|Number 551||April 18, 2014|
For those of you who receive the email version of Nygaard Notes, apologies are in order. The email version of the last issue went out with the subject: Nygaard Notes #550: Ukraine. So far, so good. But the header in the text of the email said it was Nygaard Notes #551. Well, it was supposed to be #550. The edition you are reading at this moment is the real #551. There. That's settled. Sorry.
I've read a number of comments recently noting that the U.S. political system currently lacks the capacity to take on and solve large and urgent tasks, such as repairing our sagging infrastructure, creating a full-employment economy, and responding to possibly the greatest challenge of all: Human-induced global warming. This issue of Nygaard Notes reports on a recent statement to the world by the planet's largest scientific organization, and considers the nature and meaning of the media's response to their urgent plea.
Their three-part message is simple: Climate change is happening. It could be hugely disruptive. There's a lot we can do. That simple message is repeated several times in the newsletter you are reading right now. I hope the message gets through, and that this report in Nygaard Notes nudges each of you to do something.
This week's "Quote" is from page 19 of the report "What We Know: The Reality, Risks, and Response to Climate Change," released on March 18th by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The scientists said:
"What steps society takes to meet the challenge of climate change—the questions of when, how and to what extent we respond—is a matter on which all Americans must decide. We urge that these decisions be guided by two inescapable facts: first, the effects of any additional carbon dioxide emissions will last for centuries; second, there is a risk of abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes in the Earth's climate system with massively disruptive impacts."
On March 18th the American Association for the Advancement of Science released an unusual report to the public. The report, "What We Know: The Reality, Risks, and Response to Climate Change," is part of "a new initiative to expand the dialogue on the risks of climate change" by the largest general scientific society in the world. The London Guardian called the initiative "a rare intervention into a policy debate," since scientists don't usually get so directly involved in politics. But the current time is not a time for business as usual, as the scientists made clear when releasing their report: "There may be no more pressing issue intersecting science and society than climate change and the What We Know initiative was born in response to that reality."
Here is a direct quote from the press release that accompanied the Report:
"The report provides three key messages for every American about climate change:
"1. Climate scientists agree: climate change is happening here and now.
"2. We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts.
"3. The sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost. And there is much we can do."
The message is simple, stark, and clear. The next article presents excerpts of some of the key points from the Report.
Affiliates of the American Association for the Advancement of Science include 258 societies and academies of science, serving more than 10 million members, representing the world's largest federation of scientific and engineering societies. Since their report, What We Know," got so little coverage, I'm offering a few excerpts here. (All emphasis is in the original.)
"Surveys show that many Americans think climate change is still a topic of significant scientific disagreement. Thus, it is important and increasingly urgent for the public to know there is now a high degree of agreement among climate scientists that human-caused climate change is real. Moreover, while the public is becoming aware that climate change is increasing the likelihood of certain local disasters, many people do not yet understand that there is a small, but real chance of abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts on people in the United States and around the world."
"Climate scientists agree: climate change is happening here and now. Based on well-established evidence, about 97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening. This agreement is documented not just by a single study, but by a converging stream of evidence over the past two decades from surveys of scientists, content analyses of peer-reviewed studies, and public statements issued by virtually every membership organization of experts in this field. Average global temperature has increased by about 1.4 degrees F over the last 100 years. Sea level is rising, and some types of extreme events—such as heat waves and heavy precipitation events—are happening more frequently. Recent scientific findings indicate that climate change is likely responsible for the increase in the intensity of many of these events in recent years."
"We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts. Earth's climate is on a path to warm beyond the range of what has been experienced over the past millions of years. The range of uncertainty for the warming along the current emissions path is wide enough to encompass massively disruptive consequences to societies and ecosystems: as global temperatures rise, there is a real risk, however small, that one or more critical parts of the Earth's climate system will experience abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes. Disturbingly, scientists do not know how much warming is required to trigger such changes to the climate system."
"The sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost. And there is much we can do. Waiting to take action will inevitably increase costs, escalate risk, and foreclose options to address the risk. The CO2 we produce accumulates in Earth's atmosphere for decades, centuries, and longer. It is not like pollution from smog or wastes in our lakes and rivers, where levels respond quickly to the effects of targeted policies. The effects of CO2 emissions cannot be reversed from one generation to the next until there is a large- scale, cost-effective way to scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Moreover, as emissions continue and warming increases, the risk increases.
"As scientists, it is not our role to tell people what they should do or must believe about the rising threat of climate change. But we consider it to be our responsibility as professionals to ensure, to the best of our ability, that people understand what we know: human-caused climate change is happening, we face risks of abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes, and responding now will lower the risk and cost of taking action."
"In addition to greenhouse gases, there are many other forces that can cause changes in the Earth's climate—including the creation and destruction of the Earth's crust, the planet's wobbly path around (and tilt toward) the sun, variation in the sun's energy output, volcanic eruptions, shifting ocean currents, and natural changes in CO2 and other greenhouse gases. These factors have driven the planet through eras of blazing heat and mile-thick ice sheets. But decades of human-generated greenhouse gases are now the major force driving the direction of climate change, currently overwhelming the effects of these other factors. Many studies show that the combined effects of natural drivers of climate cannot explain the temperature increase observed over the past half century. Given the high stakes, it is valuable to understand not just what is most likely to happen, but what might possibly happen to our climate. There is a possibility that temperatures will rise much higher and impacts will be much worse than expected."
"Abrupt Climate Change: Most projections of climate change presume that future changes—greenhouse gas emissions, temperature increases and effects such as sea level rise—will happen incrementally. A given amount of emission will lead to a given amount of temperature increase that will lead to a given amount of smooth incremental sea level rise. However, the geological record for the climate reflects instances where a relatively small change in one element of climate led to abrupt changes in the system as a whole. In other words, pushing global temperatures past certain thresholds could trigger abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes that have massively disruptive and large-scale impacts. At that point, even if we do not add any additional CO2 to the atmosphere, potentially unstoppable processes are set in motion. We can think of this as sudden climate brake and steering failure where the problem and its consequences are no longer something we can control. In climate terms, abrupt change means change occurring over periods as short as decades or even years."
Here's a brief summary of some the impacts of climate change that are already occurring and will increase over the coming years:
• Arctic sea ice has been shrinking dramatically.
• The melting of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets has also accelerated notably.
• The oceans are rapidly acidifying, with early impacts on shelled organisms such as oysters already documented. The current acidification rate is likely the fastest in 300 million years.
• Sea level rise has accelerated.
• The world's plants and animals are disappearing from some areas and appearing in other areas where they've never seen before. Extinctions are likely to increase.
• Global warming has changed the pattern of precipitation worldwide, bringing increasing heat waves, floods, and drought.
• Climate change has amplified the threat of wildfires.
• Climate disruption is already affecting human health and well-being in many ways, and health threats are expected to intensify.
• Climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.
• Climate change can influence resource competition and place new burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions. The reports call attention to the fact that these burdens can trigger violence. There is a growing recognition that the displacement of large numbers of people due to water scarcity and agricultural failure, as in the recent history of Syria, can exacerbate tensions that can lead to civil unrest. Senior officers and officials in the U.S. Department of Defense are now regularly speaking publically about how an unabated rise in greenhouse gas emissions could add additional burdens to the infrastructure and mission capacity of our military forces.
There's much more, of course, in the full report. Find it HERE.
A saying I've adopted over the years of working on Nygaard Notes goes like this: "If what we think affects what we do, then we'd better work on what we think." And what we think about climate change is all confused.
The entire public discussion about climate change clearly illustrates a simple point that has long been known to public relations practitioners: In order to prevent people from taking action it is not necessary to get them to believe that the argument in favor of taking action is wrong. All that is needed is to plant a seed of doubt. That is, in order to ward off the serious social change that we need in regard to climate, people don't have to be convinced that climate change is not real; they only have to be made a little unsure that it is real.
The "What We Know" report from the AAAS deals explicitly with this idea of the role of consciousness in making social change. Early on the report notes that "Surveys show that many Americans think climate change is still a topic of significant scientific disagreement." A bit later they explain, quite succinctly, why this is important:
"Research shows that Americans who think the scientific experts disagree about human-caused climate change are less likely to believe that it might have serious consequences. Failure to appreciate the scientific consensus reduces support for a broad societal response to the challenges and risks that climate change presents."
Roughly a third of USAmericans think that climate change is not happening, or they think that it is not caused by human activity, or they haven't thought much about it. And thus—as the Report notes—they won't support any action to address the issue. They certainly won't support the type of serious, institutional, culture-wide change that is needed to deal with the coming crisis.
Adopting Systems Thinking
There's another, deeper level at which we can understand the public's resistance to accepting the reality of climate change. It has to do with the prevailing Thought System in U.S. culture. One striking aspect of the prevailing Thought System is the belief in simple causation. Upon observing an event, it's almost a reflex for USAmericans to look for "the cause." This is a reflection of an analytical way of thinking that relies on a mechanistic "call/response" understanding of the world: "When this happens, then that will follow." I call this Individualistic Thinking, as it leads us to understand the world one event at a time, one cause at a time, one action at a time.
A Systems Orientation, in contrast, doesn't look at causes, but looks instead at probabilities. When certain factors exist, then they can combine to increase, or decrease, the likelihood of certain outcomes. If conditions are right, systemwide, then the introduction of one new factor may be the tipping point, or trigger, for the transformation of the system. That is, any given change may be the catalyst for change, without being the cause.
Consider cigarette smoking. We know that cigarette smoking increases the likelihood of getting lung cancer. But it doesn't cause lung cancer, as most people know someone who has smoked heavily and lived to a ripe old age without getting cancer. And thousands of people who have never smoked get lung cancer each year (about 17,000, in fact). But the fact that there is not a direct, linear cause/effect relationship between smoking and cancer in each individual does not mean that there is no relationship between smoking and cancer. It means that each body is a system, and that each body interacts with other systems—environment, work, home, and many more—that somehow, all together, make cancer more or less likely. Smoking, then, can be a catalyst for the system change that results in cancer, but it's not the cause. That's Systems Thinking.
And so it is with climate change. No one can say that a particular flood, or wildfire, or drought is "caused" by climate change. All we can say is that, in general, climate change will increase the number and severity of floods, wildfires, and droughts. For people who are tightly bound to the prevailing Thought System, this is not good enough.
This lack of certainty, of a direct one-to-one relationship between climate change and daily weather events, is preyed on by propagandists to plant a seed of doubt. And, as mentioned above, that's all a propagandist needs to put the brakes on a popular movement for change. After all—the standard thinking goes—if we can't say for certain that increasing carbon dioxide levels will cause a drought in Minnesota, then why should Minnesotans invest in green energy? Maybe we'll be fine. Maybe the suffering will be centered elsewhere: Bangladesh, perhaps, or Miami. Somewhere far away, in any case. Maybe global warming isn't even happening. After all, where's the proof? The Earth has always had variable weather, there's nothing we can do about it. And so the arguments go.
A sustained, serious commitment on the part of our information systems—the most obvious one being media—could reduce the effectiveness of global warming propaganda. But instead, as the next article illustrates, in large and small ways the media actually aids in the propaganda effort. Let's have a look.
The "What We Know" report was broadly and loudly announced to the media, yet it was virtually blacked out in the United States. National Public Radio ignored it. There was no mention on any television news program, as far as I could discover. There have been but two articles in U.S. newspapers. The Los Angeles Times had a brief and superficial story on page 2.
Such non-coverage breeds ignorance, which is bad enough. But in the face of a concerted PR effort to cast doubt on the scientific consensus, what is left in the void of reporting on the voices of science is not only ignorance. What remains is the unchallenged and widely-disseminated arguments of one side of a false debate. So people aren't simply ignorant. They're fooled.
The second article on the Report appeared in the New York Times. And the Times—despite having the report made available to them a day early, giving them a "scoop" had they deemed it worthy—relegated their story to the "Science" section, with the headline "Scientists Sound Alarm on Climate."
Note here what I call the PET of the New York Times piece. That is, the Placement, Emphasis, and Tone of the published article. First of all, the Placement: I would hope that a report from the world's largest scientific society telling of an avoidable global catastrophe on the horizon would be on the front page, not relegated to the Science section. By placing this story in a special section, the Times sends the message that this is not a story of general interest and importance, but rather a story that will only be of interest to science buffs, or academics, or whatever demographic reads the Science section.
The Emphasis in this story—see the headline—is on the fact that scientists are sounding the alarm. The real story, of course, is the content of that alarm: That we are well into a climate-change emergency, and we aren't dealing with it. Look at it this way: If an emergency-warning siren goes off, the story is the emergency, not the sounding of the siren. And so it should be for the warning call sounded by the AAAS. How about a headline like, "Planet Warming: Risk of Major Catastrophe Looms." That emphasizes the message, not the messenger.
The Tone of the Times story is a sort of bemused curiosity: People have been "confused" about this issue, and there is "a recognition among scientists that they bear some responsibility for the confusion." The Times ends not with a call to action, but with a question: "Will the American people hear the message this time?" Of course the Times, being the most influential newspaper in the nation, has a lot to say about that.
What they did say about that can be seen in the PET used in regard to this very report: As the Times translates the clarion call of the scientists, their Placement says "Not too important." Their Emphasis tells us "This is about scientists and what they're up to." And their Tone appears casual, as if saying, "Kind of interesting, don't you think?"
In contrast to the PET on the climate warning story, consider the PET of another current story: Ukraine. Placement: Front page. Emphasis: Major threat to Europe and to the U.S. due to Russian imperialism. Tone: Fear, worry, Something must be done!
Both the Ukraine story and the climate alarm story are examples of how propaganda is spread through media. When centers of power prefer less coverage at a lower pitch, the media delivers. When hysteria and high-volume coverage is needed, the media kicks into gear. It's neither a conspiracy nor a coincidence. As the sociologist Herbert Gans notes in his book Deciding What's News, the set of ideas and priorities expressed in the news "comes, of course, from the journalists, although it expresses the values of the workplace and the profession more than it does the journalists' personal values." In other words, the media is simply doing the job assigned to it by its place in the larger systems of power in which it is embedded. More on systems in a future Nygaard Notes.