening in science, Bill McKibben, Joe Romm, the Climate Progress commenters and few others will be seen as having effectively communicated what was happening, and the vast, vast majority of “journalists”, “reporters” and “teachers” of all kinds will be viewed about the way we view slave-owners and many of the worst fascists and communists today.

    The literal worship of capitalism and the free market and corporations and the one-time Cheap and Abundant Fossil Fuel Era (CAFFE) will be seen for what they are – the things that destroyed us.

    I personally like Andy and feel he can be an excellent reporter – if he chooses to be just that. But Andy, this isn’t just another story. This is THE story, now and for all time. If you continue burying the lead, we’ll end up burying each other.

  33. adelady says:

    Might I put in a word for the value of humour?

    Getting people to laugh at something for being ridiculous confirms those who knew it was ridiculous and lets the uneducated (or stubborn or stupid) in on the *joke* a bit more gently. It’s easier to have your prejudices laughed away bit by bit than to be offended by a hit with a wet fish or a rock.

  34. JeandeBegles says:

    Mye understanding is that the best comment on this issue is no17 (Will Koroluk).
    Of course perfect climate information would help, but how old is the movie “An inconvenient Truth”? Isn’t it a good example of good climate information for the public?
    In french, inconvenient is translated by ‘qui derange’ (that makes you move). But actually, the climate warming truth doesn’t make us move, and that is the problem!
    Information is not enough to change; we are facing a cultural change. It is not only about R and D investment as Joe seems to think (but I know he is too smart to be reduced to such view), it is about everyone’s every day way of living.
    Politicians and leaders are too shy to address this issue.
    When we understand we are in a no way street, the leaders will become the laggards; this physical obviousness could explain some ‘shyness’ of our leaders.

  35. SecularAnimist says:

    Joe wrote: “… and by public I am, of course, including the media and politicians …”

    The public also includes the executives who run the fossil fuel corporations. And they have excellent and accurate climate information.

    And, having that information, they are doing what all ruthless, rapacious, reactionary corporate executives do: risking massive harm to everyone else in order to maximize their profits.

  36. Leif says:

    There is nothing wrong with the quality of information available to the American people. We have cutting edge science in every discipline you can name. The problem is respect for the science of climatic disruption itself. If 95% of every oncologist in the world told you that “you have cancer” the odds are that you would respond with appropriate action. Especially if they each added that early intervention had a good chance of being successful. In fact 2 out of three would probably do it.

    It is the effectiveness of the disinformation campaign that is capable of turning every bar stool sitter into an atmospheric scientist that is the culprit. Do you think for a moment that we ask high school drop outs their opinion when putting a satellite in space? Transplant a liver? Even tune your car?

    It is not the information available to the public, the evidence clearly shows that it is the money and influence of the profit mongers of the status quo and the effectiveness of the amoral advertising industries ability to convince a large segment of society that black is in fact white.

    The problem is money!

  37. Jeff Huggins says:

    The Media Problem

    The relevant, actionable, and necessary question is NOT whether the combination of “the way humans are”, the nature of the climate change problem, and our other priorities at the moment naturally prevents us (the American public) from gaining a better understanding of the climate change problem than we presently have, and from acquiring substantially more personal and political will to take wise action. Although these things (human nature, the nature of the climate change problem, and our other priorities) all play very important roles – and nobody that I know is saying that they don’t – it should nevertheless be obvious that very substantially improved coverage by the media would very likely result in substantially greater degrees of understanding and will among substantially greater numbers of people.

    The arguments on Andy’s part (and on the news media’s part) these days are very much like those of a football team that is loosing a football game 42-7 at halftime and whose coach can do nothing but repeatedly blame the muddy conditions of the field, the lack of a good cheerleading section, and the fact that the wind is blowing five mph against them, without acknowledging (or perhaps even realizing?) that the team only played seven players (11 are allowed), punted after two downs (four are allowed), threw bad passes most of the time, and played as though they all had pneumonia.

    Their arguments are a bit like those of the coach of a debate team, in the midst of losing a debate (and with the audience confused), who blames the panel of judges, the broader audience, and the other team without even acknowledging (or perhaps even realizing?) that his own team has been whispering, speaking unclearly, garbling arguments, leaving out important matters entirely, shying away from pointing out the fallacies of the arguments of the other team, and yawning when they should have been looking the audience straight in the eyes.

    Certainly it’s correct that human nature, the nature of the climate change problem, and other pressing priorities and distractions make the task of conveying understanding considerably harder than it otherwise would be. No doubt about that. But in the face of a problem such as climate change, it is entirely wrongheaded (and grossly negligent!) for the news media to insist on keeping with the present (insufficient) approaches to coverage – the status quo news media paradigms, preferences, and self-imposed limits – and then claim “that’s the best we can do” and blame the external factors for the (supposed) insurmountable communications dilemma. “It’s the fault of those dumb distracted humans and of bad circumstances!” “We (the news media) can do no better than we are already doing!” Blah, blah, blah. I’m tired of hearing it. Please fire the next person who says it.

    Any decent analysis – indeed, anything that could possibly call itself an analysis with a straight face! – of The New York Times’ coverage of climate change over the last three years would identify the immense, paradigmatic, and persistent problems. The paper of record itself is the best record of evidence. How many unprecedented letters and statements from large groups of scientific organizations went unreported? How many others were briefly mentioned on page 13? How many articles were put on page 17 that should have been on the front page? How many of the front page articles were there, apparently, because of their focus on “the controversy”? In the midst of public confusion about the degree of “disagreement” among scientists, how many times did The New York Times bother to run an article, on the front page, listing all of the major scientific organizations that have officially stated their strong agreement and deep concern? How many times has The New York Times run articles to clearly clarify the immense misunderstandings that are undoubtedly created by the ExxonMobil ads and advertorials that appear on its own front page and, sometimes, in double-page spreads within the news section?

    And what about the worldwide 350 event? A worldwide event that many of us attended, that was many months in planning. How was it covered? In a small article, on page (goodness knows what page it was on; I can’t remember; perhaps page 17?), that placed the focus on the question of whether the “350” label was a smart and fair one. My goodness?! What more can I say? What more needs to be said, really? Did that article miss the point or what?

    (If I were Bill McKibben, I would have gathered a pile of The New York Times that week and buried them in a compost pile. And I think that’s what we all should have done.)

    Of course, of course, of course, the nature of the climate change problem increases the challenge of the communications task, raises the bar on what’s necessary to carry out that task effectively, and has implications for the overall dynamics of societal change, of which the media are one ingredient of several (although vitally important). Here, in these comments, I’m not at all denying what sociologists, communications experts, social psychologists, psychologists, and others would (and do) say about “human nature” and the difficulties of conveying the climate change issue (and let’s not forget solutions). Indeed, I’m embracing those points. (I just returned from a major conference of evolutionary psychologists, other psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and etc. who focus on understanding human abilities, tendencies, shortcomings, and so forth.)

    But what conclusions shall we draw? What conclusions ought we to draw about our own actions (meaning media coverage and etc.) going forward?

    The news media blame the public and circumstance, defend themselves at all costs, and insist on sticking with their status quo approaches that aren’t working. That is NOT wisdom and responsibility. Instead, it’s closed-mindedness and gross negligence. (I would also say that it’s unethical, at this point.)

    My guess is that no credible communications expert or relevant sociologist will say that the news media are doing the best possible job, or even a very good job, or even a good job, or even a responsible job, of covering these issues, given the stakes involved. In any case, no evidence suggests that they are. My guess is also that no credible communications expert or relevant sociologist would say that a dramatically improved effort on the part of the news media would not have a substantial positive impact on matters. I have not seen a single piece of credible research that would have us arrive at that conclusion. (And I’ve asked for it, repeatedly.) And real-world experience could certainly not support such a conclusion: After all, our present “experiment” has not involved excellent media coverage, or even close, so there is no way to conclude that excellent coverage would not make a substantial positive difference. What we have seen is poor media coverage accompanied by a confused public that hasn’t gained enough real understanding or concern to prompt action.

    And there is another thing: I think it can be misleading to think of what would happen if the public had “perfect information”. “Information” is not the same as “understanding”, and “understanding” is not the same as the actual motivation to take some sort of directionally-wise action. The same article, with the same “information”, can appear on page 16 with a small headline, or it can be put on the front page with a large headline, in bold print. The resulting “understanding” in the minds and hearts of the public will not be the same in those two cases. Similarly, coverage of a certain matter, or part of a matter, can occur once every three weeks, on page 18, in a small article, or the same matter can be covered (if it’s important) on the front page, weekly or more frequently, in the headlines. The resulting “understanding” in the minds and hearts of the public will not be the same in those two cases.

    And of course (although I hope this goes without saying, but just in case), I am not talking only, or even mainly, or even largely, about the “scientific aspects” of the issue. Instead, I’m talking about the whole range of important aspects of the matter.

    In ending, I’d like to point out two very different approaches and ways of seeing the matter:

    One involves stubbornly sticking to the status quo paradigms and approaches, and priorities, reflected in the present news media coverage of the climate change and energy issues. This approach involves defending the present journalistic and news media approaches, sticking with them, and placing blame on the dumb distracted public and on circumstance. This approach involves journalists who think that everyone else in the world should change (e.g., politicians, the oil and gas industry, the coal industry, China, India, people who call their events “350”, scientists who should communicate more clearly and who also should become expert psychologists, and so forth) but who believe that the news media are doing a superb job – as good as is possible, under the circumstances. “The whole world should change, except for the news media, and especially except for The New York Times, which is doing a smashing good job, thank you.” This approach involves a news media that is apparently unable to examine itself, unable to understand itself, and that has also (apparently) lost track of what its role must necessarily be in a modern democracy that hopes to make wise and safe and good choices.

    The other approach involves honest self-assessment, dramatic improvement, stepping up to the plate, remembering the aim, and getting the job done effectively. The goal is NOT words on a page – page 16 or whatever. Instead, the goal is THE PUBLIC GOOD and providing the public with understanding (not mere “information”) that is sufficiently suitable for the public to make sound and wise choices to achieve its own good. The goal is NOT to leave the public good to mere chance and to the blind hope that a confused and distracted public will somehow “luck out” and make wise choices.

    Put another way, the media have such an important and influential role in modern media-oriented culture that we have the following: If the world faces and addresses climate change wisely, the news media will deserve an “A” grade, and perhaps an “A+” given the immensity of the task. On the other hand, if the world doesn’t face and address climate change wisely, the news media will deserve an “F” grade, and worse. On these sorts of things, RESULTS MATTER.

    The next time Andy writes a post about this whole matter, will it be about sociologists pointing out the difficulties of the task? Will it be about why scientists should become better communicators (to help make up for the problematic coverage in the media, which are supposed to be full of expert communicators)? Will it be about the quest for a “magic word” that will make understanding possible? Or will it be about the immense and urgent need for immense changes in how the news media are approaching the issue, the importance they are assigning to it, and about the specific ways in which improvements can be achieved?

    We have a climate change problem. And, in order to address it wisely, we will have to face and address our media problem! Can it be put more simply?

    (Sorry for so much focus on Andy. The larger problem, apparently, is Bill Keller.)



    (sorry for typos; typed quickly and without proofing

  38. john atcheson says:

    Al Gore did a wonderful Saturday Night Live bit about 7 or 8 years ago that ran through the “problems” we would have had if he’d been elected instead of Bush. Things like, no more imported oil; smog gone; prosperity up etc.

    My point is perfect information on this issue has to include the ancillary benefits of addressing global warming — no troops and faux wars to protect our oil interests; terrorists starved of funds; air pollution down; foreign balance of trade deficits halved; domestic jobs increased …. on and on.

    It would be the biggest no=brainer in human history.

  39. Dorothy says:

    This is such a good post, with so many excellent comments, all of which I respect. But I really think we already have all the verifiable scientific information we need to know that we’re in an awful lot of trouble. Joe’s post on June 27 says it all – “When things were rotten: Arctic sees record sea ice shrinkage, headed toward record low volume.” How can anyone read this and not imagine we’re in for tumultuous times?

    Here in the Pacific Northwest, the change in our weather this year has been frightening. No, it’s not hot; it was 50F this morning and raining. There’s so much cloud cover now, the sun can’t get through. The way I see it, this is directly linked to the precipitous shrinking of the Arctic sea ice and all the extra water vapor in the atmosphere.

    What causes denial in the face of incontrovertible evidence is our human instinct to withdraw from a painful truth, and this has been cleverly manipulated by the corporate world for its own purposes. Read Chris Hedges book “The Empire of Illusion” for a shocking examination of this process. (You might want to skip the chapter, “The Illusion of Love,” which is both disgusting and terribly sad. It is very unfortunate that it was included in a book that is in every other way so valuable – I’ve surgically removed this chapter from the copy I lend out to others.)

    The question is, how do you get people to spend at least as much time informing themselves about honest news as they do watching American Idol and Fox?

  40. Andy Revkin says:

    This was refreshing, for sure, but the sad reality (as Joe kind of acknowledges) is that social science research shows disinformation campaigns are a small contributor to societal stasis on energy and climate. It’s nice to wish otherwise, and any disinformation should be exposed, but no one should think that’d magically change things: http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/01/climate-obesity-and-the-aflac-duck/

  41. Leif says:

    … ” but the sad reality (as Joe kind of acknowledges) is that social science research shows disinformation campaigns are a small contributor to societal stasis on energy and climate.” Andy @41:

    This is a topic all its own. I do not believe for a moment that what you say holds water, Andy. You do Journalism a disservice to suggest otherwise. I only need bring up the money spent on advertising to counter.

  42. I watch Meet the Press and notice that the major sponsor is Exxon-Mobil – consistently week after week. They must be major part of the revenue.

    How much do you think they will be challenging the carbon fuel industry?

    Do you think it true that the oil and automobile industries actually threatened to pull advertising from CNN if they ever reported weather anomalies as related to global warming? It certainly is plausible.

    Any journalist planning to look into their own dirty laundry?

  43. KenL says:

    Disinformation campaigns are one factor.

    But the preexisting dependencies on fossil fuels of ordinary folk are another.

    Lots of people with such dependencies, such as for example my pilot brother at American Airlines, want to believe that global warming is not really happening, or not happening so much, or won’t cause too many problems, or is not something we can fix anyways.

    If they can believe this, they can go on with their lives and jobs and etc with a clear conscience.

    And the disinformation campaigns give many such people just enough of an excuse to indulge in this fiction.

    People who have committed to high-carbon careers and lifestyles WANT to believe GW is all a hoax…and there are many entrenched interests that are happy to help create and promote this fiction.

  44. What a useless question and a grand waste of time.

  45. Peter Wood says:

    It is much easier to provide public goods when there is perfect information about their costs and benefits. See for example Guttman (1978) or Bagnoli and Lipman (1989).

  46. Leland Palmer says:

    Well, the coal fired power plants would be shut down, or would have been converted into carbon negative BioEnergy with Carbon Capture and Storage power plants years ago.

    Interestingly enough, the federal government was given very good predictions about climate change by the secret scientific advisory group known as Jason, decades ago:

    The Times Online: Jason and the Secret Climate Change War.


    Jason and the secret climate change war
    A shadowy scientific elite codenamed Jason warned the US about global warming 30 years ago but was sidelined for political convenience….

    …These reports involve a secret organisation of American scientists reporting to the US Department of Defense. At the highest levels of the American government, officials pondered whether global warming was a significant new threat to civilisation. They turned for advice to the elite special forces of the scientific world – a shadowy organisation known as Jason. Even today few people have heard of Jason. It was established in 1960 at the height of the cold war when a group of physicists who had helped to develop the atomic bomb proposed a new organisation that would – to quote one of its founders – “inject new ideas into national defence”.

    So the Jasons (as they style themselves) were born; a self-selected group of brilliant minds free to think the unthinkable in the knowledge that their work was classified. Membership was by invitation only and they are indeed the cream. Of the roughly 100 Jasons over the years, 11 have won Nobel prizes and 43 have been elected to the US National Academy of Sciences.

    For years, being a Jason was just about the best job going in American science. Every summer the Jasons all moved to San Diego in California to devote six weeks to working together. They were paid well and rented houses by the beach. The kids surfed while their dads saved the world. Less James Bond, more Club Med.

    Today the Jasons still meet in San Diego in a quaint postwar construction with more than a hint of Thunderbirds about it. In 1977 they got to work on global warming. There was one potential problem. Only a few of them knew anything about climatology. To get a better understanding they relocated for a few days to Boulder, Colorado, the base for NCAR – the National Center for Atmospheric Research – where they heard the latest information on climate change. Then, being physicists, they went back to first principles and decided to build a model of the climate system. Officially it was called Features of Energy-Budget Climate Models: An Example of Weather-Driven Climate Stability, but it was dubbed the Jason Model of the World.

    In 1979 they produced their report: coded JSR-78-07 and entitled The Long Term Impact of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Climate. Now, with the benefit of hind-sight, it is remarkable how prescient it was.

    Right on the first page, the Jasons predicted that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere would double from their preindustrial levels by about 2035. Today it’s expected this will happen by about 2050. They suggested that this doubling of carbon dioxide would lead to an average warming across the planet of 2-3C. Again, that’s smack in the middle of today’s predictions. They warned that polar regions would warm by much more than the average, perhaps by as much as 10C or 12C. That prediction is already coming true – last year the Arctic sea ice melted to a new record low. This year may well set another record.

    Nor were the Jasons frightened of drawing the obvious conclusions for civilisation: the cause for concern was clear when one noted “the fragility of the world’s crop-producing capacity, particularly in those marginal areas where small alterations in temperature and precipitation can bring about major changes in total productivity”.

    Scientific research has since added detail to the predictions but has not changed the basic forecast.

    Actually, though, the Jasons missed the probability that such climate change would set off a methane catastrophe. The “clathrate gun” hypothesis to explain the End Permain mass extinction was proposed after this report was written, I think.

    So, basic policy on climate change among our elite, that it would be a time of change but not catastrophic, may have been formulated before the possibility of a methane catastrophe was widely known among the scientific community.

  47. The question is moot.

    The real question is: “Where do we go from here with the information we have?”

    Andy’s question was a distraction and y’all fell for it, as usual.

    [JR: Many questions I get asked -- many questions I hear asked -- on climate are moot. 350 ppm, anyone? But this is actually a very illuminating question, which reveals a great deal about how people think about the issue.

    And the underlying point of this question is not moot at all. Lot's of people have been trying to argue that more information -- and better messaging won't help. Indeed, one might infer from your "real question" that's what you believe. I think more information -- and better messaging are crucial. There are other reasons this is a good question, which I'll discuss in later posts.]

  48. OK, I can see your points.

    But my belief is that time spent on this is wasted time because we should be spending our time in discovering ways to beat the Climate Denial Machine.

    They have virtually unlimited resources. They are not playing a haphazard game. They strategize.

    The CRU e-mail hack was not serendipitous.

    IMNSHO, the recent Gore thing was timed to wreak havoc and stir things up before the coming meetings. I could hardly believe all the code words used in the statement.

    There are no depths to which they will not sink.

    Better messaging is crucial?


    We should be beating the Climate Denial Machine at their own game by using the same psychological techniques that they use — using the truth.

    That’s what we need to focus on, not refined intellectual exercises.

    We don’t have any time left to waste.

  49. Florifulgurator says:

    If the public had perfect climate information, that would be mostly inconsequential for the real world.

    In the hominid world, however, the schism between Homo Sapiens Eusapiens and Homo Sapiens Antisapiens would get deepened and pronounced, not only as seen in the Washington DC kindergarten. Perhaps a new church would emerge, the church of “it’s all a bad dream”. Al Gore would get assassinated and Sarah Palin would get (s)elected POTUS.

    Not enough of Homo Sapiens Eusapiens will survive the civil wars, and in 2 centuries hominids would be history, luckily: so nobody could tell the story of the slow and dreadful demise of Homo Sapiens Antisapiens, and nobody bemoan Gaia’s treasures lost.

  50. Preeem says:

    I’ve see that lots of people explain away non-action as part of a cultural effect. They seem to say that people have committed, been raised in, believe in a petrol-fueled CO2-emmiting resource over-consuming society and therefore deny that the warnings are true. Some believe that with more understanding and more information people would react.

    I am here to grimly report a case in my direct surroundings that almost makes me lose all hope anyone is willing to do anything. My supervisor is a scientist, commonly ridicules the neocons for not believing in global warming. However, he has a house far away from work and a Qashqai+2 which he proudly recently bought. If you asked him about it, he’d probably say he deserves it for working so hard, and how else is he supposed to lug around his 2 kids and wife, and *once a year* travel to his parents and lug everyone around. And of course the house, well you see the market blahblahblah. Best informed persone ever, highly educated, lots of money so it’s not what’s holding him back.

    I got mine so f* you is basically the attitude of most people, and who cares about what happens next. If only they thought that their own a*s was on the line and that they’re not going to buy themselves out of it this time. Maybe that’s the one part of information and understanding that’s missing, is that everyone under 40 is going to have hell to pay for what society preached and failed to do. But of course no one in the political arena takes that part up, not even the greens, because it’s too “alarmist”. Wonder if that’s also how we would react if drought and canicule and inundations were coming from another source than “the economy” (a vastly stupid word supposed to mean “what people do and how they live” but now means “the money of the top 2% of people on the planet”).

    I still try to reduce my footprint, mainly because I don’t want to be part of the problem. Some sheeple might think that there’s no point anymore so we should just enjoy the ride while we can, but some of us still have a conscience.

  51. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Preeem

    I’ve see that lots of people explain away non-action as part of a cultural effect. They seem to say that people have committed, been raised in, believe in a petrol-fueled CO2-emmiting resource over-consuming society and therefore deny that the warnings are true. Some believe that with more understanding and more information people would react.

    It’s not the people so much as the leadership, I am convinced. By that I mean the true plutocratic leaders of the country, not the President and the Congress.

    As we saw during the Bush Administration, we have become the evil empire. Unknown to most of us, our financial and political elites have morphed into something monstrous. And I am convinced that these financial elites have deliberately created a class of authoritarian followers, drawing on psychological research into authoritarian WWII regimes carried out in the years after WWII, as detailed in Bob Altemeyer’s online book The Authoritarians.

    We have been subjected to a pretty well financed, extremely subtle propaganda campaign, that appears to use tobacco industry and CIA propaganda techniques to sow doubt and confusion among the general population.

    Here is a Greenpeace report on some of the more visible and obvious aspects of this propaganda campaign. I believe myself that this disinformation campaign actually goes much deeper, to the core of the Republican party and it’s big business and Wall Street financing, and the core financing of our controlled press.


    Dealing in Doubt
    The Climate Denial Industry and Climate Science
    A Brief History of Attacks on Climate Science, Climate Scientists and the IPCC


    This report describes 20 years of organised attacks on climate science, scientists and the IPCC. It sets out some of the key moments in this campaign of denial started by the fossil fuel industry, and traces them to their sources.

    The tobacco industry’s misinformation and PR campaign against regulation reached a peak just as laws controlling it were about to be introduced.

    Similarly, the campaign against climate science has intensified as global action on climate change has become more likely.

    This time, though, there is a difference. In recent years the corporate PR campaign has gone viral, spawning a denial movement that is distributed, decentralised and largely immune to reasoned response.

    For example, prominent UK sceptic Lord Christopher Monckton3 is not known to be funded by big business. He is not a scientist, yet, as a key denier, his challenges to climate science have made him the darling of the industry-funded, US based conservative think tanks such as the Heartland Institute. He has challenged Al Gore to debates, turned up at climate negotiations in Bali, Poznan and Copenhagen, and more recently, conducted a paid speaking tour of Australia. There are many more like him who repeat the denier message for no other reason than because they believe it.

    The hysteria that greeted the release of the hacked emails from the University of East Anglia on the eve of the Copenhagen Climate Summit showed the depth of this movement and the willingness of the media to facilitate it, despite its lack of evidence or scientific support.

  52. Nick Downie says:

    I’ve come late to this discussion and I chuck in this story merely as an illustration of the human condition.

    In 2000 I was living in a prosperous little town in South Africa. AIDS was a problem. The commonest age for a woman to die, by a huge, staggering margin, was in her twenties. For a man it was in his thirties. 75% of all deaths in the town were due to AIDS and, conservatively estimated, amounted to well over 1,500 per year, out of a population of about 50,000. So, 3%+. This is far, far worse than in a major war – US Army dead in the whole of WWII amounted to 0.15% of the population.

    The solution to the AIDS problem was said to be ‘education’ – or perfect information – and the campaign was relentless. There were billboards everywhere, there were lectures in school, it was discussed by everyone, constantly. The populace was well-educated – there was a university, and lots of good schools. Nor did the campaign involve hockey sticks, Boyle’s Law or anything similar – the message was simple. “If you have unprotected sex with lots of people you’re gonna die!” This was not a vague future threat; it was happening all around us, for all to see. And the many funerals were not quiet affairs; in Africa a funeral is a big thing with at least 100-200 mourners, sometimes 1,000. Nor was the official answer to the epidemic difficult to implement. It didn’t involve tax increases or massive industrial reconstruction, or even pre-marital abstinence – it was simply to use condoms.

    Did any of this work? Nope. In the army there were units with a 99% HIV infection rate. At one of the country’s best universities, the infection rate among the students was 30%.

    True, we had our deniers, starting with Thabo Mbeki, the president (may God forgive him), and the Minister of Health who sent an official circular to all provincial ministers of health saying that AIDS was caused by the ‘illuminati’ and ‘aliens’. There was also the new provincial minister of health in Natal who refused to take up her post until certain members of her staff were fired, on the grounds that they were actually lizards – in disguise. No, I am not making this up. It became a front-page political row, not because we had a minister with mildly eccentric beliefs but because the employees in question had different political allegiances to their minister and they regarded the suggestion that they were lizards as an insult to their democratic right of freedom of association. However, these antics were largely ignored by the man and woman in the street who had a pretty good idea of what AIDS was caused by.

    To put South Africa’s problem in perspective, in Malawi factories were closing for lack of workers, and in Zambia there were villages headed by 12-year-old girls – no adults of any sort left alive. The resistance to preventive action all over southern Africa was ‘cultural’. I could go into the precise implications of this, but they are somewhat indelicate, so I won’t.

    Either way, education is not the answer; what seems to work, eventually, is such a massive die-off that it can no longer be ignored. I hate to say this, but I think a similar paradigm may apply to climate change: when what some people have called ‘the cull’ of humanity gets properly under way, then and only then will everyone be convinced. Unfortunately, a sudden surge in the sales of latex products at that point will not affect the situation. However, the political élite can take action long before, and it is that which I feel should be the focus of the information campaign.

    [JR: Not sure this is a perfect analogy, but there is no question that getting behavior change is much tougher than getting policy change, which is what I was focusing on here.]

  53. Preeem says:

    I agree totally with what the last commenter has said. I believe it is only when enough people start to die that the powerful and the small will both understand that their ass is on the line next. I say “enough people” because of the comment by the rotavirus vaccine inventor, who declared in an article that he first thought when children started dying parents would start to vaccinate again, but that children have already started dying in California and it hasn’t changed the trend.

    However, this will either happen gradually, in which case it will be the Africans and the Asians (them again…) who will die first, obviously. And then people will feel so removed from this that they probably won’t budge as fast as they could; or wille either happen so suddenly that, as in the case of the village headed by a 12 year old girl, there will be nothing left to do.

    We can’t go away. This is the only planet we have. Perhaps the genetic bottleneck will once again happen, and only a handful humans will be left on the planet. May they be smarter than we are.

  54. lizardo says:

    Re your reference here or elsewhere re a time machine moment, Daniel Moynihan urging Nixon to institute study of CO2 increases, global warming, rising sea level…