You Need More Than A Weather Man to Tell Which Way the Wind Is Blowing

A new poll indicates that a large majority of Americans are linking this year’s unusual weather to global warming. Several weeks ago we were part of a fascinating high level conversation aimed at leveraging this development to deepen support for efforts to combat climate change in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

On the weekend of March 30th, Town Creek grantee Climate Central convened a workshop at the Robert Morris Inn in Oxford to promote more effective use of broadcast weather reports as a platform for educating and informing the public about climate change.

Although it may be tempting to assume that the public views meteorologists with skepticism, they are in fact a consistent and trusted source of important, practical information. They also provide the only consistent contact that many Americans have with science and scientists.

While there has been considerable attention focused on the existence of climate change skepticism and denial within the meteorological community there are a good number of meteorologists who are eager to use their platform to educate and inform the public about the risks and impacts of a changing climate. Doing so carries some measure of professional risk, however, and they are accordingly eager to insure that their scientific messages are as bullet – proof as possible.

In response, Climate Central has developed a program to provide broadcast meteorologists with compelling and scientifically sound climate change content that they can incorporate into their work. This program was piloted in South Carolina, and with our help it is now being deployed in the Chesapeake region.

The March workshop brought together a group of nationally prominent climate scientists with a group of television meteorologists from across the Bay watershed.  The scientists (including Kerry Emmanuel from MIT, Donald Boesch from the University of Maryland, Tony Broccoli from Rutgers University, and Judith Lean from the Naval Research Laboratory) provided primers on climate science, took questions from the meteorologists, and engaged in an open and wide ranging discussion about the challenges and opportunities associated with this work.

The group included a broad range of meteorologists, including big market voices who have asserted leadership as climate change communicators (Bob Ryan from WJLA in Washington D.C.; Glenn “Hurricane” Schwartz, from NBC10 in Philadelphia) as well as meteorologists operating in smaller, more conservative markets (like Marc Adamo and Stephanie Allison from WMDT-TV in Salisbury and Sean Sublette from WSET/ABC13 in Lynchburg VA).

We are enthusiastically supporting this work due to our interest in helping to insure that Maryland meets its greenhouse gas emissions goals. For a number of years Maryland has been a national leader in advancing policies to reduce pollution from power plants and cars, and to promote energy efficiency and renewables. This admirable record of achievement culminated in passage of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act of 2009, establishing a goal for the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 25% by the year 2020.

Despite these successes, we are nagged by the suspicion that public support for energy efficiency and clean energy is not as broad and deep as it needs to be. We are therefore eager to help strengthen advocates’ capacity for effective climate change communications.

Given the increasing evidence of a link between extreme weather events and climate change   local weather broadcasts constitute a potentially powerful platform for engaging the public on global warming.  We were encouraged by the interactions that we witnessed between the scientists and the meteorologists, and we are hopeful that Climate Central’s intervention will help move the needle on climate change opinion in the Bay watershed.

We must confess to a bit of anxiety, however, about the inclination – on the part of the scientists as well as the meteorologists – to emphasize the importance of depoliticizing climate conversations. We recognize the motivation, of course, but we worry that attempting to depoliticize climate conversations can be a bit like taking a knife to a gunfight.

Professor Daniel Kahan and his colleagues at the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School  have shown how the communication of scientific information tends to get refracted through a cultural lens in a process which leads people to endorse whichever position reinforces their connection to others with whom they share important commitments:

“Like fans at a sporting contest”, they write, ” people deal with evidence selectively to promote their emotional interest in their group. On issues ranging from climate change to gun control, from synthetic biology to counter terrorism, they take their cues about what they should feel, and hence believe, from the cheers and boos of the home crowd”.

To the extent that this is the case it makes the job of communicating climate change science perhaps even more difficult than our climate scientists and meteorologists suspect. If the ideological refraction is always already there, then depoliticizing the discourse may have limited value.

Kahan’s advice is that we are more likely to get a better reception for scientific information if it is presented in a way that reinforces the cultural values and identity commitments of the audience.  In a number of communications experiments Kahan and his colleagues have found that invoking keywords, framing and even visual cues can make all the difference in generating acceptance of scientific information.

(This sort of ideological jiu jitsu  – in which we seek to reverse the ideological charge of the message by cloaking it in comfortably recognizable garb –  is quite familiar in an environmental community that has fallen in love with the mobilization of ‘unusual suspects’ (e.g. farmers, watermen, Republicans, 1%ers) as messengers).

This may be a useful tactic but we have our doubts about its strategic soundness. If climate change is – as it appears to be – the paradigmatic example of the planet rebelling against its political, economic, and ideological operating systems, then we are not going to solve it by agreeing to disagree about politics, economics, and ideology. (Or, worse yet, by pretending that we agree). Our opponents recognize this, and that’s why, in their communications, they seek to stoke the political and ideological fires that Kahan and others would have us douse.

Climate change is a transformational challenge that will ultimately require us to remake – not accommodate –  its political, economic, and  ideological conditions. This does not mean that climate scientists and meteorologists need to pick up ideological arms.

But it does mean that someone has to.

Why can’t we be friends?

Last week I read an article posted by an environmental group on the killing of two California sea lions at a dam out west because they were eating endangered wild salmon.  The post was written to evoke emotion and generate a public outcry against the policy instated by the government to cull approximately 92 California sea lions each year for the protection of the endangered wild salmon stocks.

And frankly the post succeeded in what it was meant to do – I was immediately outraged over the incident and the actions of wildlife officials.  The post drove me to write my own blog on this issue.  At the time I thought I was smarter than falling for a biased and strategically written article posted by a more radical environmental group.  So instead I found a similar article published by the Huffington Post.  I figured this was my way of ensuring my blog had credit and more accurate scientific facts in opposing the action of wildlife officials.

And naturally, not to base a blog post on one singular article, I started looking for other sources to support my argument.  But, in doing so I realized there was a lot more to the story than strategically placed statistics to support one argument (regardless of the source).

The recovery measures in place for threatened and endangered species are comprehensive and look at all aspects, natural and man-made, that are impacting the survival of the species.   But articles such as the ones I read do not include the full story.

Yes, the California sea lion is protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.  And yes, according to some sources the loss of endangered wild salmon to sea lion predation is smaller than that of commercial fishing and the construction of dams.

But the articles fail to address the other side:

  • Currently, this species of sea lion is in no real danger of becoming threatened, let alone endangered.
  • Additionally, this is not the only method being used by wildlife officials to improve the survivability of endangered salmon stocks.  It is just one of the many methods currently being used.

The articles were written in such a way to make it seem as if this was the only method used.  But it is not.  The endangered status of wild salmon stocks is from a multitude of complex factors, both man-made and natural.  The culling of the California sea lion is just one of many tactics employed to improve the status of the salmon.

It is extremely unfortunate that we have destroyed our environment to such a degree that we have to control the population of one species for the chance of survival of another.  But that is the reality of the world we live in now.

News outlets write a story with a hook, with a purpose, all to generate viewership and ratings.  That in and of itself is an issue when developing an opinion on a topic without any comprehensive research.

But, there is another issue I have realized with the topic of the California sea lion and wild salmon stocks.  An environmental group posted the original article I read.  You would have thought by the way the post was skewed that they were writing about the enemy, when in reality they were writing about other environmentalists working out in the field.

Why are we attacking our own kind?  These are wildlife officials that are looking out for the survival of a species.  They are proponents of the environment.  In the world we live in environmental protection comes with compromise.

There are a lot of hard decisions that have to be made on the fate of the environment.  But, if environmentalists fail to look at things from another’s perspective and realize at the end of the day we are all on the same side how are we going to succeed in saving the environment – we are going to be too busy fighting one another.

The environmental community is complex, and each person and organization is important in their own way, but if we continue to stand divided and use outlets to attack one another, failing to see something different than “our” way what will we have accomplished?



Pragmatic Disruptions

Gus Speth is one of the pivotal figures of 20th Century American environmentalism. The consummate insider, Speth’s career has been spent navigating the rapids of institutional power at the highest levels. He co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute, led the United Nations Development Program, Chaired Jimmy Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality, and served as Dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University.

With such a deep and distinguished pedigree, Speth understands the trajectory of environmental progress better than most. His recent writings (Red Sky at Morning;  The Bridge at the Edge of the World; America the Possible: A Manifesto) emphasize how that trajectory is insufficient to meet the planet’s challenges, largely due to the fundamental disconnect between the social, political, and economic imperatives of our ‘operating system’, and the requirements for human and planetary prosperity.

Part of Speth’s story – the ecological consequences (climate change, collapsed fisheries, desertification, and deforestation) of depleting resources and generating wastes at a pace beyond the planet’s ability to replenish and absorb them – is familiar to most environmentalists.  The other part – the social consequences (increasing inequality, social insecurity, and political paralysis ) of market fundamentalism and political plutocracy – is certainly part of their everyday experience, but may or may not leach into their work plans and advocacy strategies.

Speth weaves these two strands together into a narrative of decline that can be slowed by pragmatic reforms, but will only be reversed through transformational change.  His exemplary career of pursuing reform within the system adds weight and credibility to his current commitment that:

Pursuing reform within the system can help, but what is now desperately needed is transformative change in the system itself. To deal successfully with all the challenges America now faces, we must therefore complement reform with at least equal efforts aimed at transformative change to create a new operating system that routinely delivers good results for people and planet.

This dialectic between reform and transformation animates our own work here at the Town Creek Foundation. Given the challenges that we are facing and the time frame within which we seek to make an impact, we’ve come to think of our work in terms of helping to maximize the progress that is currently feasible while also helping to establish the conditions under which the infeasible becomes inevitable. In pursuit of our mission to restore the Chesapeake Bay and heal the climate, we share Speth’s view that pragmatic reforms are a necessary but insufficient response. They are necessary for achieving that progress which is currently available and in so doing slowing the degradation of the Bay and the atmosphere. They are insufficient because they are – almost by definition – system sustaining. They often involve accepting and accommodating critical aspects and developments on the existing landscape – including aspects and developments that pragmatists themselves believe or even know to be untenable.

This is the lens through which we have viewed the recent controversy over the inclusion of nutrient credit trading in the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. A small group of committed dissenters view nutrient credit trading as an illegal placebo that will only further defer the transformations that are necessary to achieve a sustainably restored Bay. In addition to their concerns about whether trading systems can or are likely to be made accountable, they also recognize that pollution trading regimes are designed to blunt the signals of ecological overshoot, thereby reinforcing the delusion that we can grow – and pollute – in perpetuity. The most aggressive advocates for this position work with Food and Water Watch, and their views can be found here, and here.

A larger group of Bay restoration advocates believe that our political and socio-economic systems make continued growth inevitable and nutrient trading an unavoidable response. Under these circumstances these pragmatists see little alternative to getting on board – working to make trading regimes as transparent and accountable as possible. Any alternative seems to be viewed as a disruptive intervention that may undermine prospects for the progress that is currently available. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Beth McGee has provided an exemplary statement of this position, and groups like the Senior Scientists and Policymakers for the Bay have offered suggestions for how to insure trading is accomplished with appropriate transparency and accountability.

The Town Creek Foundation supports each of these groups, and, uncomfortable as it sometimes is, we do not feel the need to encourage or require them to reconcile their positions. We have and will continue to support well-intentioned pragmatic efforts, and we also feel and will continue to feel the need to lean against the tendency to dismiss disruptive interventions as distracting at best and destructive at worst. On the contrary, in view of the arc that the moral universe has so often taken, we see it as our responsibility (and, also, admittedly, our luxury) to help create and maintain opportunities to fully explore disruptive possibilities. Any theory of change that does not leave room for disruption and dislocation is, in our view, both ahistorical and impractical.

Pragmatists justly pride themselves on recognizing when “the train has left the station” and getting on board  – even when they are somewhat uncomfortable with the ultimate destination. The history of substantial social change in this country suggests, however, that pragmatism is never enough –  it has always been necessary, at one point or another, to throw something on the tracks. The strategic dilemma is in knowing how best to incorporate this recognition into one’s practice. Recognizing that disruptive interventions have always been necessary, our challenge is to distinguish those that will be generative from those that will do little more than leave blood on the tracks.

This is not an easy judgment to make, to be sure. It would seem to us that, at a minimum, it requires establishing and maintaining a space within which the exploration and development of disruptive possibilities can occur. It probably also requires resisting the tendency to reflexively dismiss transformational aspirations as impractical or infeasible. There is no better way, after all, to insure that they remain so.

More Carrots, Please

I’m feeling extra grateful that farmers market, community supported agriculture (CSA) and garden season is fast upon us.  Fortunately, there seem to be ample opportunities here on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to partake in the bounty if you know where to look.  But, a person could still easily find herself challenged to find fresh local food, particularly in small towns and rural crossroads where the only walkable access to food might be a quickmart.

The Johns Hopkins Center for Livable Future’s food mapping project was recently noted by the Baltimore Sun for the light it sheds on food deserts.  Food deserts are places where a grocery store is more than a ¼ mile walk, there are limited alternative places to purchase fresh and healthy food, more than 40% of the population does not have access to a car, and the median household income doesn’t exceed 185% of the poverty line.  The Center for Livable Future food mapping project discovered that more than a third of Baltimore City residents lack access to healthy foods.  And without access, it’s pretty hard to eat a healthy, sustainable diet.  Check out Bob Lawrence, founding director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Livable Future, giving a TED talk about the public health challenges we face with our current food system, especially how eating more veggies and less meat makes sense for our wellness and the planet.

Where does all the trash go?

Despite popular belief trash does not just miraculously disappear once thrown out of a moving car or discarded onto the ground.

Though it may seem impossible – trash travels.  It finds its way into our waterways and pollutes our oceans.  Due to ocean currents, that trash you discarded on the ground out of convenience that found its way into our oceans, is pulled into a giant trash island/patch.  The most publicized ocean trash island is located in the Pacific Ocean and known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  This particular garbage patch is 2x the size of Texas.

Think about that when you decide to litter …