Sunday, March 18, 2012

Surveying the citizenry on climate change; or, Sierra Club members are the finest people

(Note to the literal: the title of this post is hyperbole, stemming from my astonished appreciation of the group's level of cooperation; to make it literal, it needs the word "among". Edits to intro and end, 3/21, and to this note, 3/22.)

On Friday night our community Sierra Club group met at Seaman's Lodge in Nevada City.  Many thanks to the speaker for an interesting and well attended presentation, and many thanks to the attendees for being astoundingly patient and cooperative when I burdened them with an inadequately tested two-page homegrown climate survey, aka climate literacy quiz.

Here are the questions plus extremely casual "eyeball" reports of the answers given, followed by the answer I'd provide. (Given the less than ideal questions, an informal report seemed better.)

(I meant for the questions to comprise a sort of "ultra climate literacy" test.  I'd be curious to know what information that's important for a voter to know was not addressed, and also what questions could be cut.  And I'd like to know if I have any of the answers wrong.

Afterward I have a few more notes about the context; and some "meta" questions.

Questions and answers:

* What one source do you most rely on, for information about global warming?

The question was too vague; some answered giving  media types like Internet, TV, books, newspapers.

(Each of these media types has good and bad resources; unfortunately, even the BBC is offering misleading (though literally correct) climate information at their climate page, saying that "Human activities...add greenhouse gases to the ...atmosphere and  potentially warm the atmosphere more than normal." (potentially?)  (The page then recommends that you "Visit BBC Weather to learn more about climate science", which implies a conflation of weather with climate, plus when I made a cursory visit to BBC Weather I noticed no climate information.)

 (And Google is problematic on socially contentious topics, and doesn't appear overly concerned about this.)

Other responses gave specific sources, such as Sierra Club, NPR, McKibben,, NRDC, Democracy Now, American Solar Energy Society, Union of Concerned Scientists, NYTimes's Dot Earth blog, and (by word of mouth) the recent William Nordhaus NY Review of Books piece  "Why the Global Warming Skeptics Are Wrong."

Many of these sites are ones I haven't checked out.  Additional resources I'd suggest would be the climatologists' blog RealClimate, effectively as an anchor for the network of resources its authors consider credible, particularly the debunking-and-so-much-more website SkepticalScience; and for now at least, government sites like,  particularly if you're not clear about what sources are credible.

(Our upcoming May speaker recommends two resources: the Global Climate Change U.S. Climate Impacts Report, or more briefly, the whitepaper Climate Change for Policymakers and Business Leaders
co-produced by PG&E chairman Peter A. Darbee and Christopher Field of the Carnegie Institution, which is " executive summary on the "soundness" of climate science, the significance of risks from climate change, what opportunities exist to address the problem through policy and action, and the costs", and "discusses whether appropriate technology exists, what is the cost of inaction, and includes a one-page bibliography of sources on climate science and policy response." (link) )

* Is there still a scientific debate among climate scientists on whether global warming has been occurring in the last hundred years or so?  On whether this warming is primarily human-caused?

Most respondents were clear that the answers were "no" and "no";  and some of the "yes" answers were likely because I hadn't stressed that the venue was "the scientific arena", not the public communication arena.

* What temperature rise is generally treated as a safe upper limit? 

Some said 2 degrees C, others were typically more conservative, down to "Safe? None for humans".
(Answer: 2C is traditionally (?) where the line has been drawn; not so much because it will be safe (see the "Climate scientists wrote" passage below), but because this limit has seemed achievable. (Reference?))

* What are the chances that we'll stay below this limit, if we continue with "business as usual" fossil fuel use?

There was near unanimity on "pretty much none", which is correct.

* Roughly what additional temperature rise  (as a multiple of the rise we've seen so far, since around 1900) should we expect to see by the end of the century, under business as usual?  (There's a lot of uncertainty, so a ballpark number is fine.)

It was a messy question, of the type we hate since it asks for a number, not for meaning.  And it suffered from unit problems.  Answers were typically 2-5 degrees F, with one 10 degrees (kudos to NPR's Science Friday.)
(The answer I was looking for is around a 10F rise;  or if expressed as a multiple, it's roughly 5x the warming we've seen so far.  It could be less, it could be more; uncertainty cuts both ways.)

* Does the uncertainty about temperature rise through this century stem more from uncertainty about how the climate will react to more greenhouse gases, or from uncertainty about how or whether humans will cut greenhouse gas emissions?

Most answered this question, and the vast majority got it right, that the bulk of the uncertainty is about human emissions trajectories.

* Is temperature rise our main concern about increased carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere?    What other concerns are there?

Answers pretty much covered it, including ocean acidification, rising sea levels, species shifts and extinctions, reduced crop yields due to hydrological issues, intense storms.  (Plus: droughts.)

* Does a larger uncertainty argue for waiting until uncertainties are reduced, before acting to regulate CO2 emissions?  Why or why not?

There was unanimity on acting now, e.g. "because it will be harder or impossible to reverse."  Uncertainty is not our friend, plus "the longer stringent emissions reductions are delayed, the more drastic they must be" (link).

* Roughly what proportion of the warming we've experienced in the last 50 years is human-caused?

Most answered, and the answers ranged from 70% up to "all".
"All" is the best estimate.  "Our best estimate is that ALL of the observed warming since 1950 is man-made. But there is some uncertainty from natural climate fluctuations. So it's possible that human have caused a bit more than observed, compensated by natural variation, or a bit less than observed, with natural variations being positive. But in any case we are almost certain that the human contribution is more than three quarters." (Knutti, 2011, pers. comm.)
* In answering questions like this, are we more likely to be correct if we give our own opinion, or the scientific consensus view?

There was near unanimity for science.

* Is an American Meteorological Society-certified  weatherman equipped to communicate about climate science?

Mostly no's and doubtfuls.
(And "no" is correct: unless something has changed recently, an AMS certification does not certify anything about the holder's understanding of climate science.)

* Climate scientists wrote,  "We feel compelled to note that...[a] warming of ...____  stands a strong chance of provoking drought and storm responses that could challenge civilized society, leading potentially to the conflict and suffering that go with failed states and mass migrations. Global warming of this magnitude would leave the Earth warmer than it has been in millions of years, a disruption of climate conditions that have been stable for longer than the history of human agriculture. ...The drought that already afflicts Australia, the crumbling of the sea ice in the Arctic, and the increasing storm damage [are occurring] after only 0.8°C of warming so far..."

What temperature are they referring to?

A very unclear question.  There was great confusion about what I was asking for, which was "2 degrees C". (link)

* For roughly how many generations will our emissions of today continue to influence the earth?

Answers ranged from 5 to 10, 14, 25, "all".  This isn't a direct answer, but "A...shorthand for public discussion might be that CO2 sticks around for hundreds of years, plus 25% ... sticks around forever." (link)

* Roughly what additional temperature rise -- as a proportion of the rise we've seen so far, over the last hundred years or so -- will 7 more years' delay set us up for?

A lot of overestimates.  Basically, the answer is "about an extra half of the rise that we've seen since 1900".

* If we cut our CO2 emissions by 20%, what will happen to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere?    (Increase?    Stay the same?   Decrease?)

There were a fair number of "stay the same" and "decrease", but most went for "increase", which is correct.  It's either a guess, or they understand stocks and flows (which are illustrated in the bathtub metaphor.)

* Which is more effective -- to enact government regulation to cut carbon emissions, or to ask everyone to do their part to live sustainably?

Almost all said regulation; a few wanted to choose both.
(Answer: regulation is most important; see Begley.  Personal "footprint" action is great, but the solution needs to involve government action.)

* If the U.S. does act now to cut its emissions, roughly what % of GDP is this effort estimated to cost?

Most of those who answered this one were actually in the ballpark; which surprised me since other people I've asked tend to guess 15 or 20%.
The answer is, or at least used to be, roughly 2% (Caldeira) or 1% (Skeptical Science).

* What is the argument AGAINST focusing our efforts more on adaptation than on mitigation (cutting emissions)?

Bad wording;  I should have explained the definitions better, and even then, the question could be better worded.   Adaptation means actions taken to live with climate change - building floating houses, higher seawalls, and so on.  Mitigation means actions taken to prevent climate change, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, to prevent more sea level rise.)

"Adaptation is considered to be substantially more expensive than mitigation" (prevention).  Joe Romm says "Real adaptation is as politically tough as real mitigation, but much more expensive and not as effective in reducing future misery."
(But both will now be needed; and when the cost of adaptation was compared to the costs incurred if we don't prepare at all, adaptation was cheaper by half. (link))

(Steve E. draws an important distinction: "If you’re talking to policymakers [and voters - ed.] ... then yes, we have to... keep them focused on mitigation [prevention] – anything else is a dangerous distraction. But for researchers, laying the groundwork for the knowledge and tools we’ll need in the next couple of decades, we need both [adaptation and mitigation]. I’ve even heard arguments at the AGU meeting...that the research on mitigation is done – more research isn’t going to add much to what we now know needs doing. Whereas on the question of impacts and adaptation, we don’t know enough and we’re way behind where we should be.)

* When you hear a neighbor say that volcanoes put out more CO2 than humans do (or don't) you find this claim credible? Why? How can you go about checking it out?

People grasped that it wasn't credible, but were less clear on where to find such information (though one did recommend Wired's "Eruptions" blog for checking the volcano claim.)  "Google" and "Science sites" would work more reliably if there wasn't a disinformation effort; "NASA" was a good answer, but nobody came up with SkepticalScience (the arguments page) or RealClimate(Or, for that matter, Warming 101's custom search...)

* Water vapor is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, yet scientists are more concerned about the impact of our CO2 emissions.  Why is this?

Most didn't know.  Others noted that CO2 is persistent (as mentioned above, it "sticks around for hundreds of years, plus 25%... sticks around forever" (link)), where water vapor isn't.
Also, CO2 acts as the "control knob," since the heat that it traps acts to modulate the amount of water vapor that the atmosphere can hold, trapping more heat (or less, if less H2O).  (SkepticalScience probably addresses the argument better.)

* Acid rain was brought under control by government regulation.  How much did this control turn out to cost, as a % (or multiple) of estimates projected ahead of time?

This question should have been made less specific; the point of it was that controlling such environmental problems via regulation always(?) seems to end up costing much less than the initial estimates. (link)

* Please give suggestions or feedback about these questions.

Replies: It was too long, and the questions were too specific and too complicated, and some were leading questions.  (Also: too vague)
(I'm not sure how to tackle the "leading questions" criticism; if the question takes as a given something that it in fact correct, does it still count as a leading question?  Or did a question take as a given something that was not necessarily correct?)

Context and caveats:

I bribed the respondents by offering to pay $2 into the Club scholarship fund for each survey received.  (You folks are flat-out wonderful.)

I regret to say that I did not have the sense or time to first run the questions by a few people for a shakedown cruise, where I would have found out the problems with the questions.  (Specifics: in retrospect, I should have figured out a way for Qs and As to be clear on degrees F vs. C, and in general it would have been better to convert most of the quiz to multiple choice. )

Also, I'm mostly giving single-link references, often about single studies or quoting a single climate scientist.  If the view or finding is an outlier, then providing it as a reference counts as cherry-picking and is poor practice.  But if it's representative of what other experts have found, I'll consider it fair, that it's a representative example.  To my knowledge the references I've provide are aligned with others' findings; if you know otherwise, please do let me know.

The questions are about the science and a little about policy; to grasp the political lay of the land, read this talk by Rick Piltz, who points out that "the fundamental problem of climate policy is on the political leadership and corporate power side."

Post-quiz questions:

Would anyone be interested in meeting up in a local coffeehouse to discuss the questions, or other climate issues, further?  Meetups are something I'd like to explore.  Also, I'd still like to find someone to take the online U. of Chicago Climate 101 course with, so if you might be interested in either, say so in the comments please.

And what areas should I have covered, that I missed?  Here are some:
  1. Solutions, and their relative costs, pros and cons (recommendation: Krugman's "green economy" piece)
  2. The relative risk of going down a wrong "policy" path, versus further delaying action. (Reference?)
  3. What root or roots feed this problem, and how might we tackle them? (The Rootstrikers metaphor; simple changes that cut into the problem's power)
  4. What is science literacy?  As in, "A person who has science literacy is equipped to _____ " (the most important task) (link)
  5. The credibility spectrum ( in science, conclusions reached by groups of experts will typically be the most solid), and why it works; who to believe? (asked and considered here)
  6. The distinction between science and PR, or between thinking as a scientist and thinking as an attorney
  7. ?

1 comment:

Don Pelton said...

Great work here, Anna. Jane and I -- though we planned to go -- missed the meeting, and so missed this version of the question set.

Thank you for doing this.