Latest on climate, followed by metaphors to help communication

By Andrea Germano

The “shit is hitting is the fan,” said noted climate scientist James Hansen, countering “this narrative out there…that we have turned the corner on dealing with the climate problem.”

Hansen is lead author of a new study that warns that there “is no time to delay” on climate change efforts and argues that they must go beyond just slashing emissions of CO2—”the dominant control knob on global temperature”—to extracting CO2 from the air, or “negative emissions.”

The team of international researchers writes that “the world has overshot appropriate targets”—a conclusion that “is sufficiently grim to compel us to point out that pathways to rapid emission reductions are feasible.”

The goal, they write, should be getting atmospheric CO2 reduced to less than 350 parts per million (ppm), as that would lead to global average temperatures decreasing to about 1 degree Celsius of warming relative to pre-industrial levels later this century.

The Paris climate accord, in contrast, has a goal of keeping global average temperature increase to under 2 degrees Celsius, and an aspiration 1.5 degrees of warming. But, they argue, the problem with those targets is that they are far above the Holocene [the epoch that began after the last Ice Age] temperature range. If such temperature levels are allowed to long exist they will spur “slow” amplifying feed-backs, which have potential to run out of humanity’s control. The most threatening slow feedback likely is ice sheet melt and consequent significant sea level rise, as occurred in the Eemian [the prior interglacial period], but there are other risks in pushing the climate system far out of its Holocene range.

For a safer scenario that limits irreversible climate impacts, what needs to happen is a “rapid phase-down of fossil fuel emissions,” bringing the rate of emissions right away to 6 percent a year, alongside reforestation and agricultural practices that draw carbon from the atmosphere into the soil.

On the other hand, if CO2 emissions grow at a rate of 2 percent a year—that’s a slower rate than the 2.6 percent they grew each year from 2000 to 2015—it could result in a costly scenario. It could rack up a CO2 extraction bill of $535 trillion by 2100—an “extraordinary cost” that “suggest[s] that, rather than the world being able to buy its way out of climate change, continued high emissions would likely force humanity to live with climate change running out of control with all the consequences that would entail,” the researchers write.

Also, technological CO2 extraction methods have “large risks and uncertain feasibility,” they point out.

In other words, “if large fossil fuel emissions are allowed to continue, the scale and cost of industrial CO2 extraction, occurring in conjunction with a deteriorating climate and costly dislocations, may become unmanageable. Simply put, the burden placed on young people and future generations may become too heavy to bear.”

The burden on young people is a key part of the new report, as it is meant to bolster a case brought by a group of youth who argue that the U.S. government has violated their constitutional rights by failing to act on climate change. Hansen’s granddaughter Sophie Kivlehan is among the plaintiffs.

“It is apparent that governments are leaving this problem on the shoulders of young people. This will not be easy or inexpensive,” Hansen said in a press statement.

“We wanted to quantify the burden that is being left for young people, to support not only the legal case against the U.S. government, but also many other cases that can be brought against other governments,” he said.

“Continued high fossil fuel emissions would saddle young people with a massive, expensive cleanup problem and growing deleterious climate impacts, which should provide incentive and obligation for governments to alter energy policies without further delay,” he added.

Of the case, Juliana v. United States, historian Jeremy Brecher has written that it “is shaping up to be not only a historic trial of the culpability of the U.S. government for destruction of the earth’s climate, but of the power of courts to protect our rights.”

“We can and must support the efforts of the climate kids both in court and in every arena where decisions affecting the future of our climate are made,” Brecher wrote.

The peer-reviewed study was published Tuesday in Earth System Dynamics, a journal of the European Geosciences Union.

This post originally appeared on Common Dreams and has been republished here under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Metaphors Can Counter Misinformation about Climate Change

This is the fifth post in a series about framing ocean and climate change.

Our ability to communicate the science of climate change to the public is as important as ever. The outcome of the recent presidential and congressional elections and the state of public discourse around the environment reflect and reinforce misunderstanding and skepticism of climate change. Polls show that Americans are unsure of its causes and consequences, and many don’t trust scientific information about it. Our work, in short, is cut out for us.

The good news: Research shows that “explanatory metaphors”—linguistic devices that simplify complex concepts and facilitate understanding of social issues—can help.

The FrameWorks Institute, a communications think tank in Washington, DC, teamed up with the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI) to develop an evidence-based strategy to communicate—or frame—climate and ocean change. This meta-narrative has the power to help the public understand climate change, correct misinformation about it, and boost support for the systemic solutions needed to address it.

To conduct the research, FrameWorks interviewed experts and members of the public about climate and ocean change and compared the differences in understanding between them. The findings—and their implications for advocates and experts—were summarized in the first and second posts in this series. FrameWorks also designed and tested frames and frame elements that enhance public understanding and motivate people to take action to support systemic solutions. These findings were summarized in the third and fourth posts in this series.

This post explores findings related to a set of explanatory metaphors—Heat-Trapping Blanket and Regular & Rampant Carbon Dioxide—that FrameWorks developed to explain the causes of climate change and to guide thinking to support for the systemic changes needed to address it. Advocates and experts can use these metaphors to navigate a number of cultural models—widely shared beliefs and understandings about how things work—that are at odds with the science of climate change.

Americans, for example:

·         Are unlikely to name fossil fuel use as the underlying cause of climate change;

·         Confuse the cause of climate change with “the hole in the ozone layer” and confuse carbon dioxide with carbon monoxide; and

·         Assume that because carbon dioxide is “natural,” it can’t be harmful to the environment.

These models have significant implications for those advocating for solutions to climate change.  For example, people haven’t heard of ocean acidification, but once they do, they assume it is caused by “unnatural pollutants” rather than rising levels of carbon dioxide, the main cause of the problem. This undermines support for solutions that have the potential to make real and lasting change. As another example, people tend to lump climate change with other environmental challenges, and therefore support solutions like recycling and turning out the lights but not necessarily the systematic or policy solutions that “match” the size, scale, and scope of the problem. These models also contribute to fatalistic attitudes about climate change—that the problem is too big to fix.

FrameWorks has found that Heat-Trapping Blanket and Regular & Rampant CO2can overcome these models. They engage the public and encourage productive thinking about how climate change works and the large-scale solutions needed to address it.

Comparing global warming to a blanket focuses people’s attention on the underlying causes and mechanisms of climate change. It is also “stickier”—or more memorable—than comparing it to a “greenhouse” gas, the dominant metaphor in the field. FrameWorks found that people were more likely to repeat and reason about climate change using language from the blanket domain than with language related to greenhouses. An example of the metaphor follows:

When we burn fossil fuels for energy, such as coal, oil, or natural gas, we release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a gas that traps heat. As CO2 builds up, it acts like a blanket, trapping in heat that would otherwise escape. This “blanket effect” is warming the planet’s atmosphere, disrupting the balance that keeps the climate stable. 

Despite the metaphor’s strong frame effects, subsequent research showed that advocates needed an additional tool to reframe public understanding of carbon dioxide. People were having difficulty reconciling its essential role in human, plant, and animal life with its disruptive role in the climate. Moreover, the blanket metaphor did not help people understand the problem of ocean acidification. To address these problems, FrameWorks developed a taxonomy that compares normal levels of carbon dioxide with anthropogenic carbon dioxide:

Some carbon dioxide, or CO2, is needed for life processes. We can call this “regular CO2.” But CO2 is not just something that we breathe out and plants take in. It’s also something that gets put into the air when we use any kind of fossil fuel—when we burn coal to create electricity, or use oil to fuel transportation or manufacturing. These things are putting a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere and oceans. We can call this Rampant CObecause there’s too much of it and it’s getting out of control. Rampant CO2 accumulates in places like the ocean, and causes a number of problems in the climate and ecosystems. There will always be regular levels of carbon dioxide, but we need to start reducing rampant levels of carbon dioxide. 

This comparison helped people understand the difference between normal and harmful levels of carbon dioxide. People were able to grasp an important nuance between the role of CO2 in respiration and photosynthesis and its role in trapping heat in the planet’s atmosphere. The metaphor also improved understanding and attitudes related to the climate system and ocean acidification. One important note: FrameWorks advises communicators to fully explain the taxonomy of carbon dioxide rather than to simply use the word rampant as an adjective.

This pair of tools offers communicators thoroughly tested ways to establish a sound causal understanding and head off dominant misconceptions about climate change. The sixth and final post in this series will address a last frame element: solutions-oriented discussions.

For more information about how and why these metaphors advance and enhance environmental communications, read How to Talk about Climate Change and the Ocean; download these “reframe cards” for a summary of tested frame elements; and watch a short video of reframes in action. Click here for more resources about effective environmental communications frames.

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