Category Archives: climate science
France Taking Lead From U.S. On Climate Science Research — My KCBS Radio Interview

When President Trump announced in June that the United States would be withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, France eagerly stepped into the leadership void. French President Macron responded by offering millions in new grant money for climate science research.

The winners were just announced, including 13 American scientists out of the 18 winners. I spoke to KCBS radio in San Francisco yesterday about the program and what it means for the United States going forward. You can listen to the 4 minute clip here:

The Power Of Group Think & Lessons For Climate Communications

Sean Illing in conducted a fascinating interview with Steven Sloman, a professor of cognitive science at Brown University, about how we arrive at the conclusions we do. In short, the process (and outcomes) are not pretty, as Dr. Sloman relates:

I really do believe that our attitudes are shaped much more by our social groups than they are by facts on the ground. We are not great reasoners. Most people don’t like to think at all, or like to think as little as possible. And by most, I mean roughly 70 percent of the population. Even the rest seem to devote a lot of their resources to justifying beliefs that they want to hold, as opposed to forming credible beliefs based only on fact.

Think about if you were to utter a fact that contradicted the opinions of the majority of those in your social group. You pay a price for that. If I said I voted for Trump, most of my academic colleagues would think I’m crazy. They wouldn’t want to talk to me. That’s how social pressure influences our epistemological commitments, and it often does it in imperceptible ways.

He concludes that if the people around us are wrong about something, there’s a good chance we will be too. Proximity to truth compounds in the same way. And the phenomenon isn’t a partisan problem; it’s a human problem on all sides of political debates.

In some ways, it’s understandable how this dynamic arose in our species. There’s no way one brain can master all topics, so we have to depend on other people to do some thinking for us. This is a perfectly rational response to our condition. It also may explain why traditional societies often relied on a few religious leaders to make a lot of the key decisions for a society that would rather not have to think too hard about broader societal problems and instead focus on problem-solving in their own immediate lives. The problem though becomes when our beliefs support ideas or policies that are totally unjustified.

So are we doomed to a fate of group-think with the risk of unsupportable beliefs? Dr. Sloman doesn’t think so, noting that some professions train people not to fall into this trap:

People who are more reflective are less susceptible to the illusion. There are some simple questions you can use to measure reflectivity. They tend to have this form: How many animals of each kind did Moses load onto the ark? Most people say two, but more reflective people say zero. (It was Noah, not Moses who built the ark.)

The trick is to not only come to a conclusion, but to verify that conclusion. There are many communities that encourage verification (e.g., scientific, forensic, medical, judicial communities). You just need one person to say, “are you sure?” and for everyone else to care about the justification. There’s no reason that every community could not adopt these kinds of norms. The problem of course is that there’s a strong compulsion to make people feel good by telling them what they want to hear, and for everyone to agree. That’s largely what gives us a sense of identity. There’s a strong tension here.

He’s also pioneering some research on ways to reframe political-type conversations from a focus on what people value to one about actual consequences. As he notes, “when you talk about actual consequences, you’re forced into the weeds of what’s actually happening, which is a diversion from our normal focus on our feelings and what’s going on in our heads.”

This work could contribute to a better understanding about public perceptions around climate change. For example, the denial of basic climate science can certainly be attributed to group-think. But as Sloman posits, reframing the messaging from the science to the outcomes of climate mitigation (such as a cleaner world, less dependence on extractive industries for fuel) might open more in the middle to taking action. We could also focus on training the next generation to be more open-minded on evidence and arguments, as with the scientific, medical and judicial fields.

But just being aware of our mental processing of information and beliefs is a good start to addressing the problem of when those processes take us in the wrong direction.


Cheapest Way To Meet 2030 Climate Goals: Electrify More Vehicles, Furnaces & Water Heaters

California’s 2030 climate goals will be a big step forward for the state. We’re already making good progress achieving our 2020 goals (to return to 1990 levels of carbon emissions), with the state likely to hit that goal a bit early thanks to the global recession and the plummeting price of renewables.  But the 2030 goals require an additional 5% reduction per year in emissions for the 2020s, to reduce our levels 40% below 1990 emissions. That’s a tall order.

Electric utilities will be a big part of the solution, but not just because of their efforts to decarbonize the electricity supply. They’re also needed to expand the kinds of things that can run on electricity instead of petroleum or natural gas.

Southern California Edison makes that case and puts numbers behind it, in a recent white paper the utility commissioned, per E&E news:

SCE used an analysis from the consulting firm E3 that found the cheapest of three pathways to meeting the state’s 2030 emissions goals entails electrifying 24 percent of light-duty vehicles and 15 percent of medium-duty vehicles, in addition to reaching an 80 percent carbon-free electricity target. It also would require 30 percent of residential and commercial water and space heaters to run on electricity rather than gas.

This pathway seems achievable at a reasonable cost, given the advances in battery technologies on the vehicle side. Still, we will need to keep the federal tax credit in place or find a viable substitute to keep demand for EVs strong in the short run.

On the furnace and water heating side, we’ll need some new, cheaper products to wean buildings off of natural gas and onto clean electricity. But the good news is that achieving the 80% carbon-free electricity goal by 2030 may not be so daunting, given that we may be on track for 60% renewables by 2030 anyway, plus all the large hydropower that doesn’t count under the renewables mandate.

As always with the future, there are plenty of variables and unknowns. But California’s progress to date on clean tech gives us a clear idea of what’s needed — and what the costs may be — to achieve the 2030 goals.

Napa Wines Already Hit Hard By Climate Change

Back in 2009, when I first started working full time on climate change law and policy at Berkeley Law, I saw a presentation by a representative of a Napa winery at a California Assembly select committee hearing on climate change.  Thomas A. Thornhill III, a partner at Parducci Wine Cellars/Paul Dolan Vineyards, showed the following slide:

As you can see from the chart, as the temperature warms (the red line), certain Napa grapes just won’t be able to survive anymore in the Valley, such as chardonay and sauvignon blanc (although it’s good news for raisin production in the Valley, for what that’s worth)

I thought about that slide over Labor Day weekend this year, when a record-breaking heat wave with temperatures up to 117 degrees hit Napa.  This new normal of extreme weather destroyed some of Napa and Sonoma’s premium cabernet grapes, as Bloomberg reported:

Vineyard consultant Steve Matthiasson, who also makes wines under his eponymous label, admitted, “The heat wave screwed us up.”  While you need warmth to ripen cabernet, you don’t want too much, and this summer Napa had more than two dozen days with temperatures over 100 degrees. Before the grapes were completely ripe, an extreme heat wave on Labor Day weekend, which didn’t cool down at night, caused grape dehydration.  As juice evaporated, some of the unripe grapes shriveled into raisins.

As a result, the wine grape crop is likely to be smaller than expected this year in California and beyond, down from 5 to 35 percent for some individual blocks of vines.

While this was a high-end casualty of climate change, it’s a demonstration of what will happen to the broader multi-billion agricultural industry across places like California as we veer into an increasingly hotter world.

And that’s nothing to toast.

The Bible Already Described Climate Change — So Why Don’t Christian Conservatives Accept The Science?

America’s Christian conservatives are pretty well known at this point for being anti-climate science and environmental action. As Bernard Daley Zaleha and Andrew Szasz write in Why Conservative Christians Don’t Believe in Climate Change, studies show that:

[T]he higher the level of religious commitment (as measured by self-reports of religion’s personal importance, frequency of religious service attendance, and frequency of prayer), the lower the level of environmental concern. Another recent study showed, similarly, that American Christians, collectively, when considered without regard for denomination, have less environmental concern than do Americans of other faiths or those who say they are not affiliated with any institutional forms of religion.

Now I’m far from a religious expert, but it seems to me that the Bible — specifically the story of Noah — features a Judeo-Christian God with a history of using extreme weather (i.e. climate change) to further his purposes.  Check out this translation of the story of Noah:

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.

It’s easy to see the parallel with this story to today’s struggle with climate change. The climate crisis is caused by emissions of greenhouse gases from burning carbon fuels to power our economy. While a strong economy is a necessity and can be force for moral goodness, it’s also based on greed in a way that the God of the Bible might easily condemn as “wickedness.” Pope Francis has certainly drawn similar conclusions.

At the very least, continuing on this current path without heed for the consequences certainly sounds stupid, in a “times of Noah” kind of way. So wouldn’t this story be an eye-opener (or at least a conversation-starter) for Christian conservatives to think about climate science?

Jesse Jackson took this approach in a recent column imploring for more climate preparedness:

In Genesis, the Bible teaches that God came to Noah and warned him about the coming floods. He told Noah to build an ark — sophisticated infrastructure — to ensure that man and selected animals and birds could survive. There was no nonsense about each being on his or her own. Strong swimmers went down with the weak. Rich mansions on the hill were flooded with the poor huts in the valley. It took infrastructure, planning and preparedness to survive the flood.

I know there are researchers and advocates trying to reach this community and get them involved with climate solutions. But given the plain text of their religious document, I’m surprised it’s such an uphill battle.

Climate Change & Poor Land Use Decisions Exacerbated Houston’s Epic Flooding

The unfolding tragedy in Houston from catastrophic rainfall and resulting flooding is probably worsened by two human-caused factors: climate change and bad land use planning.  On the climate science, Michael Mann explains how warming waters in the Gulf of Mexico leads to greater rainfall:

There is a simple thermodynamic relationship known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation that tells us there is a roughly 3% increase in average atmospheric moisture content for each 0.5C of warming. Sea surface temperatures in the area where Harvey intensified were 0.5-1C warmer than current-day average temperatures, which translates to 1-1.5C warmer than “average” temperatures a few decades ago. That means 3-5% more moisture in the atmosphere.

That large amount of moisture creates the potential for much greater rainfalls and greater flooding. The combination of coastal flooding and heavy rainfall is responsible for the devastating flooding that Houston is experiencing.

But at the same time, the city is woefully unprepared for what appears to be a sadly predictable storm.  Neena Satija previewed these events in a story last year in the Texas Tribune, in which she blamed poor local land use decisions for the city’s lack of resilience to this type of storm:

Scientists, other experts and federal officials say Houston’s explosive growth is largely to blame. As millions have flocked to the metropolitan area in recent decades, local officials have largely snubbed stricter building regulations, allowing developers to pave over crucial acres of prairie land that once absorbed huge amounts of rainwater. That has led to an excess of floodwater during storms that chokes the city’s vast bayou network, drainage systems and two huge federally owned reservoirs, endangering many nearby homes — including Virginia Hammond’s.

As my colleague Dan Farber notes on Legal Planet, this storm would have caused bad flooding no matter what.  But locals throughout the country need to prepare for the “new normal” of climate change with storms and other events like these.

The resiliency planning will cost money and also mean other types of sacrifice.  For example, in Houston’s case, large swaths of prairie should probably have been preserved rather than be developed.  In other words, infill and smart growth development can be a crucial climate resiliency strategy.  As a model here in California, I think of the Yolo Bypass by Sacramento and how that set aside of land for overflow from the Sacramento River saved the city from catastrophic flooding this year.

The events in Houston will hopefully be a wake-up call around the country that we need to preserve and bolster more natural systems to deal with the coming onslaught of extreme weather events, as well as build in smarter locations.  And we’ll need forward-thinking people with the will to fund and implement these solutions.

The Smartest People Are Most Polarized On Climate Science

The people who deny climate science the most aren’t stupid, but actually are among the smartest, a new study confirms. Previous studies I’ve blogged about have documented this phenomenon, and now a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documents the trend on a range of scientific — yet politicized — issues.

As E&E news summarizes [pay-walled]:

Looking at a nationally representative survey of views on stem cell research, the Big Bang, human evolution, nanotechnology, genetically modified organisms and climate change, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that respondents with the most education and the highest scores on scientific literacy tests had the most polarized beliefs.

On climate change, the researchers found that political identity was a more important signal of where respondents stood than their academic acumen or scientific sophistication.

“Conservatives with higher scores display less concern about climate change, while liberals with higher scores display more concern,” the authors wrote. “These patterns suggest that scientific knowledge may facilitate defending positions motivated by nonscientific concerns.”

The take-home point for advocates of climate action is that more facts won’t change people’s minds.  It’s not a question of ignorance that motivates this reasoning.  Instead, advocates should focus on new frames to address the challenge, as well as on specific facets of climate change that don’t require someone to accept all the science around it, like reducing air pollution or addressing sea level rise.

Essentially, climate change has become an issue of tribal identity and ideology — and no longer one of fact and reason.  While that’s disheartening, it’s also clarifying for understanding how to move forward on the issue.

Is It Productive To Scare People About Climate Change?

Climate change is one of the most difficult political — let alone natural — challenges we face.  It’s a relatively far-off calamity that requires action now among the entire developed and developing world, with uncertain costs associated.  So how do we motivate people to act?

One option is to scare them with the worst-case scenarios.  David Wallace-Wells tried this approach recently with a widely circulated New York Magazine cover story describing the absolute worst-case scenarios for climate change, starting with this intro:

It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.

Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.

Lots of climate advocates and scientists pushed back on this approach though, arguing essentially that “despair is never helpful.”

But David Roberts at celebrated this kind of journalism, pointing out that we need to hear more of this alarming, worst-case potential to motivate action:

It may be that there are social dynamics that require some fear and paralysis before a collective breakthrough. At the very least, it seems excessive to draw a pat “fear never works” conclusion from these sorts of data.

Second, even if it’s true that fear only “works” when it is joined with a sense of agency and efficacy, that doesn’t mean that every single instance of fear has to be accompanied by a serving of hope. Not every article has to be about everything. In fact, if you ask me, the “[two paragraphs of fear], BUT [12 paragraphs of happy news]” format has gotten to be a predictable snooze. Some pieces can just be about the terrible risks we face. That’s okay.

Finally, fear+hope requires fear.

Julie Beck at The Atlantic meanwhile reports on the counter-productive tactic of simply making people anxious, particularly via social media. While the thought may be that anxiety leads to action, it can often instead just immobilize and distract people:

Just as social media allowed fake news to spread untrammeled through ideological communities that already largely agreed with each other, it also creates containers for anxiety to swirl in on itself, like a whirlpool in a bottle.

“If you look at the right-hand side of the aisle, and the left, they’re each talking about the things they fear the most,” says Morrow Cater, the president of the bipartisan consulting firm Cater Communications. “The anxiety that you’re talking about—be vigilant!—it comes when you’re fearful.”

But the article also notes that fear-based messaging can work:

Though several people I spoke to said that fear-based appeals to action don’t work, and may even backfire, there’s actually evidence that they do work. Dolores Albarracin, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, did a meta-analysis in 2015 of all available research on fear-based appeals and found that overall, inducing fear does change people’s attitudes, intentions, and behaviors. She and her team did not find a backfire effect.

But the fear appeals that Albarracin studied came with recommended actions. “If the message is not actionable, then you’re not going to get effects overall,” she says.

For my part, I think the public should think about the absolute worst-case effects of climate change. While the worst-case scenario may not come to pass, we need to be prepared for the full range of impacts. Second, we’ve seen fear lead to some of the biggest mass mobilization efforts in history: namely, wars. And climate change will require a similar level of mobilization and urgency.

But I agree that fear-based messages should be paired with actions. Those steps should range from the individual (eat less red meat, install LED light bulbs, buy an electric vehicle if you need one, install solar panels, etc.) to the political (support candidates and policies that address the problem, such as carbon pricing, renewable energy and energy efficiency mandates, and transit-oriented housing).

Otherwise, anxiety without hope or a achievable remedy will be self-defeating.

What’s The Future Of Coal? Tune In To AirTalk On KPCC Radio At 11am

The coal industry is hoping that the Trump administration will revive its sagging fortunes.  I’ll be on AirTalk on KPCC radio (89.3 FM) in Los Angeles today at 11:20am PT to discuss the industry’s future.  As the AirTalk page describes:

It’s no secret that environmentalists and the coal mining industry have long been at odds.  But more fuel has been added to the fire, so to speak, as the Trump Administration’s Interior Department has moved to lift a moratorium on coal leases in public lands. The temporary ban was enacted under the Obama Administration, which quickly drew opposition from major mining companies.

As reported by the New York Times, about 85 percent of coal is mined from federal lands in the West, from the Powder River Basin. The basin, which includes lands in Wyoming and Montana, produces a small amount of exported coal. Trump has accused the Obama Administration of trying to stifle exports, a market which has become increasingly competitive in sales to power plants in Asia, particularly China. In the West, Vancouver has the most accessible export terminal, but more capacity is needed to stay competitive in the growing global market. And environmentalists have blocked any new developments for a terminal in the U.S.

Joining me on the panel will be:

  • Mark Mills, physicist and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute where his focus includes energy and energy technology, and a faculty fellow at Northwestern’s Engineering School; he tweets @MarkPMills
  • Daniel Schrag, geochemist and professor of geology, environmental science and engineering; he is also the director at Harvard University Center for the Environment and served on President Obama’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology (2009 to 2016)

For those out of the area, you can stream it live.

Game Of Climate Thrones

Just ahead of last Sunday night’s season premiere of HBO’s epic Game of Thrones, Vanity Fair published an article linking the plot of the show to climate change.  It’s a subject I happened to have mused on before, as the threat of the white walkers to Westeros really does mirror the collective threat of climate change to our civilization.

But going even further, the article attempts to determine which characters in the show correspond with real-life leaders in the climate change debate.  They interview some of my UCLA Law colleagues on the subjects, with many comparisons I support.  Here’s the Yara Greyjoy-Hillary Clinton one:

Neither of these women has done much about either the White Walkers or climate change. Still, Reich’s idea is too fun to ignore: “The feminist ass-kicker from the Iron Islands is definitely Hillary Clinton. There was that whole scene where [Yara] is going to become the king, and then this random dude shows up out of nowhere and everyone is like, ‘Yeah, this guy! He’s totally unqualified!’ ” When Yara’s uncle won, she disappeared. Clinton did the same—though not for good.

It’s actually an effective way to make climate change and its “cast of characters” accessible and interesting to the public, so I’m glad Vanity Fair ran this piece.

Of course, nothing beats the video of the show’s theme song sung by goats.

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