Sunday Science: Climate Change is Boring

A dancing elephant. A hurricane covering half of Earth’s surface. Al Gore with a laser pointer. Unprecedented bushfires ripping into Melbourne. Cracked soil on a drought-stricken farm. Images of Hyde Park filled with a shanty-town of climate refugees. Who cares?

Climate change is boring. It’s a problem caused by almost everything we do, but that happens everywhere, in a way that’s almost impossible to detect, over a long time and will harm other people or future people more than it will harm us. Randy Olson and Andy Revkin have given the idea airtime: booooring.

Driving along, making fire in the sky… metaphorically it works, right?

A polar bear on an ice floe? Cheesy. Not that important. A flood victim in Pakistan? Floods happen anyway. Bleached coral? Sad, but I’ll just take a holiday somewhere else. Species going extinct before we even discover them? Well, what we don’t know can’t hurt us.

I’ve mentioned before that ‘big’ climate change images tend to be paralysing and ‘small’ images, like CF lights or bike riding, are boring, because they’re already in our daily lives. Combined with a news cycle which will prioritise unambiguous stories which are happening at a news-y time scale (breaking or fresh off the scientific press), climate change is looking pretty hard to cover.

Let’s look more closely at some of the news values of climate change. It’s unambiguous, in the respect that we’re responsible and are making it worse (despite the media being off on a different tangent for the past 20 years). It’s relevant for the average person, in the same way ‘smoking causes cancer’ is relevant: the likelihood of adverse health outcomes in the future is increased by our actions now (let’s not even talk about the future of children…). It involves powerful people and organisations; politicians, big business, celebrities who are concerned. It can offer good or bad news, depending on the angle a reporter takes. It has enormous magnitude and is an ongoing story.

However, it isn’t particularly surprising or entertaining, and won’t fit with the news agenda of many papers (cough, cough, The Australian, you bunch of cranks). Plus, it’s hard to understand the breadth of the issue, and don’t think I’m being condescending here: I’ve spent thousands of hours reading about or listening to lectures on climate change and its possible effects and it’s still huge and confusing to me. It often takes a climate scientist to pick the holes in a well-presented skeptic argument; until exposed, they may seem plausible.

What’s the solution? Listen. Watch. Read. Comment. Get involved. Think critically, ask what expertise a commentator has and why they’re talking to the press. Ask yourself if you can accept changes to society that might benefit other people, in other places, more than you. At the other end of the scale – the people making the news, or advocating – tell a better story. Find the champions and villains, look for the narrative and bring people along for a wild ride that’ll keep on twisting and turning for decades.

Now, to practice what I preach…

Also, get your nominations in for tomorrow’s Photo Roulette day! So far only #666 has been picked up; any number between 1-10000, and here’s a random number generator for help if you need it.

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Categories: environmentalism, Problems, Science, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , | 11 Comments

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11 thoughts on “Sunday Science: Climate Change is Boring

  1. will

    nice post Dave. #450 please!

  2. John

    I concur with your views, but….what will motivate change? What was it in Qld that worked with water consumption? Lots of similarities with climate change issues, but the general populace took change on board re water, which is not happening with climate change. Get seriously apocalyptic?
    Requests for 1953 and 1987!!

  3. I don’t think that climate change and water consumption are as parallel as we’ve discussed before (though, given the amount of wider public support now for Murray reform, maybe the message has seeped through).

    I still think that the ideas applied to reducing personal water consumption would be great. However it will never come close to global scale mitigation; that’s pretty much only achievable at a political level.

    The difference is that treated/drinking water consumption is something directly under the control of people and they don’t really lose amenity by not using so much of it. However almost everything in our lives has a carbon footprint, which is generally ‘invisible’ and we have limited control over (it is emitted in the production phase). Those production systems, which are responsible for most of the carbon footprint of a person’s life/assets, will only change under public/regulatory pressure. To regulate takes government and government takes public support (or someone braver than the Lib/Lab camps have).

    I’m not in a very mentally collected state right now (halloween party after effects) so I will stop typing and withhold my thoughts on more specific solutions till later!

  4. Peter

    my choices 1066, 1661, 2061 – see if anyone can guess what those dates signify?

    the size of the systems matters – cities can generally get their act together to address environmental problems (say water shortages in brisbane, not really an environmental problem, but is illustrative nonetheless). there is a feeling of we’re all in in together, we can make a difference through our own actions. pressure is readily brought to bear on individuals or businesses that don’t comply with restrictions through the local media. we even saw reasonable bipartison political support for a somewhat unpalatable solution (use of recycled water for drinking water), a sure sign of the widespread desire for action and a solution.

    as the scale of the problem increases – say water allocation in the murray darling, it becomes much more difficult to get that shared involvement and desire. there is a feeling that some people will benefit at the expense of others and what do we see in the the media? angry irrigators burning scientific reports and their reps are saying that the science isn’t settled and diverse antagonistic political responses, include bactracking from the original position. sounds familiar huh?

  5. Peter

    not scientific reports being burned, sorry, but discussion papers…

  6. That’s true, Pete. With water restrictions, there’s also the ‘when the rains come it will go back to normal’ – a sense of the temporary, even if the habits we change are likely to die hard.

    The important thing about such initiatives is that they do two things: keep the issue in the face of the public (eg listing water consumption on the news, which could be done with, for example, electricity generation) but also, because people get involved, their attitude moves to align with their behaviour.

    I think I’ve discussed it a long way back on here, that often attitude follows behaviour, not the other way round. It’s only a minority of people who find out new information, then directly translate that into action; often we just post-hoc justify why we did something. Harnessing that with energy conservation, public transport use etc. could flow on to a broader shift in public values to climate change.

  7. Oh, and I’ll get your photos in next week – you picked a couple from down at Ulladulla! Not sure what 2061 means though…

  8. Peter

    well apart from 1066, they’re pretty obscure and unconnected. i doubt anyone has the time to chase them down. 1661 was the year that Robert Boyle published “The Sceptical Chymist”, arguably the beginning of modern chemistry. come on, that was obvious. 2061 is the next appearance of Haley’s comet.

  9. I think the general public in the area I live in are beginning to understand and appreciate the consequences of climate change. We’re either in the middle of a serious drought, or we have severe flooding. And we haven’t had a “proper” winter in about 5 years.

    What still worries me though, is that people here think of it as somebody else’s problem. It’s just too big for them to wrap their minds around.

  10. That’s right, Lisa – it genuinely is a huge concept to try to process. Our entire society is tied to energy use, and mostly carbon-intensive energy use, and the effects of climate change are diffuse and slow. Good to hear that they’re starting to ‘get’ it, but it’s not good that there’s droughts and floods!

    Pete, I have actually recently been reading about Boyle, so probably should have got that – the comet reference was a bit left field for me though! I’m actually writing an essay about Bacon at the moment for the philosophy course, but I think the chemists of history were more colourful.

  11. Pingback: Sunday Science: Some of My Favourites | David Robertson

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