The difficulty of communicating climate change

I haven’t mentioned RealClimate here for quite some time (old posts are here) but continue to follow its articles and browse the comments pages, because it’s such a great source of informed debate about climate science. This recent exchange amongst the comments on a post about climate “skepticism” caught my eye because Dan Miller’s explanation for the difficulty of communicating the climate crisis is so succinct.

Gordon Shephard said:
… Ernest Becker, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his book “The Denial of Death,” argues that anxiety about one’s mortality is (for the vast majority of people) the psyche’s strongest motivator. It is not that people don’t believe they are going to die, or that they fear death specifically, but that they hope that, somehow, their symbolic immortality will be assured as long as their particular vision of the future of humanity persists. Tell someone that their particular version is doomed, and they will fight you tooth and nail.
Certainly some individuals have conscious motives for “sowing confusion.” But many will feel (unconsciously) that the possibility of a radical change in the course of humanity’s future (such as that which will result from significant climate change) is a direct threat to their vision of their symbolic immortality. They will grasp the thinnest of straws just to say it isn’t so.

Dan Miller replied:
In addition to the psychological resistance to a vision of a failed future, there are other psychological barriers to facing climate change.
Humans evolved to filter information and focus on near-term dangers, like a lion approaching. There are six triggers that get us to focus on a problem: 1. Immediate, 2. Visible, 3. Historical Precedence, 4. Simple Causality, 5. Direct Personal Consequences, and 6. Caused by an Enemy. Until recently, climate change had 0 of 6 (you could now say that it is somewhat visible). Number 6 is an important one… imagine if we found out tomorrow that all the excess CO2 is being released by North Korea in order to destabilize the climate. We would take care of that swiftly!
It’s almost as if the climate crisis was designed by a diabolical genius specifically so that we will not respond in time. You can see more on this in my TEDx talk.

The Water Knife

cover of 'The Water Knife'The Water Knife
Paolo Bacigalupi, May 2015

The Water Knife is a vision of an imminent future well worth avoiding: water wars in a fragmented US as droughts get steadily worse. It may be the most brutal book I have ever finished and you really don’t want anyone you care about to live in a world like it.

That said, it is both an important, timely novel of ideas and a gritty thriller. SF at its best does thought-experiments really well, and this is one of them.

South-western USA is already arid and seems to be becoming more so. California is currently in the grip of an unprecedented drought. Inland cities are critically dependent on artesian water and rivers fed by snow-melt from the Rockies, especially the Colorado, but artesian basins are being depleted faster than they can replenish themselves and the snow pack on the Rockies is smaller every year. Fast forward a generation or two and what have we got? The world of The Water Knife.

As soon as I read it I knew I wanted to review it here on Green Path, adding it to previous posts about ‘greenie fiction‘ and movies. Other projects intervened, however, week after week, until last week I came across a review which said almost exactly what I would have said, and said it very well.

My planned review has therefore become a meta-review: this brief introduction from me, a few review snippets from the publisher’s page about the book, a link to that good review on NPR, and a longish excerpt from another major review. I’m not passing on anything which I don’t agree with, of course: my own review, had I found time, would have made the same points.

Here are a few brief comments from other reviewers, from the publisher’s page:

The book’s nervous energy recalls William Gibson at his cyberpunk best. Its visual imagery evokes Dust Bowl Okies in the Great Depression and the catastrophic 1928 failure of the St. Francis Dam that killed 600 people and haunted its builder, Mulholland, into the grave. . . . Reading the novel in 93-degree March weather while L.A. newscasts warned of water rationing and extended drought, I felt the hot panting breath of the desert on my nape and I shivered, hoping that Bacigalupi’s vision of the future won’t be ours.” —Denise Hamilton, Los Angeles Times

“An intense thriller and a deeply insightful vision of the coming century, laid out in all its pain and glory. It’s a water knife indeed, right to the heart.” —Kim Stanley Robinson, author of Aurora

“Anyone can write about the future. Paolo Bacigalupi writes about the future that we’re making today, if we keep going the way we are. It makes his writing beautiful …  and terrifying.”—John Scalzi, author of Lock In

The longer (but still only one page) review I commend to everyone is this one by Jason Heller on NPR.

There is a far longer and more academic/literary one in the Los Angeles Review of Books of which I will quote the final section, guessing that many of my readers would not otherwise see it:

Eric Otto argues in Green Speculations that science fiction’s characteristic technique of cognitive estrangement — defamiliarizing our perception and understanding of the present and critically reflecting back on this reality — can lead to transformed ethical relationships, including our relationship to other species and to the environment as a whole. The dystopian strain in ecological SF prompts us to remember how present and future are interconnected and thus to recognize our responsibility or culpability for the futures our choices create. Otto quotes Bacigalupi from an interview in which Bacigalupi describes the connection he sees between his environmental politics and his role as an SF writer:

The speculative process, the process of going two or three steps down the road beyond what you can actually report, oftentimes [gives us] the information we really need to know. And it seems like scientists are inherently conservative, and science journalists are inherently conservative, because you don’t want to be wrong. But that’s where I can get involved as a science fiction writer. I don’t have to be right, exactly, [but] I need to illustrate. I need to illustrate a feeling or experience so that people can say, “Does that seem like something we want to be going toward?”

The Water Knife takes these two or three steps down the road, asking us not merely if this world of water wars is a destination we desire, but more provocatively asking us to think about the kinds of people we might become if we continue down this road. The novel is filled with violence, but its most violent characters are not its most dangerous: the truly sinister actions come from those who calmly contemplate the destruction required to perpetuate their privilege and accept such “collateral damage” without qualm. …
Yet hope persists in the novel, faint as it may be, a hope that is amplified by the reader’s realization that we have perhaps not yet passed the tipping point, although we are surely very close to it. Although transformed practices vis-à-vis the environment and water management are an important part of this delicate optimism, more crucial is a transformed sense of community and interdependence. … we need to begin to choose “the right way instead of the easy way. Instead of the safe way” — to choose solidarity over individual survival. In these glimpsed moments of hope for another kind of future, for a more sustainable mode of living, The Water Knife is a book about how we are supposed to live now, so that we don’t find ourselves living in its future.


Dubai, city of the future

Keen-eyed regular readers of Green Path may have noticed that my recent posts about my European holiday were time-reversed as compared to the holiday itself. This post completes the sequence in that it begins in Dubai, the first stopover on the trip. However, it isn’t really about Dubai but about climate change and what it may mean to us in daily life. The connection is personal but direct.

When we flew into Dubai I was shocked by the barrenness of the landscape surrounding the city (it’s one thing to see photos, another to see the reality) and when we ventured on foot from the Metro to our hotel and then around the city centre I was appalled by the hostility to human existence of the weather (40C, endless grit underfoot and a dust haze which cut visibility to a kilometre or so). The streets were lifeless, as people and animals cowered indoors and even the toughest palms struggled to survive.

Shopping mall aquarium, Dubai
Shopping mall aquarium, Dubai

But then there was the public face of the city – consumer heaven, shiny tower buildings, a shopping centre with an indoor aquarium bigger than Reef HQ and a food hall boasting more US fast-food franchises than I dreamt existed, and (strangely highlighting the insanity of all the above) a kilometre-long, enclosed, airconditioned walkway from the Metro station to the shopping mall.

A view from the walkway: concrete, steel, glass and not much else
A view from the walkway: concrete, steel, glass and not much else

The contrast between the glitzy consumerism indoors and the drab, arid external reality was so violent as to be almost incomprehensible but a thought crystallised out of it: this is a typical city of the future unless we stop climate change. Dubai now, a collection of bubbles of high-tech living spaces sealed off from uninhabitable countryside, could be Perth in fifteen years, Adelaide in twenty-five, and so on.

That thought stayed with me for the rest of our trip and became a background to the way I experienced all the other places we saw. What would this place be like, five degrees hotter? Drier? Without fossil-fuelled transport? With the sea level a metre higher? Would it still be viable?

Athens is already dry and has already suffered catastrophic heatwaves and bushfires, both of which are likely to get worse with climate change, but it sits safely above sea level and is compact enough to function well without too many private motor vehicles. The region may lose the port of Piraeus to sea level rise but the stresses on Athens itself are likely to be chronic water shortage, heat waves and bushfires.

Karya nestles high in the hills and hadn’t changed much for centuries until the 1950s and 60s brought mains water and electricity. Its baby-boomers still remember what it was like to live in a pre-industrial culture where every village was almost self sufficient, and those abilities can be recovered. And the climate is cooler and wetter than that of Athens, making changes less threatening. The Roman causeway from Lefkada to the mainland will go under water, of course, but a little more isolation may not be a bad thing.

Venice? I’m sorry. Such a fragile place already, built on above a swamp in the middle of a huge lagoon on the edge of a low-lying plain. The top of a Venetian bell-tower may be higher than any land for twenty kilometres in any direction. Could levees save it? Unlikely, because they would have to enclose the whole lagoon. It might be time to look at radical solutions: if we ran a dam wall across the Strait of Gibraltar to the African coast, perhaps we could keep the rising Atlantic waters out and save all the coastal cities of the Mediterranean? It might be cheaper than watching them all go under water.

Cinque Terre was always a tough place to make a living from the land but should be as resilient as Karya, and for the same reasons.

View over the countryside from the old fortifications of Perugia

Perugia, Spello and Assisi didn’t appear in my blog posts but, as a small city and two villages in the heart of rich farming country with a mild climate, they are well placed to cope with change.

Looking over Rome from a vantage point near Villa Medici

Rome, our last stop in Italy, may not fare so well. It is already congested, and its large population (around 4 million) must make it more dependent on produce imported from considerable distances. More than that, however, it may well fall victim to the flood of displaced people looking for safety and work. Whether they are called climate change refugees or economic migrants, they look like being with us for a long time to come – see, for instance, recent reports in  The Guardian and The Washington Post.

The biggest problem for Singapore will probably be sea level rise. It is only a small island (about 40 x 25 km) and its central hills were originally fringed by mangrove swamps. Some of these have been cleared and reclaimed, but the result is, of course, low-lying urban land. Still, it doesn’t even make it on to this list of the fifteen cities which will be hit hardest by rising seas, or this one (using different criteria) of ‘Nine Popular Cities Losing the War with Rising Seas’.

What this totally unplanned, idiosyncratic and personal survey brings into focus is that climate change will affect urban centres in all sorts of different ways but few will be unaffected. On the whole, it would be better if we can avoid the future which Dubai prefigures.

Townsville update

It is six weeks since this blog has mentioned Townsville or any other part of North Queensland, but plenty has been happening whether I have been there for it or not. I still want to write a little more about Europe but, first, here is some local news.

Strand Ephemera 2015 coincided, deliberately or not, with the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. Locals with day jobs trying to get to the AFCM may have had trouble squeezing in a visit to the Strand but I’m sure our visiting AFCM aficionados loved the free show; I hope to put up some of my photos soon.

Umbrella Studio has a small (stairwell space) exhibition with an environmental theme, Mapping Climate Change. I know that the opening this evening (with two other shows in the Studio) will be the first chance to see it, but even its FB page doesn’t seem to show a closing date … better get along soon to make sure you don’t miss it.

Meanwhile, Wildlife Queensland folk (including me) have enjoyed another of their (our) regular field trips, this time to the beach near AIMS. The branch blog has a full report here and information about the next trip, to Rowes Bay at low tide on Sunday 30 August, here. For more environmental news in the region – cassowaries, the passing of Felicity Wishart, a coal and climate change forum, etc, see the home page of WQ Townsville.

Townsville takes part in the Global day of Climate Action

crowd with placards
The obligatory crowd photo

Today’s global day of climate action represents a remarkable collaboration of environmental and community groups around the world, led by Here in Townsville, NQCC provided the leadership and a sizeable crowd assembled on the Strand for music, face-painting and speeches from Wendy Tubman and Sandy McCathie. Rather than a march we had a staged photo-op: dozens of people on the beach with their heads in the sand in imitation of a certain Mr Abbott (certain, that is, that climate change is crap and that he doesn’t need to listen to anyone who thinks otherwise; he’s wrong on both counts, of course).

It was a positive event in the same style as the National Day of Climate Action in June: a gathering of like-minded people for a good cause, having fun in beautiful surroundings as well as making a serious point. is assembling a photo gallery on flickr; Australian images are here. I haven’t yet seen photos of the completed heads-in-the-sand panorama but here’s one showing people beginning to get ready for it.

preparing to  dig
Playing on the beach – seriously

Update, 24.9.14

The media coverage has now peaked:

  • Avaaz has a great collection of photos from around the world accompanied by front-page newspaper coverage.
  • GetUp! has a good collection on instagram.
  • More locally, the Townsville Bulletin had no coverage at all on Monday (except a short report from AAP of the Cairns rally, which was presumably ‘news’ because it was held outside the G20 finance ministers’ meeting) but came to the party on Tuesday with a cute photo of a child in costume and a brief report.
  • The “heads in the sand” photo (below) from Cranky Curlew has attracted quite a lot of attention including a spot on Channel 10’s “The Project” yesterday evening.

Townsville Salutes