Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Publicity Issues in Environment when Addressing Global Warming

There appears to be a multi-step procedure that a number of environmentalists believe is the path to successfully addressing global warming:

1. Successfully defeat both the false equivalency narrative that the media uses in environmental stories and the sheer lack of environmental stories due to a lack of ‘sexiness’ in the topic; note that this step excludes News Corp entities for obvious reasons.

2. With a more focused and honest media as an ally, convince the U.S. public that global warming is chiefly the product of humans releasing CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and that addressing this problem is extremely important;

3. Convince the public to become high priority environmental voters leading to the elimination of political barriers to enacting positive environmental carbon mitigation solutions;

4. Reduce U.S. carbon emissions entering international climate talks with better leverage to get other high carbon emitting ‘developing’ nations to reduce their emissions as well;

5. The global community follows the examples of Europe and the U.S. and begins heavy mitigation programs for CO2 avoiding a vast majority of the detrimental conditions of global warming.

Unfortunately there appear to be some outstanding issues:

Some believe that the key element to accomplishing step 1 appears to be the formation of some form of ‘Climate Rapid Response Team’ that would comment on the accuracy of all media stories about climate change and highlight the importance of the issue itself. However, how is this team supposed to be effective? It could be a counter measure to the legion of deniers who also comment on these stories, but to those few that can still be convinced it more than likely will be like two people just shouting at each other.

Obviously it will not be that simple or equivalent, but it will seem like it to most. Also how has criticism addressed story coverage in the near past? Look at how PBS responded to significant criticism about a recent interview with James Watt in their program ‘Newshour’; is there any reason to suspect that other institutions would respond differently? Maybe a better strategy would be to look at specific reasons for disbelief/denial instead of volume arguments using facts. Basically why do ‘deniers’ deny human influence on global warming in the first place and attack that rationality.

In step 2 after eliminating the false equivalency in the media typically exhibited when reporting on global warming, a number of individuals appear to have the mindset that the media will be a useful tool in convincing people of the severity of global warming, both in magnitude and timing. However, has anyone thought about the potential detriment such a situation would create? Numerous books have been written about how to present information to an audience in effort to increase the probability that the audience is receptive to the validity of that information, but does/will the news media present material on global warming in adherence to these recommendations? If not would getting the media on ‘the side of the climate’ even matter or would it be worse due to cognitive dissidence or backfire effects experienced by those viewers/readers the media would be trying to convince?

Another issue is that people believe discussing the future detrimental consequences of global warming is counterproductive if individuals are not presented with an element of reinforced hope; basically they need to believe that the problems are hard and require work, but are solvable and what those solutions could be. Can the news media accomplish this within their 3-5 minute subject sessions? What strategies do people have to enhance the communication abilities of the media based on the operational time restrictions of the media? Clearly it is not as easy as writing a letter to the editor instructing editors and anchors on what to do and just expecting it to happen.

Reliance on the media is an understandable issue because of the perceived influence, but is that the best way? How many environmentalists have tried to communicate in a reasonable and controlled manner with the local community where they live? For example how many have simply set up a booth in a public area with a sign reading ‘Learn how global warming will affect you and your family in the next five years’ then present this information in a Q & A to anyone who approaches and asks for clarification. To those who negatively respond presenters would ask why they do not believe in the severity of global warming and address that reasoning. Face-to-face communication is more effective than using the news media or the Internet. One wonders why an organization like 350.org does not have periodic ‘information days’ when it plans activities for its members to execute strategies like the one discussed above instead of simply focusing on small single year projects, which receive almost no media attention or small-scale protests.

Step 3 is actually quite difficult because even after getting people to accept the reality that humans are the driving force behind global warming, getting people to adjust their priorities to addressing global warming will still be difficult because environmental consequences, despite their severity, are longer term than most consequences associated with other societal problems like income inequality, hunger and education gaps (note that list only includes non-superficial ‘problems’). Arguments regarding protecting children and creating a more stable economy through the expansion of ‘green’ jobs have been made nearly incessantly and yet have had only a marginal effect, if any, on changing the attitude of importance for the public regarding the environment. Polling information frequently lists the environment as a low concern versus economy, taxes, corruption in Congress, terrorism, education, etc. People can blame the misinformation campaign by the deniers, but that really is just a cop-out excuse because the majority of humans had little respect for the environment before there was such an organized and aggressive campaign against it.

As regrettable as it sounds popular opinion appears more influenced by celebrities than policy makers. To that end where are the younger celebrity environmentalists? It seems like every major celebrity who is characterized as ‘green’ is over the age of 30 and individuals like Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Ed Begley Jr., etc have little influence with the younger generation. The ‘green’ characterization for the very rare younger ones seems to only extend to being vegans, not exactly helpful when trying to drive public opinion in favor of environmental policies. Has the environmental movement attempted to court individuals like Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Emma Watson, Zac Efron, etc? Modern society can be disconcerting when it can be reasonably argued that Taylor Swift is more influential than James Hansen, but that appears to be the choice society has made at this point in time, especially when noting the demographic represented by the fans of the above individuals and what type of voting block they may become in the future. Celebrities can also tap into the media because the media would care if Taylor Swift donates five concert gates to the International Biochar Initiative (IBI), but the media clearly does not care if Joe Smith donates an equal amount of money to the IBI.

Step 4 has two difficult questions: first, suppose the U.S. continues to cut CO2 emissions similar to the general trend that has emerged in recent years (which appears to have moved beyond a simple recession response)? Conventional wisdom states that this should give the U.S. a better negotiating position in international climate treaty conferences, but is that mindset accurate? It is true that the high emission ‘developing’ nations have a ‘you first’ mentality towards the developed nations, but that is really only an excuse, not a condition and even if it were a condition it would not be the only condition.

Another ‘condition’ is that the developed world provides funds to the ‘developing’ world to convert their energy infrastructure from high emission to low emission. However, even if the developed world would agree to such a condition would a climate treaty be attained? The chief obstacle for emission reduction in ‘developing’ countries is that coal, natural gas and oil are directly tied to economic development. Regardless of the economic growth surrounding green jobs and the development of a renewable infrastructure, short-term economic growth will suffer during the transition and the governments in India, China, Russia, Brazil, etc. do not appear to be willing to sacrifice short-term growth for increased growth potential in the future; the principle reason is that these leaders do not appear confident that they will maintain power through the energy infrastructure transition, so they are not interested in executing it with any appropriate level of speed. Appealing to their sense of morality as an actor in the global community has been a failure as the President of the Maldives can attest. So what is the argument to move them off of this stance?

Assume one actually makes an effective argument that leads these leaders to aggressively address carbon mitigation, how does that mitigation proceed? Clearly some argue rapid deployment of solar and wind technology, but is this the right choice? Decentralization of solar power should be an instant non-starter with anyone who is against nuclear due to costs because decentralized solar power infrastructure will cost more than a centralized nuclear one as well as be largely regressive in that cost. Remember if solar power is the chief energy medium with a decentralized characterization no one will be paying for excess energy, thus how are the poor going to afford $20,000 - $30,000 systems plus the storage elements that will be required to avoid rolling blackouts?

For a centralized ‘base-load’ solar system there are some significant concerns that have yet to be adequately addressed by solar proponents such as:

1) How much additional solar distribution will be required after the sky is filled with sulfur creating a much larger percentage of diffuse sunlight? For individuals who think that such a solar radiation management technique will not be utilized then these individuals are extremely optimistic about the reaction of the environment to future warming (which based on ice melt in the Arctic does not appear to be appropriate) and optimistic about the rate of future carbon mitigation (which also does not appear to be appropriate).

2) How will costs and production of wind and solar deployment be managed when access to rare earths is not longer economical? Wind only makes up about 1-1.5% of the global energy mix and solar makes up 0.1-0.2% and yet individuals who specialize in rare earths are already questioning a shortage both in supply and production capacity? How can enough economical access to rare earths be generated to cover scenarios where wind represents 25-30% of the global energy mix and solar makes up 50%+ like their proponents desire?

3) How will solar and wind proponents address intermittence relative to scale? While solar and wind proponents must hate continuing to about intermittence it is the biggest weakness of these energy providers. Simply citing a solar plant like Gemasolar and its molten salt storage system as the solution to intermittence is lazy and irrational. Gemasolar is only provides 19.9 MW and no rational person can conclude that an effective solar infrastructure can be developed by building millions of 20-50 MW solar plants, thus these small proof-of-concept plants cannot be touted as the solution to the intermittence problem. So where is the storage scale-up? One must be careful about using electrical cars as a dependable battery source due to rare earth shortage issues as well as a significant lack of confidence in their societal penetration (currently for 2011-2012 annual sales in the U.S. are only slightly above 25,000 units between the Leaf, Volt and Prius Plug-Ins). The use of biomass is questionable due to feedstock source issues and natural gas defeats the entire point of emission reduction because the global community needs to attain close to zero carbon emissions. What other cost-effective options exist?

Note that these are only the three most pertinent issues with solar and wind becoming baseload as transmission losses and redundancy issues also exist. Overall the trepidation of solar and wind proponents to examine the legitimacy of these energy mediums in a non-fossil fuel environment is troubling because either they realize there are very tough issues of scale and technology and do not like the answers they will initially receive or they are just lazy.

There are two further side issues on working with publicizing the importance of the environment is reasserting the emotional connection between it and humans. First, perhaps it would be useful to create another Walden-type book. I have yet to see any book described as ‘the modern Walden’. Sure you see the occasional blogger go off-line for one month or some other insignificant time period, but these individuals are typically still in an urban environment eliminating any real environmental connection. What if the environmental movement could organize a group of individuals to create the backbone for a modern multicultural ‘Walden’? Recruit 20 or so individuals from multiple countries (U.S., China, India, Australia, Brazil, South Africa, Russia, the Netherlands, etc.) and arrange it so they go out in the ‘wilderness’ for a period of time (six months?) with nothing but some form of shelter, adequate food supplies (this is not the 1800s they should not be expected to forage for food) and a paper journal. Then use writings from their journals to create another Walden-type book, which would hopefully establish/restore an emotional connection between the environment and society.

Second is the lack of a centralized location for underlying how society is evolving from a fossil fuel energy infrastructure to a trace carbon emission energy infrastructure. Most people outside of very specific industries have little idea how this transition is progressing and how technology is changing; their only main exposure are small 3-5 minute somewhat poorly produced print or on-air media reports on some ‘new’ technology in a lab environment that will magically save the world. If the environmental movement wants to increase the probability of an efficient transition they need to provide more detailed resources to the general public.

One way this idea can be achieved is by creating a ‘clearinghouse’ website of sorts where information on various topics is collected and presented in a transparent, properly cited, organized and objective manner. For example if someone wanted to see the current state of smart grid penetration in the U.S. they could go to this website and see a map of the U.S. outlining penetration, reasons why certain areas are struggling with installation, positive outcomes from installations from certain regions, negative outcomes in those same reasons, etc. This would raise interest for the public because they would not have to rely on searching google or bing and then sorting through thousands of irrelevant material to determine penetration and why.

This website should also act as a storage site for research papers. When a new peer-reviewed research paper is produced for a topic like solar energy, nuclear energy, wind energy, geothermal energy, geo-engineering, etc. it should be archived at this website, so individuals can see new research without having to rely on its presentation on a climate website or a spontaneous search using something like google scholar. Overall such a method would improve the understanding and ability of the public to rally behind infrastructure improvements because it would eliminate a significant portion of the uncertainty and mystery behind them while limiting the amount of work that the public would have to conduct to acquire that information.

Overall the biggest problem with the perceived strategy of environmentalists as presented at the beginning of this post is that it appears too simplistic. Environmentalists seem to presume certain elements naturally falling into place when there is no legitimate reason to come to those conclusions. It is not clear if this thought process is driven by laziness or hopefulness. The problem of global warming is expansive and quite serious and environmentalists need to understand that specifics solve problems while generalities perpetuate them. Challenging one’s opinions on how to address these problems is essential to finding a working solution over simply assuming one’s own solution is correct.

No comments:

Post a Comment