A Moral Atmosphere

Bill McKibben rants eloquently about the need for more than individual actions to combat climate change — it’s a systemic problem, the solutions to which can only come with changes to the systems we are all embedded in.  Changing your light bulbs and riding a bike are the easy parts.  Organizing a devastating political campaign against the fossil fuel interests is much more challenging, and utterly necessary.

E.ON lobbied for stiff sentences against Kingsnorth activists

German energy giant E.ON apparently lobbied cabinet ministers for stiff sentences against Kingsnorth activists, according to papers released under a FOIA style request made by Greenpeace.  The company suggested that without “dissuasive” sentences, they might be less willing to invest in generation facilities in the UK in the future.  Light sentences for non-violent direct action, and no more coal investment?  Sounds like a win-win to me.

Carbon dioxide data is not on the world’s dashboard

CO2 Emissions Since 1820
An interactive data visualization, exploring almost 200 years worth of global CO2 emissions, from Gapminder World.

Hans Rosling, world famous Swedish demographer (how many celebrity statisticians are there?) and creator of the Gapminder data visualization tool, offers some thoughts on the importance of timely and transparent reporting of CO2 emissions.  If you’re not familiar with his eye-opening presentations already, check out his several TED Talks on YouTube, or explore two centuries worth of CO2 emissions data visually.

Rosling wants all kinds of public data not only to be easily available, but woven into stories that engage the public:

It’s like that basic rule in nutrition: Food that is not eaten has no nutritional value. Data which is not understood has no value.

Continue reading Carbon dioxide data is not on the world’s dashboard

CO2 is not on the world’s dashboard

Hans Rosling, world famous Swedish statistical edutainer, offers some thoughts on the importance of timely and transparent reporting of CO2 emissions.  We all know (whether we want to or not) exactly how this thing called GDP is doing, quarter by quarter, but on greenhouse gas emissions, there’s a year long lag.

The Danger in Republican Climate Denial

An Op-Ed in the Houston Chronicle warning fellow conservatives off continued climate denial, lest the GOP be left out of climate change policy decisions altogether as public opinion swings behind the scientific consensus.  There’s still plenty of FUD and straw man partisan BS in its language, but the fact of climate change and the farce of painting it as some kind of hoax is called out loud and clear.

As Coasts Rebuild and U.S. Pays, Repeatedly, the Critics Ask Why

The New York Times looks at our national policy of paying to rebuild vulnerable coastal communities, no matter how ill advised their developments might be.  In effect, we’ve encouraged people to upscale their beachfront shanties into expensive vacation homes, increasing the value at risk next time a storm hits.  As the seas rise, ever more money will be sent down this gopher hole.  Instead, we should prohibit future development, map out the most vulnerable locations, and draw up buy-out offers ahead of time, so when disaster strikes, it can be used as an opportunity to re-direct investment into less risky areas.

Climate Change and the Insurance Industry


As the entire eastern seaboard slowly recovers from its lashing by Sandy, insurance companies are bracing for the hurricane’s aftermath and the possibility of another Katrina-scale loss.  If there’s any major incumbent business with an incentive to publicly acknowledge the risks and costs of climate change, it’s the insurance industry, and especially the re-insurers — mega-corps that backstop individual insurance companies by pooling their risks globally.  These companies can do the math, and what they’ve seen over the last couple of decades is a steady upward trend in both the number of extreme weather events and the resulting insured losses that they’ve been on the hook to cover.  The situation is well summarized in a new report from Ceres, entitled Stormy Futures for U.S. Property/Casualty Insurers.  They suggest that insurers face an existential risk from climate change.

Continue reading Climate Change and the Insurance Industry

Feds underestimate costs of carbon pollution

NRDC blogs about a new study on federal use of discount rates in calculation of carbon costs, which suggests we grossly underestimate the present value of reducing emissions.  Did you even know that the feds had put an internal price on CO2?  They behave as if it costs $21/ton to emit.  But that’s based on a discount rate of around 3%, which is the highest rate OMB suggests using for inter-generational costs.  Part II of the very detailed NRDC post is here.

When the facts don’t tell your story

Chris Mooney was out in Boulder last week talking about his most recent book, The Republican Brain.  I went to a two day workshop he ran at Caltech with Matt Nisbet several years ago on climate communication, and it was really good, so I was interested to hear what he’s been thinking about lately.  It sounds like the basic idea of the new book is that the liberal-conservative dichotomy is fairly persistent and widespread in humanity, though it’s been expressed differently throughout the millennia in different cultural contexts.  I think that several of the underlying characteristics of Mooney points out interact in our financially driven political landscape in an interesting (and distressing) way.  Given that:


  • are more tolerant of ambiguity — they don’t need there to be One True Answer to every question.
  • are more open to and even desirous of new experiences, and thus willing to accept the possibility or necessity of change generally.


  • are more sensitive to issues of insubordination — to anything that upsets established hierarchies or trusted authorities.
  • place a high priority on in-group cohesion, whether it be a religious community or patriotism for the nation state.

Thus, we find that liberal groups are willing to accept the need for change and innovation, but tend to defeat themselves through in-fighting — they have a hard time staying “on message”, and will often get lost bickering in the weeds of policy detail, while their conservative opposition takes a simple, one-dimensional position, sticks to it, and wins.

Conservative groups on the other hand are more defensive and cohesive.  They can effectively vote together as a bloc, because naysayers from within their ranks tend to be punished quickly and severely, even whey they’ve got the facts on their side.

These dynamics suggest to me that any time an incumbent monied interest is not well served by new facts (think Big Tobacco or King Coal), their best hope is probably to ally themselves with conservatives preferentially.  This is different than what most industries do most of the time.  Given how cheap it is to influence policies and elections through lobbying and campaign contributions — the ROI is enormous on these activities — most industries simply donate to everyone, and thus maintain their access and influence.

Why would this asymmetry be advantageous?  Because if you can frame the issue at hand it conservative terms strongly enough, then it’s possible to trick conservatives into insulating themselves against facts that threaten their cohesion around the issue.  Up to a point, they’re willing to dismiss new information if it means bucking their political in group or trusted authorities, and they’ll do it as a bloc.

Everybody is prone to confirmation bias, but it’s much harder to get liberals to take up a causeen masse simply because it sounds like something they ought to agree with.  Instead you get internal disagreement — Mooney used the idea that vaccines cause autism as an example of an issue that hits some liberal buttons, and has some passionate activists around it on the left, but which won’t be taken up broadly, because it’s not supported by facts, and the left is willing to disagree with itself.

Many policy issues really aren’t intrinsically liberal or conservative — certainly there’s no shortage of ways to frame climate change as something conservatives would want to avoid — but once a particular frame has taken hold, it’s very difficult to dislodge.  This makes it imperative for interests not served by new facts to pre-emptively frame their position in conservative terms, and to do everything in their power to make sure that frame sticks.

And then the waiting game begins.  How long can they keep the facts from overwhelming the position they’ve put forward?  How can they gracefully exit, without make it obvious they’ve duped a huge fraction of the electorate into supporting them illegitimately?  For liberals, this ironically makes it all the more important to frame fact-based issues early, in terms that are attractive to conservatives.  We need to get better at developing pre-emptive consensus.

Oh, right, and we need to amend the US constitution to overturn Citizens United too.