Time to change strategy: the focus on evidence of climate change fuels apathy

Time for a new perspective on climate change.

Time for a new perspective on climate change.

The world owes Tyler Hamilton a huge thank you. He reports on the good news on climate change. Do you scoff that it doesn’t matter? You’re in good company — many feel like you. It’s why I believe that the strategy of reasoning with deniers is a failure.

The web is full of images that document the retreat of glaciers around the world. Even tech geek sites like sploid-gizmodo show these photos. It’s powerful proof of climate change. But does this motivate people to change their behavior?

People Who Want to Cut GHGs Are Demotivated by Powerful Evidence of Climate Change.

In the comments on the Gizmodo photo essay on glacial retreat, Jesus Diaz wrote: “I watched Chasing Ice on Netflix a few days ago (about a large scale photography project to document this stuff) and it was so damn depressing.”

Mr. Diaz’ response is normal. When you get a steady diet of really bad news it depresses you. What mental state follows depression? Apathy. That’s when you lack emotion, interest and concern.

Powerful Evidence of Climate Change Hardens the Resistance of Deniers

NASA’s web sites have arguably the best photo evidence of glacial retreat all over the planet. It still wasn’t enough to convince deniers. They commented that the photos meant nothing, only showed variation from winter to summer. NASA did more research. It documented the time of year the mages were captured at. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn that the photos were in fact taken at the same time of year, decades apart. NASA added this information to the photos on the web site. Pretty air tight, no?

Deniers in the U.S. House of Representatives responded by cutting NASA’s earth science budget.

Although the majority accept that climate change is happening they believe they can’t scrape together the money to live cleaner when they can barely make rent and put food on the table.

A New Approach is Needed

That’s why Hamilton’s stories are so important. He has consistently covered the evidence of progress toward solutions for climate change. In a recent Toronto Star article Hamilton wrote that Obama, when he refused the Keystone XL pipeline, said that “the transition to a clean energy economy… is… going more quickly than many anticipated.”

Mr. Hamilton needs to explain why Obama said that, instead of devoting most of the article to an attack on the International Energy Agency (IEA). Pointing out that the IEA has a history of underestimating how fast the world will move to renewables reinforces the “it’s hopeless” perspective.

So, why did Obama say the U.S. is changing toward renewables faster than expected?

Solar Electricity Costs Reach Grid Parity in 2016 in Most U.S. States

Blue lines above the zero line are states where electricity is cheaper to generate from solar cells than coal.

Blue bars above the zero line are US States where, in 2016, electricity will be cheaper to generate from solar cells than from coal.

Grid parity is when the cost of generating electricity from solar cells is as low as the cost of generating it from the cheapest fossil fuel, coal.

This year electricity from solar is cheaper than coal in 10 US States. By the end of 2016 Bloomberg reports that electricity from solar will be cheaper than coal in most US States.

It’s also vital to remind people of what a game changer solar electricity is. For years the big fear of most people was that the only way to cut greenhouse gas emissions was to live like a cave man. It seemed like the only way for the average person to cut their carbon footprint was to turn off their furnace and air conditioner and starve. If that seems extreme, consider this: GDP growth and oil consumption move in lock step for decades.

The fear of getting poorer is what has paralyzed public action.

We Can Have Our Cake and Eat it Too

But there is big change happening here too. The International Energy Agency states that “the global economy grew by around 3% in 2014 but energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions stayed flat, the first time in at least 40 years that such an outcome has occurred.

I would go further: 2014 is the first year of growth without more CO2 emissions, ever.

Think: more prosperity without more carbon dioxide.

Economies of scale will increase. So we will soon have more prosperity with less carbon dioxide.

If you own stocks in oil companies, sell them now while they’re still worth something. I have.

What Happens When Unlimited Clean Power Is Free?

Everybody is cool when mashing plastic moles.

People all over the world really like to hammer rascally plastic rodents with a mallet. The Japanese call it Mogura Taiji, we call it Whack-a-Mole. Both were invented in the mid-1970s by two different inventors unknown to each other tinkering away half a world apart. Since then we have found a dark side to all this mole mashing mayhem. “Whack a mole” is now a figure of speech for futility.

It’s all James Watt’s fault. When he fixed the steam engine in the mid-1700s, far more energy could be extracted from every lump of coal. Since there was a lot of coal industrial quantities of energy became available at bargain prices. That combination powered the industrial revolution. It set off a global whack a mole game of higher and higher stakes.

  • The industrial revolution made quality goods available to all – but it over crowded cities and spawned epidemics.
  • Public sanitation and transit helped us spread out and ease disease – but horse-drawn buses, trams and taxis buried cities in manure.
  • As manure mounted electricity and oil matured in the nick of time to power public transit and new-fangled private cars – but their fumes poisoned the air.
  • Emission controls cut poisons spewed by each vehicle and chimney – but global growth wiped out the gains.

And no emission control can cut carbon dioxide. It goes with burning a tank of gas the way a hangover  goes with the wild party the night before.

Today the stakes have never been higher.  It’s do or die. There is an undeniable connection between plentiful cheap energy and rising living standards. There is an undeniable connection between all that energy and the droughts, starvation and killer storms that are already scourging the face of the earth. Both climate change deniers and climate change believers are gripped by fear… fear of losing what they have, or fear of what their children will lose.

It’s a stalemate. Many fear this round of whack-a-mole can’t be won. Hopelessness is rampant.

What if both sides are wrong? What if there is a third way?

Solar PV is on par with fossil fueled electricity.


Price per watt. Many thanks to Ramez Naam for the data on solar electricity price trends. If you think electricity from solar cells is crazy expensive think again.

  • Today, electricity from solar is cheaper than that from natural gas in sunny parts of the world, without subsidies.
  • In five years, electricity from solar panels will be cheaper than burning coal.

Why is this happening? We are seeing steady improvements in materials and manufacturing technique. As a result, the cost per watt from a solar cell has dropped 80% in the past 5 years. That price plummet shows no signs of stopping.

Solar energy supply. The supply of solar power is pretty much limitless. In under 15 seconds the sun provides as much energy as humanity uses in an entire day. In less than 2 days the sun sends us as much energy as we use in a year. In less than five days the sun beams as much energy to the Earth’s surface as exists in all reserves of oil, coal and natural gas. Astronomers estimate it will be 5 billion years before the sun exhausts its fuel.

Source: European Photovoltaic Industry Association

Installed solar cells. The chart shows the installed base is doubling every 2-3 years. At this rate, in 20 years electricity from solar cells will provide all our energy needs.

And then the real benefits kick in. Unlike oil and coal, which you have to keep paying for every time you fill up, the cost to use electricity from sunlight is zero. Are there signs that we are well on the way to this future? Yes:

The third way is not only possible, it’s here. Solar is cheaper than oil where it’s sunny. In less than 5 years solar will be cheaper than coal, the cheapest fossil fuel, throughout the world. We are on our way to a world where we have the energy we need to keep raising living standards without the nasty side effects.


Modern humans appeared on Earth about 200,000 years ago. Not much changed for a very, very long time. Since Watt changed the game we have seen more change in the past 300 years than in the preceding 199,700 years of human existence.

Our inner world has not changed. A belief in scarcity is bred in our bones. Our cells still crave fat because famine has always followed feast, for millennia. Belief in scarcity is burned into our brains. Our thinking patterns continue to overvalue what we have and undervalue alternatives… even when those are clearly better.

Now that true abundance is within our grasp, can we let our belief in scarcity go?



What it takes to change the world

Were it not for John Hinckley and his crazed passion for a Hollywood child star, climate change would be far more advanced. Don’t believe me? Read on.

What might have been, in blue; what is, in green.

What might have been, in blue; what is, in green.

In the early 1970s, years before Hinckley fired on Reagan, chemists hypothesized that the widespread use of CFCs for refrigeration and spray bottle propellant might lead to much higher rates of deadly skin cancers.

Ozone gas high in the stratosphere normally absorbs most of the sun’s ultraviolet-B rays. What UV-B does get through is enough to cause skin cancers. CFCs are harmless at ground level. But they float up to the stratosphere where UV rays break the CFCs down, releasing high concentrations of chlorine atoms. A single chlorine atom can destroy 100,000 ozone molecules. And we were releasing nearly 1 million tons of CFCs a year. A skin cancer epidemic was highly probably without a ban on CFCs.

The 1987 treaty that banned CFCs took years to negotiate and was strongly opposed by many in the UK, France and Germany.

One of those opponents was Ronald Reagan. He won the presidency in 1980 on a platform of deregulation. Important Reagan appointees questioned CFC science. Anne Gorsuch, head of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), challenged the link between CFCs, stratospheric ozone depletion, and skin cancer epidemics.

But by 1986 Reagan was quietly supporting an aggressive global ban on CFCs according to Andrew Benedick, the lead US negotiator. Why did Reagan act against his principles?

No more for you, Mr. President.

No more for you, Mr. President.

Benedick and others credit Reagan’s fight with skin cancer. Reagan loved the outdoors. Whenever possible he would sneak away from the office to ride his horses and chop wood. In early 1985 the bill for Reagan’s decades of unsafe sunning came due when doctors diagnosed aggressive skin cancer. To get rid of it doctors operated two, possibly three times, between November 1985 and July 1987.

But there had to be more. It can be hard to change your mind. But to change policy you have to resist the social pressure of your entire community – and win. Reagan faced strong opposition to the CFC ban from his own cabinet as well as the Republican party. Reagan’s support for a ban on CFCs makes him the only GOP president or candidate in over 30 years to defy the party line.

Some argue that Margaret Thatcher, a trained chemist, persuaded Reagan. But Thatcher only joined the ban-CFC bandwagon in late 1987 after the initial treaty was signed in July. Benedick says Thatcher came around after scientists, who had been denied direct access, were allowed to pitch Thatcher directly.

If not for this moment, climate change would be much worse now.

If not for this moment, climate change would be much worse now.

The appearance of the ozone hole likely played a part.

Scientists predicted that ozone levels would gradually decline. Instead a huge ozone hole formed in the skies over Antarctica in the space of a few years. It was obvious that the same collapse would soon happen in northern latitudes. This news became public in 1985 around the time Reagan’s dermatologist was giving him the bad news.

Before any of that, there was Hinckley. He missed assassinating Reagan in 1981 by the tiniest of margins.

Aid Michael Deaver told interviewer Charlie Rose that after the attempt on Reagan’s life he became more stubborn. He believed that he was chosen by a higher power, and that the shooting was a reminder of this. Reagan decided to more closely follow his own instincts.

As bad as the droughts, famine and flooding are today it could be much worse. CFCs are a very much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Without a CFC ban the effects of climate change would be far more advanced.

But thanks to a love of the outdoors, skin cancer, the ozone hole — and Hinckley — we have a ban on CFCs.

New Insight Into Why Fact Based Green Policy & Marketing Fails

Mr Emotion beats Mr Reason

McCoy is in charge, not Spock.

Can science explain why educated and intelligent people don’t believe science? Yes. For green marketing and green policy the implications are profound.

Since the Enlightenment we believed that people are rational. Give people the facts and based on reason and logic they will make sensible decisions. Research reveals an inconvenient truth that turns 300 years of accepted wisdom on its head. Facts take the back seat when we make up our minds.

  • Facts are filtered through values and beliefs, about morality and how society should be ordered
  • Education plus strong beliefs can make people more resistant to ideas that contradict their beliefs
  • When these conditions exist, attempting to motivate these people with facts can produce a backlash
  • Who you will accept as a legitimate scientific authority is determined by your value-belief framework.
  • It makes you discount the validity of facts scientists present about risks and benefits
  • These are universal human traits that show up across the spectrum of morals and beliefs

When it comes to climate change, and policies related to it, people with strong faith and conservative convictions are the most likely to deny the facts. When these folks are highly educated they actively attack the science  and policies related to it.

Is there any hope for change? Yes. The science must be presented by business or religious leaders. And the science must be framed in the context of business profit-and-loss, or faith-based values.

For more on the research behind these findings check out The Science of Why We Don’t Believe in Science in Mother Jones.

Splinters of good news

The Global Carbon Project’s (GCP) 2010 report states that global CO2 emissions grew again in 2010 after stalling during the global financial crisis. Not good.

The longest journey beigns with a single step

But the news is not all bleak. For some time trees have been touted as a place to store CO2. Trees “eat” CO2 to grow.

The problem with trees is that we cut more than we plant. The shortfall is especially acute in the rain forests.

In 2010, that deficit became a positive for the first time. Here’s how Professor Corinne Le Quéré, of the University of East Anglia and an author of the GCP study describes it: “for the first time, forest expansion in temperate latitudes has overcompensated deforestation emissions and caused a small net sink of CO2 outside the tropics.”

In plain English: trees planted by the developed world sucked up enough C02 to make up for trees cut down in the rain forest. Plus a little bit more.

Sport: the new energy saver?

Popular wisdom says that there are huge spikes in electricity dyring big sporting events. It’s all because of the intermissions. People leap up for hot snacks, cold beer and a trip to the loo. All that microwaving, fridge opening and hand washing burns up the kilowatts.

In fact, just the reverse happened during the final mens hockey game at the Winter Olympics when the host country played for gold.

The two curves on the chart show electricity consumption in Ontario. The grey line is a typical Sunday in February. The yellow line shows demand on Sunday February 28, 2010. That was the Canada-US gold-medal hockey game.

Is it good strategy to watch TV to save electricity?

The close game attracts more and more viewers. People stop doing everything else. Electricity demand drops. Sure, there are spikes for food, refreshment and sanitation. But overall, people glued to a TV use less juice than if they were doing the usual.

And the change lasts. Post-game electricity demand is still at least 10% below the usual Sunday peak.

OK, not too practical as an energy conservation strategy. Even for Canada.

Makes you wonder what the effect of the Spain-Netherlands game was.

How to annoy the eco friendly and climate change skeptics

To start an argument say “Cash for Clunkers is a good/bad program because…” Take the “good” position to enrage climate change skeptics. Take the “bad” position to get the goat of the eco friendly.

While there is plenty of commentary on the economic impact of Cash for Clunkers, much less is written about its impact on the carbon footprint. That is, how much CO2 do the newly purchased cars and SUVs produce compared to the clunkers traded in?

The table below shows the results of my unscientific study of this question.

Non-combustible CO2 is fuel for good arguments.

The top 10 clunker trade-ins are shown in the left-hand column and the top 10 vehicles purchased are shown in the right-hand column. This data is published by Consumer Reports on its web site.

The two middle columns show the CO2 each model produces in tons per year. This data is from the Environmental Protection Agency estimates on its web site. Some trade-in clunkers are so old that the EPA web site doesn’t list them. For those vehicles I used data on whatever the closest equivalent model is.

Then I averaged the CO2 output per vehicle for the clunker fleet, and the replacement fleet.

Based on this data, the average clunker replacement produces 43% less CO2.

Your mileage may vary.