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Hope and fellowship

David Roberts in "Hope" posterOver the last 10 years, I've been asked one question more than any other: Is there any hope? Or are we just f*cked?

Regular readers could be forgiven for concluding that we are, indeed, f*cked. On one side, we have the brutal logic of climate change, about which I wrote:

If there is to be any hope of avoiding civilization-threatening climate disruption, the U.S. and other nations must act immediately and aggressively on an unprecedented scale.

On the other side, we have the many forces that retard or prevent change. Cognitively, we suffer from status quo bias and loss aversion. Psychologically and physiologically, we are designed to heed immediate threats with teeth and eyes, not long-term, incremental, invisible dangers. Socioeconomically, power is concentrated in the hands of wealthy incumbents who benefit from the carbon-intensive status quo: fossil fuel companies, the sprawl industry (roads, real estate), Big Ag, airlines, heavy manufacturers, and so on. Politically, we are gripped by polarization, dysfunction, and paralysis. Individually and collectively, we are extremely poor judges of risk, particularly the sort of risk posed by climate change. That makes social change, what Weber called the "slow boring of hard boards," halting and painful at best.

And so we are stuck, as I said at the end of my TEDx talk, "between the impossible and the unthinkable."

It's difficult to see a way out of this dilemma that doesn't involve considerable suffering. Limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, the widely agreed-upon threshold beyond which climate impacts are expected to become severe and irreversible, is likely off the table. Widespread adaptive measures are slow in coming, far more expensive than mitigation would have been, and subject to enormous inequality of impact based on wealth and class.

So, in this grim situation, do I have hope? It's complicated.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Carbon targets, carbon taxes, and the search for Archimedes’ lever

Like solving a Rubik's Cube, it's going to be a long, ugly slog.
Like solving a Rubik's Cube, it's going to be a long, ugly slog.

Climate change is a huge, knotty, incredibly difficult problem. The more you dig in and understand the science and politics of it, the more hopelessly vast and complex it can seem. What's more, the public has not even begun to grapple with it; public discussions, especially in the U.S., remain polarized, shallow, and stupid.

Given this situation, it's natural for climate hawks to yearn for a Grand Gesture, something that clearly announces our intention to Solve the Problem. They want a policy response as powerful as the threat, one that can power past all the fog and ignorance and greed.

In short, they want Archimedes' lever. "Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it," said the great scientist, "and I shall move the world." The pursuit of carbon targets by environmentalists and carbon taxes by economists both, I think, reflect this yearning.

Carbon targets

First, carbon targets. Over the years, I've become much more skeptical about targets as a goal of climate policy. The key insight here is that targets do not, in and of themselves, have any motive force. A target is not an emissions-reduction policy, any more than a weight-loss goal is a way to lose weight. A carbon target is a promise, a commitment to develop emissions-reduction policies.

Read more: Climate & Energy


For tweet’s sake: How to get the most out of 140 characters

Kevin Lim

Twitter is dangerous. Each time you toss a thought out into the world and receive a response, your brain releases a burst of endorphins, as though you took a little bump of cocaine. You can get hooked on it, returning again and again for another fix, even at the expense of other parts of your life or work. I myself have lost countless hours to Twitter -- as of this writing, I have tweeted 88,210 times.

And I've loved it! That's one reason I'm quitting for a while: As much as I do it, it's all I can do not to do it more. Even now, I know I could hop over, ask a question or make an observation, and get responses -- helpful responses, funny responses, combative responses, all the above -- within seconds. It is, when you think about it, an introvert's dream: a way to interact with others entirely on one's own terms, revealing as much or as little as one chooses, without the awkwardness of small-talk and other vicissitudes of face-to-face interaction.

The danger of Twitter, as with all social media, is that bullshit starts to seem meaningful. The human brain amplifies each bit of feedback, so one nasty comment can ruin your day; one compliment can make you feel like a hero. If something you say gets retweeted a bunch, you feel like you're changing the world. A half-dozen #Sharknado tweets can make Sharknado seem like something that matters. (It isn't.) It's very easy to get a warped perspective.

However, if you can keep it contained -- i.e., self-regulate better than I can -- Twitter is an incredibly useful professional tool. I've connected with people who never otherwise would have come to Grist. I've been able to expose a much broader range of people to my concerns and my writing.

With all the hours I've spent on Twitter -- and I shudder to think of the total -- I've seen a lot of what works and what doesn't. I've seen lots of dumb patterns repeat themselves and I've seen lots of fantastic serendipities, synchronicities, and, y'know, funny zingers.

Forthwith, here are a few tips for those of you seeking to build a following, expose your work to more (and more influential) people, and generally have an enjoyable twitsperience.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


How to write about climate: Pull up a barstool


Climate change is an awkward fit for the conventions and institutions that make up today's media.

There are a bunch of reasons for this, but the main one is that not much happens. Ecosystems change slowly and incrementally, on time scales much longer than those we're biologically designed to heed. Climate processes unfold over centuries, millennia, whereas we're primed to pay attention to what's happening in front of our noses, or at best within our lifetimes. "The seas rose another .001 feet today" is not a story any editor wants to publish or anyone wants to read.

Climate politics is its own story, of course, and offers some day-to-day developments ... but not many. U.S. politics addresses climate rarely, if at all, and when it does the results are, ahem, unenlightening.

All this means that it's difficult to report on climate change. News editors want to know what's new, what's changed, and on climate, not much has. There are no crime scenes, no explosive revelations, no sudden shifts, just ... PDFs. Lots and lots of PDFs. Climate change is just puttering along, moving at a pace that won't mean much over an editor's career but will profoundly reshape human habitats over centuries.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Climate change and “environmental journalism”

Over the years I've been asked many times about how to get into environmental journalism, or, alternately, how to save environmental journalism. The answer is always: I have no f'ing idea.

For one thing, as I mentioned the other day, my path into professional journalism was highly idiosyncratic and probably not replicable. I remain blissfully unaware of the career mechanics that other journalists are forced to deal with (bless their hearts).

For another thing: What is environmental journalism anyway? For those concerned about the interlocking problems of our age -- sustainability, energy poverty, peak everything -- I'm not sure it matters.

The field has traditionally been represented by the Society of Environmental Journalists, composed of reporters assigned by newspapers and magazines to the environmental beat -- pollution, deforestation, ecosystem stuff. For the most part, environmental journalism has been a subdivision of the science desk.

Now SEJ, like everyone else, is struggling to deal with two trends.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Goodbye for now

So as not to bury the lede, let me begin with the big news: I'm taking a year off.

As of Labor Day weekend, I am going underground. I won't be writing for Grist (or anyone else); I won't be reading or responding to email; I won't be on Twitter; I won't be following the news cycle or reading PDFs; I won't be spending all day every day attached to a computer. I won't be answering the phone, either, but then I never answered the phone anyway.

Then, on Labor Day of 2014, I'll be back! With any luck I will be rested, renewed, and ready to return to blogging duty.

That's the take-home information. If you're interested in the blathery personal backstory, keep reading.


Can climate science be rendered conservative-friendly?

One common criticism of the way climate science has been communicated over the last decade or so is that scientists and advocates have led with a liberal perspective: Here's a big problem that we need to solve with government regulations and mandates. It didn't help that climate change came to prominence via Al Gore, a partisan liberal long loathed on the right.

Such an approach, it is said, was guaranteed to incite opposition on the right. And sure enough: Those who deny the existence, anthropogenity, or severity of climate change are, for the most part, white, male, ideological conservatives. There are a great many exceptions, of course, and a great many gradations and varieties of skepticism, but the majority of overt denialists (or whatever you want to call them, I really don't care) in America share that particular cultural identity.

There's something to this critique -- there's no doubt that most of the scientists and advocates speaking out about the issue are left of center -- but not as much as critics make out. As I argued the other day, climate was fated to become polarized by forces far larger than the communications strategies of climate hawks.

But it is worth asking: Could climate hawks have made a pitch that appealed to conservatives? Is there such a pitch available today?

It might seem weird even to ask the question. Most people, I've found, just take it for granted that the answer is yes, that there is some message or messenger that can do the trick for any demographic or group, including ideological conservatives.

I'm not so sure. It's not clear to me that what passes for conservatism today could possibly accommodate the real facts on global warming; those facts carry implications that would do considerable violence to the conservative worldview. In a strange way, someone like James Inhofe seems to understand this better than many self-styled centrists and journalists. He knows, in a way they don't always seems to, what it means to accept the science.

Obviously a lot of people disagree with me on this (including many conservatives!). So let's talk it through a bit.


The futility of “just the facts” climate science

scientist facts blackboard

My last post was about the evolution of conservative identity politics over the past 40 or 50 years, which made hostility to climate science more or less inevitable, regardless of how climate scientists chose to communicate their findings. Introduce climate science into a milieu characterized by suspicion of scientific elites, hostility toward government, and tribal support for fossil fuels and sprawl, and, well ... Al Gore big-government liberal U.N. hoax! 'Twas ever fated.

(California Rep. Dana Rohrbacher provides the latest example. Wait, no, Rush Limbaugh does. Stay tuned tomorrow for more!)

I make the point for two reasons. One is to push back against the endless tide of sentiment blaming climate scientists or advocates for the right wing's madness on climate. Nobody -- not Al Gore, not Barack Obama, not dirty climate bloggers -- can make the right behave rationally on this, except the right itself. Conservatives are grown-ups making their own decisions and responsible for their own actions. This is not to say that communication around climate change has been particularly adept -- I've spent 10 years criticizing it! -- but it is to say that conservatives are freestanding moral agents and not mere clay shaped by the messages of climate hawks.

The second reason is that an understanding of the historical roots of American cultural polarization sheds light on the climate fight. The clash of cultural identities brought about by the resurgent right, indeed the battle over modernity itself, precedes, both temporally and psychologically, many of the factors that people tend to blame for polarization on climate change. Especially in the U.S., polarization is so deep, I will argue, that any attempt to present climate science "neutrally," as pure facts and information with no cultural valence, is doomed to failure. We climate hawks cannot back our way out of cultural meaning; the only way out is through.

To begin, let's turn to a great recent post from Dan Kahan of Yale's Cultural Cognition Project. It is built around a simple observation: Realists and "skeptics" hold very different views on climate science, but they share a deep cluelessness about how science is communicated, how people assess evidence, and how polarization occurs.


Conservative hostility to science predates climate science


"Climate scientists must not advocate particular policies," says Tamsin Edwards, a climate scientist at the University of Bristol, thus reigniting for the eleventy-gazillionth time the argument about whether it is advisable for climate scientists to become "advocates."

I've been through this debate so many times that I've come to disagree with just about everything everyone says about it, which probably means I should take a vacation. But in the end I just don't think it matters that much whether climate scientists back particular policies or not. It's unlikely to make much difference either way.

The core of Edwards' argument is that "advocacy by climate scientists has damaged trust in the science." Unfortunately, she offers no evidence to support that proposition. Instead her post links to a series of Twitter and blog conversations taking place among the comparatively tiny group of professionals who are involved with climate change and care about these kinds of things. (Note to Edwards: Drawing on blog comments to make one's argument is not a sign of confidence.)

In fact, polls show that the broad public trusts scientists more than anyone else on climate change. More broadly, Pew Research summarized a 2009 survey on Americans' attitude toward science thusly:

Americans like science. Overwhelming majorities say that science has had a positive effect on society and that science has made life easier for most people. Most also say that government investments in science, as well as engineering and technology, pay off in the long run. And scientists are very highly rated compared with members of other professions: Only members of the military and teachers are more likely to be viewed as contributing a lot to society's well-being.

If this attitude has changed substantially since 2009, I haven't heard about it, and Edwards offers no evidence.

What has happened over the past 40 years is a steady erosion in the trust conservatives hold in science and scientists. That trust recently hit an all-time low.

Understanding that 40-year process, and where it has left the contemporary conservative movement, is an absolutely necessary precursor to understanding the fight over climate change, which is only one battle in a much longer culture war.


I want to live in a baugruppe

A baugruppe.
A baugruppe.

If you could create your perfect living situation, what would it look like?

Right now most people's choices are limited to single-family homes, apartments, or condos. But what if the choices weren't limited? What if you could stitch together your ideal scenario?

As a devotee of the medium chill, I think about this a lot. And here's my own personal answer.

I want to live in a dense urban area where groceries, parks, schools, and restaurants are all within walking distance -- where I can live comfortably without a car. I'd like for the district/neighborhood to be structured in such a way as to encourage casual encounters with neighbors. I'd like it to have a robust sense of community.

The building (or buildings) I lived in would be a type of cohousing, which is to say, it would be shared by a group of families who co-owned it. There would be a large common area with a big kitchen, eating space, and lounge, where families could take turns making meals for the whole group. There would be a shared outdoor area with a large garden and stuff for the kids to play on. And each family would have its own (modestly sized) unit, say, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, an office, a kitchen, and a small living room. To reach the individual units, you'd have to pass through the common area, which would encourage spontaneous socializing.

The families who lived in my building would be my friends, basically -- a group of us at similar stages in our lives, with common interests and values. (This would include some childless friends, perhaps some grandparents too, just for a nice age mix.) We would share child care, tools, and time with one another. It would be an intentional community.

The building(s) would be modern in aesthetic and built to passivhaus standards, with tons of insulation, natural light, and fresh air circulation. It would have solar panels, batteries, a natural gas microgenerator, a geothermal heat-exchanger, and smart appliances, all networked together by a smart whole-home energy management system. It would create more energy than it consumes. It would have the ability to island itself from the grid in the case of emergency. And it would be located near a transit hub.

Is that too much to ask?

Ha ha, yes, of course it is.

But what if it wasn't?

Read more: Cities, Living