Archive for February, 2014

Unexpected Leadership

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

We need outspoken leaders who understand the risks of climate change and who can reach a global audience, willing to prod inactive governments and counteract the corporate power and cynicism of the oil companies.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is certainly expressing the appropriate concern about the risks, but with the US Congress still in denial, his voice is too easy to ignore.

Every winter the smog in northern China reaches hazardous levels. This month is worse than ever. It can't continue. (earthspacenews.com)

Every winter the smog in northern China reaches hazardous levels. This month is worse than ever. It can’t continue. (earthspacenews.com)

We still await climate change leadership to emerge in other high C-emitting countries such as China. Meanwhile countries that should have become climate change leaders have instead become international embarrassments: Australia has ditched its cap-and-trade policy, while the anti-science, pro-oil actions of the government of Canada continue to expand.

Canadian Rick Mercer rants about the muzzling of scientists by the government of Canada (cbc.ca)

Canadian Rick Mercer rants about the muzzling of scientists by the government of Canada (cbc.ca)

So it is refreshing, surprising, and maybe even hopeful to have Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank, speaking out over the past few months about the serious risks and costs of climate change. Kim, a physician, anthropologist and past president of Dartmouth is the first with any training in science to hold the position.

The World Bank is a UN international financial institution. It gives out loans to developing countries with a primary mission of reducing poverty. It doles out about 20 billion US dollars per year, which sounds like a lot, but that’s about what Facebook just paid for Whatsapp. It also gets its share of criticisms for how it operates and and how it manages the money.

What Kim has done in his recent speeches is to emphasize the link between the impact of climate change and poverty.

“Unless the world takes bold action now, a disastrously warming planet threatens to put prosperity out of reach of millions and roll back decades of development. Those least able to adapt – the poor and vulnerable – will be hit hardest.”

Kim talks a lot about the financial costs of climate change, and how much cheaper it is to make changes now rather than face the far greater costs 30 or 40 years from now. He reminds us that cities are the source of 2/3 of our CO2 emissions, and that among our challenges now is to make them low-carbon, and climate-resilient.

World Bank president Jim Yong Kim speaks out on the impact of climate change (the guardian.com)

World Bank president Jim Yong Kim speaks out on the impact of climate change (the guardian.com)

A few weeks ago Kim announced ex-NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg’s new appointment.
“The appointment of Michael R. Bloomberg as a Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change to the United Nations should be applauded from Beijing to Rio to Mumbai. His selection is a huge boost for global leadership efforts to combat climate change.” And so it should be.

Kim speaks of all this as a paradigm shift, a time of transformational change.

How do we get there?

A meeting was held at Bali this month, initiated by the World Bank and Jim Yong King, to develop the Green Climate Fund, designed  to encourage low C investments and clean energy solutions in developing countries (chimalaya.com) .

A meeting was held at Bali this month, initiated by the World Bank and Jim Yong King, to develop the Green Climate Fund, designed to encourage low C investments and clean energy solutions in developing countries (chimalaya.com) .

And a final quote from Kim:
“Tackling climate change is not an effort that governments can take on alone. We need a response that brings together governments, private sector, civil society, and individuals, following a coordinated, ambitious plan. We can help in many ways, but perhaps most fruitfully by highlighting the increasing costs of climate change and by mobilizing climate finance from the public and private sectors.”

And that’s the problem. We haven’t figured out yet how to create such a response, but create one we must.

Cultural Cognition

Monday, February 17th, 2014

It doesn’t seem to matter which topic we choose – climate change, evolution, gun control, gm organisms, nanotechnology, vaccine use, incarceration methods and sentences, tobacco smoking – all have resulted in angry and polarized confrontations.

Why does this occur over and over again?

Dan Kahan at Yale has done a number of quite extensive studies, both experimental and survey based, looking at a variety of topics, trying to address this question.

Our wet, blue planet: how great are the risks? (nasa.gov)

Our wet, blue planet: how great are the risks? (nasa.gov)

In one study he asked his subjects how much risk climate change poses for human health, safety or prosperity. As in all his studies, the sample size was large enough that he could test for age, gender, race, class, education, political party, and cultural world view.

What did he find? For gender, race, class or age, no correlations.

What about degree of science literacy and numeracy? Not only not correlated, but in fact an increase in science literacy and numeracy magnified the polarization of views, perhaps quite the opposite of what you might have expected.

Surely political affiliation was correlated? Only barely: the typical political orientation of a person dismissing the risks of climate change was an Independent just right of center, while that of one who considered the risks to be great was an Independent just left of center.

Only one’s cultural world view strongly predicted the sense of environmental risk. People whose world views were simultaneously more hierarchical (authority respected) and individualistic (individual initiative prized) tended to dismiss the evidence of environmental risk, while those whose values were more egalitarian and communitarian considered the risks to be unacceptable.

Senator Inhofe is the ranking Republican on the Senate's Environment and Public works Committee. His book should embarrass him, but doesn't (demunderground.com)

Senator Inhofe is the ranking Republican on the Senate’s Environment and Public works Committee. His book should embarrass him, but doesn’t (demunderground.com)

Sandy Poster: this doesn't help either: it just polarizes us further (blogs.cbn.com)

Sandy Poster: this doesn’t help either: it just polarizes us further (blogs.cbn.com)

Kahan concludes that no matter what the evidence may be, we actually make our own decisions based on what he calls ‘cultural cognition’.

For example, each of us knows that as an individual there is little that we can do to alleviate the effects of climate change, yet at the same time we know that if we take a position on the question that is in conflict with that of our peers, we face the real repercussions of their anger, abuse, disapproval, dismissal, even shunning. Weighing the comparative risks, most of us accept the peer pressure, reject arguments we might otherwise accept, and survive intact in our social communities.

Kahan’s other studies have very similar results. Is all of this surprising? Maybe not. But it does mean that in many situations evidence-based arguments will not prevail.

Kahan proposes that the real challenge then is how to communicate good science in ways that reduce the polarization. For instance in the case of the climate change debate, focusing on alternative energy sources and possible geo-engineering solutions might be helpful. Involving diverse ‘communicators’ apparently may also make a difference.

Of course this isn’t saying that all extremists can be induced to moderate their views. And Kahan’s suggested solutions still look weak. But the problem before us now is clearer: we make some of our important decisions based on our ideologies, not on evidence. More evidence, more clearly presented, may not be the solution.

Congressmen John Boehmer, John Shimkus, Paul Rand (treehugger.org)

Congressmen John Boehmer, John Shimkus, Paul Rand (treehugger.org)


Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver and Prime Minister Stephen Harper (ipolitics.ca) These are all political leaders in North America. All dismiss the risks of climate change. According to Kahan, white men, especially entitled ones, are more likely to dismiss the risks of climate change than women or people of other races.

Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver and Prime Minister Stephen Harper (ipolitics.ca)
These are all political leaders in North America. All dismiss the risks of climate change. According to Kahan, white men, especially entitled ones, are more likely to dismiss the risks than women or people of other races.

Kahan’s conclusions are at least based on evidence-based arguments. Now we need unusual ways to communicate them or we probably won’t accept them anyway.

What if we’re just not smart enough to find ways to moderate our polarized positions? That really is too bleak to contemplate. Kahan’s ‘truth’ may be partial, but surely it is worth pursuing.