Advocates Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Tell the Truth About Climate Change
By Jeremy Deaton
It has been a tough few months for climate change. In October, an international body of climate scientists declared humans have a little more than a decade to make the drastic changes needed to keep rising temperatures reasonably in check. In November, federal scientists released an equally grim assessment detailing the unprecedented floods, droughts and wildfires expected to hit the U.S. Then, this month, with the world ablaze, diplomats gathered in Poland to bicker over how much water each country should pour on their respective fires and, in some cases, whether scientists were exaggerating the size of the flames.
It's bad, for sure, and worse than most people realize. Many scientists and advocates go to great lengths to keep sanguine about the carbon crisis, even when the news is certifiably grim, and this threatens to undermine public understanding of climate change. Too many spoonfuls of sugar blunt the effect of the medicine.
When asked about the bleak climate news of late, Al Gore admitted, "I have more than a few periods when I struggle with the difference between hope and despair," before quickly adding that the work to stop climate change is "accelerating, for sure." Gore, who has repeatedly made the case for optimism on climate change, has spoken about "the need to deliver the message that we're winning. The hope is real. It's not a forced smile."
Emissions are rising and governments are stalling, but advocates remain relentlessly optimistic, anxiously pointing to the few rays of hope while staring into the abyss. Scientists, too, have warned against giving in to pessimism, as have a number of writers. Whenever the prospects for planet Earth start to look too dreary, the climate chorus chimes in on the need to stay upbeat.
This line of thinking derives from a relatively young and limited body of research into how people think about climate change, which has produced findings that are frequently overstated or misunderstood. Studies showing that people must feel empowered to act on climate change have been interpreted as a mandate for hope. The polling does not suggest there is a deficit of hope, however. If anything, Americans are not as worried as the science suggests they should be. Scientists, writers and advocates should not shy away from speaking honestly about climate change.
"I'm certain that most Americans would be a lot more worried about climate change if they understood even a small fraction of what has been projected by climate scientists in [recent reports]. As a public health professional (and as a human), I find the prospect of 3 or 4 degree C of global warming to be nothing short of terrifying," Ed Maibach, director of the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, said in an email. "Thus, we need to do a much better job of sharing what we know about the likely impacts of global warming, because people are not nearly as worried as the situation warrants."
Despite the overwhelming evidence that Earth is headed for a planetary catastrophe, Americans just aren't that bothered about climate change. Only around half have thought about it more than "a little," according to research from Yale and George Mason University. Only around a third say it is personally important to them, and just one in five say they are "very worried" about it. Numbers like that suggest scientists and advocates have perhaps been too cheerful on climate change, too reluctant to speak to the catastrophe to come.
Impacts at 1.5 degrees C and 2 degrees C of warming. Carbon Brief
True, researchers have suggested that pessimism can lead to inaction. People who are less hopeful are less likely to take action. If one truly believes that climate change is a lost cause, then there is nothing left to do but party like it's 1999—literally. But the findings are far from conclusive. "Our recently self-published analysis suggests that people who are more hopeful seem to be taking more action, but there has been relatively little research on this question," Maibach said.
In many cases, fear can also be motivating. Studies show this is true even in the context of climate change, where gloomy messages can make people feel more concerned. Moreover, studies find that an especially rosy portrayal of climate change can leave people feeling too optimistic, too unlikely to take action. If people feel like everything will turn out alright, why bother getting off the couch?
This graph shows carbon pollution cuts necessary keep warming under 1.5 degrees C. Countries must cut emissions in half by 2030 and reach zero net emissions by 2050, at which point much of the remaining carbon dioxide must be scrubbed from the atmosphere.IPCC
As one pair of researchers asked, "Should we avoid telling what scientists have established as facts and reasonable outlooks about the seriousness, pace, and long-term commitment of climate change? Should we instead only discuss energy- and money-saving actions and convey pictures of hope by focusing on the easy actions, the 'doability' of mitigation? Should we perpetuate the idea that there are fifty 'simple ways to save the planet,' just to spare lay publics rather appropriate anxiety? Existing research suggests otherwise."
This is not to say advocates should focus exclusively on scaring people instead of inspiring them. It would be naive to think about climate change communication in binary terms. In practice, people draw on a range of emotions, values and beliefs when processing information. In recent commentary on the role of emotion in climate change communication, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst wrote, "The bifurcation between 'go positive' and 'go negative' simultaneously oversimplifies the rich base of research on emotion while overcomplicating the very real communications challenge advocates face by demanding that each message have the right 'emotional recipe' to maximize effectiveness." Emotions, they explain, "should be viewed as one element of a broader, authentic communications strategy rather than as a magic bullet designed to trigger one response or another."
A wind turbine. Pexels
The problem, Maibach said, may not be a shortage of hope or a surplus of fear, but a deficit of knowledge. Most Americans don't understand how bad climate change is or what humanity can do to stop it. As advocates explain the facts of a potentially world-ending dilemma, they must also describe specifically what can be done to address the problem. "It's complicated, but not that complicated. We need to learn to walk and chew gum at the same time," Maibach said.
"The people and organizations who don't want America—and the world—to deal with the potentially catastrophic problem that we face tell us, over and over again, that it will cost us too much to address the problem, and it will create a future that is hardly worth living for — like living in the stone age again," he said. "In reality, the exact opposite is true, but few people know it." Dealing with climate change will be disruptive and difficult, but it will also create jobs and save lives. Rather than make vague allusions to "climate action," advocates might do better to argue for specific policies that will achieve these goals.
Advocates rally for a Green New Deal. Sunrise Movement
Ultimately, the idea that regular people can't be told the full implications of climate change is condescending. Scientists, writers and advocates might consider that they go to work every day understanding the enormity of climate change, and yet they are able to do their jobs. The men and women who work on climate change are not made of tougher stuff, and they need not obscure the awful truth about the carbon crisis. People can take it. In fact, they'll have to.
Perhaps what makes it possible for advocates to continue their work is not a surplus of hope or an absence of fear, but a sense of duty. They respond to their grief with a righteous anger, to their panic with bravery, to their desolation with solidarity. Climate scientist Kate Marvel made this point in her recent essay in On Being.
"As a climate scientist, I am often asked to talk about hope. Particularly in the current political climate, audiences want to be told that everything will be all right in the end," she said. "I have no hope that these changes can be reversed. We are inevitably sending our children to live on an unfamiliar planet." In the face of climate change, she said, "We need courage, not hope. Grief, after all, is the cost of being alive. We are all fated to live lives shot through with sadness, and are not worth less for it. Courage is the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
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Wisdom the mōlī, or Laysan albatross, is the oldest wild bird known to science at the age of at least 70. She is also, as of February 1, a new mother.
<div id="dadb2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="aa2ad8cb566c9b4b6d2df2693669f6f9"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1357796504740761602" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🚨Cute baby alert! Wisdom's chick has hatched!!! 🐣😍 Wisdom, a mōlī (Laysan albatross) and world’s oldest known, ban… https://t.co/Nco050ztBA</div> — USFWS Pacific Region (@USFWS Pacific Region)<a href="https://twitter.com/USFWSPacific/statuses/1357796504740761602">1612558888.0</a></blockquote></div>
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Comparing rime ice and glaze ice shows how each changes the texture of the blade. Gao, Liu and Hu, 2021, CC BY-ND
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While traditional investment in the ocean technology sector has been tentative, growth in Israeli maritime innovations has been exponential in the last few years, and environmental concern has come to the forefront.
theDOCK aims to innovate the Israeli maritime sector. Pexels<p>The UN hopes that new investments in ocean science and technology will help turn the tide for the oceans. As such, this year kicked off the <a href="https://www.oceandecade.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030)</a> to galvanize massive support for the blue economy.</p><p>According to the World Bank, the blue economy is the "sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystem," <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412019338255#b0245" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Science Direct</a> reported. It represents this new sector for investments and innovations that work in tandem with the oceans rather than in exploitation of them.</p><p>As recently as Aug. 2020, <a href="https://www.reutersevents.com/sustainability/esg-investors-slow-make-waves-25tn-ocean-economy" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Reuters</a> noted that ESG Investors, those looking to invest in opportunities that have a positive impact in environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, have been interested in "blue finance" but slow to invest.</p><p>"It is a hugely under-invested economic opportunity that is crucial to the way we have to address living on one planet," Simon Dent, director of blue investments at Mirova Natural Capital, told Reuters.</p><p>Even with slow investment, the blue economy is still expected to expand at twice the rate of the mainstream economy by 2030, Reuters reported. It already contributes $2.5tn a year in economic output, the report noted.</p><p>Current, upward <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/-innovation-blue-economy-2646147405.html" target="_self">shifts in blue economy investments are being driven by innovation</a>, a trend the UN hopes will continue globally for the benefit of all oceans and people.</p><p>In Israel, this push has successfully translated into investment in and innovation of global ports, shipping, logistics and offshore sectors. The "Startup Nation," as Israel is often called, has seen its maritime tech ecosystem grow "significantly" in recent years and expects that growth to "accelerate dramatically," <a href="https://itrade.gov.il/belgium-english/how-israel-is-becoming-a-port-of-call-for-maritime-innovation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">iTrade</a> reported.</p><p>Driving this wave of momentum has been rising Israeli venture capital hub <a href="https://www.thedockinnovation.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">theDOCK</a>. Founded by Israeli Navy veterans in 2017, theDOCK works with early-stage companies in the maritime space to bring their solutions to market. The hub's pioneering efforts ignited Israel's maritime technology sector, and now, with their new fund, theDOCK is motivating these high-tech solutions to also address ESG criteria.</p><p>"While ESG has always been on theDOCK's agenda, this theme has become even more of a priority," Nir Gartzman, theDOCK's managing partner, told EcoWatch. "80 percent of the startups in our portfolio (for theDOCK's Navigator II fund) will have a primary or secondary contribution to environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria."</p><p>In a company presentation, theDOCK called contribution to the ESG agenda a "hot discussion topic" for traditional players in the space and their boards, many of whom are looking to adopt new technologies with a positive impact on the planet. The focus is on reducing carbon emissions and protecting the environment, the presentation outlines. As such, theDOCK also explicitly screens candidate investments by ESG criteria as well.</p><p>Within the maritime space, environmental innovations could include measures like increased fuel and energy efficiency, better monitoring of potential pollution sources, improved waste and air emissions management and processing of marine debris/trash into reusable materials, theDOCK's presentation noted.</p>
theDOCK team includes (left to right) Michal Hendel-Sufa, Head of Alliances, Noa Schuman, CMO, Nir Gartzman, Co-Founder & Managing Partner, and Hannan Carmeli, Co-Founder & Managing Partner. Dudu Koren<p>theDOCK's own portfolio includes companies like Orca AI, which uses an intelligent collision avoidance system to reduce the probability of oil or fuel spills, AiDock, which eliminates the use of paper by automating the customs clearance process, and DockTech, which uses depth "crowdsourcing" data to map riverbeds in real-time and optimize cargo loading, thereby reducing trips and fuel usage while also avoiding groundings.</p><p>"Oceans are a big opportunity primarily because they are just that – big!" theDOCK's Chief Marketing Officer Noa Schuman summarized. "As such, the magnitude of their criticality to the global ecosystem, the magnitude of pollution risk and the steps needed to overcome those challenges – are all huge."</p><p>There is hope that this wave of interest and investment in environmentally-positive maritime technologies will accelerate the blue economy and ESG investing even further, in Israel and beyond.</p>
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