Day 2 Thursday 3rd November
The Elephant in the Room: Communicating Difficult Issues
Chaired by Professor Angela McFarlane, Director of Public Engagement and Learning, Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
How do we confront The Elephant in the Room and communicate environmental issues that have become taboo? How do we engage people in rational debate about contentious topics. We heard from two experienced communicators who have tackled the issues of population growth and climate change.
Professor Aubrey Manning, Emeritus Professor of Natural History, University of Edinburgh; Patron, Population Matters
I wish to thank the organisers of Communicate for asking me to take part. I think in view of some of the things I feel bound to say in the next few minutes I ought to declare at the outset that actually I’m in favour of human beings. I think they’re rather nice and have done some wonderful things throughout our hundred-and-seventy-five/two hundred thousand year history and I’m anxious that we should go on. Since the Sun has got about two-and-a-half to three billion years more of its lifecycle ahead when life here could survive, our potential future is substantial! There’s no physical reason why we shouldn’t stay with it, but to do so we will have to change our ways. My disclaimer is necessary because people who talk about population control are commonly denounced as anti-human and many other things as well. You will have heard of climate deniers – but I do assure you there are many population deniers, those who do not recognise population as a concern or a priority issue.
I am constantly reminded of a most deplorable asymmetry in the attitudes of people who are campaigning on environmental issues in the broadest sense. If I go to somebody from Christian Aid or the Worldwide Fund for Nature or Friends of the Earth or the Green Party and start talking about the population problem almost without exception they respond with variations on, “Oh it’s not population, it’s greed, gross inequality, poverty, the status of women and anyway twenty Bangladeshis don’t consume as much as one Briton.” On the other hand when somebody approaches me and says, “I’m very concerned about poverty and inequality.” I do NOT respond, ‘Oh it’s not poverty and inequality, it’s population.”
Of course the problems for survival we face are complex – they include ALL of these things, but it is dispiriting that so many people seem not to be able to recognise that what is not sufficient is nevertheless absolutely necessary. There can be no question but that eventually population control must come because without it we are effectively climbing a down escalator. Of course I understand the origins of the asymmetry I refer to - it impinges upon human reproduction and thus requires us to intrude and comment upon matters which hitherto have been regarded as the most personal, the birth of children and the choice involved in having a family.
Here I must address the world’s situation from the viewpoint of a biologist. Any biologist will recognise one particular elephant in the room and must seek to communicate some awkward facts – there is certainly more than one ‘inconvenient truth.’ I’m reminded of the wonderful words of Aldo Leopold, best known for A Sand County Almanac, who reflects that, ‘the penalty for an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.’ Most people, he argues, are quite unaware of the damage we wreak on the natural world. But the biologist sees those wounds all around. I don’t have to explain them to this audience. I refer to the steady erosion of the world’s life support systems, the degradation of soils, of forests, of oceans, the rapid depletion of ground water and the grave loss of biodiversity. Already we consume annually about one third more than the planet can replace and something like a billion people remain malnourished as it is. We are living on the Earth’s capital by means of huge fossil energy consumption.
The immediate conclusion from this situation must be that, for our long term survival the Earth is already grossly overpopulated. Thus the argument that as people get richer birth rates fall can offer no comfort. We are living beyond the resources that the planet can yield before we even begin to approach a time when resource consumption of poorer nations rises towards what we now assume to be essential for our own well-being any further population growth is an obvious barrier to their successful development. It will be at best a century before we could reduce numbers other than by disasters and thus it is easy to understand why it is more acceptable to turn away from the sheer weight of numbers towards less awkward factors. This denial is made worse because growth in all forms is regarded as our one way forward. Universally we pledge our adherence to the conventional economics of growth. In the current financial and social turmoil we seem to be flailing around trying to retain some faith in the standard growth models.
I am very sympathetic towards economists – we can’t do without them – but we and they ought to recognise the implications of the hugely complex system they must deal with. On any crucial economic issue you will find different groups of distinguished economists arguing on one side and on the other. Clearly the certainties are elusive. Should we go for cut back now and wait for growth to develop within a leaner society or should we spend now in order to encourage growth? Letters to The Times on alternate days argue on both sides and each may well have an economics Nobel Laureate on its list of signatories. Economics cannot be an exact science, its applied psychology of the most complex type and the models we have to use are pretty on a level of those by which we try to predict long term weather!
There are notable exceptions but despite the uncertainties so many economists still choose to ignore basic biological principles. Some assume quite explicitly that the world is limitless. We don’t need to think about how the Earth’s resources are going to provide the means on which future economic growth will be based. Implicit in such beliefs is the faith that technology will provide. Further there is no contact with the human situation on the ground, as it were. For example, a leading article in The Economist (October 2010) affirms that, for progress, India is in a much better position than China because China, having deliberately slowed its population growth, would have fewer young people in the future. India, on the other hand, had an enormous and growing number of young people – 40% under the age of 16 – this was deemed to be wonderful because they were the workers in the factories of the future. This was going to power India towards growth and prosperity compared with the stagnation that faced China. At the same time, in 2010, one learnt that at least one third of Indian children were undernourished. Could one have a better illustration of blind faith! I am certainly not suggesting that biologists ought to be running the economy! But given the biological realities and the economic uncertainties, surely there should be some biological input into planning.
Now, how to address – to communicate - these difficult issues. As Graham Russell said this morning “You have to begin from where people are,” and here I take some encouragement from a recent poll which was commissioned by Population Matters – a group that I am concerned with. It was a YouGov poll of the standard standard type, involving 3,500 people balanced for age, social class, geography and so. They were asked: “Do you think that Britain would be a better place with more people; fewer people; the same number; or it doesn’t matter?” 65% ticked the box for fewer people, one percent ticked the box for more. What should we read into that? As Geoffrey Beattie revealed to us this morning and we shouldn’t just read it superficially. We need to know what’s implicit as well as explicit in this response. Nevertheless there is surely some significance in the fact that sixty-times as many people voted for fewer people than for more.
Those who share my view have some grounds for a bit of optimism which is something we can build on. Next we must try to help people to build on the real implications of what they feel. Geoff Beattie said that 78% of people that he had polled claimed they were prepared to change their lifestyle to become greener. Encouraging, but nobody will have suggested to them that downsizing your car and fitting low energy light bulbs might be only a start. How about not having a third child even though you’d had two daughters to begin with and you’d really like a son. That would be enormously more effective way to become green. This morning Graham Russell showed us Defra’s list of changes that were needed for sustainability. A useful lot of suggestions there as to what we should aim for with possible incentives and maybe even disincentives, but it didn’t include ‘don’t have that extra child’ as one of them. This would certainly outdo removing a lot of 4x4s and wasteful light bulbs and go on working into the distant future, but I’m not sure that many people are prepared to go that far yet. Even to hint at this is to move into uncharted territory!
Of course governments always say that they can’t possibly interfere with a matter of such intimate personal choice. The free choice of family size is one of those incontrovertible ‘human rights.’ I regard this as bunkum and hypocrisy. Governments and other social structures have been interfering with people’s intimate choice for centuries, but always to encourage and often enough to force women to have more children than they want. Abortion is made illegal, contraception may be expensive, procreation is identified as God’s will and so on. Beyond this there are financial incentives to procreate – Sweden, Germany, Japan, Malaysia at this moment. Australia too tries really hard; in this rich, overpopulated country already very short of water the slogan is, “Have one for mum, one for dad and one for Australia.” Doesn’t it give you a nice warm feeling!
Now, fuelling the standard expansionist economic ideas are fears of our ageing population. How are we going to pay for our pensions in the future? I’m not denying we have got to change all kinds of things and the transition to a stable and eventually declining population is not easy. It’s just that the alternative is worse. We hear that we need more young people to be born eventually to finance pensions of those who are already here. This is a Ponzi scheme! Bernie Madoff knew all about such things. The way to keep the old customers happy is to bring in some new customers and pay out supposed dividends from this new cash. Of course this demographic Ponzi scheme overlooks the fact that the newcomers will age too. In due course so they will need more young people to back up their pensions and so ad infinitum. It does not seem to be rocket science and it’s unbelievable to me how readily Governments appear to support such a risible proposal and go into a panic mode when there are signs that a population is not growing.
How do we even get to first base on the population issue? As before – we have to begin from where people are. As I get older I recognise the limitations of what it is realistic to expect. For now I would be happy if we could get our society, and especially our elected representatives, just talking about population, as we incessantly talk about economic growth – just accepting that numbers must profoundly affect every decision we make about our future. We must put our own house in order, if we’re to have any influence elsewhere. In fact there’s plenty we can do immediately in Britain. Remember the YouGov survey – we need to follow up on that result. There’s very good evidence that about 30% of pregnancies are unplanned - that’s what the parents or the single mother tells us. Unplanned is not always the same as unwanted. Once arrived, babies are programmed to become irresistible. But nevertheless I think this is a disgraceful statistic. What a way to bring a child into the world, just to have it happen. For instance, we have the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe and little of this is planned. Anxious as I am to see the UK’s birthrate decline, it is surely our first responsibility as adults to ensure that every child born is a wanted child and that means wanted from before conception.
Of course all this is long term business. The deniers who say it’s not population, but poverty and redistribution of resources etc. are correct. It’s them too and we have to tackle those problems now. But we must also tackle population now for it’s going to take a long time for it to show through. The planet already is under severe strain. We’re going to have to fight very hard to keep a decent standard for humanity even if we just stayed as we are now. Our legs are beginning to tire and to ignore population turns up the motor of the down escalator.
Climate Change - So Last Decade
Professor Myles Allen, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford
People have largely lost interest in climate change. It very much feels like last decade’s issue, but I could be fairly confident that a lot of you here in this room, if you’ve been in the business of environmental communication for more than a year or so, have probably worked on communicating climate change or the climate change issue at some point in the past, even if you’ve given up doing that sort of thing now. The question we have to ask ourselves is why this issue is so firmly in reverse as far as public perception of climate is concerned and public understanding of the issues, despite the enormous amount of effort and investment that’s been made over the past decade in communicating this issue and educating people about what the issue means and so forth.
So, I’m going to try and convince you that, essentially, it is your fault. While there has been a lot of debate, the climate change issue has not been undersold or oversold, but has been mis-sold very badly over the past decade. The bottom line of what I’m saying, is that as a climate scientist, one should be very careful about alarmism. The problem is that climate change has very much been presented as an issue of global catastrophe that will affect our grandchildren, whereas in fact, the issue is substantially more prosaic than that, but no less serious. That is the point I would like you to take away and consider.
The other aspect of mis-selling on the climate question is that the debate is over whether climate change is happening or not. There’s been an enormous amount of argument over the past decade about whether it is true or not that climate change is happening. Whenever you have an economic debate, you can get prominent economists on both sides of the argument debating on talk shows, giving both sides, pro and anti-growth. You may not have realised this but this hasn’t happened for at least a decade on climate. You can get Nobel laureates on both sides of the argument, but only one of those Nobel laureates will have actually ever done any research on meteorology, or oceanography, or climate, and that Nobel laureate will be in agreement with the consensus view of the way climate is changing. But what we’ve seen over the past few years is events like the climate-gate email revelations, giving the population at large the impression that the whole issue hangs by a thread of evidence, that a few scientists might have fiddled the data, and therefore, if they are “caught out”, this undermines the entire case for human influence on climate.
In the accompanying slides, you can see the impact of the whole UEA email affair – think about the amount of newsprint, the amount of air time and so forth that was devoted to that affair over the past couple of years – this is the total impact of that affair on any published data set that is of any relevance to the human influence on climate, and the correction is about two hundredths of a degree in the late 1870s. It is important to get these things right, and we are grateful to those who scoured over the data and identified a problem with input files because that resulted in that small correction in this record. But that’s the only change to any published number which resulted from this entire affair. Now, you wouldn’t have got that impression from the way it’s been covered in the media. Certainly the public has not got that impression, but rather they have the idea that basically it’s all up in the air again, and that really we have no idea what’s going on, because people have been caught fiddling the numbers.
Earlier, economists’ models were likened to the models being used for the climate. I’d like to object very strongly to that statement. As it happens, it is very substantially easier to predict climate than it is to predict the world economy, and this can be illustrated when we look at how global temperatures have evolved over the satellite era, and compare the surface record – the controversial one that people say has been fiddled – with the satellite record which the sceptics are most fond of – the one that comes out of the University of Alabama at Huntsville. They match each other very well, they show when a warming trend emerged, and when you add the predicted range in warming trends made by the IPCC in 2000, based on data available in the mid-1990s, you can see that it’s not a matter of fitting data that’s already happened in the past, but that the IPCC was correct in predicting that the last decade would be around two-tenths of a degree warmer than the 1990s. Other people predicted it would either be the same temperature or cooler than the 90s and they were wrong. This is a fact that nobody really gets, and while being right in the past doesn’t always guarantee that you will be right in the future, it does indicate that the business of prediction may not actually be entirely impossible, and that the business of predicting climate, or at least the response in the climate system of a rise in greenhouse gases, may be a lot more straightforward than some of us feared around the time I started working in this field, around 1990.
There are uncertainties of course, but broadly speaking, on a global scale, we do understand what is happening. However, the public doesn’t understand that we understand, and hence a lot of the confusion that surrounds this topic at the moment. That doesn’t mean we understand everything, it doesn’t just mean we can predict what’s going to happen in the next decade or two, and it doesn’t mean we’ll always get it right because, of course, a volcano could go off, something else could happen and that would lead effectively into the prediction as it evolves. But, broadly speaking, we do understand on a global scale, what’s going on. It doesn’t preclude the possibilities of surprises but you have to look increasingly into the fringes of what’s possible in order to work out that this warming trend will suddenly stop in the next decade of its own accord.
However, global temperature, of course, has no impact on anybody and the kinds of things people really care about are extreme events like the heat wave in Russia in July 2010. At the time, in Moscow, temperatures were ten to twelve degrees above normal. I don’t know how many people were killed by this heatwave but crucially, it’s a localised phenomenon. Whilst it killed a lot of people in Moscow, in Siberia and the Middle East, temperatures were cooler than normal. This is the kind of event that people actually notice. My worry is that having messed it up on the global temperature question, we’re now in the business of messing it up on understanding the links between weather and climate as well.
This is the sort of thing which gets said about weather and climate – to quote Al Gore – “They used to say we’re changing the odds, loading the dice. Now, we’re painting more dots on the dice instead of rolling twelves, we’re rolling thirteens and fourteens.” It is a striking image, a bit like a lot of the images of cataclysm that were thrown around in the mid-2000s about the climate going over a tipping point and leading us all into a new ice age. But it’s wrong. We are not seeing weather events that could not have happened in the absence of human influence on climate. What we’re seeing is indeed loading the dice. We are seeing weather events being made more likely. I’ve been in correspondence with Al Gore’s advisors, and their reaction is: “Well the loading dice analogy isn’t strong enough. People don’t see that as a problem and so this is a more striking analogy.” Yes, it’s striking, but it’s wrong. That doesn’t help because it’s far too easy for somebody then to stand up and say, “Well, you know, he’s got it wrong, therefore you can ignore everything else he’s saying.” So, we’re walking into exactly the same trap again. Not overselling the case, but mis-selling the case. I wouldn’t say that loading dice is necessarily any better or worse than painting more dots on; you can lose money against someone playing with a loaded dice just as easily as you can lose money against someone who’s painted an extra dot on one of the faces. Just because it concerns probability rather than the actual number of dots, doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Einstein argued that everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler, and this has dogged the climate issue from the start. People want to simplify the issue to make it easy to communicate to the public, yet they simplify it so far they just make it wrong. It’s incredibly easy then, for anybody who wants to stir the pot a little bit, to point out what is wrong and thus undermine public confidence in the whole issue. We have been looking at how the dice have been loaded towards heat waves of the nature discussed above becoming more likely, and since the 1960s, we see a four-fold increase in the risk of a heatwave of the magnitude of what occurred in Russia, and a substantial fraction of that risk increase is likely to be produced by an increase in greenhouse gases. That is not an insignificant change, in fact it’s a very important change, but people have to understand it, there’s no point in simplifying it down beyond what is actually supported by science and that’s the problem we face here. So the real challenge I want to put out to you as communicators is maybe the fact that the stuff that climate scientists do is becoming increasingly uninteresting to you. It’s becoming quite technical; it concerns how climate is affecting weather in various parts of the world, it’s concerned with how the odds on specific weather events are changing. The big picture question, which got everybody so juiced up in the last decade - whether the climate is changing at all, why it was changing, what we need to do about it – the answers to these questions are not evolving. There’s not much happening on those questions any more. The whole process of what we might call rather rudely, “climate infotainment”, which was a big feature on the BBC a couple of years ago, is dead, and there’s no point in running repeated climate scare stories in the media because people have just lost interest in them.
Professional climate communicators at are just dying out, and this is no longer an issue, because climate change has become boring. But the question we’ve got to ask ourselves is that is this a good thing? Maybe the idea of selling this as something people are going to deal with as a great collective action, and enterprise, was never going to work, and that actually, the way it’s going, the whole climate change issue will be played out by professionals, largely leaving the public out of the picture. It’s sad for democracy, but ultimately, it may be best for climate.