It's the Lizard Brain, Stupid

At what point will climate change advocates wake up to the fact that they are chasing their tails?  At what point will the various camps reassess the dominant assumptions that inform their positions, namely:

1) It’s a communication problem. If only scientists would get some media training, if only journalists didn’t do such a crappy job informing the public, if only the Moranos and Anthony Watts of the world didn’t exist…and so on.

Forget it. None of that makes a difference because people already get that global warming is a problem.  Michael Tobis and his ilk believe they are on the front lines of a communications war, fighting the good fight against the likes of George Will and “unhelpful” reporters. They will be going round in circles for quite some time. Tobis & company believe that all they have to do is find a way to break through the fog of misinformation and misdirection. That the path to daylight is paved with a better understanding of climate science.  This belief rests on the assumption that Joe Q. Public is willing to engage in the complexities of climate science. Keep dreaming, guys.

2) It’s a lack of political courage. Bill McKibben best represents this view. He bemoaned political cowardice during and after Copenhagen. James Hansen thinks this way too. The assumption is that today’s political leaders should have the courage to fundamentally reorder the world’s economy to head off a problem that won’t truly be evident (in terms of real impacts) for decades.

Any historical evidence that politicians have ever acted so decisively and proactively? (No, Teddy Roosevelt setting aside forests and protecting wildlife doesn’t qualify, because that only happened in response to something that could be seen and felt–e.g., overexploitation of natural resources.) The complicating factor here is that no world leader can afford to act unilaterally anyway, given the planetary scale of the problem.

3) It’s a tactical war. Joe Romm, for all his bluster, is really the point person on this front in the U.S. (Communications is a subset of his tactics.) Romm, as anyone who follows Climate Progress knows, has calculated that the most feasible way to reduce carbon emissions is through a cap and trade mechanism. It’s the only policy prescription that he believes is politically feasible. Moreover, he has further calculated that a number of unfortunate political compromises will have to be made in order to get cap and trade implemented. (And even then, there’s no guarantee.)  This explains his camp’s embrace of the U.S. Congressional climate bill, which many climate advocates believe is not nearly strong enough to ward off catastrophic climate change.  On this point Romm agrees, but again he calculates that the legislation will be improved over time, probably in the near future when climate change becomes more apparent, thus creating the necessary political conditions for more concrete action.

So Romm engages in tactics that he evidently feels are necessary to advance this incrementalist strategy. The problem here is, what if he has miscalculated? Hansen certainly thinks he has. And so do Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, who have recently laid out a sweeping counter argument at Foreign Policy Magazine.

What will be interesting to see on this score is what happens if Congress doesn’t pass the climate bill, which seems increasingly likely. If it is passed, I’d say Romm’s side won the tactical war and only time will tell if they made the right or wrong calculation. But if the bill is defeated, then is there a reset in climate change strategy?  Can the forces advocating for a carbon tax (led by Hansen?) or a massive federal investment in R & D (led by the Breakthrough Institute) line up influential allies to help advance their respective cases? Will Romm & company double down on cap and trade and fight just as hard to get it enacted in the next Congress? He might be among the few in his camp who would relish another battle. He seems to have a natural affinity for political blood sport.

Meanwhile, whither international negotiations? Even if the U.N. is removed as the key driver of the process, which is what is now being increasingly suggested, it’s still a safe bet that weak carbon emission targets will eventually be the result of any binding treaty. Does anybody really see China or India signing on to anything that might impede their economic growth (especially absent a U.S. climate bill)?

So at some point, you have to ask yourself: are the tactics getting you what you want? Huge gambits have been made on the U.S. passing a cap and trade bill. What do you do in Mexico City later this year if there’s no U.S. climate bill? At what point do you stop chasing your tail down this path?

Now I’m someone who believes that taking Bush & company out of the picture crystallizes the big picture. It was so easy to blame Republicans for eight years. Obviously, we can’t do that anymore, since Democrats control all the levers of power. Nonetheless, we often see Romm still puffing up the Republicans as meanie obstructionists to climate legislation. They’re a convenient foil, I suppose.

But the true villains nowadays to climate advocates are skeptics, or as they are more commonly referred to, “deniers.” True, Morano and Watts have given voice to these climate naysayers, but blogger Tobis and science commentators like Chris Mooney overemphasize the Morano effect. Another convenient foil. After all, putting the onus on climate skeptics takes it off climate advocates and their failure to mobilize greater engagement and action on climate change.

William Connolley is one climate blogger who doesn’t make this mistake, but he still falls prey to a false assumption that is widely held by climate advocates:

Everyone really knows the world is getting warmer and it is our fault. The endless slew of press stories to and fro makes little difference to this. Goverment policy continues onwards like a juggernaut and isn’t touched by gossip. Witness the tiny impact the CRU email hacking had, in the end. It all seemed so exciting for a day or two. The obvious fact that people are reluctant to cut their CO2 consumption by not flying off on holiday is just the same as people still putting lots of butter on their toast and salt on their chips.

Notice who bears the blame here: all of us, because we’re not changing our behavior. What’s ironic about Connolley’s statement is that his example of the buttered toast and salted chips is actually proof of why we don’t change our behavior. Because, in fact, nobody stops larding on the butter or gorging on french fries until their health goes south.  (More people probably stop eating steak due to gout than to a concern for animal welfare or the environment.) That’s the way we humans operate. And that’s the way we think about climate change. It’s a distant problem, a growing danger, sure, but not one that can be felt or fully appreciated in the present. Sort of like the Milky Ways and Dr. Peppers I consume in large quantities. Man, I know I’m gonna pay for them one day, but that doesn’t stop me.

My point is, we are are a reactive species. Yes, we ought to start paying more attention to our lifestyle habits if we want to lick the climate change problem. But we won’t make much progress on that end until we figure out how to overcome the limitations imposed by our evolutionary brain.

UPDATE: William Connolloy informs me that I have misunderstood his point–that, in fact, he too is saying there is a cognitive disconnect between certain behaviors and the future risk associated with them.

32 Responses to “It's the Lizard Brain, Stupid”

  1. Tom Yulsman says:

    Excellent post Keith! Thanks for this.

  2. Yes. But: so what? By which I mean: the feature of our evolutionary brain that this post ignores is that assessments of problems that aren’t followed up by potential solutions are quickly forgotten. Maybe I’m just jumping into this blog too late (I know you’ve written on geoengineering and adaptation before) but the last graf of your piece would be a great place to drop links to what you *do* think we’re going to do about climate change. (Whenever we get around to acting on it, I mean.)

  3. Keith Kloor says:

    In the first comment, Andy Revkin parachuted a link to a great post of his on this topic. In that post, Andy links to another post of his that quotes Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University:

    “If behavior and technology do not change, more numerous humans will trample the earth and endanger our own survival. The snake brain in each of us makes me cautious about relying heavily on changes in behavior. In contrast, centuries of extraordinary technical progress give me great confidence that diffusion of our best practices and continuing innovation can advance us much further in decarbonization, landless agriculture, and other cardinal directions for a prosperous, green environment. For engineers and others in the technical enterprise the urgency and prizes for sustaining their contributions could not be higher. Because the human brain does not change, technology must.”

    I’m inclined towards this perspective.

  4. As an effort to deflect the responsibility for the inexcusably awful job journalism has done in covering this story, your argument falls flat. People may not respond well to problems they understand but they are guaranteed to react badly to problems they don’t understand.

    I don’t think it’s sufficient that the public and the media understand and correctly convey the broad outlines of the problem. But I do think it is necessary.

    The analogy to butter and salt is apt.

    Please note, though, that nobody is going to restrain their butter consumption at all if they are told often enough and credibly enough that butter is good for them, and the more the better.

  5. AGW is a MYTH says:

    Perhaps you would find it easier to communicate things to the public IF YOU TOLD THE TRUTH about the climate situation.

  6. John says:

    Continuously saying the world is warming and it’s man’s fault says nothing. Prove it!

    You fools the climate is cooling.

  7. Keith Kloor says:

    My objective was not to deflect responsibility from journalists, such as myself. We have a major role to play, and there is much room for improvement.

    I do, however, think that that you misplace where the problem lies. It’s not in better communication; as I said, people generally agree that global warming exists (yeah, I know you hate that term, but we’re stuck with it). They just don’t perceive it as an immediate threat to their health or well-being.

    Personally, I don’t believe climate change will be regarded with the kind of urgency you believe it deserves until you and your neighbors are threatened by it.

    Does that mean people should throw up their hands in futility? No. But holding to the belief that better communication will spur the masses to rise up is not realistic.

    Additionally, as a species, we don’t plan well (if at all) for future disasters.

  8. Keith, there’s no disagreement in substance, but there seems to be a pretty severe disagreement in emphasis.

    “Personally, I don’t believe climate change will be regarded with the kind of urgency you believe it deserves until you and your neighbors are threatened by it.”

    Of course, this is rooted in misunderstanding. Once the car has ridden over the cliff it is too late to apply the brakes. People have the capacity to understand this and it needs to be explained to them.

    “Does that mean people should throw up their hands in futility? No. But holding to the belief that better communication will spur the masses to rise up is not realistic.”

    As I said, it may not be sufficient but I remain convinced that it is necessary.

    “Additionally, as a species, we don’t plan well (if at all) for future disasters.”

    As I’ve been saying for almost twenty years now, that is an accurate description but a disastrous prescription. Yes, it is very likely to turn out that way, but we must turn all our available ingenuity into making sure it does not turn out that way. This applies very particularly to such as myself, yourself, and Andy Revkin.

    I am sure my efforts are flawed and inadequate, but at least I spend my efforts trying to find strategies to explain the situation, rather than in building explanations of why it is futile to try.

  9. Craig Goodrich says:

    Keith, has it ever occurred to you that perhaps the problem is not that the public doesn’t understand the science, but rather that increasingly they do?

    Twenty years ago, the only evidence that anthropogenic CO2 was causing warming was “Our computer models can’t account for the current warming without including the CO2 effect.”  $100 billion in research later, one crawls painfully through Chapter 9 of WG1 of 4AR to find actual evidence that the anthropogenic CO2 warming theory might be true, and all one finds is, “Our computer models can’t account for the current warming without including the CO2 effect.”   Such progress.

    There is hardly ever a mention of the null hypothesis, that these models, all based on Jim Hansen’s original program designed to study Venus from millions of miles away, are simply silly when applied to a climate system which amounts to an unimaginably complex machine for moving enormous amounts of heat from point A to point B.

    The more the public learns of the actual science of the matter, the more they understand why CRU and GISS and the rest are so desperate to prevent real climatology from getting any publicity.

  10. Keith Kloor says:

    As I said in a previous comment on this thread, I’m thinking that the solution will come via technology, not a change in human behavior.

    Sorry, I disagree. There are multiple lines of evidence that point to anthropogenic warming. One need not rely on computer  models.

  11. Craig Goodrich says:

    “There are multiple lines of evidence that point to anthropogenic warming.”

    Wow, Keith, where can I find one?  I’ve been watching this issue and reading the scientific papers for two decades, even (as I said) crawling through the dreadful IPCC science sections, and must have missed it.

    Pointer?  Many thanks.

  12. bigcitylib says:

    Keith wrote:

    “Additionally, as a species, we don’t plan well (if at all) for future disasters.”

    Actually, humans don’t have that much of a problem planning for the future when there’s money involved.  Canadian Pacific has issued 1,000 year bonds; Disney 100 year bonds.  That, incidentally, is the driving idea behind cap & trade; its an opportunity to make money.  That’s why it is theoretically preferable to a straight tax.

    Keith also wrote:

    “I’m thinking that the solution will come via technology, not a change in human behavior…”

    D’you think technologists would do anything in this regard if there weren’t legislators threatening to regulate them up the wazzoo?  If you give up the political struggle you won’t get any technology out of it.  The one drives the other.


  13. Keith Kloor says:

    I’m going to defer to my buddy Tom Yulsman and a post he wrote shortly after the “climategate” story broke. Somehow, though, I don’t imagine you’ll find it persuasive. 

    BCL: I agree that a technological solution will not happen without political prodding.

  14. I have no idea what the distinction is between a “technological solution that occurs with political prodding” and anything that I advocate.

    I still think it’s crucial for the lines of communication between science and society not to be as broken as they are today, and that this is among the highest priorities required for the kind of solution you describe.

    I don’t really understand what it is I am getting wrong in your estimation.

  15. GFW says:

    I see no contradiction between first realizing that the fundamental cognitive biases in the human brain are a significant problem in marshaling a response to global warming AND then calling out journalists for doing a terrible job of explaining the problem  AND blaming politicians for failure of courage.

    Think of deciding to refinance a mortgage.  Our lizard brain does not want to pay the up front costs, but most people can be shown on a spreadsheet exactly how long it will take to break-even and how much they’ll save after that.  Most, but not all will then use their frontal lobe to override their lizard brain.  In this example, journalists are the “person explaining the spreadsheet”.  We should expect them to do a good job of it.  To push the analogy further, imagine municipal debt in place of the mortgage.  If my local politicians are given the opportunity to refi that debt, and it will save money, then I expect them to make the right decision, even if the up-front cost might make them less popular in an immanent election.

  16. Keith Kloor says:

    I singled you out because you often harp on the media’s shortcomings or perceived failings. Some months ago, John Fleck engaged you repeatedly on this issue, and he summarized your position as this: 

    “Michael Tobis believes the prevalence of bunk on the issue of climate change is ‘one of the principal characteristics of our time,‘ and that the media’s failure to effectively counter said bunk is a fundamental failing that stands in the way of action on climate change.”

    I thought that John amply demonstrated why your belief is not anchored in reality. If memory serves, you never countered him.

    At any rate, all I’m saying in this post is that your obsessive focus on the media’s role is misplaced. As I said, people get that global warming is for real. They just don’t see it as an urgent problem because they’re not feeling any adverse affects from climate change. It’s not polluting their water, fouling their air, washing up as an oil slick on coastal waters, igniting rivers on fire, etc.)

    This paradox about climate change is well known (meaning its worst impacts are way down the road), which is why some leading advocates resort to scare tactics.  But those aren’t going to fly because you and your neighbors aren’t feeling the pain from climate change. It’s not impacting your health or pocketbooks. The scare tactics would work if the threat was acutely felt. It’s not. Can’t you see why that is a problem for advocates that goes beyond journalism’s shortcomings?

    I Just don’t think climate change is going to rise to a top-tier concern until there are tangible impacts that register across society.

    For that reason, I tend to believe the best hope lies with technological breakthroughs. You don’t need a mass uprising to achieve that, thankfully.

  17. Craig Goodrich says:

    Keith, I’m afraid you’re right; I don’t find it at all persuasive, for reasons I could (and have) gone into at length, but will spare you.

    What I will say, though, is that the proffered “technological solutions” so far offer only real environmental catastrophe:

    The plague of industrial wind plants is utterly destroying countryside and wildlife habitat at an incredible — and genuinely unprecidented — rate, while producing no useful energy and reducing CO2 emissions nowhere in the world.
    The feckless rush for biofuels and “carbon sinks” has increased worldwide food prices (causing starvation among those in the Third World who live right on its edge at best) and motivated  clearing of wild jungle lands for oil palm and eucalyptus on an enormous scale.
    Geothermal involves drilling industrial-size holes deeper than has ever been done before in geologically-unstable and volcanically-active areas.  A Swiss project was halted when severe earthquakes occurred in nearby villages.  And environmentalists are worried about mere nukes?

    We are actually, currently, undeniably destroying the environment for the sake of postponing a putative disaster that is at best vanishingly improbable.  I respect and share your concern for the environment, but I have to say I find all this criminally insane.

  18. Keith Kloor says:


    In terms of the unintended consequences you speak, there is some truth to what you say, especially biofuels. But I think you also exaggerate: “the plague of industrial wind plants is utterly destroying countryside and wildlife habitat at an incredible and genuinely unprecedented “” rate…”

    Where would that be? In the U.S.? Could you be a little more specific on that one?

  19. Not the primary point of this thread, but Cleo Paskal has an interesting geopolitical take on the COP that supports the dim view of India/China prospects for signing on. 

    When talking about journalism’s failings in this area, I think it is also useful to distinguish between environmental or science journalists  and scoring their coverage and the editors/owners/larger profession that is deciding how much or how little and what type of coverage gets printed/posted.   Blowing up the front line journalists is neither necessary or sufficient for satisfactorily highlighting the shortfall of journalism in covering these stories.

  20. Harpo says:

    “lizard brain” ?

    This is a scientific argument and the Skeptics think the Alarmist are wrong. The obsevational data is against the Alarmists. The Alarmist theory doesn’t fit within the standard physics model. Do we get good solid robust scientific arguments from the Alarmists?… No…. we still get this psycho-babble… 

    AGW Alarmist are not Scientists!!!!

  21. Tom Yulsman says:

    Keith: Most people get their news from broadcast television media. And while ABC, CBS and NBC actually still do some real reporting from time to time, I think both you and I would agree that it leaves much to be desired. Local television news isn’t worth commenting on beyond this one sentence. And cable television news is so shameful in its lack of reporting and seriousness that it defies the imagination.

    So I think you, Michael and I would agree on the very sorry state of mass communication on the issue of climate change (and just about any other issue we could think of)  in the medium that most people pay attention to . But here’s where I think we might part company with Michael:

    1. That there is at least a small chance that television news can be reformed. Ain’t never gonna’ happen.

    2. What I take to be your bottom line: Even if television news coverage miraculously got considerably better on climate change (it would take an act of God), we probably would still not make much more progress “” at least not until the entire issue was reframed as innovation first, regulation second. (Right now it’s the other way around.)

    The bottom line: Don’t expect large numbers of people to get behind urgent action on climate change per se until the West Antarctic Ice Sheet slides off into the ocean. And as Michael says, by then it’ll be way too late. That’s why a reframing around innovation in energy technology is probably our only hope right now. But as we both know, anyone who says that is demonized by activists like Romm.

  22. Denis Ables says:

    Since there’s no chance in succeeding in using science to convince others about your global warmng scam, I suggest that you try the direct approach.  Simply put the following question to those AGW skeptics:

    Are you gonna believe me or your own eyes ?

  23. […] Craig Goodrich, a new reader to this blog, decried the scourge of wind turbines in a recent comment: The plague of industrial wind plants is utterly destroying countryside and wildlife habitat at an […]

  24. Michael D Smith says:

    <i>Michael Tobin:  Of course, this is rooted in misunderstanding. Once the car has ridden over the cliff it is too late to apply the brakes. People have the capacity to understand this and it needs to be explained to them.</i>

    OK Michael, I’ve read around 400 climate papers, and have studied the subject for 2500 to 3000 hours.  I still don’t see any evidence of a link between CO2 and dangerous warming.  In fact, once you account for ocean, solar, UHI, measurement error, I hardly even find room for the mere suggestion of such an idea.  If you would start by explaining where the danger is, or how feedback even approaches the IPCC guesstimate within a factor of 6, or can produce a single paper with evidence causal link of CO2 and temperature, I sure would like to hear about it.

  25. Joseph A Olson, PE says:

    It takes a lot of synthetic data to support a synthetic theory and despite the best efforts of NOAA, GISS and Hadley CRU there is just too much that can’t be blamed on the lowly CO2 molecule.   No matter how artfully you tell the tooth fairy story, repeated experimentation will not turn a tooth to money without intervention. 

    Google my name and read the 21 original articles posted at Canada Free Press, Freemen Institute, ClimateRealist and now linked to 25,000 web/blogs in a dozen languages.  The biggest variable in Earth’s climate is the 700,000 cubic miles of fisionable material beneath our feet, which is profoundly indifferent to us or our silly carbon footprints.

  26. “can produce a single paper with evidence causal link of CO2 and temperature”

    Here’s two. There might be some in the intervening century as well. Why don’t you go check?

    Svante Arrhenius “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground” Philosophical Magazine 41, 237-276 (1896)

    Reto Knutti1 & Gabriele C. Hegerl “The equilibrium sensitivity of the Earth’s temperature to radiation changes” Nature Geoscience 1, 735 – 743 (2008)

    There ought to be a law.  Seriously. There ought to be a freakin’ law.

  27. Michael D Smith says:

    I’m aware of those papers…  Theories are very interesting, but I used the word evidence.  There should be an effect, I agree.  Measurable?  Evidently not.  There’s that word again…

  28. […] a recent post and comment elsewhere, I have suggested that better communication will not be enough to convince […]

  29. Anand says:

    The problem of ‘communication’ is a general one regarding all ‘green’ ideas. Since the green movement has not one single positive contribution to humanity, since it has always been a reactionary force, it <i>will</i> find itself in this position.
    It is always about restriction, regulation, preservation, control etc etc. Or it is about alternatives. Meaning it is about re-doing something.
    Name one thing that is an original synthetic contribution from the green movement to humanity.
    Why do you think there is ‘cap and trade’? It is the green version of capitalism. People who don’t have anything of value to offer first make a play for your pocket.
    If you have a message that’s worth something  you would not worry so much about selling it.

  30. Steve Bloom says:

    “Innovation first, regulation second” (Tom’s phrase, referring to Keith’s preference for the ideas of the Lomborg/Pielke Jr./Breakthrough Institute axis) can be summarized thusly:

    “People prefer not to solve the problem using existing tools.  Let us accept that, say instead that the problem should be solved in the future with tools that don’t yet exist, and presume that with no change in attitude people will be willing to apply those tools.”

    Now, have I made this view seem like a blindingly stupid manifestation of magical thinking?  I hope so.

  31. Con michael says:

    It’s all a matter of sticking to facts.The rigors of scientific discipline demand,inter alia,that atheory imply the kind of evidence that would prove it wrong.Predictions based on the theory are chaecked against the facts.If something occurs that should not have,and vice versa,the theory is discarded.The principal AGW alarmists themselves lament that they cannot explain the lack of warming.Ergo the AGW theory has been discredited.The comprehensive defeat of the Emissions Trading Scheme in the Australian Parliament clearly demonstrates that the public has had enough of the lies,cheating,filibuster,spin and obfuscation.

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