While you're here, why not subscribe to PIRC's narrative newsletter?
PIRC has been independently funded by individuals and foundations since 1972.
Those communicating about climate change have had a turbulent time over the last few years – with an often vicious war of words between those with differing opinions, scientific understanding, and values. PIRC has responded to this according to what we’ve seen as the needs of the time; through addressing the gap between science and policy, providing accessible science for wide audiences, and, most recently, through deepening the understanding of the effects of our cultural values on how we process information and act upon big issues.
Some of our more recent projects include:
Being a partner in the Climate Change Communication Advisory Group (CCCAG) – made up of a diverse range of individuals from academia and the third sector, with expertise in climate change communication and engagement. CCCAG’s aim is to use current academic research and practitioner-based expertise to best inform government and non-governmental climate change communications and engagement.
Publishing The Climate Factsheets, providing up-to-date and accessible climate science for third sector and government communications.
Common Cause; a network of people and a series of initiatives aiming to help to rebalance our cultural values to promote action on climate change and the other big issues of our time.
In collaboration with COIN we created Talking Climate, an online gateway to research on climate change communication.
People who cut their carbon footprint because they’re worried about climate change are ‘environmental’ types, right? They love ‘nature’ and get fired up by those photos of polar bears stranded on melting ice. They might even rate ‘protecting the environment’ or ‘respecting the earth’ as their number one value.
Well, no; not necessarily.
As part of a research project on promoting lower-carbon lifestyles, I interviewed people who have cut their carbon footprint because they’re worried about climate change, to try and understand more about what motivates them. Concern about ‘the environment’ for its own sake is not generally their main reason for action. They tend to be more bothered about the effects of climate change on poorer people in developing countries. They’re often motivated by a deep sense of the injustice of a situation where those who will suffer most are those who have contributed least to the problem, and they talked in terms of trying to live with a fairer – therefore smaller – share of the world’s resources. When I asked them to imagine that we live in a different kind of world, one in which climate change would threaten polar bears with extinction but would somehow have little effect on humans, several interviewees said they would probably not be so anxious about the issue, and would not be trying so hard to address it.
Che Guevara said that “the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love”. But not just any love, the love of humanity that transcends the day to day love of individuals (our family for example). In a way its a shame that the actual content of this paragraph from Che has been bastardised to be about some nebulous love that drives revolutionaries. Instead what Che was talking about was a very real dilemma. How to keep ourselves motivated, heading towards the goal, when we have so little time for our real “loved ones”, so little time for ourselves, and to develop our personal lives.
This is a serious issue that is often unconsidered by the left. But more over today those of us who have invested years to the cause of stopping climate change are at risk of demoralisation, depression, exhaustion, and alienation. For me this has been a confronting reality as I have struggled with depression for the better part of 2012 and have undertaken to see a psychologist. I suspect there are others out there in a similar state of mind.
There is an idea that well sums up the reality of our task as climate activists “combining pessimism of the intellect with optimism of the will”. Unfortunately getting the balance right is no easy task, nor will that balance be achieved accidentally. Read more
This guest blog is by Valerie Mocker, who recently completed her postgraduate degree in Environmental Policy at Oxford University. Here, she describes findings from her dissertation research. They suggest that framing climate change as an ‘economic’ challenge may not be the best way to engage conservative audiences, leading people to externalise responsibility of climate change and express higher degrees of fatalism about the issue. This blog was originally posted on Talking Climate on 22nd November.Read more
Ro Randall is founder and director of Cambridge Carbon Footprint, a Cambridge based charity that uses approaches drawn from psychotherapy and community work to engage diverse audiences in work on climate change. She blogs at rorandall.org.
Behaviour change is the new black – although the idea has been around for a while it is increasingly the mantra of those working on climate change. Funders are interested in it. Government swears by it. Researchers puzzle over it. Voluntary organisations take it as their agenda. What’s not to like?
There is no shortage of authoritative documents advocating for a low carbon future. Nick Stern gave us a price tag for decarbonisation. The Sustainable Development Commission (RIP) gave us ‘scenarios’ and ‘pathways’ to a low carbon future. And dozens of engineering and policy analyst groups have put together compelling estimates of the sorts of energy technologies that might power our low carbon world.
So, we have some pathways to a low carbon future, we know what types of machines might be likely to inhabit that future, and we are told that it will be cheaper if we get on with this low carbon future sooner rather than later. This is all valuable information, and activists have made good use of it to persuade people to take climate change seriously. But does any of it tell us anything about what this ‘future’ will be like?
The official NASA maps – the ones you can generate yourself – didn’t add this new colour, though. They simply extended the range of dark red on the legend to whatever the maximum anomaly is – in some cases, as much as 11.1C:
The legend goes up in small, smooth steps: a range of 0.3 C, 0.5 C, 1 C, 2 C. Then, suddenly, 6 or 7 C.
I’m sure this is a result of algorithms that haven’t been updated to accommodate such extreme anomalies. However, since very few people examine the legend beyond recognizing that red is warm and blue is cold, the current legend seems sort of misleading. Am I the only one who feels this way?
This is a guest post by Jon Alexander, who writes for Conservation Economy, a blog about what the marketing & communications industry should do in an economy not based on consumption. This post appeared in its original form back in October 2010. Jon’s view has shifted somewhat since then, so if you want to engage more with this discussion, please do see what you think of that post as well.
Over the last year, we’ve been hearing references to Martin Luther King in the sustainability debate with increasing regularity. King, we are told, didn’t inspire change by saying “I have a nightmare”; the implication being that the environmental movement needs to stop being so down in the dumps and instead describe the promised land if ‘it’ wants to motivate change… Read more
With the number of polls I’ve written about here, it’s been a while since I’ve taken stock of the different results and what we can learn from them. Fortunately, MORI produced a handy collection of slides (a few months ago), which brings together a lot what we’ve seen into a single place:
Imagine you were part of a highly successful environmental campaign group, that had spent the best part of the last year enthusiastically building a broad coalition of organisations – from schools, to local councils, to football teams – committed to cutting their carbon footprint. How might you choose to mark such a successful 10 months?
An attention-grabbing stunt of some kind? Great idea. A controversial and challenging video? That could work, yes. A poorly executed ‘joke’ about peer pressure involving the violent deaths of children and office workers who don’t subscribe to your campaign? Err, possibly not…
But yet, bizarrely, this is precisely what the otherwise well-respected 10:10 group opted to do. If you’ve not yet seen the video No Pressure, then you can now only view bootlegged versions as the original was wisely taken down just hours after it was launched. It made the front page of the Guardian Environment section, took a predictable bashing from the far-right conspiracy theorist James Delingpole over at the Telegraph, and sent the, ahem, ‘data libertarian’ blogs into a spin. Read more
Why positive feedback doesn’t necessarily lead to runaway warming – Positive feedback happens when the response to some change amplifies that change. For example: The Earth heats up, and some of the sea ice near the poles melts. Now bare water is exposed to the sun’s rays, and absorbs more light than did the previous ice cover; so the planet heats up a little more. In both of these cases, the “effect” reinforces the “cause”, which will increase the “effect”, which will reinforce the “cause”… So won’t this spin out of control? The answer is, No, it will not, because each subsequent stage of reinforcement & increase will be weaker and weaker. The feedback cycles will go on and on, but there will be a diminishing of returns, so that after just a few cycles, it won’t matter anymore.
Himalayan Glaciers: Wrong Date, Right Message – Is the AR4 terribly flawed? It is important to note that this is one error in a roughly 3000 page technical document, an error percentage similar to the Encyclopedia Britannica. The 2035 claim was not included in the Technical Summary, the Summary for Policymakers, or the Synthesis Report. Does this error show the IPCC has an ‘alarmist’ bias – a tendency to exaggerate the negative impacts of climate change? In fact, there are far more documented instances of the AR4 being too conservative, rather than too alarmist, on emissions scenarios, sea level rise, and Arctic sea-ice melt. Many of the Himalayan Glaciers are retreating at an accelerating rate (Ren 2006) and roughly 500 million people depend on the melt water from these glaciers (Kehrwald 2008).
A history of international climate change policy – An overview of the history of international climate policy over the last 30 years, divided into five periods. The article shows (1) the increasing complexity of the definition of the climate change issue from an environmental to a development issue; (2) the inability of the developed countries to reduce their own emissions and raise funds commensurate with the nature of the problem and their initial commitments; (3) the increasing engagement of different social actors in the discussion and, in particular, the gradual use of market mechanisms in the regime; (4) the increasing search for alternative solutions within the formal negotiations—such as the identification of nationally appropriate mitigation actions for the developing world, reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and the use of geo-engineering solutions; and (5) the search for solutions outside the regime—the mobilization of sub-national policies on climate change, litigation, and markets on biofuels.
Coffee threatened by beetles in a warming world (!) – The Arabica coffee grown in Ethiopia and Latin America is an especially climate-sensitive crop. It requires just the right amount of rain and an average annual temperature between 64 degrees Fahrenheit and 70 degrees Fahrenheit to prosper. As temperatures rise — Ethiopia’s average low temperature has increased by about .66 degrees F every decade since 1951, according to the country’s National Meteorological Agency — and rains become more variable, Ethiopian coffee farmers have suffered increasingly poor yields. Last year was especially bad, with exports dropping by 33 percent. Some have moved their coffee trees to higher elevations, while others have been forced to switch to livestock and more heat-tolerant crops, such as enset, a starchy root vegetable similar to the plantain. Now, there is evidence that a warming climate may be linked to one of the major threats facing the coffee industry in Ethiopia and elsewhere…
It is the beliefs and values that our citizens bring to such difficult debates which puts breath into the inanimate skeleton of scientific knowledge. Censor or mock beliefs, and we are nothing: our knowledge counts for naught. – Mike Hulme ((In Andy Revkin’s discussion on whether scientists are from Mars and the public are from Venus, Dot Earth, June 2010 http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/29/scientists-from-mars-face-public-from-venus/))
In the latter months of last year and the earlier months of this one, public debate on climate change became particularly charged and divided. The media’s fragmented reporting became more and more confused following a cold Northern hemisphere winter and the CRU email-hack, dribbling out contradictory reports about apparent (later largely disproved) IPCC mistakes, and there seemed to be disagreement between everyone. As an organisation thinking about various ways of communicating climate change, we started thinking about the broad idea of ‘public engagement’ and whether it could usefully be applied to discussing climate change. Public engagement – an umbrella term for a set of different approaches to getting citizens involved in issues to do with pretty much anything, usually related to society or politics – has become a widely used tool in decision-making processes in the last ten years. Read more
And yet it works. Adam Corner on ‘ClimateGate’, transparency & peer-review. – “Open access is based on the premise that there are those outside the inner circle of peer reviewers who are competent enough to provide a second opinion on the science. This is indisputably true. But while talk of throwing open the lab doors might be rhetorically satisfying, it would provide only an illusion of democracy. Certainly there are non-academics competent enough with statistics to find errors in a piece of published science. Correcting errors in science would be a valuable service for an auditor to offer. But if several auditors reached conflicting conclusions, then somehow a judgement would have to be made about their respective competence. And who should make that judgement? Presumably a group of suitably qualified, honest individuals with a proven track record in a relevant discipline – in other words, peer review.”
Climate email inquiry: bringing democracy to science | Richard Horton – “Scientists need to do more to emphasise their uncertainties, not recoil from them. Uncertainty may be uncomfortable, but its admission builds trust. It demonstrates integrity. One of science’s great strengths is its quantification of doubt. Fourth, scientists need to take peer review off its pedestal. As an editor, I know that rigorous peer review is indispensable. But I also know that it is widely misunderstood. Peer review is not the absolute or final arbiter of scientific quality. It does not test the validity of a piece of research. It does not guarantee truth. Peer review can improve the quality of a research paper – it tells you something about the acceptability of new findings among fellow scientists – but the prevailing myths need to be debunked. We need a more realistic understanding about what peer review can do and what it can’t. If we treat peer review as a sacred academic cow, we will continue to let the public down again and again.”
The Guardian’s recent “Climategate” event – picking over the fallout from UEA’s hacked emails – was always going to be a weird one, and I left with decidedly mixed impressions. For some, this event clearly represented the rehabilitation of climate denial in even the more progressive end of the mainstream media. One friend described it as “like being in 1998”, which was not far off the mark. Two of the panellists – Doug Keenan and Steve McIntyre – fall broadly into the “sceptic” camp, while a good third of the room at least seemed to be composed of elements of the denial lobby. Benny Peiser – a serial paid advocate for mining industryfront–groups – was in attendance, as was the eccentric weather theorist Piers Corbyn – whose constant heckling at one point saw him threatened with ejection from the room (to loud applause).
Joss Garman at Left Foot Forward reports that Watts Up With That – arguably the world’s number one climate sceptic site – yesterday cited the BNP in one of its ludicrous stories:
Anthony Watts’ latest source of information is none other than the British National Party – yes, those known to the rest of us as the British Nazi Party.
Anthony Watts blogged today at 15.30 GMT about how “climate scepticism could become a criminal offence in UK” – and his source? BNP leader, Nick Griffin. Unsurprisingly, by 16.11, the page had disappeared. No doubt, after one of his friends in the UK pointed out it doesn’t look great when you post Nazi propaganda on your blog and twitter feed.
But Left Foot Forward caught screen grabs here, here – and here.
You may remember Watts Up With That from such hilarious climate science fails as:
Wrongly claiming Arctic sea ice was growing 50,000km2 per year. (To their credit, they did correct this obvious error, but it didn’t stop them coming out with other howlers like suggesting the ‘Arctic ice looks generally healthier than 20 years ago’ or that sea ice has returned to ‘normal‘. Both completely wrong.)
Once claiming anyone wanting a price on carbon was ‘criminal’, the same as ‘murdering people’.
Painstakingly asserting that global warming is due to the ‘Urban Heat Island’ effect, something scientists are already aware of and correct for. And then in arguing their case, providing data scientists used to show they were completely wrong: temperature stations they argued were causing a warming bias in the temperature record were actually causing a cooling bias!
Falsely claiming that the Antarctic ice sheet can’t and won’t lose mass, because air temperatures are below 0°C. Unfortunately they failed to look at any ice mass data to see what was actually happening. If you don’t like the data, just ignore it!
And finally, they recently concluded that the Greenland ice sheet can’t be melting. Their evidence? Temperature data from a single weather station and some photos taken while flying over the ice sheet! They conveniently failed to mention the ice mass data which pretty conclusively shows that Greenland IS losing mass. Again, if you don’t like the data…
We thought Watts up With That had reached as low as they could go with shoddy fact-checking, but citing the BNP plunges them to new depths.
On the other hand, at least Anthony Watts had the decency to take the story down when he realised where it came from. Monckton’s outfit, the Science and Public Policy Institute (SPPI), hasn’t even done that. So while Monckton is happy to dish out words like ‘fascist’ willy-nilly, at the same time he apparently has no qualms about using genuine fascists as a source of material.
Certainly brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘grey literature’.