This past Monday Randall Munroe posted a beautifully done timeline of the Earth's average temperature since the last glaciation on xkcd. It's beautifully crafted, but...
scroll down and enjoy and I'll pick up on the other side..
I first became aware of global warming in the mid 80s. Back then I was interested in the climatic impact of limited to mid-sized nuclear exchanges. Many physicists were pushing for large stockpile reductions when Star Wars was taken up by Ronald Reagan. Computation had advanced to the point where non-trivial climate models were possible. Some folks at NASA and elsewhere started using them to study human caused - anthropomorphic - global warming with James Hansen testifying before Congress in 1987. I started following it, but the science wasn't well settled in my mind for another decade. By 2000 it was becoming very clear the effect was real and more alarming than Hansen had predicted. For me it had become one of two preventable existential level threats. I had to do something.
Talking to people and looking at television, newspapers and magazines I saw the subject was very muddled with some organizations pumping out misinformation. Most of the energy we command comes from fossil fuels and their combustion was the major source of the greenhouse gases that were tipping the scale. Physicists are heavily focused on energy so I thought a clear soup to nuts discussion of energy on a non-technical level would be valuable. I had a chance to give a serious of talks to some non-technical audiences and found a good deal of interest... the talks would run an hour, but the Q&A sessions were longer. I looked around for good books and found anything useful to be too technical for most readers. That started me on a book project in my spare time.
There were problems I didn't recognize at the time. I like to think that I can drill deeply into a problem and understand it deeply enough to gain a bit of insight. Of course that isn't always true. I had assumed that education was a useful path and that the focus should be on energy. Both were mistakes caused by a poor understanding of the problem. And so my education began...
I wasted a lot of time and that of a friend who was helping as the concerned non-technical person. Writing to the right level and covering the right ground wasn't working with painful rewrites combined a sense of failure At the same time the talks were well received and the Q&As were becoming learning experiences for me. I was building toward an epiphany.
During the session following a talk before a few hundred animators in Burbank someone identified himself as Blackfoot .. a fellow Montanan. I had been talking about climate cycles with very long periods .. explanations for ice ages and the like. a medicine wheel ... he went on to explain that the tradition he was from believed in cycles of many things dictated by the turning of medicine wheels and how he was struck by the similarity of what I was saying. We had very different explanations for something in Nature. Mine was empirical - his not, but the impact through our eyes was similar. We were talking about something that might be a source of friction if approached as I would be tempted... but this was a breakthrough for me - a reason for conversation.
I watched as he talked... several hundred people - people who tell stories - giving him full attention for ten minutes. We are indeed narravores. He finished and I decided to kill the rest of my talk... They were the story tellers and should have been teaching me. I told them I probably couldn't make a difference, but maybe they could. They were the reason why I was a vegetarian.. not a bad trick considering where I was from. They made Bambi and that raised some questions that changed my worldview.
What followed was a real education into the social problem of global warming. I still have a deep interest in the science and technology component but I'm not a technosolutionist. I could talk for days on the subject now, but just a few points.
Shortly after this I came across an interesting piece of work out of Yale - the Six Americas Project.1 The population is segmented into six groups based on their level of global warming concern: the alarmed, the concerned, the cautious, the unconcerned, the doubtful and the dismissive. The alarmed believe this is of fundamental importance, but none of the other groups would raise it to a level demanding immediate attention. Furthermore the doubtful and dismissive are so fixated in disbelief that the presentation of fact only hardens their view. The hardening is largely independent of their education level. Similar work has been done for many other areas. It is not a liberal vs conservative thing, although conservatives tend to be doubters and dismissive as their party has hitched its fortune to burning fossil fuels. Some liberals take evidence conflicting positions in areas like vaccinations and GMO safety.. Of course these unscientific positions are distributions.
I'm naturally disturbed by the amount of global warming disinformation and it is in my nature to debunk it. Unfortunately this turns into a game of whack-a-mole. You can spend a lot of time debunking, but the doubtfuls and dismissives don't buy what you've said and through up several new bits of pseudo-science. It is a losing game I've wasted too much time on. It turns out the concerned group is the largest single segment of the population. Combined with the alarmed it is now a slight majority. A better use of time is to ignore the doubters and focus on the concerned.
Another epiphany came from a conversation with a businessman from Texas. Early on I could tell I had to hold my cards closely - he was ranting on the nanny state and know-nothing scientists and their atheist ways continuing on to racist comments about our President. But he was focused on wind energy and power transmission. He had been in the business of connecting bits of the electric grid to bring the economy of scale to parts of Texas and Oklahoma .. at first with coal fired plants. Now he was into wind turbines and was ecstatic about the potential money to be had in transmission and interconnection. He told me he was doing eight figure a year business with a staff of ten. Both of us want to see more efficient power transmission and the connection of alternate energy sources like wind and solar. Our positions on global warming are diametrically opposed, but both approaches lower carbon emissions. I could only wish him great success.
Finally one needs hope. A good deal of warming is baked into the next several decades and that is and will be a disaster. It would have been nice if we had taken serious steps twenty years ago. Mitigation is much less expensive than adaptation. While it is still important to make dramatic carbon emission cuts rather than just throwing in the towel, some brilliant approaches to adaptation are emerging. I'm running out of time, but carefully controlled underbrush and new growth burns can lead to greater carbon sequestration and much better water control. This is beginning to work in parts of the West.
So much more around storytelling and empathy .. Alan Alda's empathy approach using tools of story telling and the theater vs the NSF's sound-biteable news releases ... guess which one I like?
I'm beginning so see more of the problem now. Several new questions have emerged and dealing with them brings great intellectual satisfaction. Hopefully there will be a modest contribution to a solution, but the experience reminds me of the importance of deeply understanding a problem. Sometimes the only way to see a larger picture is to make a serious of mistakes as you forge ahead with your early ideas even though they're wrong.
And Randall's beautiful graphic? It is just a sermon, a rather lovely sermon, to the converted... And for those who can trust the nearly universal consensus result of researchers this graphic put together by NASA is good.
1 A good deal of research has been published by the Yale group as well as a few other organizations. A nice high level overview is Global Warmings 'Six Americas' (pdf)