Category Archives: What I'm reading

Climate Change Communication – The Up Goer Five Edition

Image courtesy of Flickr user “njtrout_2000”, used under Creative Commons.

Reddit has a sub-reddit called Explain Like I’m Five, where people are attempt to explain often complex topics in simple, easy to understand language. The “like I’m five” part is often unsuccessful, but the idea is great.

Via Chris Rowan, people in the geosciences on Twitter have been talking about xkcd doing something similar, with the Up Goer Five. Basically, the challenge was to explain a spacecraft in relatively good detail in only the thousand most commonly used words in the English language.

This is a site that lets you try the concept out. Here is my first attempt at an explanation of the climate and energy challenge:

What is Going On?
Our home is changing because of some things we do, like burning stuff from the ground for power. One of the big changes is that we are warming up. What happens as we warm up is important! Some changes might be good: time for food growing may be longer. But lots of changes will be hard: where and how much or little rain we get, how hot and cold it gets, how much stuff is under water, how bad the air is to breathe, and a lot more things will all change. How we live, how we eat, and how we plan for things very much are tied to how things are around us. Big changes are hard to go through.

How Can We Know What Will Happen?
We can try to figure out what stuff might happen as we keep burning more and more stuff for power, and warm up. We can use computers to look forward. We can look at small changes from now and over the past couple hundred years, and think forward in time. We can even look way back into the very long ago past, at times when things warmed up or cooled down a lot, and learn from that!

Is It Too Late?
The important thing to know is this: what we do going forward matters very much to how things will change. Making very big changes to our home, or changing it less, is something we can decide. We need to think very carefully about how much we want to make our home change, and think about all of things that might happen as we change it. There is a lot we don’t know about what will change, and that makes it hard to plan for change. It may be safer to make little change, especially as we learn more about the bad stuff that happens with big changes.

What Can We Do?
There are a lot of new great things we can use for clean power that changes our home less. We can use the sun. We can use the wind. We can use water in many different ways. We can even use the same power the sun uses for its own power! All of these new ways of making clean power will keep our home more like it is now, and make it change a lot less than burning stuff for power. We can also use less stuff and power, and use the stuff and power we do use for doing more things. That will let us use less power to do the same stuff we do now.

How Do I Help?
What kind of home do you want? What kind of home do you want for your kids and their kids? Keep that in mind as you decide what to do. If you want to help, you can use less stuff and power, and tell people you want to use more of the things that use new clean power. You can also ask people who decide things to think about our home when they decide stuff, and to help us move to new ways of making clean power.


This is an interesting exercise, and it might help if your intent is to de-technobabble a talk, or use wording that is friendly to translation software. As a communications tool, though, I don’t think it’s all that great. What makes ideas and concepts meme-like depends somewhat on simplicity, sure. But all of the other things that make ideas sticky are hamstrung by this. It’s really hard to use imagery, analogy, expectation-confounding, and all of the tools that make memorable ideas with such a limited vocabulary.

What do you think?

Outstanding science writing

Via Ed Yong (who is no slouch himself), an excellent piece by Carl Zimmer: The Human Lake. Go read it right now.

William Nierenberg, Merchant of Doubt

Merchants of Doubt is a highly engaging read by Erik Conway and Naomi Oreskes about the long war on science waged by anti-regulatory forces. Obviously, this extends to the problem of anthropogenic climate change.

One of the “Merchants of Doubt” is William Nierenberg, founder of the anti-regulatory, denialist, bullsh*t hub of disinformation, the George C. Marshall Institute.

Nierenberg’s son Nicolas has been engaged in an understandable effort to whitewash his father’s legacy in underplaying the risks posed by climate change. In doing so, Nicolas (ironically?) follows virtually the same pattern of doubt-mongering laid out in Oreskes’s and Conway’s book. He relies upon the scientific community’s tendency to dial in on details to the exclusion of all else, and thus tries to argue the minutia in order to distract from and cast doubt on the bigger picture.

I couldn’t have scripted a better example than the beginning of a recent comment of his over at William Connolley’s: “…Merchants of Doubt (MOD) is highly misleading. As a very specific and critical point…”

Please don’t get me wrong- I believe that Nicolas is engaging in good faith, and is not deliberately trying to be misleading. I encourage everyone to read his comments in full and discuss the issue with him personally- in my experience he is always prompt and courteous.

But as I said, Nicolas is depending on our failure to keep the big picture in mind. From a science standpoint, GMI is an inexcusable, disgusting organization. It is the antithesis of what genuine and honest inquiry should be. William Nierenberg’s part in its founding is terrible, and it is simply not credible to pretend that he was not engaged in the same anti-regulatory shenanigans as his organization- no matter how much Nicolas would like us to believe otherwise. No matter what Nicolas says about Oreskes and Conway’s writing, keep that in mind. Listen to what William himself said in his own words. On the likely effects of climate change:

In actual factthe actual fact is, that calmer [vs. the scientific consensus] analysis has restricted the maximum likely CO2 to- the concentration- to slightly less than double and extended the time for the effects to the year 2150- that’s quite an increase. The global temperature change would be at most 1°[C], and the sea level rise would be barely one foot (or 30cm). The Western Antarctic Ice Sheet is now believed to be stable for the foreseeable future. Despite this great relaxation in extremes, the dire predictions remain. [8:15-8:52]

On the atmospheric residency of CO2:

Well you see with [the scientific consensus of long atmospheric residency of CO2] in mind, you have a problem. No matter how sure you are that the effects will be minimal- you see- they are in effect irreversible. If you’ve made a mistake, if you’ve made a bad estimate, you’re stuck and you have a problem- you see- reversing what you’ve done. Now, that’s the problem, but what happened is, the change in our viewpoint- those who take the problem seriously… In fact we now know that the CO2– the excess C02- will not last for a thousand years, but in fact will decay away on the average in about 150 years. Now that alters the entire perspective of the problem. It makes a possibility of correctibility at any stage of the game, if you have made a mistestimate [about the severity of the problem], and so on. So this [atmospheric residency of CO2], however, is the reason that the problem seemed to agonizing to so many of us early, and that reason has completely disappeared today. [12:01-13:08]

Watch the video in full. There are a legion of strawmen, red herring, appeals to ridicule, and other fallacies intended to persuade an audience rhetorically at the expense of fact and logic. William Neirenberg wasn’t a Morano or Watts-type out and out denialist. He was always an interjector of “reasonable” disagreement and uncertainty to prevent meaningful action on the issue. Nicolas Nierenberg would like you to believe that his father was not a Merchant of Doubt.

Nicolas is simply wrong.

UPDATE: As it’s a particular interest to WC, I wonder how he’ll react to Nierenberg lying about the “coming ice age” bullsh*t?

UPDATE: Per request in the comments, the video I linked to was shot in 1999. I don’t believe that the date substantively excuses many of the lies and half-truths by Nierenberg, but if anyone wants to attempt to justify his claims that’s probably a persuasive place to start. Nierenberg died in 2000- I’m not sure why anyone would expect comments of his to be made much past that time…

Haitian earthquake

Last night, the USGS reported a 7.0 magnitude earthquake ~15km/10mi southwest of Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince.

For the human perspective, The Daily Dish reposts some of the local reactions on Twitter and Haitian blogs. For the geological perspective, Highly Allochthonous has Tectonics of the Haitian earthquake.

It’s looking pretty grim. Also at the Dish, this wasn’t an unforeseen event.

[UPDATE: Reuters live coverage here.]

[UPDATE: MSF/Doctors Without Borders had workers already in Haiti when it happened. Read more here and think about donating, if you can, to a relevant aid organization of your choice.]

[UPDATE: TPM has live updates as well, though from a US/governmental/political perspective.]

Ones for the Road

Blog Action Day 2009 – Climate Change

Events seem to be conspiring against me getting a proper post out today, but I haven’t given up hope just yet. In the mean time, I’ll redirect interested parties to David Roberts’s welcome Seven reasons for optimism about the Senate climate Bill, Skeptical Science’s comprehensive Empirical evidence that humans are causing global warming, and the helpful (and new to me) Responses to Questions & Objections on Climate Change by economist Brett Paris.

Ones for the Road