We have 12 years

Patrick Brown has a recent blog post about whether, or not, the IPCC claims that we have 12 years to avoid catastrophic global warming. As his post highlights, there are a number of problems with this claim. Firstly, the IPCC says nothing about catastrophe; it simply presents a synthesis of our current understanding and describes the various possible impacts of different levels of warming. Describing something as catastrophic is a judgement that the IPCC has never made.

Another issue is that the 12 years is simply based on how much longer we can keep emitting at the current rate until we’ve used up the estimated carbon budget that would give us a reasonable chance of keeping warming below 1.5oC. If we fail to keep below this carbon budget, then we will have largely guaranteed more than 1.5oC of warming, but this doesn’t mean that catastrophe will suddenly ensue. Some people are probably already experiencing things that they would regard as catastrophic, and the impacts of warming beyond 1.5oC will almost certainly be more severe than if we stay below 1.5oC. However, there isn’t some kind of hard boundary between everything being fine, and catastrophe.

So, stating that the IPCC claims that we have 12 years to avoid catastrophe is clearly not true. However, there is something that bothers me about this. As a scientist, I think it would be wonderful if all you needed to do to get the public, and policy makers, to recognise that there is some issue that might need addressing is to provide them with information. However, it’s well known that doesn’t work; simply filling a knowledge deficit is not an effective way to get people to accept the need for some kind of policy.

Getting the public to actually engage with some issue requires more sophisticated communication strategies, one of which might involve coming up with some catchy phrase that sticks in people’s minds. Such a phrase will, by definition, be a simplification that will almost certainly be wrong in some sense. How does one decide if it’s wrong in some acceptable way, or wrong in some unacceptable way? Should we judge things on the basis of the goal of the communication, or is that not a valid way to judge some rhetoric? What role should scientists/researchers play in determining whether or not some phrase is acceptable?

To be clear, I don’t know the answers to any of the above, and I’m not suggesting that the 12 year framing is acceptable. In fact, I think the claim is both not true and potentially sends the wrong message (it could lead people to conclude that it will be too late if we don’t do something within 12 years, which is not correct). However, I do think that this is a complex issue and that it’s worth recognising that communication strategies are sometimes being used to get people’s attention and may do so in ways that scientists may not always feel comfortable with. I don’t think that this means that scientists should never criticise a communication strategy, but I do think we should be aware of the fact that simply communicating information is not – by itself – an effective communication strategy.

Addendum:
Although I agree with much of Patrick Brown’s post, I don’t agree with the final paragraph, which says

In my experience, the primary reason that people skeptical of climate science come to their skepticism is that they believe climate scientists are acting as advocates rather than dispassionate evaluators of evidence.

It may be true that many who are openly “skeptical” claim that this is the reason, but – in my view – this is mostly a convenient excuse. As far as I can tell, even if all scientists behaved absolutely impeccable, those who are “skeptical” would simply find some other reason to justify their “skepticism”. This isn’t to suggest that scientists shouldn’t be conscious of how their public behaviour might be percieved, it’s simply a suggestion that it isn’t really all that big a factor when it comes to why some people are “skeptical”.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in advocacy, Climate change, Philosophy for Bloggers, Policy, Scientists, The philosophy of science and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to We have 12 years

  1. Magma says:

    To judge by perennial climate change denial talking points, trying to summarize complex and interdependent climate processes and medium to long-term forecasts with a single simple number is rarely helpful. Or at a minimum, it must be recognized as potentially very problematic.

    Consider the extrapolations by Wadhams or Maslowski about summer ice-free Arctic waters, Viner’s “Children just aren’t going to know what snow is,” Hanson’s (badly misquoted) underwater Manhattan highway, or even AR4’s typo of 2035 (instead of 2350) from a reference discussing when Himalayan glaciers might disappear.

    Yes, these have been misrepresented from deliberately speculative hypothesizing, taken out of context from informal conversations with journalists, or simply misquoted, but they will be used — or rather, deliberately and repeatedly misused — by climate change deniers and repeated by a credulous or cynical media. Some of these are a generation old (Hanson, 1988, and Viner, 2000).

    Climate scientists and climate journalists should realize by now that it is not just a benignly uninformed general public that they are dealing with, but a small group of contrarians and deniers that are noisy, stubborn, and either dim or deeply dishonest. Of course, many already know this perfectly well.

    The one thing I will say in its favor is that, like the 97=% consensus, climate change deniers seem to hate simple points that are readily grasped by the public and can be made into short soundbites. They recognize their potential effectiveness, if done well and carefully.

  2. Magma,
    Yes, you’re right that a single number can be problematic in that it is unlikely to capture the complexity and is easily criticised. The 97% consensus does seem, as you suggest, to have survived, so it is possible.

  3. Magma says:

    Hansen, not Hanson (embarrassing to misspell that)

  4. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    In my experience, the primary reason that people skeptical of climate science come to their skepticism is that they believe climate scientists are acting as advocates rather than dispassionate evaluators of evidence.

    I gotta say, this annoys the fuck of of me.

    From what I’ve seen, and I’ve looked quite a bit, there is no evidence to back up this speculation.

    Yes, some “skeptics” claim such a narrative applies in their case, but “self-report error” is a well known phenomenon, and in attributing “skepticism” to this mechanism, there is no accounting for the overwhelming association between views on climate change and ideological orientation.

    Methinks Brown’s speculative attribution of “skeptical” causality is a textbook example of confirmation bias.

  5. bostonblorp says:

    Climate change hits all of humanities weak spots when it comes to threat assessment. It is an abstract concept, it develops over decades, it manifests itself in events that we can’t definitively attribute to it and it has become politicized. Lastly, and worst of all, addressing it will require some measure of sacrifice which modern humans abhor. It might be a bridge too far to ask people to vote against their near-term (now to ten years out) interests in favor of their long-term interests. This may be so even if all the denialist folks were to drop dead tomorrow.

    I think the IPCC is totally fair to provide a timeline. Imagine going on a cruise where you have enough food and fuel for just half the trip. Someone says “we have 12 days to devise a rationing strategy if we want to make it to our destination.” But there are other stops along the way, each progressively less desirable. And there are people on board who say “this is alarmist, the ship isn’t going to sink and there are other stops.” So business as usual prevails until people finally realize their remaining two destination options are a floating pile of garbage or a barren island.

    I’m afraid even the best of “catchy phrases” isn’t going to cut it as far as getting people to take action. What clever jingle will get people to stop eating meat, stop vacationing, stop having more than one child, accept a lowered standard of living through a huge carbon tax? “Let’s make it a tofu nation to avoid mass starvation!” “The first child’s a delight, the second a blight!” I’m only partially facetious here.

  6. doug1943 says:

    You say “It may be true that many who are openly “skeptical” claim that this is the reason, but – in my view – this is mostly a convenient excuse. ”
    What do you think the real reason is, or reasons are?

  7. doug,
    I think it’s probably mostly a consequence of what Dan Kahan would call cultural cognition. There are tendencies for people with certain cultural identities to reject some scientific positions. As I understand it, this is a reasonably well accepted reason for why some groups, for example, have a tendency to reject much of mainstream climate science.

  8. Chris B says:

    The “12 years” claim (I think) comes from this AFP sourced story :

    ”Bad news’: CO2 emissions to rise in 2018, says IEA chief” https://phys.org/news/2018-10-bad-news-co2-emissions-iea.html#jCp

    “But reaching that goal would mean reducing CO2 emissions by nearly half compared to 2010 levels within a dozen years, and becoming “carbon neutral”—with no excess C02 leaching into the atmosphere—by 2050.”

    It is not too different to what this paper says (maybe the original source ?) ‘The point of no return for climate action: effects of climate uncertainty and risk tolerance’ https://www.earth-syst-dynam.net/9/1085/2018/esd-9-1085-2018.html

    ‘Deadline for climate action’ https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-08/egu-dfc082818.php

    So whether you would call that a ‘meme’….I’m not so sure. True, it is probably not attributable to the IPCC ..but I’m not exactly sure if any of those people are IPCC contributors or not.

    @doug1943 Surely you don’t need to ask why climate science deniers exist….like magma said
    the “noisy, stubborn, and either dim or deeply dishonest.” It is certainly not any form of altruism.

  9. Since around the time that Bill McKibben chose “350” as his “easy to understand, elevator pitch” metric to explain the dilemma and catch and hold people’s attention (doesn’t seem so easy or relevant or “elevator-pitchy” now does it!), I have thought that we needed separate messaging for “why” we need to act and “what we need to do”.

    We are still really weak on “why”. Go to the local pub and you are going to get a completely confused description even from “believers” – which ranges from a small sea-level rise by 2100 to “methane bomb next year!”…

    But assuming we get that sorted out soon enough, we still need something catchy, sticky, pithy to communicate “what we need to do”,

    I have also thought that we need something that ties some sort of (relatively) fixed causal physical quantity (say, a carbon budget) to “time” (say, time left until budget runs out under BAU) and something that links the two (say, carbon reductions per year that avoid running through the budget).

    The new-ish Mercator Institute carbon clock does several of these (but not the last)

    https://www.mcc-berlin.net/fileadmin/data/clock/carbon_clock.htm

    The old trillionthtonne.org clock did include the “reduction per year” metrics for various scenarios, and still does, but seems to have somehow become “unsynced” on that number. (I think they just set it and forgot about it. Mercator is updating to include most recent IPCC estimates on emissions, sensitivity”…)

    Anyway, “years to act” is fraught with messaging problems. Worst of which is that it makes it sound we can hang around and wait for a while until we get better clarity. (Sadly, I have screenshots of trillonthtonne.org from 2009 onwards, which evidences what happens when we take that route…)

    One disadvantage of the “carbon clocks” is that they bring to mind both “debt clocks” and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists “doomsday clock”, both of which have the advantage of being totally subjective and mutable… Whereas the carbon budget largely isn’t…

  10. Chris B says:

    Here was our state broadcasters version that sounds like it is sourced from the AFP story.
    ‘Can we quit coal in time? IPCC warns world has just 12 years to avoid climate change catastrophe’ https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-10-11/can-we-quit-coal-in-time/10361552

  11. Joe Burlington says:

    “We have 12 years”
    Also some parliamentarians are arguing for a commitment to ‘zero carbon by 2050’.
    Both of these statements add to a confusion between CO2 *concentration* (arguably the main man-made factor affecting the climate) and CO2 *emissions*. It seems to me that most MPs and interested commentators don’t make the distinction so that members of the general public think all will be well by 2050. They do not recognise that the concentration is still increasing at an accelerating rate and that by the time emissions get to zero (if they ever do) the concentration will be much higher than it is now and the detrimental effects of the climate much worse.
    Surely scientists do have a responsibility to make clear that, whatever the climate effects of the current concentration (Is it 407ppm?), current policies are increasing the concentration and thus the dangers in ways that will not easily be reversed.
    Another factor which I believe could be better explained is ‘feedback’. My attempt to use simple language for Artic ice goes something like: The decline in Arctic sea-ice extent decade by decade means less white to reflect heat back into space – and more dark sea which is more absorbing of warmth from the sun. This extra warmth, tends to melt even more ice … which means even less white to bounce the heat away – which means even more melting and so on … which is a worry.
    I graduated more than 50 years ago, so much of what you write is beyond me, but I am not reassured when you write “it could lead people to conclude that it will be too late if we don’t do something within 12 years, which is not correct”. After another decade of albedo and melting permafrost releasing methane, why is it not correct? Do you have in mind carbon capture and storage on a massive scale or something else?

  12. It’s late, so excuse my pessimism, but strip away ‘ambition’ or ‘aspiration’ and look at reality and we are heading for catastrophic > 3C on current emissions. So while we should report the 1.5C special report accurately – a trajectory that is arguably fantastical – it rather reflects an anxiety for climate scientists wanting to avoid being called ‘alarmist’ to worry about that than the reality of our current pathway. Who is in denial I ask?

  13. paulski0 says:

    It may be true that many who are openly “skeptical” claim that this is the reason, but – in my view – this is mostly a convenient excuse.

    And even if the claim is true in some sense, typically this personal judgement of whether climate scientists are acting like advocates is informed by deep-seated biases. For example, here’s WUWT describing Patrick Brown as an ‘activist scientist’ because he published a scientific paper.

  14. Steven Mosher says:

    “The point of a document like the IPCC report should be to inform the public and policy makers in a dispassionate and objective way, not to make a case in order to inspire action. The fundamental reason for trusting science in general (and the IPCC in particular) is the notion that the enterprise will be objectively evaluating our best understanding of reality, not arguing for a predetermined outcome. I believe that the IPCC report has adhered to the best scientific standards but the meme of a predicted catastrophe makes it seem as though it has veered into full advocacy mode – making it appear untrustworthy.”

    I generally agree with Patrick, execpt where he tries to explain what makes people skeptics.

    I have a lot of “fun” fighting skeptics on the intertubes.

    It is annoying that the MSM misrepresents exactly what the IPCC says.

    It seems the MSM acts according to the following model.
    They think that they need to wake people up to the crisis, and perhaps then
    folks will pressure politicans to take action.

    If that’s what they think its kinda dumb.

    The model that might work better is the Politician, working to convince the public ( see AOC)
    than the model where the scientists informs the MSM and then the MSM sexes it up
    to alarm the public who then somehow influence the politicians. and the smart
    politican will “bundle” a bunch of concerns ( climate, jobs, justice) into one iconic
    package.

    Kinda like the Gore model, only done with the right politician and the right bundle of concerns
    for the time, and a better education for the politician.

    Seems to me that the MSM sometimes works ( inadvertantly) against the credibility of the science.
    I’d avoid them and spend time educating politicians. just a thought

    I’m sure this is being done, so it might be a question of focus.

    so, less social media, less MSM, and more engagement with political class.

  15. Steven Mosher says:

    Joshua

    ‘In my experience, the primary reason that people skeptical of climate science come to their skepticism is that they believe climate scientists are acting as advocates rather than dispassionate evaluators of evidence.

    I gotta say, this annoys the fuck of of me.”

    why should that annoy you.

    you missed his weasel words, in my experience…

    Let me translate. He makes a claim about his personal experience. You have no reason to believe
    it or disbelieve it. He’s doing that because he does not have any good evidence .

    In my experience, the primary reason that people skeptical of climate science come to their skepticism is that they distrust the people promoting it. Meh.

    At the base of this, I suppose, is that people think if they understand the cause for disbelief
    that they might be able to fix that. err not gunna happen.

    for some people it will take a crisis of identity for them to change their minds. These are not pretty, nor easily instituted on a grand scale.

  16. jai mitchell says:

    we will be well above 1.5C in 12 years

  17. Joshua says:

    why should that annoy you.

    It annoys me because he, apparently, doesn’t attempt to ground his experience with evidence.

    Questioning the direction of causality w/r/t his perceived mechanism of “skeptical” belief should be an obvious requirement of due diligence. Smart people who are heavily invested in understanding this issue should pay due diligence to due diligence. It annoys me when they don’t, and just go with their seat of the pants commonsense wisdom derived from anecdote.

    It annoys me because the patten is so pervasive.

    It’s stupid for me to get annoyed by it. It shouldn’t annoy me (because it’s so pervasive – why get annoyed by commonplace reality?), but it does. It’s not his problem that it annoys me, it’s my problem.

  18. Steven Mosher says:

    Fair response Joshua.

    My sense is that folks only have so much of their time they can invest in trying to ground their own lived experience in a wider frame of reference. I think of all the stuff I regard as true that I’ve never really tested? jeez, where do I start?

    A simple one. My sense 11 years ago was that if science were just more open and transparent that a lot of skepticism would melt away. You know free code , share your data and you’ll convince people.

    Tested that, really tested that at enormous personal cost ( time and effort). In the end?
    folks still gunna believe what they gunna believe. That left a mark. Boy was I stupid.
    No regrets of course,

  19. Joe,

    After another decade of albedo and melting permafrost releasing methane, why is it not correct? Do you have in mind carbon capture and storage on a massive scale or something else?

    Because there isn’t much evidence to support the idea that there is a point at which there will be utter catastrophe and we might as well give up. The impacts at 1.5C could well be bad, but they’re almost certainly going to be less severe than those at 2C, which will be less severe than those at 2.5C, etc. So, even if we do end up doing nothing for the next 12 years (which I hope is not the case) that doesn’t mean that there will then be no point in doing anything. Even if we’ve guaranteed 1.5C of warming, there will still be a lot of value of aiming to reduce emissions to try and keep below 2C, or – if not – below 2.5C, etc.

  20. Chubbs says:

    I do think the climate change timing message to the public needs to be improved. Climate change doesn’t happen suddenly, instead it slowly increases with time and will continue to for a prolonged period. What we are committing to is a long slow ramp, difficult to detect at the start, but ever upward.

  21. paulski0 says:

    Steven Mosher,

    Seems to me that the MSM sometimes works ( inadvertantly) against the credibility of the science.
    I’d avoid them and spend time educating politicians. just a thought

    I don’t really see that being how things work. The IPCC don’t publish their reports through the MSM. They publish themselves and target policymakers. Of course as a public body they have press releases and press conferences to go along with the report, but the MSM aren’t forced to relay this information to their audience. They report these things because they’re big stories. I’m not sure how they could be prevented from doing so.

    It seems the MSM acts according to the following model.
    They think that they need to wake people up to the crisis, and perhaps then
    folks will pressure politicans to take action.

    There may be a few journalists within the MSM who think that way, but I don’t think it fits the description of the MSM as a whole. They run these stories because they are big and sensational and attract eyes and ears. Even the likes of Fox News and the New York Post ran articles about there being 12 years to doom.

  22. dikranmarsupial says:

    “I’d avoid them and spend time educating politicians.”

    perhaps being a bit too cynical, but I don’t think politicians public statements on climate necessarily reflect their actual understanding of the science, but may instead be intended to increase their support among the electorate. I don’t for a minute think that Donald Trump is stupid enough to actually believe that AGW is a hoax, but I suspect he is more than cynical enough to pretend to be in order to become (and stay as) president. If climate change is politically polarizing, then expect that to be exploited by politicians.

    What we really need is a sufficiently educated electorate that take politics seriously, rather than a bizarre form of reality-TV entertainment (c.f. Idiocracy), where science denial reduces your share of the vote.

  23. dikranmarsupial says:

    Those who claim that the IPCC reports are about CAGW should back that up by counting the number of times the word “catastrophe” or its cognates actually appears in the report.

  24. Chris B says:

    “Our best estimate is that the rate of warming since the 1970s is about 40 per cent faster than was reported in the estimates published in the last IPCC report,” Dr Hausfather said.

    https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2019-01-11/ocean-warming-accelerating-faster-than-thought-science/10693080

    …and the best thing I have read about COP 24 https://kevinanderson.info/blog/capricious-foes-big-sister-high-carbon-plutocrats-irreverent-musings-from-katowices-cop24/

    ….in reality we probably don’t even have 12 years…..maybe -12….enough of this pointless nattering.

  25. Chris,
    There’s a saying I quite like. The best time to start reducing emissions is 30 years ago. The second best time is now. I think this will still be true even if we do – unfortunately – fail to do so in the next 12 years.

  26. I read quite a number of press articles on the 12-year talking point trying to understand where it comes from. None of them offered any information/justification of the number, which was often in the headline.

    Someone offered that the IPCC comparing 1.5°C and 2°C of warming did not produce anything useful for journalists. One of them came up with the 12 years until catastrophe and they all jumped into that void. Given coverage of climate sceptical politicians I do not have the impression that the main stream media is running a campaign to solve the problem, but they do look for catchy stories people will want to read, click on.

    The IPCC does not do PR, but maybe it would be good to try to come up with some talking points ourselves to avoid really bad ones popping up instead; journalists can still come up with their own, but it would be good to have a back stop (hopefully that word is not burned).

  27. Victor,

    The IPCC does not do PR, but maybe it would be good to try to come up with some talking points ourselves to avoid really bad ones popping up instead; journalists can still come up with their own, but it would be good to have a back stop (hopefully that word is not burned).

    Interesting idea. Maybe there is some merit in trying to develop some talking point that have the potential to be sticky, but that are at least consistent with the evidence.

  28. Another issue is that the 12 years is simply based on how much longer we can keep emitting at the current rate until we’ve used up the estimated carbon budget that would give us a reasonable chance of keeping warming below 1.5°C.

    That is what I had expected reading the headlines, but like I wrote above the press articles did not offer that justification (nor any other).

    The IPCC report does have estimates of how big the remaining carbon budget is compared to current annual emissions. Scientist can make such a simple question complicated and they offer a range of values; 12 years is the right ball park, but that exact number is not in the report. So then the journalists would have made it up.

    My best guess is that journalists started with the 12 year talking point because the report mentions that it is *likely* that we will cross the 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052. 2030 being 12 years in the future.
    https://variable-variability.blogspot.com/2018/12/no-we-do-not-have-only-12-years-to-stop-climate-change.html

    That way the number at least has some justification, but …
    1) The range of 2030 to 2052 is *likely*, a *very likely* range would have been wider.
    2) It makes no sense to take the first year of the range, if you want to simplify, please use the mean (that I have to say this).
    3) Crossing the 1.5°C once is not the relevant metric, we are talking about 1.5°C long-term warming, not about the weather noise.
    4) While I would very much love to stay below this level, we do not crash into a wall when we cross it, there is not a sudden catastrophe while before everything was fine.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.