I am not a climate expert. I’m not even a scientist. My career as an event producer and before that as a sex educator provide no foundation for my work as a climate activist. But I do have two advantages in addressing climate change. Because of my lack of science training, I look for straightforward explanations of climate change and its solutions. And I’m an optimist.
I apply a type of Occam’s razor to the climate research I read and to the climate work I do. For me it’s not a matter of the simpler explanations being most likely to be the most relevant, it’s knowing that the simpler explanations are what’s most likely to resonate with the general public and the policy wonks.
Addressing legislators on biofuel problems, for example, I’ve shifted from the hard science of lifecycle analysis of biofuel emissions to talking about the millions of acres of croplands now growing fuel rather than food. Global food scarcity caused by biofuel proliferation is real and relatable, while arguing against the myth of biofuel as ‘carbon neutral’ is far more complex.
This also applies to climate change books that I read and promote. I’d rather have people read The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben than David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth.
If you’re not already, Wohlleben makes you all in love with the complex life of trees. He will inspire you to helps save forests or contribute to the global effort to plant a billion trees. The future earth that Wallace-Wells describes, on the other hand, will scare the crap out of you. My Occam’s razor says that his graphic depiction of a doomed earth is more likely to make you curl up in ball and cry than to inspire you with hope and motivate you to help save life on this planet.
Some might argue that Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation by Paul Hawken is the best book to inspire climate action. After all, Hawken lays out climate solutions step-by-step. Oceans, land, forests, cities, food, energy – all the solutions all there, practical and hopeful. But, it’s like asking someone to do graduate work on climate solutions when they’re still at a freshman level of understanding life around them. Some people are ready for graduate work. Most aren’t.
Much of the world’s failure to address climate change stems from fear. But, not just fear of impending doom, fear of change. We do need to change rapidly – in one generation, as Hawken points out. It’s also true, however, that the single most powerful and effective climate solution anyone can embrace is the simplest one – voting. Voting for climate policies. And voting for politicians who are committed to climate action.
It doesn’t matter the reason someone votes for climate solutions. Their vote has the same value whether it’s because they love the new technology of electric vehicles, idolize Greta Thunberg, have a newfound love of trees, or because they have a deep and profound understanding of climate change. What matters are the climate policies and clean energy budgets that get passed.
There are two kinds of climate denial: 1) ‘change is a hoax’ and 2) its close cousin, feigned ignorance — it’s all just too complex for little ol’ me to understand. Occam’s razor cuts through both.
“Look, folks,” I imagine myself saying Obama-style, “You’re too smart not to be aware that our planet is warming up. Now, you can get into all kinda’ complicated theories about sunspots or the tilt of earth’s rotation. But we all know we’re facing a crisis. The heat waves and droughts, hurricanes getting worse, once-in-a-thousand-year rainfalls and floods can’t be ignored. And, the first step to solving it is to admit that we’re the ones that caused it.”
Occam’s Razor: The simplest explanation is the one most likely to be true.
All you need do is lay Dr. Mann’s Hockey Stick (left) alongside Keen’s Curve to see the simple, inconvenient truth:
Keeling’s Curve is a graphic representation of the dramatic rise in atmospheric CO2 over a relatively short period of human time. In 1958 Charles David Keeling began monitoring atmospheric CO2 from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. He continued to do so until his death in 2005.
In 1999, three renown scientists demonstrated global warming is a graph now famously known as the ‘hockey stick.’ The hockey stick image comes from the slight dip in temperatures just before the end of the 19th Century – caused by 1883 Eruption of Krakatoa, the largest volcanic eruption in modern history — and the sudden rise in global temperatures in the middle of the 20th Century.
The hockey stick graph is not, as deniers like to claim, lightweight science. The men who correlated scientific data to show the mean global hemispheric temperature for the past 1,000 years and its abrupt rise in the 20th Century are:
- Michael E. Mann, PhD in Geology and Geophysics
- Climatologist Dr. Raymond S. Bradley
- Malcolm K. Hughes, meso-climatologist and fellow at the American Geophysical Union
Clearly, scientists with advanced degrees in the fields that relate to climate are the ones most likely to provide the truth. The same is true when the UN IPCC comes out with a report that’s prepared by 23 scientists from 66 countries with over 6,000 scientific references. We don’t need to understand all the science but there is every reason to accept the conclusions of thousands of respected scientists.
As for the famous people without advanced degrees in climate, people like Bill Gates are not entirely irrelevant to the discussion. But they are a distraction. The climate movement doesn’t need more controversy. In How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Gates talks about geoengineering projects likes spraying silicates into the atmosphere, investing into carbon capture and yet-to-be-discovered technology that will mitigate climate change. The implication is, ‘don’t worry, technology will save us.’
Clearly, technology is key to addressing climate change. But the simpler truth that gets lost with tech-of-the-future discussions is that we already the clean energy technology that can dramatically reduce our GHG emissions. Yes, we need innovation in battery storage and we’ll always need the technology that improves clean energy efficiency. The key, however, is investing into clean energy, scaling it up and moving quickly.
Obviously, new technology will follow if we lead with the solar, wind, tidal and geothermal power sources we already have. And it’s as obvious as the nose on my face that we have no time to lose. We know that the next twenty years are crucial if we are going keep the climate crisis from reaching cataclysmic levels.
To get the general public — voters — fused into the climate movement, we need to appeal to their sense of hope and to their wallets. In their daily lives, most people are focused on their jobs, money, home, food and a means of getting around. We need to make it simple. The future of jobs is clean energy. The future of transportation is clean energy. The future of homes is clean energy. And the future of the economy is clean energy.
The economic shift is already moving in the right direction. The solar power industry is just one example. Coal-powered electricity is now 177% more expensive than solar. Solar is cheap and can become even cheaper.
Finally, let’s slice through the politics. Whether its local, state, federal or global, politics is messy. The U.S. went from Trump denialism to Biden’s $300 billion IRA climate bill in just two years. Australia is on a similar track, while Great Britain just doubled-down on their fossil fuel economy with Liz Truss. Russia is, for the foreseeable future, a lost cause while China is the global leader in clean energy investment. By 2030, one-fifth of China’s electricity consumption will come from non-fossil fuel sources. Yet, the west maintains a basic distrust of China.
The fact is: we cannot trust any of our political systems to deliver climate solutions as fast as we need them. Albert Einstein said, “Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”
The point is we have to work with the politics at hand, but each one of us needs to commit to being part of the solution, in whatever way we can.
NASA climate scientist Kate Marvel offers a simple, Occam-worthy possibility for our future:
“Because whatever our world looks like right now, the science says it’s rapidly becoming something else. That means another story is possible, and it goes something like this: Once upon a time, there was a world full of wondrous creatures who built roads and cities, canals and fields. All of this was powered by cheap energy that they dug out of the ground. When they learned how that energy was poisoning the world, they embraced their agency rather than denying their impact on the planet. Everyone played their part to restore balance: some harvested the wind and sun, some worked to draw the poison out, some demanded their leaders take things seriously. They rebuilt it all, grieving what they lost and saving what they could.”
Dave, thanks for a really great bird’s eye view of this complicated, tangled forest we stand inside of. Your position on how best to reach and motivate the public to action parallels Sarah Jaquette Ray, author of A Field Guide To Climate Anxiety. (Sarah Jaquette Ray is a professor and chair of environmental studies at Cal Poly Humboldt. She teaches and researches the environmental humanities, environmental justice, climate anxiety, emotions and education, and climate justice.)
I am, like you, a trained Climate Reality Leadership member. Our San Fernando Valley, CA chapter hosts a monthly guest speaker from some branch of Climate Science or sustainability practices. Ms. Ray was our speaker a few months back. Her conclusion about climate communication agrees with yours: If you overload the listener with too much doom and gloom the result will be withdrawal and paralysis. The issue feels too big for us to face.
She gave an (admittedly dark) example by saying if a person walks by a pond in which 1 child is drowning pretty much everyone will jump in to save that child. But if we see hundreds of children drowning it just makes us freeze. It’s too large a problem to even attempt to solve.
I confess my initial response was to want to force the world to see the facts. (Wake up! You gotta DO something!!) Her book and her presentation truly changed my outlook on motivating people to act.
If A Field Guide To Climate Anxiety isn’t already in your library I highly recommend it.
Thanks for helping to spread the word, Dave!
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Thank you, Tara. I will definitely check-out A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety.
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