Am I Going About This All Wrong?

Political ideology can corrupt the mind, and science.
—E.O. Wilson, American biologist

I’d never heard the term “cultural cognition” before, but once I learned what it meant, I realized I was already very aware of the concept. Have you ever wondered why something as scientific as global warming—with facts and evidence to help make it unequivocal—has so many people who either don’t believe it’s real, or accept it as real but go out of their way to find reasons why it’s not our fault? And that those who seem to be in one of those two categories tend to be on one end of the political spectrum compared to those who accept it?

In 2001, 49 percent of Republicans believed that global warming had already begun while 60 percent of Democrats believed it. In 2010, despite even more supportive evidence, Republicans were down to only 29 percent believing that global warming was happening, but Democrats were up to 70 percent. When the facts shouldn’t be up for debate, and when party politics shouldn’t have an impact, why such a discrepancy? And why is one group believing it more while another group is believing it less?

It turns out it all comes down to cultural cognition. The Yale law school has created the Cultural Cognition Project to investigate the phenomenon. From their website, they define the term as ” the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities.”

The group recently published a paper on a study they completed. They decided to assess whether differences in people’s beliefs about climate change reflected a lack of scientific understanding, or whether it is an example of cultural cognition. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, and involved a nationally representative sample of 1500 U.S. adults.

According to Dan Kahan, Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School and a member of the study team, “The aim of the study was to test two hypotheses. The first attributes political controversy over climate change to the public’s limited ability to comprehend science, and the second, to opposing sets of cultural values.”

The results of the study unfortunately support the second hypothesis. They were consistent with earlier studies which showed that individuals with more egalitarian values disagree sharply with individuals who have more individualistic ones on the risks associated with nuclear power, gun possession, and the HPV vaccine for school girls. The study has been published in Nature Climate Change.

I’ve always believed that if people understood the facts, they’d be more likely to become motivated to change. Although I have my own political beliefs and attitudes as everyone does, they tend to apply to political issues. Should we tax higher or lower? Should we develop commercial or residential in this region or that one? Should we decriminalize marijuana or not? I think these are political questions with no right or wrong answer. The way you answer those questions is going to based on your ideals and beliefs about how things should be done and what’s most important to you.

But my politics doesn’t influence me in any way on scientific questions. That’s because questions like “Is global warming real?” and “Do our greenhouse gas emissions contribute to the problem?” are yes-or-no questions. They have answers that science can provide. And no political belief can change that for me. Nor (I think) should it change it for anyone. That’s why I’ve always focussed on educating the public on global warming and climate change. The facts should speak for themselves.

But it turns out that political ideologies win out. That’s why some people are unwilling to easily accept evidence that will contradict their cultural perspective. One concerning finding from the Cultural Cognition Project study was that the more people were educated in science, the more likely they were to become even more divided on how significant the risks climate change imposes are.

The authors conclude that although information can solve the climate change conflict, it has to take cultural cognition into account. As Dan Kahan states, “…information has to do more than communicate the scientific evidence. It also has to create a climate of deliberations in which no group perceives that accepting any piece of evidence is akin to betrayal of their cultural group.”

For now I think I’m going to continue on blogging about evidence and various topics pertaining to climate change as I have been. I think most of the time I’m preaching to the choir but at least I’m filling in some of their gaps. This study suggests I’m not likely to have much impact on the other side of the spectrum, which explains why no one I’ve argued with on this issue—from the educated to the not-so-educated—has ever come back to me and said “you’ve won me over.” Like politicians, I suppose I’m trying to win over the undecided vote.

But if someone can figure out a way to win over the impasse that arises from cultural cognition, I believe we will have come up with a means to make a real difference and solve many of the world’s problems.

Soundbites Aren't Always Accurate

We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”
—George Orwell

Anybody who has been following my blog knows that I’m all about educating people on the science and evidence regarding climate change. I try to make sure people are up on the facts and I try to dispel the myths that are often expressed in various sources of media as if they are undisputed truths. Sometimes it gets interesting dealing with it all.

For example, a local individual in my community who believes that global warming isn’t a real phenomenon frequently expresses incorrect statements as facts. Comments that are completely inaccurate. (He and I are Facebook friends so I that’s how I get to see his posts.) He recently posted a link to an article arguing that global warming is over, and that global cooling is about to begin. I reviewed the article, written by Professor Don Easterbrook who is well-known in climate science circles as a dissenter from the mainstream opinion regarding global warming and climate change. In it, he suggests that global warming is over and includes some data to support that “fact.”

The funny thing about my friend posting this link is that the article came out in 2008. (Sometimes I’m sure I read the misinformation more thoroughly than those who are passing it on.) In the four years since Easterbrook published his predictions, 2009, 2010 and 2011 were all hotter years than 2008. In fact, if you click on the link you’ll see that one of the graphs supporting the author’s data is from 1997. The twelve hottest years on record since accurate thermometer measurements have been available all occurred since that graph was produced. Hard to argue that the trend in global warming was over, especially when you take into account that the last 12 months have been the hottest ever on record, as I pointed out in an earlier blog post. I would go so far as to say that Professor Easterbrook’s prediction has been proven false.

I couldn’t help but comment about this on my Facebook friend’s link and explained these same points: that Easterbrook’s prediction that temperatures were going to start declining was made four years ago and subsequently proven incorrect, and that all sorts of studies have shown the trend is indeed continuing. I also cited the references to those studies. I always try to support my comments with facts when I can so people know I’m not offering simple conjecture or opinion. As a scientist (albeit a medical one), I still seek to find the truth. If a belief I currently hold is disproven by rigourous scientific data, I am more than happy to accept what the new evidence proves.

Here’s where the dialogue got silly. After I pointed out these facts, from sources including the NOAA and the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature data set, his response made me laugh. “Brad, that’s simply untrue.” But unfortunately, he offered no sources or references to dispute the facts I offered, or to support his claim that the information I pointed out was untrue. I find this happens a lot, and it makes for a frustrating dialogue when you try to have a rational discussion on these issues. By simply stating “something is untrue”—by his logic—then it’s untrue. Full stop. Case closed.

Here’s another recent example of an inaccurate soundbite: in my local newspaper, there are occasional letters to the editor on environmental issues including some on climate change. If something ever needs to be clarified, I always feel compelled to respond even more so than to a Facebook post, since there tends to be a much bigger audience for a letter to the editor than among Facebook friends. Last week, someone wrote a letter to the editor pointing out that we shouldn’t worry about climate change because it has nothing to do with us. “Volcanoes spew out far more carbon dioxide than human activities do,” was the argument being made.

I had to respond as I’d already studied this issue before. And using the same approach, the letter I wrote included facts rather than just expressing opinions as facts. I included a link to an article supporting these facts written by Terry Gerlach from the US Geological Survey and published in June 2011. Despite the original claim that volcanic eruption “produces far more toxic gases than the entire population of our planet does,” the facts indicate otherwise. It turns out our human activities generate about 150 times as much carbon dioxide than all of Earth’s volcanoes. Whereas our human activities produce about 30 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, volcanic eruptions create only about 200 million tonnes in an average year, although that number clearly fluctuates year to year, ranging anywhere from about 130 to 440 million tonnes. But what a misrepresentation of the truth to suggest that we’re not the problem, the volcanoes are. Even automobiles alone generate about 3 billion tonnes per year, still about 15 times more than volcanic eruptions.

I wish this sort of misinformation didn’t happen so frequently, but it does. Since so many people get their information from such brief soundbites as Facebook posts or Letters to the Editor, we need to do a better job at getting the facts out. I feel it’s my personal mission to pass on the truth about these issues. Hopefully people will realize when references are provided that I’m standing by the facts. When others simply express inaccurate information as facts without any backup references, arguing that the facts “are simply untrue,” I hope the discerning reader will learn to realize that those soundbites aren’t worth much credence.

It always boils down to facts vs. misinformation. (Almost sounds like a political campaign, doesn’t it?)

James Hansen: A Real Climatologist Worth Listening To

The science of the situation is clear — it’s time for the politics to follow.”
—Dr. James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies

Too often critics of climate change and global warming attack science they don’t understand. Usually they reveal their ignorance easily because they often refer to information they heard from someone who heard it from someone else.

And then there are critics of the messengers about climate change. As one example,  Al Gore is criticized for being a politician, and the argument is made that the real reason behind his efforts is so he can promote a socialist agenda.

Sometimes the scientists who try to pass on the facts about climate change are criticized because they aren’t climate scientists. It seems nothing will satisfy the skeptics and deniers. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a real climatologist who was also effective at getting his message across?

Say hello to Dr. James Hansen. He first studied planetary models in order to understand Venus’s atmosphere but was able to start looking at how the information he learned could apply to our own planet. He has been the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies since 1981, and it was in 1988 that he first started to talk to the US congress about global warming and climate change, trying to encourage political action to avert disaster in the future.

A recently posted TED talk by Dr. Hansen explains his journey from climatologist to advocate for finding solutions to global warming. If you have 18 spare minutes I’d strongly recommend you watch this incredible lecture. He briefly summarizes how he became a climatologist working for NASA, and then moves on to share what he’s learned about our planet, and why he thinks it’s so crucial that we act on what the science has taught us as quickly as possible. He’s very emphatic in his message. As he puts it, “Imagine a giant asteroid on a direct collision course with Earth. That is the equivalent of what we face now [with climate change], yet we dither.”

He wrote an article for the New York Times earlier this month which summarizes quite clearly why we need to act now. As he so eloquently states, “The cost of acting goes far higher the longer we wait—we can’t wait any longer to avoid the worst and be judged immoral by coming generations.”

When someone who understands the science and has made the study of climate change his life’s work, it seems self-evident to me that we should listen to him. Yes, there are scientists out there who make arguments against global warming being real, or that it’s not our fault but simply part of some larger natural cycle, but those scientists don’t have the credentials that Dr. Hansen does, nor do they have the body of evidence he has to support their fringe opinions. And yes, there are non-climatologists who try to pass on this message who are criticized because they’re non-cliamtologists (Al Gore and David Suzuki being two of the best known), but they’re simply using their outstanding communication skills to extend the audience and let more people here this information. (Not every climatologist is an excellent public speaker.)

We’re all part of this planet, and we need to stop treating it like it’s a commodity. Rather, we need to think of our species as being just one part of a much larger ecosystem. Every disruption we cause leads to consequences, some of which are immediate—such as oil spills—but others may take decades or even centuries to properly understand. Climate change is one very important example. (I don’t expect James Watt who helped perfect the steam engine had any clue where the path to industrialization would take us.)

If we can achieve a more proper perspective given what we now know, then maybe we’ll be able to accomplish some real headway in the fight against climate change someday. With Dr. Hansen’s important message available for us to listen to, I certainly hope so.

Astroturf—And You Thought it was Just Fake Grass

A fellow from Texas can tell the difference between grass roots and AstroTurf.
—former Senator and Vice-Presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen

When most people hear the word astroturf, they think about synthetic grass used in ballparks all over North America. But did you know it has another meaning?

“Astroturfing” is a form of propaganda that’s sole purpose is to mislead. Specifically, its aim is to misrepresent that a larger number of people are supportive of a cause than is truly the case. It’s a play on words: a grass roots movement reflects action that is gathering steam but astroturfing is a fake version of it, just as AstroTurf is fake grass.

The term was first coined by Lloyd Bentsen in an interview with the Washington Post in 1985 (quoted above), in response to a number of cards and letters he had received opposing some insurance provisions. He argued it was generated mail and not really reflective of a true groundswell of opposition.

There are a variety of ways to use “astroturfers.” One is to have real activists pose as regular people. This can be done by having them attend rallies or disseminate propaganda. Examples include submitted Letters to the Editor or posted YouTube videos that are meant to imply they come from everyday folks newly adding their support to a cause, but they’re actually from lobbyists and activists already connected to that cause.

Another way that astroturfing is achieved is through attracting everyday folks who turn up at events and pose as supporters. And how do you do that exactly? Well, you give them incentive. Money usually works. For example, in 2009 the American Petroleum Institute encouraged its members—companies like ExxonMobil, Shell and British Petroleum—to send employees to rallies aimed at fighting a climate change bill. (If you got paid by your boss to go to a rally instead of doing your job, you might be inclined to go.)

A more recent example just occurred this past week. At Environmental Protection Agency hearings in Chicago and Washington, D.C., a number of people showed up wearing T-shirts supporting the fossil fuel industry. The purpose of the hearings was to discuss new carbon standards for new power plants, what would amount amount to a reduction of about 62 million tons of carbon dioxide annually if enforced. A number of folks were present clearly in support of coal and oil based on their attire.

Nice way to show your support for the fossil fuel industry. Only problem? They weren’t supporters at all. They were simply students looking to make a quick buck. And how did this make them any money? Because they were paid $50 to show up and wear the T-shirts. The Environmental Law and Policy Center found a Craigslist posting by a coal group offering exactly that. The ad has since been removed and it hasn’t been confirmed which group put up the ad, but it’s pretty clear it was from someone or some group in support of fossil fuel industries and against any environmental changes that might hurt profits in any way. (But hey, to a student $50 is $50.)

Astroturfing is yet another example of what I can’t stand with strategies used by some people who oppose any move away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources of energy. So frequently their tactic is to spread misinformation. In the case of astroturfing, rather than misleading people about facts pertaining to climate change (e.g. “volcanoes produce more carbon dioxide than people do”), the misinformation is to misrepresent the number of people who actually support their opposition. It would be nice if they could simply use the truth in their efforts so that people could be more properly educated and better decide for themselves how they feel.

Perhaps since the facts aren’t in their favour when it comes to global warming, maybe they feel they don’t have much alternative.

10 Billion People and Holding….

The future ain’t what it used to be.
-Yogi Berra

There’s no doubt that an ever-increasing global population plays a big part in global warming and climate change. More people means more land to live on, more land for crops, and more livestock for food. Clearing all this land and the construction, agriculture and livestock that go along with it generate a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. As the global population increases and as technology continues to progress with populations either living according to first-world standards or trying to, the emissions per person steadily increase as well.

Last October, we hit a global population of 7 billion people, and with more births than deaths, that number continues to climb. Our species has had many ups and downs in population over the centuries, but ever since the plague finished doing its damage around 1350—leaving us with about 370 million human beings at that point—our numbers have been steadily rising. Better sanitation, antibiotics, vaccination, and modern medicine (especially pertaining to childbirth) have all led to less premature deaths than we used to experience.

And slowly but surely, women’s rights are steadily improving around the world. There’s lots of room for further improvement in certain parts of the globe to be sure, but making sure that women are educated and getting into the workforce, and that they have control over their own bodies with respect to family planning have contributed substantially toward the steady decline in birth rates seen all over the world in the last fifty years. Only the poorest war-torn nations continue to have higher birth rates, in part to offset the higher mortality rates those countries experience.

Since birth rates are declining, might we ever expect to reach a plateau in the rising global population? Even if the number of people continued to climb indefinitely, a plateau would be forced on us at some point. Resources like food grow linearly, but populations grow exponentially. It was this observation by the economist Thomas Malthus that helped Charles Darwin formulate his theory of evolution. Since consumers are in competition for these limited resources, the fittest tend to survive. Despite us living on a very large planet, Earth’s resources are undoubtedly limited.

But the United Nations Population Division has predicted we will reach a plateau even if one isn’t forced on us by limited resources. By 2050 it’s anticipated our population will likely reach a peak of about 10 billion people. The math here is actually pretty easy to understand so you can see how they arrived at that number.

Right now there are roughly two billion children alive under the age of 15 and that number isn’t expected to change very much in coming years because the birth rate is anticipated to remain close to where it is at present. There are another two billion people alive between the ages of 15 and 30. It’s closer to one billion people alive between the ages of 30 and 45, one billion between 46 and 60, and one billion over the age of 60. It’s easy to see why the population is climbing because there are two billion people in the 0-15 age group and they are being replenished at a steady rate, but only one billion people aged 60 and older that are approaching the end of their lives and dying.

With time, the one billion in the 30 to 45 age group will be replaced by the two billion in the 15 to 30 group. Another fifteen years later, they’ll move into the 45 to 60 group, and so on. If every year the base group of children on the planet remains steady at two billion, then each of the age groups listed will eventually have about two billion people in them. Five groups of two billion people each makes for a total of about 10 billion.

Obviously there are a lot of assumptions being made here, but it seems reasonable for us as a species to plan for a growing population of perhaps 10 billion or so in the coming decades. Those people need energy, and it would be so much better if we could give it to them with renewable sources contributing little or no emissions rather than continuning to focus on fossil fuels. We’re already past peak oil in many sources on the planet, looking to use less accesible sources now such as offshore drilling or the Alberta oil sands. And mining for coal is reaching absurd levels, removing mountatin tops in some instances.

If we could find a way to cope with 10 billion people on this planet and provide them with the standards of living that we all need (although not necessarily the standards some more excessive and conspicuous individuals might want), then we might—just might—have a chance to make it through this global challenge.

That’s the way we need to start thinking about tackling the problems our planet is facing. Looking to where we’re headed in the future and planning for it, rather than simply continuing on with business-as-usual because it’s easier and more profitable for a select few in the present day. Future generations will never forgive us if we don’t.