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.

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.

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.

Coal, climate change, and our energy future

This Monday morning, I have one thing on my mind: coal.  Tennessee Ernie Ford’s Sixteen Tons is ringing through the air:

“I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss said “Well, a-bless my soul”

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store”

Why am I thinking about coal, you might ask?  It is not just Ford’s sweet voice.  In the December issue of The Atlantic, James Fallows examines efforts in China and the United States to create “clean coal.” To many environmentalists, that is a dangerous oxymoron.  You probably saw this ad, filmed by the Coen Brothers:

That ad was in response to ads like this, from General Electric:

Well, on one hand you have folks that say clean coal is impossible.  On the other hand you have General Electric saying that “coal is looking more beautiful every day.”  Who is right?  Well Fallows’ article gets to the heart of that question.  He identifies some of the basic math that makes coal inescapably part of our immediate energy future:

“Precisely because coal already plays such a major role in world power supplies, basic math means that it will inescapably do so for a very long time. For instance: through the past decade, the United States has talked about, passed regulations in favor of, and made technological breakthroughs in all fields of renewable energy. Between 1995 and 2008, the amount of electricity coming from solar power rose by two-thirds in the United States, and wind-generated electricity went up more than 15-fold. Yet over those same years, the amount of electricity generated by coal went up much faster, in absolute terms, than electricity generated from any other source. The journalist Robert Bryce has drawn on U.S. government figures to show that between 1995 and 2008, “the absolute increase in total electricity produced by coal was about 5.8 times as great as the increase from wind and 823 times as great as the increase from solar”—and this during the dawn of the green-energy era in America. Power generated by the wind and sun increased significantly in America last year; but power generated by coal increased more than seven times as much.”

An article today in the New York Times shows that China’s hunger for coal has now resulted in coal imports from Australia, the United States, Indonesia, Canada, Columbia, and South Africa; new mines are even being planned in Washington State.  Fallows interviewed Ming Sung, a geologist who worked in the United States for many years for the Department of Energy and Shell Oil, and now works in China for the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force:

“People without a technical background think, ‘Coal is dirty! It’s bad, but will you turn off your refrigerator for 30 years while we work on renewables? Turn off the computer? Or ask people in China to do that? Unless you will, you can’t get rid of coal for decades. As [U.S. Energy Secretary] Steven Chu has said, we have to face the nightmare of coal for a while.”

Sung’s Clean Air Task Force is working to create partnerships between American and Chinese businesses to develop new technologies like underground coal gasification (UCG).  Here is a description of  UCG from the CATF:

“UCG processes coal where it lies, eliminating the environmental hazards of mining. In the process, coal is converted into a syngas through partial oxidation, creating the same reactions as surface gasifiers. The syngas generates “feedstocks” for several products, including electric power, chemicals, liquid fuels, hydrogen, and synthetic natural gas.  UCG allows for extensive pollution control and costs less to construct and operate than equivalent plants using surface gasifiers. The process has the potential to greatly enhance energy security, environmental sustainability, and economic competitiveness.”

In the United States, only one UCG plant is being constructed, the Texas Clean Energy Project, in Odessa, Texas.  However, in China, the development is occurring much faster.  In fact, development in all areas of energy research is occurring much faster:

‘In the search for “progress on coal,” like other forms of energy research and development, China is now the Google, the Intel, the General Motors and Ford of their heyday—the place where the doing occurs, and thus the learning by doing as well. “They are doing so much so fast that their learning curve is at an inflection that simply could not be matched in the United States,” David Mohler of Duke Energy told me. “In America, it takes a decade to get a permit for a plant,” a U.S. government official who works in China said. “Here, they build the whole thing in 21 months. To me, it’s all about accelerating our way to the right technologies, which will be much slower without the Chinese. “You can think of China as a huge laboratory for deploying technology,” the official added. “The energy demand is going like this”—his hand mimicked an airplane taking off—“and they need to build new capacity all the time. They can go from concept to deployment in half the time we can, sometimes a third. We have some advanced ideas. They have the capability to deploy it very quickly. That is where the partnership works.”’

So lets go back to the beginning.  How do we create a sustainable future, with sustainable energy consumption?  There are a lot of perspectives out there; I see them every day.  I happen have faith in the potential of nuclear power, whereas some of my colleagues would sooner eradicate nuclear power and rely on solar and wind.  The geologists and businessmen in Fallows’ article believe that coal is inescapably part of our future.  Who is right?

In part, I suppose, it depends on how you envision energy consumption developing, globally.  Coal, natural gas, nuclear power, and oil provide the majority of our energy today.  To stop using them, and rely exclusively on wind, solar, geothermal, and other developing clean energy possibilities, will require us to consume energy locally instead of systemically, and it will require us to reduce the scale of our consumption significantly.  More importantly, to get there, it will require time, energy, and financial investments on a significant scale.  Additionally, it will require a sea change in the way we live.  Alternatively, the people in Fallows’ article look for a game changing technology that will create a ‘clean coal.’  Similar to those efforts, Bill Gates and others are looking to the  next generation technology of Travelling Wave Reactors (TWR), which promise to produce almost zero waste with lower costs, a significant progression from 1960s nuclear energy technology.  The big problem in following either path seriously is that like our political gridlocks, we face ideological inflexibility in developing climate solutions.  Fallows identifies the problem we face in America:

“But China’s very effectiveness and dynamism, beneficial as they may be in this case, highlight an American failure—a failure that seems not transient or incidental but deep and hard to correct. The manifestation of the failure is that China is where the world’s “doing” now goes on, in this industry and many others. If you want to learn how the power plants of the future will work, you must go to Tianjin—or Shanghai, or Chengdu—to find out. Power companies from America, Europe, and Japan are fortunate to have a place to learn. Young engineers and managers and entrepreneurs in China are fortunate that the companies teaching the rest of the world will be Chinese.  The deeper problem is the revealed difference in national capacity, in seriousness and ability to deliver. The Chinese government can decide to transform the country’s energy system in 10 years, and no one doubts that it will. An incoming U.S. administration can promise to create a clean-energy revolution, but only naïfs believe that it will. “The most impressive aspect of the Chinese performance is their determination to do what is needed,” Julio Friedmann told me. “To be the first, to be the biggest, to have the best export technology for cleaning up coal.” America obviously is not displaying comparable determination—and the saddest aspect of the U.S. performance, he said, is that it seems not deliberate but passive and accidental, the product of modern America’s inability to focus public effort on public problems. “No one in the U.S. government could ever imagine a 10-year plan to ensure U.S. leadership in solar power or batteries or anything else,” Joseph Romm, a former Department of Energy official who now writes the blog Climate Progress, told me. “It’s just not possible, so nobody even bothers to propose it.” The Chinese system as a whole has great weaknesses as well as great strengths. Its challenges, as I have reported so often in these pages, make the threats facing America look trivial by comparison. But its response to the energy challenge—including its commitment to dealing with the dirty, unavoidable reality of coal—reveals a seriousness about facing big problems that America now appears to lack.”

The reality is that we need to look to everything: we need to reduce our energy consumption, become more efficient, increase the development of wind and solar, and pursue new technologies like UCG and TWR.  With growing energy consumption globally, with the coming age of electric vehicles, we will need to have all of the solutions we can get our hands on.  There is no one Holy Grail here.  We need strict environmentalists to work with climate change denialists, and everyone in between, to increase investment in new technology, to increase efficiencies, to guard precious resources like rare earth metals, and to reduce the throughput of energy and resources in our economy.  We need to get over our disagreements and find common ground, pronto.  Clean coal?  I am willing to embrace the possibility.

Frank Caprio, Lincoln Chafee, and the state that I am in


Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Frank Caprio


For one day, Rhode Island entered the national political spotlight. President Obama was on his way into town to raise money for David Cicilline, the Providence Mayor who is running for Rhode Island’s First Congressional District. Frank Caprio, the Democratic Gubernatorial candidate who once shopped his candidacy to the Republican Party, is angry at the President for not endorsing him over rival Independent Candidate Linc Chafee. Of course, the President decided not to give an endorsement out of respect to Chafee, his friend from the Senate. Chafee endorsed the President in 2008, and a skeptic might call this quid pro quo.

So Caprio, in either a political calculation or a fit of rage, decided to go out on talk shows and tell the President he could take his endorsement and shove it. His strategy will backfire, much like the national Republican strategy will backfire. Caprio could have respectfully stated that the endorsement was not important, that the President must make his own decision, and Caprio would have appeared the mature leader. Instead, Caprio pulled out typical Rhode Island shenanigans by calling the non-endorsement “political.” Of course its political!


New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed Independent Gubernatorial Candidate Lincoln Chaffee


The President came into office with the intent of trying to mend the political divide, to nurture compromise and cooperation. The Republicans, from day one, decided to abstain from the problems of the day, and refused to compromise. They offered their blueprint, and claimed that if Democrats did not adopt it entirely, it was not bipartisanship. Lincoln Chafee is one of a dying breed – an honest to God centrist. He is willing to compromise and build coalitions. We need many more men like Chafee and President Obama. Republican Gubernatorial Candidate John Robitaille likes to criticize the “old politics” but his Republican Party is just as adept at playing them. Robitaille tells audiences what they want to hear, and talks in platitudes – Robitaille even hides his views on climate science.

The Republicans are unable to work effectively with Democrats to deal with the serious problems of our day. They have already shown that they are not ready to get down to the serious work of dealing with long term entitlement reform, climate change, and building a 21st Century economy in clean energy. Caprio has not shown the maturity or leadership qualities that our next Governor will need to deal with the serious challenges we face. Michael Bloomberg and President Obama are right about Chafee. He is the best choice for Governor of Rhode Island.

It was President Obama as campaigner in chief who swooped into Rhode Island to speak to workers in Woonsocket and raise about $500,000 for the Democratic push to retain control of the U.S. House and boost Democratic 1st District Congressional candidate David Cicilline. After speaking in Woonsocket, Obama was surrounded by an adoring political crowd of about 425 supporters at the Rhode Island Convention Center who paid a minimum of $500 each to si … Read More

via On Politics

According to Jim DeMint’s logic…

This week I volunteered at the Tennis Hall of Fame, and received access to watch the matches Tuesday on the grass courts.  I enjoyed seeing Nicholas Mahut up close after the historic match at Wimbledon.  However, Tuesday afternoon the temperatures in Newport were 105, considering the high humdity.  It was so hot that I could only stand to stay in the stands for a few games at a time before I had to seek out the shade.  While I was hydrating and cooling off, I couldn’t help thinking of the Washington, D.C. snowstorm this past February, when DeMint posted this on Twitter:

‘It’s going to keep snowing in DC until Al Gore cries “uncle”‘

See, Republicans like DeMint, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh were howling that February day that the record snowfall meant that Global Warming was a myth.  Well, by that crazy logic, the localized weather we New Englanders felt this week is evidence of runaway Global Warming.  Denialists try to poke holes in bits and pieces of climate science, and take pride in their lack of faith in science.  The problem is that there is no logic to their beliefs.  If there were, they would take this localized heat wave as evidence of Global Warming.  However, don’t be fooled, logic is not their purpose; rather, they just want to obfuscate to prevent any sacrifice on their part.