Global Warming: Talk About It

From time to time I ask people a question to gauge how much they know about climate change: “What’s your best guess, how much has Earth’s average temperature changed since the year 1900?

Since I live in the USA, the answers I get are invariably in degrees Fahrenheit rather than Celsius. Responses have ranged from 10°F to 30°F, until this morning when someone guessed 300°F.

If Earth’s average temperature had increased by 300°F (that’s 167°C) since 1900 we would all be dead already; even 30°F (16.7°C) increase would have killed most of us. I suspect that there are two reasons people tend to make such high guesses.

First, people have actually noticed that climate has changed. A recent respondent, who guessed a total 15°F increase, began by saying she had noticed that when she was a kid it wasn’t unusual to have snow on the ground on her birthday in May, but that simply doesn’t happen anymore. Yes, climate really has changed noticeably.

Second, not only have people noticed that climate has changed, they’ve also heard that global warming is dangerous. Their instinct tells them that for this to be true, we must have already warmed by 10°F or more, with yet more to come.

I’ve come to three consclusions based on the responses I’ve had so far.

First, people really have noticed that climate has changed. Snow on the ground in Maine in May used to be no surprise, but now is a rarity. Hurricanes used to be regular but rare disasters, now three hitting the U.S. in one year is still fresh in our memory. A once-in-500-years flood used to be shocking to Texans, but the residents of Houston have been through it the last three years in a row.

Second, folks tend to think of one or two degrees increase as being unimportant. Let’s face it, if the temperature in the room you’re in right now went up by 2°F, you might not even notice.

Third, people in general have next to no idea how the world is changing.

The readers of this blog probably know the correct answer: around 2°F (1.1°C). You probably also know that while 2°F isn’t worth worrying about in one room on a single day, when it persists (on average) day after day, year after year, not just in one town but (on average) over an area of nearly 200 million square miles, the effect is profound. After all, a global average cooling of a “mere” 9°F (5°C) spells the difference between the city of Chicago we know now, and Chicago covered by an ice sheet a mile thick.

But — Jane the plumber and Joe the waiter don’t know these things.

We advocates of climate action — especially scientists — too often labor under the misconception that we can convince people to pay attention by giving them more, and more sophisticated, information. How often have I mentioned the Clausius-Clapeyron equation? Or the multiple testing problem in statistics?

I’ve spent a lot of time refuting some of the nonsense that comes from climate deniers. Frankly it’s fun. And yes, it’s important, because when climate denier nonsense lets average voters deny the problem it’s very useful to cut the legs out from under their denier bullshit. And it’s fun.

But I’m starting to suspect that both climate denier bullshit, and sharp refutation of same, is only reaching a tiny fraction of the voting public. It’s not that the typical voter hasn’t heard the arguments and counter-arguments, the problem is that the typical voter hasn’t heard anything about what’s really happening.

So … what have they heard?

They’ve heard that the globe is warming. They’ve heard that most scientists say it’s a problem. They’ve heard that the cause is human activity, specifically “greenhouse gases” and in particular carbon dioxide (CO2). They’ve probably also heard that some of the recent disasters we’ve suffered, especially the horrible wildfires in California this summer, are related to man-made climate change.

But they don’t talk about it — at least, not in my neck of the woods. It’s not even “on the radar.”

So … how do we get it on the radar? I have some ideas; maybe you have others.

One is to talk about those things that they themselves have noticed, things they can personally relate to. In Maine, talk about ticks, how they used to be “no problem” when camping in the woods but are now a nasty pervasive pest and a genuine danger. Talk about how the ice-fishing season is a month shorter than it used to be. In Houston, Texas, talk about floods. In Florida and Norfolk, Virginia, talk about sea level rise, especially the “rainy day flooding” that comes every year, and talk about how the Navy and the Pentagon — you know, those tree-hugging liberals in the military — keep telling us that climate change is real, and it’s a threat to national security. In California, in fact throughout the western U.S., talk about wildfires.

But in my opinion, the main strategy we need to put front and center is: talk about it. Talk about it a lot. Talk about it to everybody. If you talk about it so much that people turn to each other and say “Here’s that guy who’ll talk about global warming again” — then at least they will be talking about it.

Don’t just talk about it here, with those of us who are “woke.” Don’t just talk about it with your friends and family. Talk about it with everybody. You don’t even have to talk their ear off — if you just mention it, at least they’ll have a blip on the radar.

Because until Jane the plumber and Joe the waiter see it on their radar, we won’t be able to get rid of the idiot politicians who are sending the world to hell in a handbasket.

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15 responses to “Global Warming: Talk About It

  1. “Talk about it.” Excellent. I do that a lot. I think it’s really important to keep raising the subject but also to keep linking AGW to GHG emissions and thus to our political-economy.
    However, people hate doomer talk, which flows inevitably from consideration of limits to growth, a non-starter all by itself. Discussing projections of what is likely to happen with BAU (and increasingly likely regardless) on a slightly longer time frame than most people think about in their own lives, even just 20-50 years, people simply shut down and have a difficult time engaging in a meaningful conversation.

  2. I agree that everyone must talk about climate change. The Call To Action in my TEDx talk is exactly that…. talk to your family, friends, colleagues, and elected leaders. But don’t just talk about the dangers ahead, tell them there is a policy that almost everyone will love that will go a long way in addressing the problem. Put a rising fee on the CO2 content of fossil fuels and give all the money collected back to every legal resident on an equal basis. Most people make money on the deal and it cuts emissions by more than half in 20 years while creating millions of jobs and growing the economy. Once we get 10% of the public demanding such a policy, it will happen quickly.

  3. I will also add, that I am more concerned about the people who agree that climate change is real and a serious danger and do nothing about it, than I am about “deniers”. One of of the reasons that people don’t engage on climate is that they don’t know what to do (besides changing their lifestyles in ways they don’t want to). That’s why talking about the Fee and Dividend policy is important… it’s a tangible goal that will really make a difference without asking people to live in a cave.

    For those who are really interested in understanding the psychology of climate change, I recommend George Marshall’s book: DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. For full disclosure, I helped edit the book.

  4. But in my opinion, the main strategy we need to put front and center is: talk about it. Talk about it a lot. Talk about it to everybody. If you talk about it so much that people turn to each other and say “Here’s that guy who’ll talk about global warming again” — then at least they will be talking about it.

    I agree, or at least I did. But then many people are just convinced you are a bore, and don’t invite you to their parties.

    And then one gets to wonder how Cassandra felt.

    And I sometimes, well, more-often-than-not, get “Your news is so depressing!” Even from the semi-scientifically trained and sensitive.

    • Am I the only one who finds parties to be the bore?

      • Depends on the party. If people are talking about interesting things, or dancing, or playing games, or making music, or laughing, maybe not. If they are mostly just drinking, then yes.

    • Perhaps you need to be less boring when you talk about it? ;)

      Seriously, there’s ways to talk about it without dominating or disrupting the natural flow of conversation. I’m not sure I can list those, but listening and asking questions as much as expounding are good start usually.

  5. I dunno if it’s doing any ‘good’, but when I share a climate post on FB – more and more every day, less and less anything like ‘good’ news, I have decided to have each one ‘sponsored’ by a particular denier. This includes a brief run-down on their qualifications or lack thereof, background, political affiliations where known, source/s of funding if appropriate, and any particularly egregious howlers if appropriate.

    The sorry picture paints itself over time…

  6. Climate Change is the elephant in the room of the (absence) of the Emperor’s new clothes. We all no about it, but peer pressure makes us reluctant to talk about it. Please check my blog on this:

  7. You need to target particular audiences with messages that they relate to or are already concerned about or have experienced something similar to.
    Not just a new problem to consider or contend with.
    You need to know your audience a little first or be able to gauge where they are coming from…..sometimes you need to listen to them first and let them know that you are listening to them.
    Sometimes being in some ways open about yourself including your flaws and vulnerabilities can be a way of telling them that you have heard them and are not trying to be a threat to their choices about their existence.
    It can be about getting people to relate to your humility and human qualities that gets their attention.
    Some things about you are always going to get in the way of communicating with people who do not know you.
    Your age, your socio-economic status, your race or ethnicity, your sex, your externally perceived beauty or ability, your own actions in the world, the words you use or the way you use language can all have differing effects on other peoples responses to what you are wanting to communicate.
    People often can’t see past some of these qualities enough to concentrate even slightly on what you might be saying.
    Not getting a response does not always mean that people aren’t thinking about what you have said.
    This is why there needs to be the widest possible diversity of voices speaking on Anthropogenic Global Warming. No one has a good reason to give up communicating about the actions that are required.

    probably more to come….

  8. “This is no time for phony Rhetoric
    This is no time for political Speech
    This is a time for action
    Because the future’s within Reach”

  9. Agreed. It’s my plan, more or less, and I’ve been working it for some time.

    And for those whose tastes include street actions–one kind of ‘partying with a purpose’, I guess you could say–you may want to save the date of September 8, which will be an International Day of Action for Climate, Jobs, and Justice. (Note that climate gets pride of place!)

    It’s part of the run-up to Governor Brown’s gathering for sub-national jurisdictions & NGOs acting on climate. A big chunk of that has to do with current Federal government cllimate obstruction, and the resistance to it.

    Some may even wish to volunteer in local organizing, or doing mundane but essential tasks (tabling, crowd marshal, etc.)

  10. I’ve been doing this for a long time now, reckoning it is one of the most effective things I can do as an individual. Everytime someone asks about recommending a builder on our corporate forum, I recommend a green builder and ask if they have considered the emissions effect of their extension/kitchen/whatever. It’s usually too late for the questioner who already has a (typically high-carbon) plan, but it makes other readers think that maybe they simply shouldn’t be building a conservatory because they have shockingly bad energy numbers, or should include some airtightness and insulation when they next do something.

    Whenever someone tells me about their trip to Thailand I ask if they know the carbon footprint of that and how many flights they’ve taken this year.

    At last week’s caving conference a German talked about his US/German trip to the caves of Cambodia. I asked a question about whether it really made sense from an emissions point of view for Americans and Germans to be going to Cambodia to cave, when they could just wait for the locals to do the exploring and documenting, and meanwhile go caving closer to home. People do not expect such questions because they have not really thought about it in those terms, and sometimes there is resistance, but at least some of the audience will be caused to think about when such trips are justifiable.

    Many everyday things relate to emissions and can be thought about in emissions terms, so there are plenty of opportunities to bring it up in conversation, and hopefully make people think a bit. You have to take a bit of care not to be so annoying that no-one will ever invite you to anything again, but this stuff really matters and most people do understand that really – you just have to get past the bit where they try to laugh it off.

    • Good one. Ivan Illich’s “Energy and Equity” (1973) makes a similar point: the privileged (wealthy) spend lots of energy moving things (including themselves) around more and more, faster and faster. Remodels count too. Getting people to think about the connections is a really good thing to do.

      The single most carbon intensive thing wealthy people do (and people in wealthy countries generally) is breed. I have taken to raising this point with friends when I can do so without being totally over the line rude. “Why don’t you adopt…?”

  11. Samoan PM lashes out at ‘utterly stupid’ climate change deniers

    ‘So any leader of any country who believes that there is no climate change, I think he ought to be taken to mental confinement. he is utterly stupid. And I say the same thing to any leader here. !’

    “Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele has lashed out at climate sceptics and urged Australia to make deeper cuts to carbon emissions to help save Pacific Island nations from the “disaster” of climate change.”

    “Samoan prime minister Tuilaepa Sailele has attacked climate change deniers as “utterly stupid””

    We need more leaders to say it like that…..