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.

The military led with integration, now leading on clean energy

When the Defense Department published the Quadrennial Defense Review earlier this year, I was struck that they would take such a leadership position on the issue.  While the political right debates whether climate change is in fact occurring, the Defense Department recognized the threat as it is:

“Crafting a strategic approach to climate and energy: Climate change and energy will play significant roles in the future security environment. The Department is developing policies and plans to manage the effects of climate change on its operating environment, missions, and facilities. The Department already performs environmental stewardship at hundreds of DoD installations throughout the United States, working to meet resource efficiency and sustainability goals. We must continue incorporating geostrategic and operational energy considerations into force planning, requirements development, and acquisition processes.”

Why would the DoD be taking such a leadership role on climate change?  That’s easy – because the military, unlike the political classes, must actively prepare for the distant future; they must be ready to deal with the consequences:

“Climate change will affect DoD in two broad ways. First, climate change will shape the operating environment, roles, and missions that we undertake. The U.S. Global Change Research Program, composed of 13 federal agencies, reported in 2009 that climate-related changes are already being observed in every region of the world, including the United States and its coastal waters. Among these physical changes are increases in heavy downpours, rising temperature and sea level, rapidly retreating glaciers, thawing permafrost, lengthening growing seasons, lengthening ice-free seasons in the oceans and on lakes and rivers, earlier snowmelt, and alterations in river flows… Assessments conducted by the intelligence community indicate that 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.”

As a result the DoD committed to “foster efforts to assess, to adapt, and to mitigate the impacts of climate change.”  Well we are starting to see the fruits of that effort already.  Apparently, a Marine company just deployed  to the rugged outback of Helmand Province with portable solar panels that fold up into boxes, energy-conserving lights, solar tent shields that provide shade and electricity, and solar chargers for computers and communications equipment. Way to go Marines!!  On top of that, the Navy just introduced a new hybrid warship, the U.S.S. Makin Island, able to run on electricity at speeds of less than 10 kts, more efficiently than on diesel fuel.  The Air Force committed to outfitting their entire fleet for biofuel by 2011. The military pioneered integration in the United States, and the country eventually followed. Now the DoD is pioneering clean energy.  It is time to follow their lead.

Bjorn Lomborg has a change of heart

Apparently, the world’s most prominent climate change skeptic, statistician Bjorn Lomborg, changed his mind, and now believes that Global Warming is a viable threat that deserves an annual investment of tens of billions of dollars.  Apparently, it is “one of the chief concerns facing the world today” and “a challenge humanity must confront.”

While Lomborg has a new book out, and sales will undoubtedly be helped by this change of heart, this is still a moment to consider.  After all, the Republican strategy to prevent environmental reform, as laid out by strategist Frank Lutz in 2002, is to sow doubt about the scientific consensus about global warming.  In fact, Charles and David Koch, owners (and oil barons) of Koch Industries, collectively known as Kochtopus due to their unmatched spending to help sow that doubt, are the face of that effort.  Americans For Prosperity is their lovechild.

Lomborg’s reversal isn’t a huge game changer itself, but after the recent vindications of Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann, the IPCC, and IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri, it appears that the Climate Gate and other Koch-funded efforts to sow doubt about Global Warming, are, to quote Shakespeare, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

However, after speaking with a couple of right-wing lobbyists this weekend, I understand anew that some folks consider attacking climate science a bonafide calling, and in their minds, are convinced of global conspiracy.  Typically these types of people are surfaced whenever they start rambling about Al Gore.  No scientist, or amount of reason, will be able to convince them otherwise.

In related news, Canada just banned bisphenol A (BPA) by declaring it toxic.  Scientific American linked it to cancer, genital defects, obesity, and ADD.  However, The American Chemistry Council continues to defend the use of BPA.  In the United States, the FDA raised concern about BPA, but remains unwilling to regulate its use.  Lets see, what is the common link here?  Oh yes, industry is spending money to prevent limits to their behavior.

Finally, a new study identifies 39 more coal ash dumpsites that are polluting drinking water with arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals.  The EPA is holding hearings this week.  However, the electric power industry is fighting national regulations.  I suppose they would rather take their chances with conservative state governments in Arkansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia, whose residents will have to deal with the lead and arsenic.  Coal may look cheap, but its externalities are enormous.

Unfortunately, the prospects of a Republican takeover of Congress mean that the obfuscation will only increase.

UPDATE: The Washington Post had an excellent editorial today on the subject of attacks on climate science:

“EARLY THIS YEAR, climate-change skeptics went on the attack, pointing to two molehills of scandal that they claimed were towering peaks of scientific malfeasance. One was “Climategate,” in which skeptics used highly selective excerpts of stolen e-mails in an effort to discredit some well-known scientists. The other was the identification of errors in the last assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — the canon of the international consensus on global warming — particularly a dubious prediction that Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035.  Investigation after investigation has since shown that neither episode undermined the basic science of climate change or the credibility of climate scientists. On Monday, the scientists were vindicated again, twice… So the overblown critique of climate science that emerged early this year continues to underwhelm.”

Is climate policy like prohibition?

Walter Russel Mead, the Henry Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy for the Council on Foreign Relations, and a professor at Yale University, just wrote an unconventional and thought provoking analysis on the state of climate policy.

Mead, a Democrat who voted for President Obama in 2008, says, “the Big Green Lie is falling apart:”

“And it’s not about Climategate and Glaciergate.  It’s not about the science.  It’s not even about public confidence in the integrity of the green movement — although this confidence is unlikely to regain the levels of 2009.  Humpty Dumpty has fallen from the walls, and all the establishment commissions and investigations in Europe cannot glue him together again… Both the greens and their opponents need to understand that the reason that the Great Global Green Dream is melting lies in the sad truth that whatever the scientific facts of the matter, the global green movement is so blind and inept when it comes to policy and process that it has deeply damaged the causes it cares most about.”

Mead compares environmentalists to anti-alcohol activists before Prohibition:

“Who convinced Americans that the problem of alcohol abuse was real, destructive, and likely to get worse unless addressed.  These farsighted activists were absolutely correct: with the introduction of the motorcar alcohol was more destructive than ever; with more than 500,000 alcohol related highway deaths between 1982 and 2008, more Americans have been killed on our roads as a result of drunk driving since 1915 than have died in our wars. The problem is that the remedy proposed, Prohibition, not only failed to solve the problem — it made the problem of alcohol abuse worse, and it also reduced respect for the law and led to the rise of organized crime in the United States on an unprecedented scale.

The Prohibitionists were brilliantly, scientifically correct about the problem: they were foolishly and destructively blind about how to deal with it.”

Mead also compares environmentalists to Peace Activists who predicted World War II and tried to outlaw war to prevent it.  He also brings up comparisons to the Nuclear Freeze movement in the 1980s.  Mead views the sum of Green policy prescriptions as Malthusian panic attacks, with anti-growth policies and corporate resentment sprinkled on top.  He acknowledges that Global Warming is a problem, but what does he think we should do about it?

Mead proposes that we simply “nudge” the economy towards energy efficiency, and lower

Walter Russel Mead compares Green policies to Prohibition.

taxes.  Mead proposes local solutions that will not be organized under one grand agreement, but rather be aimed to work on local problems; he brings up the example of the Indian government pushing to end fuel subsidies.  But will “relatively small steps, or larger steps often undertaken for reasons that have little directly to do with the climate” work?

Mead blithely describes criticism of neo-classical unending growth as “Malthusian fantasies” He ignores the real and growing evidence that the Earth has a limited carrying capacity, and we are creeping towards Earth’s limits.  By comparing environmentalists to an alarm clock “making shrill and irrational noise,” one wonders if he truly understands what it will take to create a sustainable world.  He prescribes, above all, serious attention and careful thought to the question of how to create that sustainable world.  He pines for a humanity that leads “richer, fuller lives in a cleaner, sustainable world.”  The mystery for me is how we will be able to continue this unending growth without reaching the Earth’s limits.  Ecological economists like Herman Daly and Robert Costanza are creating a new economics that boldly goes beyond the Copenhagen policies.  Certainly, environmentalists would be well served to carefully consider what steps need to be taken.  I agree that we will not solve our problems with one global treaty.  However, we cannot simply rely on the whims of laissez-faire economics to deliver us to the sustainable future that Mead hopes for.

Reid to climate: drop dead. Can we afford inaction?

Ross Douthat admits Global Warming is a problem, but argues for inaction.

Today, in the New York Times, Paul Krugman and Conservative wunderkind Ross Douthat present competing theories on why climate change legislation is dead this year.  Douthat, surprisingly, admits that Global Warming is a genuine problem:

“…Conservatives who treat global warming as just another scare story are almost certainly mistaken.  Rising temperatures won’t “destroy” the planet, as fear mongers and celebrities like to say. But the evidence that carbon emissions are altering the planet’s ecology is too convincing to ignore. Conservatives who dismiss climate change as a hoax are making a spectacle of their ignorance.”

Douthat blames the demise of legislation on conservatives; in his words there is “seemingly an unbridgeable gulf between the conservative movement and the environmentalist cause.”  Of course, that framing of Global Warming is purposeful.  In Douthat’s mind, Global Warming is a problem for bird watchers to worry about.  In fact, Douthat provides the argument for inaction by making a dangerous assumption:

“…The assumption that a warmer world will also be a richer world — and that economic development is likely to do more for the wretched of the earth than a growth-slowing regulatory regime. But it’s also grounded in skepticism that such a regime is possible. Any attempt to legislate our way to a cooler earth, the argument goes, will inevitably resemble the package of cap-and-trade emission restrictions that passed the House last year: a Rube Goldberg contraption whose buy-offs and giveaways swamped its original purpose… Not every danger has a regulatory solution, and sometimes it makes sense to wait, get richer, and then try to muddle through.”

Douthat does not discuss the concept of externalities, and this is key.  An externality is the result of a transaction that is borne by neither the buyer nor seller directly, but rather by a third party.  In the case of our fossil fuel supplies, the externalities are only growing.  In addition to greenhouse gasses, you have pollution from coal plants that has measurable health impacts on communities surrounding them, and you have the ghastly side effects of hydraulic fracturing of shale for natural gas.  Of course, don’t forget about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  The scary thing?  We subsidize these fossil fuels.  Douthat, however, just wants to rely on unending growth to solve all of our problems.  Unfortunately, the Earth will not support unending growth.  Douthat would be wise to read Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth.

Paul Krugman, on the other hand, points the blame for the demise of climate legislation in a more

Krugman advises us to follow the money.

believable and useful direction.  In Krugman’s mind, we need to just follow the money:

“The economy as a whole wouldn’t be significantly hurt if we put a price on carbon, but certain industries — above all, the coal and oil industries — would. And those industries have mounted a huge disinformation campaign to protect their bottom lines.  Look at the scientists who question the consensus on climate change; look at the organizations pushing fake scandals; look at the think tanks claiming that any effort to limit emissions would cripple the economy. Again and again, you’ll find that they’re on the receiving end of a pipeline of funding that starts with big energy companies, like Exxon Mobil, which has spent tens of millions of dollars promoting climate-change denial, or Koch Industries, which has been sponsoring anti-environmental organizations for two decades.  Or look at the politicians who have been most vociferously opposed to climate action. Where do they get much of their campaign money? You already know the answer.”

That is the key of course.  Producers of fossil fuels do not want to have to account for externalities of their products.  They would rather society at large bear those costs.  We are slaves to growth and slaves to consumption, unable to see the forest for the trees.  As Krugman points out, 2010 is the hottest year on record.  Inevitably we will need to place a cap on carbon emissions; the longer we wait, the more difficult it will be.

Ross Douthat should read this book.

How do we solve these problems?  Herman Daly, an ecological economist, offers some viable prescriptions.  I will highlight one of the most important ones, which you will not see any politician advocate: ecological tax reform.  Right now labor and capital (the value added) is taxed; ecological tax reform would end value added taxes and instead tax that to which value is added: the throughput of resources extracted from nature (depletion) and returned to nature (pollution).  Ecological tax reform would reward entrepreneurs who are able to add value and innovation efficiently.  We want to encourage value added, and discourage depletion and pollution.  It sounds simple, but it goes against the neo-classical devotion to unending growth.  As such, Douthat and his fellow conservative denizens continue to believe in Business as Usual.

How can we change our economy from a jet to a helicopter?

Ecological Economist Herman Daly

Herman Daly, an Ecological Economist from the university of Maryland, argues that we humans will, sooner rather than later, have to transtion from a growth-based economy to what he calls a Steady State Economy (SSE).  In Daly’s conception, the economy has grown immensely over the last few hundred years compared to the static, steady state of the Earth; the more it continues to grow, the more it will have to conform to the Earth:

“That behavior mode is a steady state—a system that permits qualitative development but not aggregate quantitative growth. Growth is more of the same stuff; development is the same amount of better stuff (or at least different stuff). The remaining natural world no longer is able to provide the sources and sinks for the metabolic throughput necessary to sustain the existing oversized economy—much less a growing one. Economists have focused too much on the economy’s circulatory system and have neglected to study its digestive tract. Throughput growth means pushing more of the same food through an ever larger digestive tract; development means eating better food and digesting it more thoroughly. Clearly the economy must conform to the rules of a steady state—seek qualitative development, but stop aggregate quantitative growth.”

To further identify what a SSE would look like, Daly compares a growth based economy to an airplane, designed for forward motion, unable to hover in place.  Unlike the airplane, a SSE would be more like a helicopter, which is designed to hover.  In other words, the SSE would have a relatively constant population and stock of capitol, and maintain a reasonable rate of materiel throughput “within the regenerative and assimilative capacities of the ecosystem.”  To create the SSE, Daly recommends upstream resource taxes (instead of income taxes), redistribution of wealth, ecological protectionism, and an emphasis on durable, long lasting consumer goods.

To achieve these goals, decoupling will be necessary.  Absolute decoupling in when resource impacts decline in total, across the economy.  In his book Prosperity Without Growth, Tim Jackson points out that despite greater efficiencies and technological innovations, no absolute decoupling has occurred since the Kyoto climate summit:

“Despite declining energy and carbon intensities, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels have increased 80% since 1970.  Emissions are almost 40% higher than they were in 1990 – the Kyoto base year – and since the year 2000 they have been growing at over 3% per year…. [and] what’s true for fossil resources and carbon emissions is true for material throughputs more generally.”

So, decoupling will require hard work and sacrifices in our standards of living.  However, energy and mineral resources get more and more expensive by the day, as the Energy Returned on Energy Invested continues to drop across the board, from oil to copper.  Additionally resources that we humans have long taken for granted are becoming scarce.  Today the New York Times described new investments by Australian in desalination plants to meet the country’s water needs:

‘In one of the country’s biggest infrastructure projects in its history, Australia’s five largest cities are spending $13.2 billion on desalination plants capable of sucking millions of gallons of seawater from the surrounding oceans every day, removing the salt and yielding potable water. In two years, when the last plant is scheduled to be up and running, Australia’s major cities will draw up to 30 percent of their water from the sea. The country is still recovering from its worst drought ever, a decade-long parching that the government says was deepened by climate change. With water shortages looming, other countries, including the United States and China, are also looking to the sea. “We consider ourselves the canary in the coal mine for climate change-induced changes to water supply systems,” said Ross Young, executive director of the Water Services Association of Australia, an umbrella group of the country’s urban water utilities. He described the $13.2 billion as “the cost of adapting to climate change.”’

What this means is that the economy is already bumping up against the limits of the Earth.  However, the decoupling that Daly advocates will require careful coordination on development, between nations, not the type of ad hoc development planning that is evident in Australia.  Unfortunately, as Jackson shows in his book, the developing economies, especially in India and China, will require more and more resources in coming years.  The schism that was evident at the Climate summit in Copenhagen between Europe and the United States, and the developing economies belies that the careful coordination required to achieve decoupling is a long way off.  Unfortunately, I think it will take some much more vivid evidence of the economy bumping up against the limits of the Earth to inspire the necessary action and coordination.  The growth based economy, represented by the worship of Gross National Product, is in our DNA.  It will take a shock to our system to create the conditions for the necessary change.

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.