The limits of evidence based marketing and climate science

Despite the millions spent by the Brothers Koch to convince us that climate science is a conspiracy, I often wonder why so many people call themselves skeptics.  After all, climate change denialists seem to be playing a game of Whack-a-Mole, where no matter how many times you disprove their critiques, they offer them again and again.  Seth Godin talks about the limits of evidence-based marketing in his blog, offering a vision of how the tide may end up turning against the Flat Earth society.  Godin infers that at this point, there is nothing that scientists can do to convince a hardened skeptic:

“Here’s the conversation that needs to happen before we invest a lot of time in evidence-based marketing in the face of skepticism: ‘What evidence would you need to see in order to change your mind?’  If the honest answer is, “well, actually, there’s nothing you could show me that would change my mind,” you’ve just saved everyone a lot of time. Please don’t bother having endless fact-based discussions…What would you have to show someone who believes men never walked on the moon? What evidence would you have to proffer in order to change the mind of someone who is certain the Earth is only 5,000 years old? If they’re being truthful with you, there’s nothing they haven’t been exposed to that would do the trick.”

Instead, Godin writes that the best tactic to convince skeptics is a necessarily slow, painful process: eventually enough of the right opinion-makers will be convinced:

“Of course, evidence isn’t the only marketing tactic that is effective. In fact, it’s often not the best tactic. What would change his mind, what would change the mind of many people resistant to evidence is a series of eager testimonials from other tribe members who have changed their minds. When people who are respected in a social or professional circle clearly and loudly proclaim that they’ve changed their minds, a ripple effect starts. First, peer pressure tries to repress these flip-flopping outliers. But if they persist in their new mindset, over time others may come along. Soon, the majority flips. It’s not easy or fast, but it happens.”

Where does that leave us?  It means that we should appreciate conservatives that do have sensible views of climate science; it means that birthers and climate science denialists will make a lot of noise, but ultimately will not be swayed by reason; it means that we should continue to use reason, but expect that it will get us nowhere with certain people.  It means that for the immediate future, America will continue to have a very complicated presence in climate negotiations.


A climate change movie that doesn’t care if you believe in climate change

A remarkable new documentary is out this month, called Carbon Nation.  Director Peter Byck bills this film as a “climate change movie that doesn’t even care if you believe in climate change.”  All I can say is you’ve got to see this film.  Take your conservative friends and family, too.  Byck really frames the challenges and opportunities of climate change in an elegant and open-minded way – this film is not preachy, it is straightforward; it drives home the point that people are confronting this problem already, with solutions that can be adopted on a much larger scale.  This film is a game-changer.


Snowpocalypse?

This photo, taken Feb 1st from NASA satellites, shows the latest massive snowstorm.

Every time snow falls, climate disinformation artists claim that climate change is not happening, and that our carbon emissions have no demonstrable effect on the climate.  Well, these snowstorms and the record precipitation are actually right on schedule.  These storms are influenced by the warming weather, but also by natural variability.


Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex leads on sustainability

Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of the United ...

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In the current issue of The Atlantic, BU history professor Andrew J. Bacevich revisits two famous speeches by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  One of them, his farewell address delivered on January 17, 1961, in which Eisenhower warned America about the dangers of what he called the “military-industrial complex,” gained a lot of attention in light of our latest wars:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Bacevich ties the farewell address to an earlier speech, delivered on April 16, 1953, known as the “Cross of Iron” speech.  Bacevich identifies a constant theme in the two speeches, that investment in the military-industrial complex is undesirable:

“The essence of this theme was simplicity itself: spending on arms and armies is inherently undesirable. Even when seemingly necessary, it constitutes a misappropriation of scarce resources. By diverting social capital from productive to destructive purposes, war and the preparation for war deplete, rather than enhance, a nation’s strength. And while assertions of military necessity might camouflage the costs entailed, they can never negate them altogether. “Every gun that is made,” Eisenhower told his listeners, “every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” Any nation that pours its treasure into the purchase of armaments is spending more than mere money. “It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

In light of the calls for austerity and the reduction of our budget deficit, any reduction in military spending remain controversial; however, recent investment by both the Department of Defense and the military contractors in sustainability initiatives has also been heralded as a positive contribution towards fighting climate change.  The military is investing in biofuels, clean energy, and innovative new efficiency technologies.  Contractors like Lockheed Martin are investing in innovative new clean energy technology:

“There’s a concentrated solar array whose curved mirrors move to follow a light that mimics the passing sun. There are a pair of small buoys that show how energy from waves can be converted to electricity and sent back to shore through underwater coils. And there’s a model of a town and military outpost that demonstrate how micro-grid technology can better manage energy use and reroute supplies during outages.  [Matt] Kier doesn’t work for a alternative-energy startup. He’s an engineer for Lockheed Martin, one of the country’s largest defense contractors. And the display room, which the company calls its Energy Solutions Center, is nestled near fighter, space, electronics and cybersecurity displays just down the road from the Pentagon. Over the past two and a half years, the Department of Defense has undertaken an ambitious effort to cut its energy use, start tapping renewable sources and understand the impact of climate change on its operations. Each military branch has laid out energy targets and has goals for reducing fuel use in vehicle fleets and feeding bases with alternative energy. For example, the Navy has committed to getting half its energy from alternative sources by 2020 and by then expects it will use 8 million barrels of biofuel a year. As the military gears up to meet its energy goals, it will rely on defense companies to help plan, engineer and build a leaner, greener force.”

Interestingly, while Eisenhower worries, in his farewell address, that government direction of research and technology might endanger the “solitary inventor” and the “free university,” he also warns of a greater danger:

“As we peer into society’s future, we — you and I, and our government — must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.”

While Eisenhower was arguing against the 1950s belief that we could have our guns with our butter, he also worried that we might waste our precious resources.  In light of our runaway greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, and growing resource scarcity, the investment by the DoD and our military defense contractors in sustainability and clean energy technology is true leadership.  While the Chamber of Commerce and companies like Koch Industries spend billions of dollars each year to fight climate scientists and confuse the public about climate change, the Department of Defense and its contractors are investing money in the technologies that will make significant contributions outside the realm of defense, like algae produced biofuels.  Eisenhower would surely be disheartened by the power that the defense industry holds over the public purse and policy, and yet I think he would be equally disheartened at the American failure to confront climate change seriously.  These initiatives by the DoD and defense contractors will not solve all of our problems, but they are a step in the right direction, one that Eisenhower would have applauded.


Addicted to Risk

Naomi Klein speaks at TED last month about how “our underlying assumption of limitlessness allows us to take the risk that we do.”  She looks at the Alberta Tar Sands, the BP Oil Spill, and our ever falling EROEI, and examines why we continue to see unending growth as the answer to all of our problems.


Susan Casey examines the power and danger that lurks in the sea

I have logged five years of sea time underway (between 1998-2008); I have sailed across the Indian Ocean and Northern Pacific Ocean; I spent significant time in the Western Pacific toiling around the typhoon laden waters circa Okinawa and Guam; I know what heavy seas (up to 20ft) feel like, having traversed ships using the bulkheads to step on from time to time.  I was always preternaturally calm in heavy seas, and I never took Dramamine. However, after reading Susan Casey’s book The Wave, I am newly aware of the great power that the sea has over man, the dangers that lurk in her, and the fears that rest in the heart of any merchant mariner worth their salt.  Incredibly, Casey learns, two large oceangoing ships sink each week globally, but that never makes its way into the media.  Like me, Casey is astonished:

“When I first read about the missing ships, I was astonished.  In the high tech marine world of radar, EPIRB, GPS, and satellite surveillance, how could hundreds of enormous vessels just get swallowed up by the sea?  And furthermore, how could this be happening without much media notice?  Imagine the headlines if even a single 747 slipped off the map with all its passengers and was never heard from again?”

Casey examines extreme waves in all their forms, from rogue waves, to typhoons, to tsunamis.  She speaks with wave scientists and big wave tow surfers, reads the Casualty Ledgers going back centuries at Lloyds of London, and discovers that there is still a lot we have to learn about how the ocean behaves, and how it will behave in the future as the planet warms.  Already, storm intensity is increasing, and in some areas like the Northern Pacific, wave energy is increasing.   Tsunamis, which can be as large as thousands of feet, are much more prevalent historically than we give them credit for.  In fact, according to scientists like Bill McGuire, the impending rise in sea level is going to increase the weight load on the Earth’s crust, which will lead to more volcanic and seismic activity, which increases the likelihood of tsunamis and earthquakes.

Aboard a modern Destroyer, I felt confident out at sea with the knowledge that we would know of bad weather before we found ourselves in it. Not only were the warships I sailed on laden with communications technology and protected by constant weather alerts and voyage navigation updates, but the ships were designed to survive in rough weather.  However, I wouldn’t feel so confident in a Bulk Carrier, what we used to refer to as a Group II Merchant.  A rogue wave can sink those vessels in less than one minute, after water floods into their holds.  Our modern, global economy is built to run through merchant ships.  The recent increase in piracy near the Horn of Africa shone a spotlight on the critical cog of global trade, but the sea promises to play an even bigger role.  But it is not just mariners and global companies who should worry about the power of the great waves; coastal residents, vulnerable to tsunamis and storm surges, should also be wary.  Casey interviewed Lloyds of London’s senior executive Neil Roberts, a specialist in marine activity, and outlines their expectations:

“[Lloyds of London expects] not only snarlier oceans and elevated sea levels, but more hurricanes, windstorms, storm surges, floods, earthquakes, wildfires, and droughts – all affecting more people and more property… ships had it rough out there, and sure, the losses were astonishing, but even these were dwarfed by Lloyd’s nightmare scenario: a disaster impacting the eastern seaboard of the United States, where over eight trillion dollars’ worth of coastal property, 111 million people, and half the U.S. GDP would be exposed.”

One scenario, identified by McGuire, involves the volcanic collapse of the Canary Islands, which could produce a massive tsunami that could hit the east coast of the United States in about nine hours.  The Wave is a timely examination of the power of the sea, one that I had trouble putting down at night.


A Review of The Weather of the Future

Heidi Cullen, author of the new book The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet, has a background rare for any research scientist, let alone a climate scientist: she worked for The Weather Channel, and gained a lot of expertise in communicating complex climate science to the lay person.  This work has given Cullen a unique understanding of where misunderstandings of climate science exist:

“This is the only way a lot of people can truly connect to the issue of climate science – via a long-term investment like real estate.  The more I thought about this question, the more I realized the scientific community had failed to communicate the threat of climate change in a way that made it real for people right now.  We, as scientists, hadn’t given people the proper tools to see that the impacts of climate change are visible right now and that they go far beyond melting ice caps.”

Cullen’s new book aims to provide those tools.  She explains some of the big reasons (single-action bias and the ‘finite pool of worry’) why many Americans understand the dangers of climate change, but not urgently enough to change our behavior.  More importantly, she explicitly separates the concepts of ‘climate’ and ‘weather’ and shows how the former shapes the latter.  Cullen’s writing reminds me of Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, when she shows how climate science developed and where it stands today: she eloquently and economically conveys the complex science in a way that is pleasurable to read.   The groundbreaking part of Cullen’s book what comes next: she picks seven of the most at-risk locations around the world, explains how climate change is already impacting the weather, and uses state-of-the-art models to create climate projections for each of these places into the next half-century.  Two of the locations really hit home for me: Cullen examines the Central Valley in California, as well as New York City.  She also looks at the Sahel region of Africa, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Arctic, Greenland, and Bangladesh.

Cullen borrows a metaphor from Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster who was among the first in Silicon Valley to take Y2K seriously: “Imagine you’ve got a sailboat and you’ve got to sail around an island.  You can start to circle when you’re a mile from shore and it will be easy.  But if you wait until you’re only 100 meters away, there will be rocks and reefs.  There will be a lot more drama.”  In her analysis of these climate hot spots around the world, Cullen makes clear the economic impact of waiting until the proverbial sailboat is close to the rocks and reefs.

The Weather of the Future lays bare the unequivocal nature of climate change, and the need to take actions, what Cullen calls “a million boring little fixes.”  In time, we will all make these fixes; the question for policy makers, skeptics, and citizens in general is, are we going to wait until those fixes become all the more expensive and painful?  This book is timely and necessary.