Telling the whole truth

Not infrequently when reading and reviewing a book I find myself wishing there was some way of lingering longer on what it has to say before the spotlight moves on. David Orr’s Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse, published in 2009 and reviewed here, was one such book, and it was therefore with pleasure that I saw it highlighted on Joe Romm’s Climate Progress a few days ago. A paperback version is to be published in some months’ time and Orr (pictured) had sent Romm a copy of the new preface.

He contacted Romm because of a post Romm had written the previous day on the necessity of including science-based (dire) warnings as an essential part of good climate messaging, along with a clear explanation of the myriad clean energy solutions available and the multiple benefits they deliver. Romm was exasperated at the idea (and apparent White House practice) of not mentioning global warming or climate change but simply concentrating on green jobs, national pride, and reducing dependence on foreign oil. He regards it as a foolish strategy.

“The planet is going to get hotter and hotter, the weather is going to get more extreme.  One of the reasons to be clear and blunt in your messaging about this is that even if you don’t persuade people today, the overall message will grow in credibility as reality unfolds as we have warned…

“You must tell people what is coming, not just because it is strategic messaging, but also I believe because we have a moral responsibility.”

Orr agrees fully with Romm.

When Orr wrote his book he was one of a team who had prepared recommendations for climate change action in the first 100 days of President Obama’s administration. He writes in the book of the importance of “transformational leadership”, the first element of which is “to prepare the public to understand the scope, scale, and duration of climate destabilization…”  If he entertained hopes that Obama might provide such leadership they have not been fulfilled. In the new preface to his book he acknowledges that Obama has launched the largest effort in US history to deploy solar and wind power and raise national standards for energy efficiency, but laments that he has not used the power of the Office to lead public opinion when he still might have done so. He didn’t make climate and energy the first priority of his administration. So far he has failed the test of transformative leadership on the issue of supreme importance.

“The capacity and apparent willingness of humankind to destabilize the climate conditions that made civilization possible is the issue of our time; all others pale by comparison. Beyond some unknown threshold of irreversible and irrevocable changes driven by carbon cycle feedbacks, climate destabilization will lead to a war of all against all, a brutal scramble for food, water, dry land, and safety. Sheer survival will outweigh every other consideration of decency, order, and mutual sympathy.”

In polite circles, he says, the issue is not faced in such terms. It is relegated to merely another problem to be solved by better technology and proper market signals. While he supports both of these, Orr urges the need to see climate destabilization as more than a technical or technological issue.

“We ought to ask why we are coming so close to the brink of global disaster so casually and carelessly. We ought to ask why the market—skewed to the advantage of corporations and the super wealthy—is allowed to trump the rights of our descendants to ‘life, liberty, and property’ which presupposes climate stability.”

How we talk about climate destabilization is determined by the seriousness with which we think about it.

“For example, we do not face merely a ’warming’ of the Earth, but rather a worsening destabilization of, well, almost everything. We are rapidly making a different and less hospitable planet, one that Bill McKibben calls ‘Eaarth’.”

This is not something that can be fixed by tinkering at the edges. We can’t go on talking about climate destabilization “as if it were an ordinary issue requiring no great vision, no unshakable resolve, no fear of the abyss”.

He then confronts those who say the problem is that we have failed to present a positive image.

“Their advice, instead is to be cheery, upbeat, and talk of happy things like green jobs and more economic growth, but whisper not a word about the prospects ahead or the suffering and death already happening…

“But ‘happy talk’ was not the approach taken by Lincoln confronting slavery, or by Franklin Roosevelt facing the grim realities after Pearl Harbor. Nor was it Winston Churchill’s message to the British people at the height of the London blitz. Instead, in these and similar cases transformative leaders told the truth honestly, with conviction and eloquence.”

That’s the standard we should follow.

“We must have the courage to speak the truth and the vision and fortitude to chart a plausible way forward. The truth of the matter is that even in the best scenarios imaginable, we would still have a long and difficult road ahead before climate stabilizes again, hopefully within a range still hospitable to us. It is also true that we have the capability to make the transition to economies powered by sunlight and efficiency. The point is not to be gloomy or cheery, but to be truthful and get to work.”

I think Romm and Orr and many others who sound the same theme are absolutely right. To soft-pedal the message from climate science is a disservice to humanity. If political leaders really do understand the science they should bluntly tell the populace what it means for the future, and in some cases for the present. Then they should make this their ground for pushing hard for the energy solutions that will avert the worst outcomes and not allow themselves to be distracted by the pleas of vested interests. If they don’t understand the science then we have to keep pressing them to make the effort and face up to the stark reality.

22 thoughts on “Telling the whole truth”

  1. Hear hear. We’ve discussed before the ridiculous, hair-shirt, self-limiting knots one can tie ones-self in in order to attempt to discuss potential disaster without ever mentioning, um, potential disaster.

    As I said before, I guarantee that the same voices that are now loudly bandying-about every cherry-picked snippet of (mis)information in order to obfuscate the whole issue and squealing ‘alarmist’ at every turn, will, if it transpires that all bar Lord Monckton can no longer deny the reality of the pickle we’re in, announce that it was all our fault we got here because we ‘warmists’ didn’t communicate the urgent message correctly! Bugger that.

    And Obama has been a serious disappointment on so many fronts. But I am seriously terrified of what the next regime – and I use the word advisedly – will be like; ‘the Prussians meet the PR Industry’?

  2. This is a complex problem, a large cultural faction are accepting of societal risks, and a large cultural faction are not. Moreover, of those who are accepting of societal risk, a significant proportion may not respond in the desired manner to risk claims due to factors such as powerlessness and the commons dilemma.

    @Bill – you can accuse those who try to understand these dynamics and come up with an evidence based approach of ‘bandying about’, however history is littered with ‘one-size-fits-all’ ‘solutions’ and interventions that have exacerbated the very problem one is trying to ‘fix’.

    How can you be sure that advocating a position based on backward intuition? Or that this isn’t just another simple solution to a complex problem being pushed by the hubris of some old white guy?

    1. I think Humanity as a system reflects the collective evolved human drive and capability of filling each new corner of our ecosphere that allows survival with, well, more humans.

      Like the yeast bug, we are following our evolutionary destiny.

      Evolution has no foresight though, and just like the yeast bug we too will simply be limited by the realities of our environment.

      But unlike the yeast bug, and for the first time in the evolutionary process of life on earth, we DO have at least the capability of foresight. Yet the realization that we will need to use it in order to guarantee our survival now, is a very recent one. To recent perhaps to hope for a bottom up cooperative miracle in which the constituent individuals will restrain their intuitive urge to go forth and multiply for the benefit of the species and the planet.

      The Growth Paradigm embedded in our genes is indeed the very issue on which it all hangs. To overcome this with intellect is the leverage point of our system on which it all would hinge.

      The “backward intuition” link McTaptik linked to is a good read indeed.

    2. Frankly I find your comment to be absolutely tangential to the point under discussion and to my own comment. One of your links doesn’t work – it’s traditional to check – and the other leads to a paper (and a site) which seems to be about the thinking of ‘one old white woman’. All I can say is Thomas is rather more impressed than I am (I am rather allergic to jargon, it’s all those years reading Orwell)!

      Be that as it may; what’s your point? More; what is the point of the post above, and how does your comment relate to it? Who is the ‘old white guy’ (or guys)? What is the ‘simple solution’? Cutting CO2 emissions? That’s ‘simple’, is it? What method do you favour; ETS carbon tax, international agreements, enforced by whom? Over what time frame?

      Or perhaps you’re implying it’s ‘simplistic’?

      Perhaps you’re implying you’ve grasped something the rest of us haven’t, because your perceptions are not out-of-whack with systems flow enabling you to identify the appropriate ‘leverage points’? I’m sure we’d all be fascinated to know. But I’m not sure if jumping in on a post about calling a spade a spade when outlining the consequences of increased CO2 in the atmosphere is a great demonstration of such an intervention, though!

      Anyway, since I’m talking about noisy deniers – willfully obstructive contrarians scarcely merit the term ‘skeptic’ – and you’re apparently describing this same group of people as ‘trying to understand these dynamics and come up with an evidence based approach’ I suggest you either re-read all of the above or come out openly. Are you saying there’s inadequate evidence for AGW? Or what?

        1. Is speaking in riddles a hallmark of erudition in your mind, Nigel? Would it pain you greatly to state whatever point you’re making directly?

          It’s only when they perceive that a policy bears a social meaning congenial to their cultural values that citizens become receptive to sound empirical evidence about what consequences that policy will have. It’s therefore essential to devise policies that can bear acceptable social meanings to citizens of diverse cultural persuasions simultaneously.

          Who could argue? It may surprise you to learn that even some of us unsophisticated types may actually have thought of all that.

          However, if one set of cultural values is essentially a maladaptation in the fullest sense of the word, completely at odds with the realities of living in a finite world with finite resources and a finite capacity for absorbing the impact of any little ‘externalities,’ and the supreme cultural value boils down to ‘I’m entitled’ frankly, you’re dreaming. Fine as far as it goes – but real conflict exists, always has existed, and always will exist, and no amount of ‘reframing’ will make it disappear.

          And throwing in any suggestion of ‘focussing less on facts and more on social meaning ‘ is actually rather funny; ‘Global Warming isn’t science, it’s an attempt to advance a Liberal/Socialist/Marxist cultural agenda’; sound familiar at all?

          And if you’re going to then argue that somehow we should make hierarchic individualists (I’d argue they aren’t the latter – far from it – but they think they are, and that’s what counts) understand that necessarily egalitarian/communitarian values are their values… yeah, sure!

          If we offer our opponents a Market Mechanism they despise that even more; hell, did you know the Liberals (i.e. Conservatives -or, increasingly, Reactionaries) in Australia are running on a fantasy program of carbon Direct Action, using that exact phrase? Irony meter shoots off scale! This after having dismissed an ETS, and now passionately railing against the Great Big New (Carbon) Tax. Did you know that supposedly arch-collectivist baddie Ross Garnaut, who designed Australia’s ETS, when asked why he hadn’t proposed similar direct intervention, simply said ‘I wasn’t aware I was living in a Soviet state’?

          Ironic the folks from Yale should pick Gun Control as a central issue, because it’s the one that pretty-well everyone else in the non failed-state world has managed to resolve along decidedly collectivist/egalitarian lines (and achieved, wow, waaaaaay lower levels of violent crime and gun violence into the bargain, but somehow this bunch still think that’s contested!) and they’re still dithering about in the world’s greatest democracy!

          Notice I’m not being cryptic. If you disagree have the courtesy to spell it out plainly.

          1. Bit prickly Bill?

            Recently I heard ‘dialogue’ eloquently described as a conversation with a center and no sides. As we are well aware this is a complex issue, but I think that for any issue, and as highlighted by Kahan and many others, trust is a key ingredient. I don’t think that trying to push ones view onto others is a great way to gain trust.

            From my understanding, (and I reserve the right to be entirely wrong; and anyone’s right to try to point out where they think that I may have erred; and I will do my best to try to see their perspective, in order that I may understand the issue more fully) at the center of this issue is cultural perceptions and values, then around and interconnecting with perceptions and values is a range of other factors such as powerlessness, cognitive filters, paradigms etc.

            If my understanding is at least in the ball park, then the tasks/objectives are to communicate, empower, inspire and motivate. There will be a range of target groups, and a range of options and strategies. One strategy that I do not see as being particularly effective is to be adversarial; I think this would be an example of ‘backward intuition’, since it would not achieve any of the objectives above.

            We also need to understand that we are embedded within the issue, and as such we are part of the cultural and cognitive landscape and also prone to the full range of human cognitive frailties. We need to actively manage the dissonance we encounter when the views of others conflict with our own. How can we shake our own paradigms if our response to this dissonance is to instantly dismiss or refute other legitimate perspectives?

            Since there is no such thing as perfect knowledge, we must treat all perspectives as partial – especially our own.

            I agree that communicating the risks of climate change is part of the picture, and I also disagree with any fixed policy to not mention climate change. However, and since climate change adaptation and mitigation is usually not in response to climate change alone, if one is devising a strategy to target hierarchical individualist types (who are dismissive of societal risks, and the people that they identify with and trust deny climate change, or that is is caused by humans…) and wants to get past their cognitive filters, then there is no point banging on about the risks of climate change.

      1. Thanks McTaptik for the link. Just downloaded that paper on cultural cognition and its highly relevant.
        It serves as a tool to explain a lot of the hard core denier reasoning (or lack thereof) based on their cultural origin or home (mental).
        The observation that climate change denial highly related with political (cultural) affiliation is commonplace. The fact that many hear can spend the better part of an afternoon putting argument after argument before some of the hard core deniers without achieving any change in their position is proof of the deeply rooted cause for some peoples stances on any contentious subject.
        Perhaps then a cultural revolution is required to save the planet.

        On a side note: Isn’t it wired that in most democratic countries election majorities are split with uncanny perfection very close to the 50/50 mark between culturally warring factions of the right and the left? What mechanism if any causes this? Why is it not 60/40 or 70/30?

        1. Hmm, this one I shall take stern opposition to.

          “Thus part of the answer to the question “why has the world not collapsed?” is that natural ecological systems have the resilience to experience wide change and still maintain the integrity of their functions.”

          Humpf… the author must have written this without much realization (deliberate or otherwise) of the global scale that human influence has gown to and without much comprehension to the geologically speaking extremely rapid onset of AGW according to all we know today. 4 deg change as a global average in a century (and possibly worse according to some respectable scientists) is nothing other than catastrophic.

          The author also totally neglects the risk of our precariously poised current human enterprise of systemic collapse. Systems can quickly turn from stable to total chaos as we know.
          And allowing for possible feedbacks (Permafrost, Methane Clathrates) we might well find ourselves in the other long term stable Earth climate domain, that of high CO2 and about 10 to 12 Deg warmer on average in short order. This climate “equilibrium” at this higher level persisted for the majority of Earth history.
          It suited cold blooded dinosaurs. Early Mammals if any where small and dwelling predominantly underground during the day….

          So no, I flat out reject the idea that our current ecosystem has the ability to maintain comfortable living conditions for 7 billion and counting humans in the face of the onslaught that your human actions are throwing at it at present. And don’t even get me started on the Ocean eco systems…..

          1. @ Thomas – I don’t think the authors mean to imply that the ‘world’ won’t or can’t collapse in the future – although it might depend on what your/their definition of collapse is. They clearly refer to the past.

            Between them the authors probably have a century of experience in systems, resilience and ecology, and more. see for example. That doesn’t mean they have thought of everything though.

            However the past is littered with predictions of the end is nigh…

            And we have all that we need technically to limit climate change…

            Is a key barrier to substituting fossil fuels with renewables and some nuclear related to the resilience of the fossil fuel institutions? I think so.

            Yet long-term investment funds are being shifted into renewables as we speak. Don’t go pinning your eco-snuff fantasies on climate change just yet…

            But that’s not to say that the yeast people won’t find another way to fulfill their hideous fate…

            Sorry Bill – its late, its a blog, and I’ll be cryptic if I want to.

            1. “Between them the authors probably have a century of experience in systems, resilience and ecology, and more” …. and the economists with a million years of experience between them all told us that exponential growth (the paradigm that their theories rest upon) will continue unabated only to run into Peak Oil and the consequences of an unregulated free market (2008)….
              If you want to read about the collapse I am taking about I recommend the read of “Collapse” by Jared M. Diamond and the Olduvai Theory by Dimitri Orloff

            2. @Thomas, I think that some economists will say that when peak oil comes, a substitute, or substitute technology will be found to replace oil. Oil shales and sands, and lignite to oil are interim substitutes.

              Other economists are well aware of the problem, though can’t seem to get through to the yeast economists: “What we have now is a situation in which the most pressing problems of the world, which are environmental and ecological, are ones that the market has no incentive to deal with.” Paul Krugman – economist

              And if the yeast people win and Richard Duncan is still kicking then he will get to say “I told you so”. However with any luck we won’t burn all that coal, because we’ll be smart enough to learn how to speak yeast. Then Duncan will be in the can with Malthus, even though they are/were both partially right.

            3. Well, as far as I see it, until we finally price the cost of pollution fairly into the price of fossil fuels nothing will change to the attitude of free market economists that it is legal to simply externalize and communalize the problems while privatizing the profit.
              We must think with an ecological bottom line that rewards minimization of ecological damage and maximization of common good, especially that of a healthy planet for future generations.
              Tell that to free market cargo cultists….
              And anyone who simply things that when peak oil comes (it has been actually) a substitute, or substitute technology will be magically found to replace oil has no appreciation whatsoever of the massive task ahead. Good luck to the John Frummers….

  3. If it looks like a turd, and smells like a turd, then it is probably a turd… unless there is some uncertainty, or the stakes are high… in which case one must test the turd hypothesis… does it stick to a stick if you poke it?

    1. Now, this is just bog-standard (boom boom) coprophobia, but at least it’s jargon-free! I could substitute ‘troll’ for ‘turd’ in the above, but let’s not be hasty. What is this ‘turd’ of which you speak? If it’s AGW I suggest it’s been poked about as thoroughly as any hypothesis in history already, and still smells the same…

      1. “I suggest [AGW has] been poked about as thoroughly as any hypothesis in history already”

        Thats probably true, and a good point, but there are plenty of honourable mentions along the way! evolution, creationism, big bang, relativity, capitalism, communism….

  4. On the stark effects of “Slow-onset climate change”:

    This paper here (starts on the bottom of the first page) tells it as it is: “Slow-onset climate change a huge risk to food supply”
    2009, Science Mag.

    We may have looked at this before but for all those doubters who think that the effects of AGW will be gradual or small for a long time to come, this is the main issue with dire effects for survival, peace and stability resulting even from a gradual warming and increase in seasonal heat.

  5. I like this reflection on Khun in the Meadows paper which McTaptik refers to: “So how do you change paradigms? …. In a nutshell, you keep pointing at the anomalies and failures of the old paradigm, you keep speaking louder and with assurance from the new one, you insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. You dont waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.”

    Meadows points out that societies resist challenges to their paradigms harder than anything else. Well, despite that difficulty, I think there is plenty of evidence that the current paradigm is changing, and rapidly. Our understanding of the true dangers of global warming is, in historical perspective, quite new. Just 4-5 years ago governments talked quite casually about a 4 degree rise in global temperatures being manageable. Now, such sentiments from any government are unthinkable. Now, we have the head of the UN calling our current paradigm a global suicide pact (at Davos this year). Now, we have serious, well-connected people seriously discussing global engineering solutions, and others seriously opposing that. Unthinkable a decade ago.

    From what I read and hear, just about every entrepreneur under 30 has heard of global warming and sees it as a business risk.

    So I am with Orr. I think that we should keep banging drums and speaking the truth. I think history will look back on these years as the very ones in which the change in paradigm occurred ie where everyone understood that there is a global problem and it needs enormous, unprecedented resources and co-operation to solve it.

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