Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Democratizing Climate Discussion

The Importance of Keeping Pace

In the early days of the web, it was not obvious that sites like AltaVista (the original full text search site, predating Google and others) would win the “web search” wars. It seemed to me that keyword-driven, manually curated sites—like Yahoo started out to be, if I recall correctly—did a more recognizable thing, classifying and filing everything in the world into neat little categories where you could go and look things up more like the paper encyclopedias I grew up with.

Full text search, by contrast, seemed messy and really like such a terrible solution. How could anyone possibly rely on the actual text of something in a durable way? And yet, what we found was that it was just too expensive to add keyword metadata to content at the pace it was arriving on the web. Orderly, manual curation of knowledge couldn't keep up. The web was destined to be messy, and the tools that would survive had to embrace that messiness.

Passing the Baton

There's an important lesson here for those involved in the science and politics of Climate Change, I think.

Bill Nye's recent video about a world on fire, using colorful language to wake people up, has ignited a burst of public conversation about Climate.

But in addition to the simple shock of seeing Nye use foul language, there's another and more important issue in play here: Fixing climate is a relay race. There is much to be done and scientists are not sufficient in number or skill to get us across the finish line. The baton needs to pass from the scientists to regular people.

Until now, we have been relying for a long time on scientists to lead the climate conversation. Science is and will continue to be an important aspect of the conversation, but it must move beyond that. Regular people, people without credentials, need to feel free to speak. We all need to own this discussion, to personalize it, to take responsibility for it. We can't expect it to be done by others.

Unchaperoned Climate Debate

The language of science is careful, precise peer-reviewed, cautious. The language of regular people is not. Until this point, we've allowed “others” to talk about climate, but often only with a scientist looking over their shoulder like nervous parents watching a child learn to use a sharp knife. The slightest misstatement might be quickly corrected, but it's a too-slow process to roll out at scale.

And, in fairness, there has been a lot of misinformation out there, so the corrections have been helpful in many ways. There are people who are strongly motivated by short-term profits to introduce misstatements and to see them replicated as memes. So one can easily understand the desire of scientists to watch over the conversation and insist it adhere to standards. They say it's not paranoia when the enemy is real.

But people are finally starting to get it, and as they do, the discussions move faster—much faster than scientists can keep up with. So tactics and norms have to shift to respond. We need people talking all the time everywhere. Addressing climate change is a big problem, and it needs to be at the core of pretty much everything society does. And we don't have enough scientists to chaperone all those conversations.

The language of regular people is coarse, poetic, abbreviated, blurry, emotional, imprecise, and most important unchecked. I often find myself telling people that the Climate problem is about physics, and that physics doesn't negotiate. Here is where I have to push back on the scientists: the Climate discussion problem is about human socialization, about how we build consensus, about how we express our goals and fears, about how we manage trust. These are things that scientists can't negotiate away. In order for public dialog to proceed, scientists need to prepare themselves for sloppy conversations, conversations that frankly will not make them happy at the detail level.

Climate scientists will need to loosen their grip.

A Coping Mechanism for Nervous Climate Parents

A thing that bothers me about Climate messaging—makes me terrified actually—is that climate badness is expressed in degrees of global average temperature. This leads to big confusion because within the course of a single day, weather and local temperature varies a lot. Temperatures at any given location might fluctuate ten or twenty degrees in a day and we wouldn't think that anomalous. Sometimes that's just the difference between day and night, sometimes the effect of a storm or a new front moving in. But if the global average temperature went up by ten or twenty degrees, we'd be cooked. We expect regular folks to get that, but I'm not sure they always do.

Temperature is not distributed evenly, so even though the temperature might be spiked high in one place, it might be quite low in another (or vice versa). It only matters that it averages out. Scientists shrug off local anomalies because they understand that the global average is quite different than any one point location. Let me suggest that there is an important metaphorical lesson for scientists there about how to manage conversation.

Just as daily temperature fluctuations outside your house don't tell you much about climate, so too the daily misstatements by individuals also don't matter either, as long as the overall message trends are right. Some will get the data right, some wrong. Some will exaggerate to make things seem worse, some to make it seem better. People will understand and communicate the problem in different ways, but we have to let them do that. That's part of integrating the message into society. It can't be done some other way.

If the public at large, on average, is panicking that we're going to die tomorrow, or in the other direction if the public is lulled into thinking there's not a problem, it's definitely worth scientists stepping in to speak to that general trend in an organized way. But if a given scientist on a given day observes someone who they feel hasn't got the message quite right, they need to be prepared to hold back. Regular people need to feel they have the right to speak freely without being slapped down for it. Also, an exaggeration in some places may add balance to another person being too unconcerned.

Think about the ways we talk about health or war or other big issues. The conversation is not at every point precise, but it isn't always the wrong way to gain consensus.

At this point, I think, it's better to just let people run with it for a while and see what the trend is than to get involved in the microscopic detail of every single conversation, hoping against hope that scientists can, by force of will, make everyone be precise. That isn't the path to the solution.

Climate scientists need to let go, so they can get their sleep and focus on their research and be ready to answer questions. I don't think they have to worry we'll suddenly have no need of them. Their role just needs to change. They are still are trusted advisors, but they cannot be our nannies. We need both permission and pressure to grow up, to take this on ourselves.

Author's Notes:

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xkcd comic “duty calls” by Randall Munroe used with gratitude under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.5) license.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

No Halfway Measures on Climate

[Comic: Halfway Measures]

I have been frustrated over the failure of some Democrats to understand the urgency of the 12-year window. Some Democrats get it, others do not. But whether they get it or not, this is the issue that mankind faces, an issue that will determine all future history in dramatic ways.

This is not a time for compromise. The physics will not allow it. Better to fail trying than to give up the entire game by thinking it unwinnable, as Nancy Pelosi seems bent on doing. Shame on her. That is not leadership. Lately I look to Elizabeth Warren for leadership among the Democrats. She understands that sometimes you can't pick the timing or worry about appearances but must do what needs doing.

And addressing Climate needs doing. Climate Change is a cancer. It must be treated early and properly. If we wait too long, no treatment will be possible. There is nothing radical about an aggressive response to an existential threat to humanity. There is nothing moderate about a take-your-time or middle ground approach to the Climate Crisis.

Jay Inslee is right that we need a climate-change-only debate. There are some good policy proposals out there for discussion, including these:

  • H.R. 9. Climate Action Now Act
    This bill requires the President to develop and update annually a plan for the United States to meet its nationally determined contribution under the Paris Agreement on climate change.
  • H.R. 763. Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2019
    This bill imposes a fee on the carbon content of fuels, including crude oil, natural gas, coal, or any other product derived from those fuels that will be used so as to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
  • H.R. 3761. Off Fossil Fuels for a Better Future Act (OFF)
    This bill transitions away from fossil fuel sources of energy to clean energy sources (e.g., energy efficiency, energy conservation, and renewable energy).
  • S.Res. 59. A resolution recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal.
    This resolution calls for the creation of a Green New Deal.
  • Beto For America. Taking On Our Greatest Threat: Climate Change
    A four-part framework to mobilize a historic $5 trillion over ten years, require net-zero emissions by 2050, and address the greatest threat we face.
  • Inslee for America. America's Climate Mission
    Building a Just, Innovative and Inclusive Clean Energy Economy.
    Subsequent to publishing this article, Inslee announced a lot more specifics. To read his position paper on the “Evergreen Economy,” which he refers to as a refinement in detail to the abstract concept of a “Green New Deal,” click here.
  • Warren for President
    Subsequent to publishing this article, Elizabeth Warren published Our Military Can Help Lead the Fight Against Climate Change and My Green Manufacturing Plan for America.

I have my own preferences and concerns, but we can't let the perfect be enemy of the good. We need to discuss all of them, respectfully. We need to collaborate among them, understand that each has good points that might be combined or borrowed from. We need to move ahead on as many of these as we can or we will not make the 2030 deadline set for us by physics.

I said it already, but it bears repeating: The physics part is not something we can compromise on. It's what we're given. Physics doesn't grade on the curve. It doesn't care about the complexities of politics. It doesn't award trophies for trying or meaning well. We will either take necessary action in the time allotted, or condemn our descendants to live forever with the unhappy consequences, assuming the happy case that human extinction is not one of those consequences. I recommend David Wallace-Wells' book The Uninhabitable Earth if you need a visualization of what such a future world might look like.

I'll close here with one more appeal to metaphor, from a recent tweet of mine:

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Article and comic image ("Gray Matters: Halfway Measures") copyright © 2019 by Kent M. Pitman. All Rights Reserved.

Included public domain Elephant image obtained from Wikimedia.

Included Donkey images, before modification for this use, was created by Steven Braeger, placed in public domain, and obtained by me from Wikimedia.

By the way, it was the utter maddening nature of this news story that drove me to write this piece: Exclusive: Presidential hopeful Biden looking for ‘middle ground’ climate policy.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Solitude Eluded

Solitude stalks me,
leaving me never alone.
Then you scare it off.

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Tuesday, April 30, 2019

A Climate of Immediacy

We need an aggressive response to Climate now.

Scientists last year identified a “12-year window” (time marches, and the window is less now) during which we must decarbonize by 50% (reducing fossil fuel use, etc) if we are to still be able to affect Climate in this way at all. The problem is accelerating, though, and if we wait, we will lose this option and wish we had it back. It seems hard and expensive and disruptive now, but what will follow will be much, much worse.

In his book, The Uninhabitable Earth, author David Wallace-Wells describes the problem this way: “If we had started global decarbonization in 2000, when Al Gore narrowly lost election to the American presidency, we would have had to cut emissions by only about 3 percent per year to stay safely under two degrees of warming. If we start today, when global emissions are still growing, the necessary rate is 10 percent. If we delay another decade, it will require us to cut emissions by 30 percent each year.”

No one should be fooled into thinking the actions proposed in the Green New Deal, including Beto’s recent variant, are “radical.” They are anything but. If anything, they may be insufficient. But they are a credible start.

No one should be fooled into thinking more “moderate” approaches offered by so-called “centrist Democrats” are, in fact, moderate. They are moderate like the idea of treating an aggressive cancer in a lazy way is moderate. Moderation in treating Climate is delay. And delay is catastrophe, or worse, just as certainly as not treating at all.

Some have proposed market solutions, like a carbon tax (such as H.R. 763). Nothing wrong with a carbon tax, but it doesn’t address all of complex issues of Climate, and if we adopt one, it’s important to understand that a “greed is good, everything is accounted for now, you can stop caring about climate” theory of the world will not save us. It will need heavy oversight and regulation to make sure nothing is falling through the cracks, and there are elements of climate change like food safety, disaster preparation, disaster recovery, disease control, and other matters that need to be managed as well.

Nuclear power is considered by most serious scientists to be an important aspect. There is risk to nuclear power, but that risk is manageable and long term. Our problem right now is surviving long enough to get to the long term. Modern nuclear is safer than traditional nuclear, and can solve important load problems that presently justify continued use of coal or oil. We should use it only where necessary, and with proper safety regulations, but we need not to rule it out. Climate is a big problem that needs all available tools. Different regions will need different solutions.

There are many things to do. But we must start now. And we mustn’t waste time discussing whether there is a problem and whether a mostly-status-quo approach will be “good enough.” It will not be.

Author’s Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Want to learn more about the science of Climate change? The University of Exeter offers a short online course (MOOC) called Climate Change: The Science that is taught at a very nice level of abstraction—full of good science that will help you reason qualitatively, but without getting bogged down in any detailed math. I took this course and really enjoyed both the teaching material and the class discussion. A new round of this course just started April 19, so you could join late and catch up. It's free (subject to certain pretty reasonable terms) and involves about 3 hours a week for 4 weeks.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Angry Ocean

She had forgotten the sound of the ocean, living now as she did inland from the unreliable cities, which daily faced a pounding that anyway was not the sound she yearned for.

There had been talk not so many years back of sea level rise, always expressed in millimeters, like the drip drip drip of a tub that wouldn't quite shut off. It had sounded gentle, even aggravatingly slow, like the sequel of a movie announced five years out that you're not sure you'll even live to see.

No one had said the water wouldn't just rise but come from every other angle, too—as deluges from the sky above, as floods rolling down from the mountains or as walls of water crashing in from an angry sea. The gentle, relaxing lapping of waves, and with it any sense that the ocean was ever even benevolent, had fallen away.

Why hadn't they said? OK, they said. But they didn't cry out, like you would if a tidal wave was coming fast. And this was really that—a tidal wave—just slowly, to be assembled in parts, like a jigsaw puzzle.

But unlike a jigsaw puzzle, there was no order to the pieces. Just a box full of leftovers, a chaos that was refuse of many once-orderly puzzles belonging to lots of people, and a prayer just to happen upon a couple of pieces that sort of fit.

The rain was pounding, but the weatherman didn't think it would flood too badly in the next few hours. So maybe this was a time to sleep and prepare for the onslaught anew. At least she was high up, away from the ocean.

But she missed the ocean, and she worried her memories of its once gentle nature might one day drown in a flood of too much reality.

Author’s Notes:

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In early June 2014, my wife and I attended a writing retreat hosted by Cary Tennis at Le Santucce in Castiglion Fiorentino, Italy with a dozen or so other writers and soon-to-be friends. Last Saturday, almost 5 years later, some of us tuned in for a virtual reunion, and of course we did some writing as part of it.

The prompt to which this was a response, was “She had forgotten the sound of the ocean.” As today is Earth Day, it seemed a good day for me to share the piece with others.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Plutocratic Denial

First sea level came for the islanders, and I continued to deny—
   Because “those people” are poor, and this is their lot in life.

Then hurricanes took out some coastal cities, and I continued to deny—
   Because I had business elsewhere, so got in my jet and steered clear.

Then fires came for rich homes in California, and I continued to deny—
   Because I was conservative, and California was full of liberals.

Then the heat took farms and spiked food prices, but I continued to deny—
   Because this was why one hoards cash, to weather rough times.

Then, finally, no one came to my dinner parties.
   Too busy “just surviving” they said,
      those with the good manners to return an RSVP.
      What was the world coming to?
   In this moment I had an epiphany—
      This might actually involve me!
      How inconvenient, this sudden wave of truth.

By the time it all came tumbling in on me, supply chains had folded
      and there was no one left even to bribe.
   Was I the last? Would anyone read this? No way to know.
   But, I smiled, neither anyone left to deny
      that this had been just a bad run of weather.
   Nothing more.


Inspired in form and spirit, of course, by Martin Niemöller's post-WWII poem “First they came...”

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Vote Today. Vote Democratic.

Rights are more fragile than we wish. Operationally, they are little more than laws that require a supermajority to change ... or a majority of SCOTUS to ignore.

Our nation is more fragile than we wish. We imagine there will be other elections, other chances to win. But that is not the GOP plan. Their plan is to occupy the treehouse and to pull up the ladder behind them, to undermine those elements of democracy that would permit others to challenge their complete authority.

Our planet is more fragile than we wish. We imagine the climate debate is something we might ultimately win, but physics doesn't work that way. It will quickly become uninhabitable due to Climate Change, and the race is not against each other but against an unyielding clock. It matters to act now, and every bit of delay is a nail in humanity's collective coffin.

If you are not voting today, if you are not voting for all Democrats today, you are by implication agreeing that the GOP should continue dismantling rights, dismantling democracy, and dismantling the habitability of the planet.

Vote Today. Vote Democratic. The GOP have shown themselves poor stewards of our rights, of our nation, of our ecosystem. It is important to stop them before they rob the US and all humanity of a future in their ugly, selfish, reckless quest for power at the expense of all else.

Kent Pitman, November 6, 2018