Category Archives: Climate Change

Why Climate Change needs its Playboy Bunny.

This is inspired by an interaction between George Marshall, author of a great book “Don’t even think about it. Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change” and Professor Dan Kahan, the head of the Yale Cultural Cognition Project. When talking about Climate Change in the Media, Dan Kahan is a straight shooter. “Face it”, he says, “even if it does get mentioned on MSNBC or Fox News, ten times more people will always be watching funny animals”. He then urges George Marshall to watch “The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger” [1]  on YouTube, a video which has gained over 82 million views. Over on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change YouTube channel [2], the climate scientists have a hard time reaching an audience in the thousands combined with a poorly performing Instagram account. There are a couple of concerns here. Firstly, Climate Scientists are not good at getting their message out to a big enough audience and secondly this message isn’t as “cool” to share with your friends as a badass Honey Badger.

Later in the interaction, Kahan argues that people obtain their information through the people they trust, or, beyond that, from parts of the wider media that speak to their worldview and values. Most of the time, this is a highly effective shortcut and works fine, unless, in Kahan’s words, the information becomes “contaminated” with additional social meaning and becomes a marker of group identity.

Kahan uses Gun Control as a case in point. Polls in West Virginia show that 62% of people want more gun control but, you would be a fool to run for election in the state campaigning for gun control. In fact, 85% of the people in West Virginia know you can’t trust politicians who say that they want gun control [3]. Why? Because gun control in politics is associated with college educated liberals, a group the people of West Virginia have a hard time trusting.

Climate Change is similarly contaminated, where activists are again, for the most part, college educated liberals. In fact, I have fallen into this trap by beginning this post with George Marshall and Prof. Kahan. When people get their information from people they trust and these people don’t include the college educated liberal type it’s clear all the facts in the world won’t convince them. Allow me fall into the trap once more and quote philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer “Hence the uselessness of logic: no one ever convinced anyone by logic… To convince a man, you must appeal to his self-interest, his desires, his will”.

Keeping in mind that to convince people we must appeal to their self-interests and desires, allow me to introduce you to a man you will most likely know well, Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy. Now here is an individual who knows how to appeal to man’s self-interests and desires. So, what can we learn from Hugh Hefner? In fact, a lot. He was way ahead of his time, not just in making the topic of sex more socially acceptable but also tackling two big issues in American history, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. It begins with the TV show ‘Playboy’s Penthouse’ in 1959. This was going to be one of the first times that black and white people were seen socializing on television, with guests like Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald. As you might guess in 1959, southern broadcasting companies were going to refuse to air the TV show. So, Hugh had a tough decision to make, either cut Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald or lose half the potential audience. He chose talent over views in the end, putting both Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald in the first episode [4]. The southern broadcasting companies were true to their word and refused to show the TV show. Regardless ‘Playboy Penthouse’ aired for two seasons and in the late 1950s this was huge for the civil rights movement.

Playboy didn’t stop here. In the famous uncensored interview section of each magazine, it gave a voice to Martin Luther King[5] and Malcom X [6] when no others would. It condemned the Vietnam war [7] long before Time magazine and other media sources at the time as well as using its magazine to educate Americans about HIV/AIDs during the 1980s. It is clear that Playboy used its platform to instigate social change. This was a magazine that was selling millions of copies each month, hitting a broad audience and using this to tackle some of the most important issues in human history. Climate scientists and activists need something similar, to distract from the additional social meaning associated with climate change and create a platform to show people the problems and how we can solve it. Climate change needs its playboy bunny.

What I propose is to use influencers on social media, particularly Travel Bloggers. I am talking about the people who travel the world putting up wonderful pictures and telling us stories of places we can only dream of going. Why would these people make good Climate Change bunnies? Well they are interesting, showing us a life we’d all love and more importantly they travel the world. Scientists are always telling us about various places affected by climate change, but these people have actually been there. I envision interviewing such a blogger who has just visited an exotic island in the pacific and asking what the place it like. The response is perfect, as I am told “the island is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. It is awful that rising sea levels is resulting in most of the island’s inhabitants having to relocate”. This is brilliant and let me tell you why. Firstly, rising sea levels have been brought up without politicians, liberal celebrities or scientists losing that contamination. Secondly, there is the potential to hit the million or so followers that this blogger has. Finally, as Prof. Kahan had mentioned, people obtain their information through the people they trust, or, beyond that, from parts of the wider media that speak to their worldview and values. Travel bloggers I believe fall into this category. They consistently tell their story, keeping you up to date with their daily doings and issues which such an openness that it creates an almost friendship like relationship. I imagine there are even people who know more about a blogger than they do about a good friend.

Travel bloggers are already using their platform for good. Take Jonny Ward for example with his blog One Step 4 Ward[8]. He has cleverly developed an audience with his travels, storytelling, good advice and motivation and as I write this he has just finished riding around Sri Lanka in a tuk tuk, over 1000km and you should check out his Instagram @onestep4ward to see more. With this audience he has, thankfully, decided to give back with a current project to build a playground for the Burmese migrants in Thailand with an aim to “inject a little fun, a few more smiles and a bit of colour”. This is on top of other projects he has completed in Senegal and Gambia. This is the kind of platform and audience climate scientists need capitalise on. There is no doubt that Johnny Ward would make a good playboy bunny.

So, what am I trying to say with all this? Firstly, climate change activists are in competition with funny and cute animals in terms of getting the message out there, and even when they manage to get their message out there it is often contaminated with this additional social meaning. So, to generate a larger audience I propose we, like Hugh Hefner with his bunnies, use or create a platform which appeals to people’s desires and avoids this additional social meaning  to spread the message and inspire solutions. Travel bloggers are ideal for this. Their use of social media is some of the best out there and they help us imagine, understand and care about places on earth we may never get to.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4r7wHMg5Yjg

[2] https://www.youtube.com/user/IPCCGeneva

[3] https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=yz4kAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA23&lpg=PA23&dq=gun+control+west+virginia+politician+poll&source=bl&ots=XXKtWmaeDw&sig=ZOsGbvLABWTKIT0wNwRPHUaLmtk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiIhYXr29HTAhVHCMAKHaesDR4Q6AEIQzAF#v=onepage&q=gun%20control%20west%20virginia%20politician%20poll&f=false

[4] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052503/fullcredits?ref_=tt_cl_sm#cast

[5] http://www.creativeloafing.com/news/article/13065559/mlks-1964-playboy-interview

[6] http://www.malcolm-x.org/docs/int_playb.htm

[7] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/284001876_The_Playboy_Way_Playboy_Magazine_Soldiers_and_the_Military_in_Vietnam

[8] https://onestep4ward.com         

 https://onestep4ward.com/help-us-build-playground-burmese-migrant-kids/

Lick your teeth and recycle: The power of Habit and climate change.

I have been struggling with a question for couple of months now: how to motivate people when there is no return on investment? So, what do I mean by this and why is this important? This is how I see the future of our planet with regards to climate change(1). There are two obvious outcomes, we (humans) either fail and live in a world of rising seas and prolonged droughts, or we succeed and live life in a world that looks the same as the one we live in today. Success without gain troubles me. It is a far cry from the idea of success you see with the likes of Conor McGregor, Warren Buffett, Oprah Winfrey and Phil Knight. How can you motivate someone to make a change in their life when this change (if made by all of us) will make essentially no difference? I write now with the belief that we will tackle climate change and win.

The first thing I’d like to answer is, what else is this like? Is there a situation where we do something every day just to be the same? I believe I have found the answer. BRUSHING OUR TEETH. Please, bear with me here. I know it’s a bit ridiculous.  For the average person, we brush our teeth so they don’t fall out. Fair enough, some toothpastes make your teeth whiter, but in general we do it so our teeth don’t rot and decay. Can you see that parallels to climate change? If we fail to brush our teeth they will fall out sooner rather than later, and if we do decide to brush we will have the teeth we have now, as they are, for the foreseeable future. We tackle something now so that it can be the same in the future. Not so dissimilar to climate change in my opinion.

This wasn’t always the case, people didn’t always brush their teeth. So, what caused the change and can the community tacking climate change learn from this? Let me take you back to early 1900s America and introduce you to a great man, Claude Hopkins. He was an original ad man turning unknown products into household names and did so for the likes of Quaker Oats and Goodyear tires.

In the early 1900s Hopkins was approached by an old friend who had discovered an amazing product, Pepsodent, a minty and foamy toothpaste. Now Hopkins was at the top of the advertising industry, and frankly at the time this was financial suicide.  Hardly anyone brushed their teeth, and prior to Pepsodent only 7% of Americans owned a tube of toothpaste. It was no secret either that the health of Americans teeth was in sharp decline. As the country became wealthier, people were buying larger amounts of sugary, processed foods. When the government was recruiting people for World War One, so many recruits had rotten teeth that officials said poor dental hygiene was a national security risk.  Regardless, Hopkins took the job.

Now almost everyone brushes their teeth, so what exactly did Hopkins do?

He created a Habit Loop, and more importantly (and by mistake) he created a craving. The habit loop is a well-studied phenomenon and in its simplest form has three stages: Cue, Routine, Reward. First, there is a cue, a trigger, to tell your brain to go into automatic mode. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. And finally, the reward, which helps your brain figure out if the loop is worth remembering. Over time, this loop – cue, routine, reward, cue, routine, reward, cue, routine, reward –becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.  See here for a deeper explanation, http://charlesduhigg.com/how-habits-work/. I got this information from Charles Duhigg’s book: The Power of Habit.

(3)

So how did Hopkins develop this habit loop for brushing your teeth? To sell Pepsodent, Hopkins needed a trigger that would justify toothpastes daily use. He focused on tooth film, the mucin plaques found on teeth. This film is a naturally occurring membrane that builds up on teeth regardless of what you eat or how often you brush. In fact, toothpaste didn’t do anything to help remove the film, but that didn’t stop Hopkins. This he decided was the cue to trigger the habit. So, he plastered ads all over America. One read “Just run your tongue along your teeth. You’ll feel the film – that’s what makes your teeth to look off color and invites decay”. The brilliance of this ad is that the cue was simple and almost impossible to ignore. Tell someone to run their tongue across their teeth and most will, and sure enough they will find the film. In fact, did you just run your tongue along your teeth?

After the campaign launched a quiet week passed. Then two. In the third week, demand exploded. There were so many orders for Pepsodent the company couldn’t keep up. In three years, the toothpaste went international. Before Pepsodent, as I said earlier, only 7% of American households had a tube of toothpaste, a decade later 65%, and after World War 2, the military downgraded their concerns about recruits’ teeth because most soldiers were brushing anyway.

However, there is something more needed to ingrain the habit loop, something that Hopkins didn’t know about: the reward, the craving.  Unlike other toothpastes at the time, Pepsodent contained citric acid, as well as doses of mint oil and other chemicals. The inventor of Pepsodent included these ingredients to make the toothpaste fresh, but what he didn’t realise is that they are irritants that create a cool, tingling sensation on the tongue and gums. People began to crave this sensation, and believed that if this sensation wasn’t there, their teeth didn’t get cleaned. Hopkins wasn’t selling beautiful teeth, he was selling the sensation. As the German/American economist and Harvard Professor said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole”.

So, bringing it all back to climate change. What have we learned?  To create a habit you need a cue, routine and a reward. This is the same with anything, for example exercise. Create a cue, an alarm maybe, then exercise and perhaps give yourself a nice smoothie when you’re finished. Another parallel to the climate change is sunscreen and skin cancer. If you apply sunscreen every day you reduce the risk of skin cancer, yet less than 10% of Americans do it. Why? No cue nor reward. So, to tackle climate change and create small changes in our daily lives we need to create the Habit Loop. Let’s take waste for example. You may see a cue on the packaging which causes you to recycle, then a reward of some kind. What this could be I have no idea, perhaps the recycling bin says, “good job”. Similarly, with cycling to work, the cue could be a sunny day and perhaps the business gives you a free coffee when you arrive.

I don’t know what we could use create these habit loops, but I believe they are the way forward. I find that many reasons we are pushed to make small positive changes is because of guilt and I don’t believe this is good way to motivate people. I think the Habit Loop is key, like the teeth brushing, it will help us to make many small positive changes even though there isn’t a direct or immediate return on investment.  Perhaps it isn’t the best way, but I believe it is a good answer to the question, how to motivate people when there is no return on investment?

 

  1. True, the climate is always changing, but here I am using United Nations definition of climate change. “Attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability”. https://unfccc.int/files/essential_background/background_publications_htmlpdf/application/pdf/conveng.pdf
  2. For a bit of fun check out this old pepsodent ad: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=pepspdent+ad+1956
  3. https://mustbethistalltoride.com/category/stuff-i-need-help-with/page/2/

The case for freeganism and flexitarianism

I take the following definitions from the excellent (if containing rather too many exotic ingredients) cookbook ‘V is for Vegan’, by Kerstin Rodgers (aka Ms Marmite Lover).

Freegan: a portmanteau word combining ‘free’ and ‘vegan’; freegans do not buy animal products. This is an anti-consumerist, anti-food waste movement, so they will eat animal products if they would otherwise be discarded.

Flexitarian: semi-vegetarians. They occasionally eat meat. These are people who are ‘meat reducers’, that is, trying to reduce the amount of meat they eat, or at the very least, trying to source meat from ethical suppliers.

A DIFFICULT STANDPOINT

The environmental issues relating to the meat industry are numerous and this blog would be incomplete in its approach without addressing them. However, as the nephew of a butcher who consequently worked in my uncle’s butchers shop for over eight years, I hope you understand it is tricky to maintain a position which both avoids hypocrisy and maintains respect for my uncle and his business. Without the experience of working at the butchers I would certainly not be in the position I am in today, and would certainly have far less of a work ethic.

In 2014 I started to become very uneasy about the conflict of interests between my part-time job and having deep concerns for the well-being of the environment. The carbon footprint of the meat industry, largely due to methane emissions from the animals themselves, but also due to CO2 released during transportation of feed, livestock and meat products, accounts for almost 15% of the emissions from the entire world. That is considerably more than the aircraft industry. The energy requirement to make the meat eaten world-over comes with an increased need to grow crops, just to feed the farmed animals. If meat continues to grow in popularity as it has recently, this will require yet larger fields for growing crops. All of this comes at a time when we are failing to sustain millions of poor and hungry people across the world. Much, much more energy is being consumed feeding intensively-bred cattle to feed ourselves than would be required to feed the entire planet on those crops alone.

Aside from the environmental concerns, there are of course many arguments from ecological and animal rights. Deep ecologists recognise that there is value in all living creatures beyond their usefulness for our purposes and, further, animal rights activists insist that farm animals be kept in far better circumstances than the almost industrial ones they frequently find themselves at present. Beyond (but not far from) the meat industry, cows are periodically artificially raped by a farmer so that they become pregnant and can therefore lactate the milk which people enjoy on their cereal world over. This is the real, sickening answer to the commonplace myth that cows somehow need to be milked constantly. They do not, this is very unnatural. And when the cow does have her baby, this calf is stolen away, never for her to see again. Heavy stuff.

For some time I had been happy with the idea of only eating leftover meat I got from the butchers, which was going to be thrown away anyway. But after learning of the things I have mentioned above, the contradictions and excuses were becoming too much. Eventually, in the September of 2015 I put it to my uncle that I was going to become vegetarian (with the consequence of my resignation being somewhat obvious). You can imagine the response I got from that, and who could blame him, as someone whose career is built around the sale of delicious meats? Despite the upset my departure initially caused, along with my transition to veganism (well, freeganism) soon after,  I greatly respect my uncle for his eventual understanding and acceptance of my way of life. This recently included his recommendation to me of a vegetarian restaurant!

On a personal level, I feel the best side-effect of becoming a vegan was completely unexpected. Previously, being a good Northern lad, I enjoyed a meal of meat, carb, veg and some form of gravy for every evening meal (i.e. tea). Consequently, due to the delicious marinated meats I got cheap from the butchers, my cooking skills were somewhat lacking. Ripping up this whole cooking routine involved combining different foods, trying new things and structuring meals in a way which means the plate doesn’t revolve around a piece of meat. This is not only an interesting and enjoyable exercise, but also made me really appreciate what I was eating and the effort which had been made to get it to my plate. Cooking is so much more interesting within (even relatively minor) constraints.

NOTHING WORSE THAN A WHINGY VEGAN, EH?!

Veganism has been traditionally sidelined in public opinion, just like environmentalism. Stereotypes of the former involve vegans being attention seeking, whingy and with a lofty sense of superiority (all of which have been applied to the latter, too). I am not saying no vegans possess these traits, as some certainly do, but by and large the intention behind this particular lifestyle choice is heart-felt, not selfish. As what has been a tiny proportion of the population, little media attention has been paid historically. As I am writing now, I realise that none of ‘veganism’, ‘freeganism’ or ‘flexitarianism’ are words in the WordPress dictionary.

However, with 350% rises in veganism in the UK over the past few years, there has been much new media attention, particularly being drawn by 2014’s highly controversial documentary Cowspiracy and Simon Amstell’s feature length film of this year, Carnage: swallowing the past (currently available on BBC iPlayer). The mockumentary Carnage imagines the overhanging shame of a society which previously relied so heavily on the meat industry, but where in the vegan utopia of 2067 the exploitation of animals for any purposes whatsoever is strictly outlawed. However, as with action on climate change, blaming and shaming is not the way forward. Blaming a person for the worlds ills because they eat meat is unlikely to generate a positive response or reaction. The more likely outcome is the strengthening of the aforementioned stereotypes.

Like environmental movement, vegans and vegetarians are divided. Divided in their reasons, divided in what exactly they will and will not eat and divided on other aspects of animal rights such as whether or not to keep pets or go to zoos. Building upon these issues, my opinion is that the clear way forward is provided by freeganism and flexitarianism. Of course, very few people would ever actually label themselves with these names. In fact, it is suggested in Carnage that it is better to name those who eat meat as carnists than to endow a plethora of confusing titles to those who do not. My sister recently told her boyfriend’s grandma that I was a freegan (for some reason) and apparently she now thinks I only eat free food, following another usage of the term. Whilst dumpster diving can be an attractive prospect, completely consistent with the form of freeganism I refer to, that isn’t really what it is about. I use the names here merely for reference purposes and would not recommend labelling people as one thing or another. (The reputation of veganism in some circles already highlights the damage labelling can do.)

Flexitarianism focuses on reduction of meat and dairy consumption. Given the environmental and ethical problems mentioned above, it is hard to make a case that such a reduction would be a bad thing. By eating meat only a couple of times a week, as a treat, and by avoiding red meats, it is possible to drastically reduce one’s carbon footprint, be less at risk to heart disease and save the lives of numerous creatures. I recently met a woman on the tube who, after asking about what I was eating for lunch, remarked “I’d really like to stop eating meat, but I could never give up chicken!”. I feel flexitarianism is exactly what she was looking for, where you can still have a Sunday roast chicken, yet are making an effort to reduce your impact on the world. Besides, things are often more delicious when you only get them once in a while.

Freeganism is somewhat different in motive to flexitarianism, but shares the values of reduced consumption for the aim of a greater goal. As kindly defined by Ms Marmite Lover,  freeganism is a waste-free movement. As a freegan, I will never buy any animal products. However, if I happen to find myself somewhere where animal products are about to be disposed of, I will eat them. This is about efficiency, but also allows the reminiscent vegan the potential to enjoy that spot of blue cheese they found so hard to give up. In addition, situations where the vegan diet has not been accounted for. Those awkward conference lunches with only cheese sandwiches and times when you order chips at a pub and they bring you a little pot of mayonnaise that almost certainly will be thrown away if you leave it, are no longer the drama that some vegans are known to make them. (“What do you mean you don’t have soya milk for my latte?!”)

MOOVING FORWARD

I take much inspiration from John Burnside’s column on nature in New Statesman, which appears every three weeks in between pieces on both food and wine. Many of the things he promotes there remind me of what I feel drives the movements of freeganism and flexitarianism, with efforts made to rebuilt relationships with nature, reduce environmental impact and become more aware as a person. His first column of 2017 urged the reader to start the year by making the most of simple things and reads as follows.

‘As Ronald Reagan said: “just say no”. No to shiny, homogeneous fruit. No to bulking agents. No to farmed meat, unless it comes from a source we can verify ourselves. No to roundup. No to sick bees. No to subsidies for fat landowners and corporations.’

The environmental problems faced in the world today are most likely not going to be solved by hypothetical quick-fixes like a worldwide switch to nuclear fusion (which has been 20 years coming for decades), widespread application of (also as yet uninvented) geoengineering techniques or the shuttling off of millions of people to live on another planet (at precisely the time when many once space-faring countries’ interest in space exploration is at its lowest). These problems can only truly be faced by a widespread change in attitude towards consumption, collective responsibility and the kind of lives we wish to provide for ourselves and the generations who will follow. For, if there were no attitude and yet a quick-fix was found, we would be left still with a complex of over-consumption and therefore merely postponing an impending climate disaster.

In my opinion, the key lies in virtues such as those supported by Burnside above. That is, the key to solving the grandest of problems posed by climate change is to take time to reconsider the way in which we are living our lives, and thereby find happiness in alternative ways much more harmonious with nature. I believe freeganism and flexitarianism are steps in that direction.

On the tube, after meeting the stranger who was interested in vegetarianism, we arrived at Green Park, said our goodbyes and she went to exit the train. She then ran back and exclaimed “I’m gonna do it!”. What exactly it was is unclear, but whichever branch of vegetarianism she referred to, I am glad she felt so impassioned to act upon it and wish her the best of luck.

[Header image source]

[Originally posted to my personal blog Cut Waste, Not Trees (Down)]

Don’t just wait for a movement

A SUPER-WICKED PROBLEM

In my previous blog piece, I referred to climate change as the ‘grandest of all problems’ ever faced by mankind. Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute’s briefing paper ‘Towards a unifying narrative for climate change’ states that the problem posed by climate change is an example of a ‘super-wicked’ problem. This relates to four factors which make it such a fiendishly difficult issue: the requirement for a solution is increasingly imminent; a co-ordinated central authority is required, in a neoliberal age where business trumps government; those who continue to cause the problem are the very ones who seek to find a solution; and policy responses often disregard the future in an almost irrational way.

A powerful quote comes from John Ashton of Chatham House and is as follows:

“Humanity has never faced a problem like climate change. Unlike poverty, hunger, disease and terrorism it affects everybody. Climate change is a ticking clock that we cannot stop or slow down… The essence is not what we must do but how quickly we must do it”.

How on Earth to proceed in this minefield situation?

ONE PROBLEM, MANY NARRATIVES

It has been argued – notably by Al Gore – that the science of climate change is well researched enough and that we have the solutions available. Therefore in order to succeed in solving this grandest of problems we face the bigger issue of getting anybody to care and do something about it. Whilst this may well be the case, scientific study and technological innovation remain crucially important in analysing the problem of climate change, assessing our approaches to its solution and improving the technologies we apply to this end. We should be wary, however, in placing too much hope in a ‘techno-fix’ geoengineering-type solution appearing to the problem. Partly because the prospects are somewhat lacking, but mainly because of the consequent feeling of being off the hook with respect to emission reduction. Indeed, most geoengineering solutions which have been proposed merely mask the effects of climate change and do not account for vital factors such as ocean acidification.

In addition to direct gains of the science, the fact there exist (some very high-profile) climate change deniers is proof enough that scientific research into climate change can still be justified. There are plenty of people who are still not convinced either that climate change is happening or it is an issue. Yet many suggest we now live in a ‘post-truth’ era, wherein facts count for nothing and emotive statements possess the most power. How is it possible to make a case for action on climate change when such arguments rest mainly on science and often only stir in us emotions of fear and worry?

As was discussed at the Royal Meteorological Society’s February meeting, a major issue for the environmental movement is the lack of consistency of narrative. Previous arguments have left many with the view environmentalists only care about polar bears and (hypothetical) future generations. Peter Wadhams, Arctic scientist and author of the excellent book ‘A Farewell to Ice’, argues what is not being communicated enough is the fact the call for action on climate change is no longer about saving polar bears (not that it ever specifically was). It is about saving the human race. The ‘future generations’ narrative is also unhelpful. Psychologists have long-established that humans (and apes) will always choose a small gain in the short term than a greater gain in the long term –  be it with respect to getting one banana now or five later, or with respect to driving the kids to school in a comfy SUV rather than emitting less in the hope they might have a safer future.

The ‘doomsday is near’ narrative is one which is in vogue in some parts of the scientific community (which should be worrying in itself). Clearly such an approach, seen to be advocated by many ‘whingy environmentalists’, is not the way to proceed, no matter how much truth it may or may not hold. In the face of disparity comes the turn to denial and/or ignorance. Such ignorance is a contributor to the ubiquitous ‘disconnect’ between everyday actions and their environmental impacts. This refers to the disconnect between boiling a kettle and the CO2 emitted to generate the required electricity; between having cute pets and eating emission-heavy meat.

But we should not be too quick to lay blame for CO2 emissions. This has historically been the approach of many environmentalists and the result is highly polarising. It is much more productive to provide solutions than to go around blaming people.

THE MOVEMENT WON’T START ITSELF

Millions of journalists, bloggers and activists have already written about ‘what we must do now’, with a vast spectrum of ideas. This array is a manifestation of the lack of consistent narrative that I refer to. Here lies the Catch 22 of climate change: climate change is a problem requiring action on scales unseen before, but proposing a solution merely adds to the lack of consistent narrative, weakening the argument for action. Is all hope lost?

Of course not, and it is hope and positivity which provide the answer, as alluded to earlier. Hope lies at the heart of the many pieces written about the path forward. Only by aiming toward a better future can a movement ever be built. But don’t wait for the mass movement to emerge. Start it. Regardless of whether you go on big marches or arrange protests, you are part of the movement if you speak to people about the promise of acting on climate change. You are part of the movement if you do things in your everyday life like taking few flights, cutting down waste or eating less animal products. You are part of the movement if you convince just one more person that it is not good enough for the status quo to continue.

But just in case you do like to go to marches, there is one in London soon: https://www.facebook.com/events/747422225425039/.

What’s the Job? Climate change in the media.

This post stems from a recent meeting of the Royal Meteorology Society titled ‘Avoiding Myth, Mayhem and Myopia: the challenge of climate science communication’. This meeting aimed to provide insights into tools for more effectively communicating climate science. In the meeting’s description, they claim that the public are beginning to join the dots between climate change, extreme weather and the impacts on our environment. From my experience, I would consider this to be true. Climate science and global warming is certainly becoming a “hot topic”.

So, what are the best strategies for communicating the scientific findings and how far should you go in talking about climate science? It is these questions that motivated the talks. The talks began with visualizing climate data, then climate science in the era of Trump. Following that, talks moved on to connect academics to business, engaging with government policy and why we need climate science communicators. All very important aspects in taking climate science to the public.

However, I want to look at something I consider more important. I want to ask the question, “what’s the job?” A bit strange you might think. Isn’t the job obvious? Communicate climate science?  But is this really the job …

This idea comes from a book by Clay Christensen, a Professor of Business Administration at Harvard. The book is called “Competing against luck”. It seeks to identify what’s the difference between a continuously successful business and a business that just happened to be in the right place at the right time. In the early sections of the book he discusses what the job of a milkshake is. Why does someone “hire” a milkshake?

McDonald’s wanted to boost milkshakes sales so they brought in consumers that fitted the profile of a milkshake buyer and asked them how they could make their milkshakes better. Cheaper, chewier, chunkier, chocolatier? Even when the customers told McDonald’s what they thought they would like it was hard to know exactly what to do.  So, McDonald’s tried a whole range of things corresponding to the desires of these milkshake buyers. And what happened? Nothing, the sales increase was negligible.   They didn’t know what the job was. They needed to ask the question: what job arises in people’s lives that causes them to come to McDonald’s to hire a milkshake?

In the book, Christensen says “What causes us to buy products and services is the stuff that happens to us all day every day”. So, McDonald’s figured out who buys the milkshakes and when. It turned out that one of the main consumers of their milkshake are commuters on the way to work in the morning, almost all to take away. They ask these people, why they “hired” the milkshake. They say it helps with the commute. They hired a milkshake for this boring ride to work and the job was to keep the commute interesting. The milkshake is thick and hard to suck up the straw thus, it lasts the whole commute and is substantial enough to ensure the commuter is full all morning. It works better than a banana, coffee, water, donuts and other on the go breakfast products. With this in mind McDonald’s added berries or chocolate pieces to the milkshake to make it more interesting and moved the milkshake maker to the front making it quick to purchase. Low and behold sales increased!

What this story demonstrates is a paradigm shift. Prior to all this you’d believe that milkshakes compete against chocolate bars, sodas, other milkshakes from other fast food joints. However, this is not the case. People don’t hire the milkshake as deserts for the main part but for breakfast and to keep them occupied for a long commute.

 

Let’s come back to climate science in the media and ask: what’s the job of climate science, from the public’s perspective? Is it to keep them occupied on the tube? Give them material so they can talk to their friend at the pub? I firmly believe that to successfully transfer the results and information generated by scientists we need to understand what job climate science does for the public. I don’t know… yet. Furthermore, we must ask the question of who the competition is. Is it climate deniers or is it celebrity gossip, sport articles, even political news? We must look through the same lens as McDonald’s and seek what purpose the public would hire climate science and use that to our advantage. Answering these questions will accelerate our ability to spread facts and build a wider community who can help tackle climate change.

Before we decide what the best strategies for communicating the scientific findings are and how far we should go in talking about climate science, we first need to know, what the job is.

Zero waste living: Minimising waste in the 21st century

THE NEW STATE OF AFFAIRS

Every day millions of products are sold in single-use packaging, usually a form of plastic or ‘mixed-material’: sandwich containers, plastic films, coffee cups, bubble wrap and the like. The resulting vast swathes of disposables discarded, along with many recyclable items, find their way to landfill sites, to clusters in the oceans* and to garbage incinerators. The consequent effect on the geosphere is both detrimental and escalating day by day.

Fundamental studies of geology teach us that the geologic timescale of Earth is divided into periods (perhaps the most famous being the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous), which are themselves divided into epochs. The current epoch is known as the Holocene epoch and  it began roughly 11,700 years ago, following the end of the last ice age and the Pleistocene epoch. What an epoch refers to is the structure of the rock deposited during a certain length of time, perhaps providing us with knowledge concerning the type of creatures which existed then (through examining fossils), the constitution of the atmosphere or the relative sea levels. Until the Holocene, the defining characteristics of each epoch were all derived from natural processes. However there is now so much waste buried in the ground and the atmosphere has changed radically enough that some geologists believe it is time we declare a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. This name was coined in 2000 by Paul Crutzen in the journal Nature.

The advent of the Anthropocene means mankind has had such an enormous effect on the constitution of the geosphere that humanity’s industrial byproducts are recognisable from examining rocks and also through proxies such as ice cores and tree rings, for example. As mentioned above, it is not just the ground beneath our feet which is changing. It is an almost universally accepted fact that the atmosphere which we breath has changed beyond recognition due to human influence, for example through an increase of around 100pm of carbon dioxide composition in the last 250 years. The consequent alterations comprise what we call (anthropogenic) climate change.

WHY SHOULD WE CARE?

As is mentioned in the excellent, inspiring review paper ‘The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship’, whose list of authors includes the pioneering Paul Crutzen, the Holocene is the only state of the Earth system wherein we can be certain that contemporary human civilisation can exist. This epoch is known to have been relatively stable, allowing mankind to develop to the highly intelligent state as in the present. The Anthropocene, on the other hand, is far less certain to be so gentle on us. In the vastly altered environment which we are increasingly finding ourselves, extreme weather events such as severe storms, floods, heatwaves and droughts will become only more frequent. This is threatening for the many people who live in delicate geographical circumstances, particularly in equatorial countries such as those surrounding Saharan Africa and low-lying coastal regions such as Bangladesh and the Netherlands.

Alongside the problems posed directly by climate change, there are numerous other serious, related issues, including a shortage of food resources and (fertile) land in many areas of the world, all with the ominous backdrop of an exponentially increasing population. In the paper mentioned above, the authors outline the necessity of a renewed approach to the way in which mankind views and is treating the world, both for its sake and our own. This movement is not completely new – James Lovelock in particular has long supported the notion of a vengeful ‘Mother Earth’ Gaia interpretation of nature, which is very much capable of evolving of its own accord in order to outlast the threat posed by humanity, and encouraged a much more co-operative approach to civilisation than is currently exhibited. In terms of problems posed directly by the waste issue, landfilling and over-production of packaging not only inflates land shortage, but can pollute nearby soils and rivers, damaging delicate ecosystems, and lead to an increased level of shipping.**

WHERE TO GO FROM HERE?

Some researchers refer to the status quo production methodology of the modern era as a ‘linear economy’, in that materials are mined, farmed or grown, then made into single-use products, which are thereby used by the consumer and disposed. In this paradigm, products are often cheaply made in order to maximise profit and therefore are not built to last. Above I have made the case that this is simply unsustainable and infeasible. An alternative approach is sometimes known as a ‘circular economy’, wherein there is a real focus on making the most durable products as possible, using the minimal quantity of resources, and always giving preference to regeneration and recycling of materials, rather than extracting anew.

There are multiple movements which fit within the remit of a circular economy, including the break free from plastic movement and the Zero Waste Europe movement, the latter of which is making waves across the continent, with many local councils and companies already pledging to move towards a zero waste-to-landfill regime. On a more personal note, as of 1st  October 2016, I have committed to becoming a zero waste individual. All new products I have purchased since then either come in recyclable or compostable packaging, or indeed in no packaging at all! If absolutely necessary, I allow myself up to 500g of disposable waste per year, as other zero wasters suggest.*** I have found that in going waste free, it often naturally follows that one reduces one’s carbon footprint also – for instance, buying fresh in-season fruit and vegetables from local markets, collected in reusable bags. One thing that has really helped me on my way is the discovery that supermarkets across the country, including Sainsbury’s, have installed plastic bag recycling points in their stores to account for those awkward products such as toilet roll that you just can’t buy without a plastic film wrapper.

I have heard many people argue that the waste problem is not directly related to climate change – that recycling alone is not going to save the world. This is of course true, but through aiming to tackle the enormous waste problem that is now afoot in the world, the approach of a circular economy refocuses our influence not on endless (or so we think) extraction for maximal profit, but on making the most of what we have and ensuring there are enough resources remaining to sustain many, many generations to come. In making this change of purpose, one also takes a step towards a greener economy, and moves to provide a safer and more stable future for all. There are many pieces to the grandest of puzzles that is solving the problem of climate change, but surely committing to reduced waste is one clear step in the right direction.

 

FOOTNOTES

*: My fellow MPE CDT colleagues, Ben Snowball and Birgit Sützl, are currently undergoing MRes projects centring around mathematical models for tracking plastic waste in the world’s oceans.

**: I was disgusted to find out from a friend who works in the shipping industry that the main physical export of the United Kingdom is… waste! There have also been numerous cases of illegal smuggling of waste out of the UK.

***: I still feel ‘zero waste’ is an accurate term even if one creates a small amount of it. After all, the average American produces over 500kg per year!

One fine day

I finally got a chance to listen to the new album of Sting, one of my favourite artists: “57th and 9th”. By definition, it’s good – Sting has never recorded any unsuccessful songs! But why am I talking about some CD on a blog about maths and climate science?

Because this album contains a single that drew attention of my inner climate activist. In “One Fine Day”  Sting touches on the problem of the climate change. The artist points out at different types of climate sceptics. So we have optimists, histories, apologists and even scientists, who believe there’s not much we can do.

The singer makes an appeal to political leaders to heal the planet quickly. Some say it’s rather wishful thinking but, come on, we’re talking about a song, not an IPCC report! Although “Three penguins and a bear got drowned” part is a bit too cheesy for me to handle.

The lyrics aren’t the best and I know that Sting can do better. I mean, he’s the author of such jewels as “Englishman in New York” or “Fragile”. So why did I get so excited about this particular song? Because people like Sting and listen to him. This is what we need right now: a casual message about the dire issue of climate change, conveyed via a catchy song. I don’t care how people realise that we have a problem, as long as they DO realise is somehow. Buying a new CD is as good a way as any other.

Some criticise Sting for hypocrisy. Well, the truth is that an owner of eight residences scattered all over the world who travels between them on a private jet does contribute to the climate change quite significantly. However, as I stated before: it’s ok not to be perfect. It might be the case that Sting’s popularity will raise awareness of climate change, which can do more good to the planet than his flights to numerous concerts.

I hope we won’t see the times  “when snakes can talk and pigs will fly”. It’s up to us!

Image from MetroLyrics. Article originally posted here: https://paularowinska.wordpress.com/2016/12/20/one-fine-day/.

Think grey

Recently someone told me that they believe in the climate change but are not doing anything to help the planet because they do not want to sacrifice everything. That there are things they could not possibly give up. Conclusion? They might as well change nothing.

To prevent the climate change or at least to reduce its negative impact, we have to work together. In an ideal world, every inhabitant of our planet would change their behaviour and live an environment-friendly existence. However, it is not going to happen. We have too many climate sceptics and people who, while accepting that the climate change is a jeopardy, do not believe it is worth it to worry too much. Their main argument is that next generations will suffer most of the consequences – so why should we care?

Explaining to climate sceptics that they might be wrong is one of my main goals. I am not a psychologist but to my mind the other group will be also very hard to persuade. In this article I will focus mostly on the majority of the society: people who believe in climate problems, would like to change something but do not want to sacrifice their whole life to save the world. Please bear in mind that when I say majority, I base it only on my observations, not any data. Even if I am wrong, it is still a large group that should be targeted.

Where does that black and white thinking come from? Why can’t we accept that we do not have to be perfect? Perfectionism has been researched in numerous psychological studies. Yet, still so many people have to deal with consequences of this character trait in many areas of their lives. Instead of helping us to do an amazing job, it hinders all our efforts. Better is the enemy of good. Even when we are saving the planet.

You might think that we, climate scientists, young researchers who care a lot about the dire situation in which the Earth is now, are doing everything right. It is not exactly true. Yes, we are trying to do what we can – but not more. We are still human beings, with all our flaws.

Remember that we work together. This often means commuting quite far, many times even flying. What can I do about the fact that the conference relevant for my research takes place in Philadelphia? I have to use the plane, no matter how badly I want to avoid it. Because planes are one of the worst enemies of our planet, this is the fact. However, in order to do my research, I need to know about results of other scientists all over the world. In principle we could use video conferencing. And we do but it is far less effective than meeting other researchers in person. Because most of the ideas are created when we talk outside the official conference events.

Some universities tried to introduce travel funds not according to the money one spends on the travel but on the carbon footprint produced by the journey. I hope they will forget about such ideas soon. Yes, we should encourage alternative ways of travelling when they are feasible, for example one can get from London to Paris in a reasonable time by train. However, if one is unlucky enough to have a meeting in the U.S., it is just not fair.

Let us assume that we are already in the meeting. We switch on the lights, the computer, the projector, the air condition… There is coffee and water served in plastic cups. There are biscuits prettily wrapped in plastic bags. Another coffee break, another cup (because I managed to lose mine). And it continues…

These little things are what matters. I am not happy that they happen and I think we should change them. However, I still attend these meetings because I find them valuable for the climate research. Also, in my everyday life I try to waste as little as possible, save electricity etc. I know I could carry a mug with me and use it instead of plastic cups. But you know what? I would rather carry my laptop so that I can do some work on the train. Especially now that I cycle to the train station (no greenhouse gases produced!) and I do not want my backpack to be too heavy.

Later we go to the lunch. I do not remember a meal without any conversation about vegetarianism and its impact on the climate. I believe that reducing the meat consumption is an important part of helping the planet. Veganism is even more environment-friendly. Having said that, I do not think that meat eaters are doing something wrong. Especially when they are aware of how much greenhouse gases are released in the process of meat production and they try to reduce the amount of meat they consume. Cultivating the myth that we have to cut everything out in order to make the positive impact does not help our planet. Of course if we all went vegan, the release of CO2 would decrease but a traditional (in some countries) meat-free Friday has a good impact too. Why would we condemn them people for indulging in a favourite steak once a week? Every little step counts!

When it comes to the actual research, there is no weather and climate prediction without computers. Supercomputers. Super-power-hungry-computers. We cannot forget that every weather prediction releases large amounts of greenhouse gases. Should we then stop doing our research to prevent it? I doubt it would do us any good. Work is being done to develop more effective and less harmful algorithms but the problem will persist.

Can we be fully environment-friendly then? Yes and no. There are people who take it to the extreme. They eat only unprocessed plant-based foods, they live completely waste-free, do not travel, do not use electricity etc. It seems to be doable and if this lifestyle works for them, then it is great, but… I refuse to live like that. I am sure that we can live quite relaxed and pleasant lives and still do not do too much harm to the planet. The point is that we all have to do that. We all have to make some changes, no matter how small they would be.

You do not have to be perfect. If you feel that you can change something, then go for it! Do not beat yourself up for taking a super long shower because it was so pleasant. Do not feel like a failure for using a car when you were too tired to cycle to work. Just think about what you can do to reduce the harm that we, the whole of society, do to the planet. Listen to Paul McCartney: Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders. Do what you can – and enjoy what you do not want to sacrifice.

Article originally published on my personal blog.

What can Machine Learning do for Climate Science ?

Firstly, what is Machine Learning, other than a “sexy” buzzword used by the science community to make statistics sound cool? Well, per Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Baidu Inc. and an associate professor at Stanford it is “The science of getting computers to act without being programmed”. That statement leaves a lot to the imagination. One might start off by thinking of movies like I-Robot, Her and Ex Machina. For this post let’s stay grounded and say that Machine Learning explores the study and construction of algorithms that can learn from and make predictions from data. So, what can such an algorithm do for Climate Science? Turns out a lot.

 

Dr Claire Monteleoni, Assistance Professor at George Washington University, uses Machine Learning to track climate models. She along with many others are building a new field of Climate Informatics, a term she coined, with the aim of encouraging collaborations between climate scientists and Machine Learning researchers in order the bridge the gap between data and understanding. In her paper [1] Tracking Climate Models, she demonstrates the advantage of a Machine Learning approach for combining the predictions of multiple climate models. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change currently use about 20 climate models to make informed decisions and predictions on climate change.  This paper introduces the use of an online learning algorithm called Learn-α to make predictions that match or surpass that of the best climate model.

data_learn_alpha

Machine Learning is also useful in application where there is little data or the data is sparse. For example, global maps of the partial pressure of CO2 (pCO2). Observations of sea surface pCO2 are taken mostly by commercial ships and consequently are sparse in both time and space, especially before the 1990s. Knowledge of this pCO2 is essential to investigate the variation of the ocean CO2 sink, from which data comparisons to the Global Carbon Budget can be made. To “fill in the gaps” Dr Peter Landschützer, from ETH Zürich, employed a Forward-Feed Neural Network. Neural Networks are based on the way the biological brain solves problems, using a large cluster of neurons connected by axons.

neurons-440660_1280

Finally, looking a bit closer to home, the Informatics Lab at the Met Office are applying Machine Learning techniques to traffic cameras. They are currently undertaking a project which will use data taken from traffic cameras to train a machine to recognize the weather. This is especially useful when considering snow. Snow is the hardest weather to forecast as it depends on small differences in pressure, temperature and heights of clouds. To know if it’s snowy it’s much easier to look at the ground. From the images on the traffic cameras the amount of white could tell you and furthermore characterise the snowy weather. What’s particularly cool about this project is that all the code and data is freely available on the Informatics Lab website http://www.informaticslab.co.uk

country-road-946436_1920

To conclude, we can see many applications of Machine Learning from combining the strengths of different Climate models to just wondering if it’s snowing.  The field of Climate Informatics is without doubt exciting and becoming more and more important. We might be a long way off a computer feeling cold but until then let’s use it to tell us more about our complicated climate.

 

[1] Monteleoni, C., Saroha, S., Schmidt, G., and Asplund, E.: Tracking Climate Models, Journal of Statistical Analysis and Data Mining, 4, 372–392, 2011.

Fasten your seat belts!

Recently I was flying back from New York to London and as soon as we took off, I heard the magical phrase: “Please keep your seatbelt fastened during the whole flight. We expect a bumpy ride”. The pilot was right – it was so bad that I couldn’t sleep, watch any movies, not to mention complete any work I had planned to do. To be honest, I was sure we would crash, so I’m happy just because I can write this blog post today.

This adventurous trip reminded me of one of seminars I attended during my first year of Mathematics of Planet Earth program. I should have paid more attention to Dr Paul Williams from the University of Reading, who claimed that due to the climate change we can expect more turbulence while flying over the Atlantic Ocean.

Most of us associate global warming with increased temperatures on the ground. However, as the above mentioned atmospheric scientist reported, it also makes the jet stream even stronger.

According to the Met Office, jet streams are ribbons of strong winds around 9 to 16 km above the Earth’s surface (so right below the tropopause). They move weather systems with the speed of up to 200 mph. The temperature difference between tropical and polar air masses is their main cause. Meteorologists care about jet streams a lot because waves and ripples formed along them can dramatically deepen Atlantic depressions while moving towards Europe.

Jet streams make flights from America to Europe faster than westbound journeys. Indeed, my flight ticket to the USA states that the journey lasted 8 hours 27 minutes while on the way back it took 7 hours 10 minutes. The pilot could have done even better, because the record on this route belongs to Boeing 777 operated by British Airways that in January 2015 landed at Heathrow after 5 hours and 16 minutes. They took advantage of the jet stream that brought heavy rainfalls and winds to the UK.

While jet streams work in favour of passengers travelling to the capital of the UK, they also make flights towards Big Apple longer. Especially because these winds are getting stronger due to the climate change causing increased differences between temperatures of troposphere and stratosphere. The stronger the jet streams become, the shorter the eastbound and the longer the westbound flights. The problem is that quicker journeys from America won’t compensate for the increased flight time against the wind. Williams estimates that each airplane flying over Atlantic will spend extra 2000 hours in the air, which means millions of gallons of jet fuel burnt. This will lead to the emission of 70 million kilograms of carbon dioxide, about as much as annual emission from 7100 average British households. It’s a vicious cycle: climate change causes more carbon dioxide burnt, which causes climate change, which causes…

The increased time spent in the air isn’t the only unfavourable effect of the climate change on aviation. Research shows that passengers should expect more turbulence incidents. Every year hundreds of people suffer injuries due to unexpected “bumps” during the flight. In 2016 videos such as the one taken on the flight from Abu Dhabi to Jakarta went viral. During this flight turbulence was so strong that 31 passengers and crew members had to seek medical help after landing in Indonesia. Such incidents make me think that my flight wasn’t as traumatic as I believed!

Jet stream is one of the common causes of the clear-air turbulence, a turbulence not associated with a cloud. This type of turbulence can be dangerous because radars aren’t able to detect it; this is why it’s usually unexpected not only by passengers, but also by pilots. And Dr Paul Williams with Dr Manoj Joshi (University of East Anglia) pointed out that we have to prepare for more such surprises as the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases.

Apart from obvious discomfort and dangers, increased turbulence leads also to considerable financial problems. Williams’ report states that airlines spend millions of dollars to repair damage caused by turbulence. Moreover, sometimes airlines have to find longer routes avoiding places notorious for occurring turbulences, which leads to even more money spent and more pollutants emitted. For us, passengers, it means delays as well as longer flights.

So fasten your seat belts – just in case. And have a safe flight!

Image: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/12/business/12turbulence.html?_r=0

Article originally published on my personal blog.