Climate Sock

Why the world needs more climate fiction

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on December 18th, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on Why the world needs more climate fiction

This was originally published by New Internationalist.

Visitor numbers at Bletchley Park, the home of UK wartime code-breaking, have soared in recent years. From fewer than 50,000 in 2005, ticket sales grew to 196,000 by 2014. The next year they suddenly jumped per cent, with an extra 84,000 people visiting the park.

Why the sharp rise in visitors? Word about Bletchley had been building for years but there was a specific reason visitors suddenly flocked to the museum after 2014. What had changed was the release of the Oscar-winning film, The Imitation Game, which dramatized Alan Turing’s wartime experience at Bletchley. Visitors rushed to the park not because they had seen a documentary or read a book about it, but because they had been told a story.

The story the film tells is, of course, about how Turing and others cracked the Enigma code – but it’s not just about that. It’s also about how women and gay men struggled in the strictures of mid-Twentieth Century Britain and how the country mistreated a hero. Without those sides of the story, the film wouldn’t have had such wide appeal and the park probably wouldn’t have had so many visitors.

Stories about individuals are easy to dismiss as trivial but are essential for conveying bigger stories. Anne Frank’s diaries help us grasp the horror of the Holocaust; photographs of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, dead on a Turkish beach, drew global attention to the European refugee crisis in a way that 3,000 deaths in the Mediterranean the previous year had not.

The roots of climate apathy

When it comes to climate change you might think the world has no need for human-interest stories. The record-breaking heat of this summer came after a year in which the US suffered its costliest hurricane season on record, much of South Asia was under water and Cape Town got within weeks of switching off the taps.

But there is little sign that these changes in the world’s weather are causing a surge in public worries. Long-term studies suggest concern about climate change has drifted up and down over the last 20 years. As I show in my book, climate apathy is widespread and resilient: most people understand climate change is real but don’t spend much time thinking about the subject.

A lack of science communication isn’t the problem. Since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2001 report, scientific confidence that humans are the cause of recent warming has gone from 66% to more than 95%. The latest report – at nearly 5,000 pages, the definitive statement of knowledge about the subject – had plenty of media coverage yet little measurable impact on public opinion.

Psychologists wouldn’t be surprised by this. To the human mind, climate change is distant, complex and slow-moving – a bad combination according to Harvard social psychologist Daniel Gilbert, who described the brain as a “get out of the way machine”. It has evolved to deal with problems that are proximate, clear and rapidly changing and it prioritizes these over distant threats like climate change. However quickly the planet is changing in geological terms, it’s still slow in human terms.

Perhaps this reflects the limits, in terms of persuasion, of the factual description of climate science. To persuade more people that the world needs to urgently cut emissions means making climate science personal and that requires storytelling. This is why a new genre, climate fiction – cli-fi for short – has so much potential.

Climate fiction

Most people’s experience of cli-fi is limited to one or two blockbusters. The 2004 disaster film The Day After Tomorrow is the best known: it may be the only work of cli-fi that editors assume audiences know. Other prominent ones include the post-apocalyptic book and film The Road – which doesn’t actually mention climate change though is often categorised as cli-fi.

But the famous works of cli-fi are perhaps the least important. They’re dramatic because they show a world that has been utterly transformed. But the world they show is so unrelatably different from everyday life that viewers might as well worry about a zombie apocalypse as about climate change. They’re unlikely to persuade many people that climate change is a threat they need to act to prevent.

nstead of this extreme transformation, cli-fi is most persuasive when it doesn’t try to do so much. Paradoxically, it’s the works that tell the smallest stories that may be the most important: those that focus on one change and explore what it means for the people living through it.

Among the most interesting, The End We Start From, by Megan Hunter, is narrow and simple. A woman gives birth, her home floods and she has to flee with her partner and baby. We hear no more about the rest of the country – let alone the rest of the world – than the woman does and the short book is dominated by the day-to-day of life with a growing baby as she seeks refuge. In its simplicity it conveys, more powerfully than any scientific report, what it would feel like to live through a climate change-induced flood.

Others don’t narrow their scope so much but still convey the emotion of global warming. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora isn’t obviously cli-fi – it’s mostly set on a generation starship – but gives a compelling description of a particular loss that could come from climate change when a character sets herself to remaking beaches that have been swallowed by rising oceans. The reader could easily have been alienated with descriptions of a future Earth but beaches are familiar. As a translation of the dull term “sea-level rise”, a woman’s experience of restoring sandy beaches conveys their loss in a way that makes it painfully imaginable.

If any descriptions of climate change could trigger Gilbert’s get out of the way machine, it’s ones like these. The power of the most persuasive cli-fi is its relatability. Homes flooding and beaches drowning, experienced through the eyes of a character we’re behind, are easier to imagine and care about than any scientific report or desperate struggles after a world-shattering apocalypse.

Cli-fi is still little known – it’s still largely limited to books (no big-budget Netflix show yet) and most of those are published with little attention. For now the climate change story is mostly told through dry reports, whose facts may be terrifying but whose story is barely heard.

But there is one sign that things might be changing. A production company, SunnyMarch, last year acquired the rights to turn The End We Start From into a film. The name behind that production company is someone who knows about telling personal stories: Benedict Cumberbatch, star of The Imitation Game.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.

 

Could businesses hold the key to overcoming climate apathy?

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on December 13th, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on Could businesses hold the key to overcoming climate apathy?

This was originally published by Business Green.

There’s an episode of the US TV show The West Wing where the President is looking for a reason to commute a murderer’s death sentence. He hears pleas from religious figures and prays for wisdom but, feeling God hasn’t answered him, is unable to find a way out. As the episode closes and time runs out, the President’s childhood priest chastises him: “He sent you a priest, a rabbi, and a Quaker, Mr. President. Not to mention His son, Jesus Christ. What do you want from Him?”

Those of us wanting faster climate action may be wondering what the world is still waiting to be sent. In the last 12 months California has seen the most destructive fires in its history, a heatwave set records across the northern hemisphere, a drought in Cape Town took the city to within weeks of switching off its public water supply, record-breaking rain and floods killed more than 200 in Japan, even more deadly floods struck Kerala, while the Carolinas were also hit by record flooding, from Hurricane Florence.

There are in fact some signs that climate change is starting to influence elections. Continued on Business Green (free read)

Climate apathy, not denial, is the biggest threat to our planet

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on October 5th, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on Climate apathy, not denial, is the biggest threat to our planet

This article was published in the Guardian – intro below and you can read the full text here.

Three years after world leaders signed the Paris climate agreement, we’re about to better understand what that deal means for how we live our lives. On Monday, a major report from the UN’s climate science panel will set out what it will take to limit global warming to 1.5C, the key Paris target.

There are reasons to think the world is, finally, getting to grips with climate change. Carbon emissions are still rising but more slowly than before, and in many countries they’re falling. The UK has slashed its emissions to 19th-century levels, and we’re not alone – plenty of other countries, including the US, are making progress as well. Crucially, that’s happened without many people noticing, suggesting the world might be able to deal with the problem without having to persuade the public to change their polluting lifestyles.

But this is wishful thinking. Continue reading…

 

Pollsters and hedge funds; Heathrow expansion – Polling Matters

Posted in Climate Sock, Politics, Polling Matters on June 27th, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on Pollsters and hedge funds; Heathrow expansion – Polling Matters

On this week’s Polling Matters podcast, Keiran Pedley and I look at a recent Bloomberg story investigating links between hedge funds and pollsters on the day of the EU referendum.

We also talk about public opinion on Heathrow and the environment and ask what Blair hopes to achieve with his latest intervention (and why David Cameron seems to be so quiet).

Climate apathy could mean disaster – but it isn’t inevitable

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on May 12th, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on Climate apathy could mean disaster – but it isn’t inevitable

This was originally published by The Ecologist.

11 years ago the EU introduced wide-ranging rules regulating the manufacture and supply of chemicals. The rules imposed significant costs on businesses and, it’s hoped, will save many lives. But they were passed with little media coverage and have become a fact of life with few people being aware of their existence.

Given it’s been possible to restrict businesses and address a threat to public health without public debate when it comes to chemicals, could the world do the same with climate change? If that threat can also be tackled with rules that few people hear about, perhaps public opinion doesn’t matter.

Day-to-day life

Sadly for technocrats, this is unlikely. The challenge ahead, to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement and stop warming crossing dangerous thresholds, is enormous. Greenhouse gas emissions have been rising steadily since the Industrial Revolution; the world will need to reverse that rise, cutting emissions at an unprecedented rate until humans stop adding warming gases to the atmosphere within the next few decades.

That means not only cleaning up industrial sectors that are distant from most people’s lives, like electricity, chemicals and shipping (whose obscurity is reflected in the fact its crucial climate conference, happening this week, is getting almost no mainstream media coverage), it also means cutting emissions from most people’s day-to-day lives, like the ways we travel and the food we eat. Without cutting emissions from sectors like agriculture and aviation, the world won’t stop dangerous warming. It’s unlikely to be possible to clean up these sectors without most people noticing and agreeing to the changes.

So public support for tackling climate change will be essential, yet it’s far from assured. The problem isn’t climate denial: few people think the whole thing is a hoax, even in the countries where denial is loudest. A majority of the public accept climate science and believe it’s a threat that needs to be tackled. The problem comes when they’re asked to make sacrifices to deal with it – most are unwilling to do so and are suspicious when they hear about changes that would impose costs on them in the name of cutting emissions. Preventing dangerous warming may depend on public enthusiasm, but at the moment apathy is far more widespread.

This isn’t just a problem for the future – it matters right now. Take the UK: its emissions are falling fast but this progress has come without confronting the emission sources that would be less popular to cut. Plans to build a third runway at Heathrow would make the UK’s climate targets much harder to achieve, yet few politicians are prepared to acknowledge that cutting emissions probably means restricting flying. Similarly, the EU’s backing for TAP, a new pipeline that would bring huge volumes of Caspian Sea natural gas into Europe, suggests the bloc is also taking decisions now that will make it much more difficult to cut emissions in the next few decades.

Distant threat

If most people are worried about climate change, why does this kind of polluting infrastructure keep getting built, and why is there so little pressure for the measures that will be needed to prevent dangerous warming?

Psychologists have identified a host of reasons most people avoid thinking about climate change. Among these are the way the problem seems distant – its impacts are mostly in other places, it will mostly happen in the future – and progresses slowly, and the fact it requires sacrifices now to avert problems later. The barriers the mind puts up to avoid worrying about climate change might make the problem seem hopeless: Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes himself as “deeply pessimistic” about it.

But we must avoid confusing the inherent nature of climate change with the way it’s widely described and understood. For example, the fact the threat seems distant has more to do with the way its effects are described, notably the emphasis on ecosystems like the Arctic. The consequences for polar bears aren’t enough to motivate most people, and now climate change is hitting the people whose emissions need to fall – with storms like Hurricane Sandy, which devastated New York in 2012 made more likely by climate change – it’s no longer necessary to talk about it as a distant threat.

The same applies to the idea that climate change requires sacrifices for future benefits. It may well do, and, if that’s all that most people hear about it, there’s unlikely to be widespread enthusiasm. But there are plenty of ways in which tackling climate change can bring benefits beyond averting future problems, from cleaner air and new jobs, to better insulated homes and, perhaps, communities that jointly own wind farms and solar panels.

This is a matter of choice. Climate apathy could spell disaster for efforts to prevent dangerous warming but it isn’t inevitable. The fact it is so widespread is a result of various ways climate change has been, and continues to be, described. That can change. It will take a widespread shift in how the issue is talked about, but it’s still possible to turn apathy into action.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.

 

UK worries about climate change are at their highest level since 2010

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on April 26th, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on UK worries about climate change are at their highest level since 2010

Worries about climate change have been slowly increasing in the UK for the last few years. This has continued in 2018, with the latest wave of the BEIS (previously DECC) climate and energy poll, out today, showing concern is at its highest level since the series began with 2012.

I’ve combined this with earlier polls that have asked the same question, going back to 2005, making the longest-running comparable series of data that I’m aware of on UK concern about climate change. (See here for links to the earlier polls.)

27% are now very concerned about climate change and 47% somewhat concerned, making a total of 74%. That’s the highest since 2010, if we look at the proportion who are very concerned, or equals the 2012 level if we look at total concern. On either measure it’s still behind the levels in 2005 and 2008.

July 2018 update: see here for why the 2005 poll may not be comparable.

 

This mirrors the trend of rising concern about climate change that we’ve generally seen in the US and Australia.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.

 

Can we be cheerful about climate change? Ed Miliband & Geoff Lloyd podcast

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on April 23rd, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on Can we be cheerful about climate change? Ed Miliband & Geoff Lloyd podcast

I’m on this week’s Reasons to be Cheerful podcast, hosted by Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd, talking about what people think about climate change and what could influence public opinion.

The other guests were stellar: Christiana Figueres (architect of the Paris Agreement), Kim Holmen (head of the Norwegian Polar Institute) and Joss Garman (climate activist and policy thinker).

You can listen here.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.

 

I went vegan for January. Was I wasting my time?

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on January 31st, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on I went vegan for January. Was I wasting my time?

It was the coconut cheese that did it. For most of January I’d believed that being vegan was no sacrifice – if anything it meant I was trying foods I wouldn’t normally think to eat. Some of them were very good. Jackfruit can be cooked into something like a sticky pulled pork that makes a superb burrito. But as I slathered pickle to mask the taste of the coconut-based fake wensleydale, it was inescapable that I would prefer to be eating the real thing.

Why had I bothered with Veganuary? It’s true I don’t want animals to suffer, want to prevent the toxic waste that comes from some farms, and hate the way so much land is used for raising animals, rather than for homes or wildlife. But none of that was enough for me to make the change. I did Veganuary for just one reason, and that was the climate change effect of meat and dairy production.

The world’s promise to avoid dangerous climate change is soon going to crash into its taste for meat and milk. By the time my seven-month-old is 40, the world should have become carbon neutral. Some parts of that switch seem hard but possible. The radical growth of solar and wind power and the arrival of electric cars that are better than petrol ones at least show how those sectors could eliminate emissions.

Food is different. Livestock farming is responsible for 14.5% of global emissions and it’s hard to see how those emissions go away unless a lot of people consume a lot less meat and milk. As more people move out of poverty, the world’s demand for animal products looks set to increase, when emissions should be going in the other direction.

That seemed a good reason for me to try being vegan for a month. It seemed obvious that, if I believe the world should cut emissions fast, I should deal with my own emissions. Climate change is an ethical problem, so it would be unethical for me to worsen it if I can reasonably avoid doing so, however small my individual contribution. I wouldn’t throw a plastic bottle into the vast ocean, so why should I be relaxed about releasing planet-warming gases?

But, midway through Veganuary, an evangelical free-marketeer – who is as worried about climate change as I am – told me I was completely wrong. He argued that my voluntary restraint would have no effect. Not even a tiny, insignificant effect. None at all.

His argument was that my voluntary restraint would reduce the price of the dairy I was avoiding, so others would consume it instead. If you bought a pint of milk last month because it was on special offer, perhaps you’ve got me to thank for it. Even if hundreds of millions become vegan, there are many more around the world who want to eat more dairy and would welcome to chance to buy it. Voluntary restraint is pointless (if the market’s working properly).

To quote Tim Minchin, “Hmm, that’s a good point, let me think for a bit. Oh wait, my mistake, that’s absolute bullshit”.

Ok, that’s a bit harsh, but here’s why the free-marketeer is wrong, and voluntary restraint is essential for the world to avoid dangerous climate change

There are two ways food emissions might fall:

  1. Billions of people decide to stop eating high-emitting foods.
  2. Governments apply taxes or laws or incentives that force farmers to come up with cleaner ways of producing the same foods or cleaner alternative foods.

Our free-marketeer believes only the second option can work, and I happen to agree with him. But he’s wrong to think this doesn’t involve voluntary restraint. (The only way I can see 1 succeeding is if breakthroughs in low-carbon foods are so astonishing that consumers prefer them to food from animals; given the ridiculous low cost of meat it’s hard to see artificial foods being able to win on price).

Imagine Michael Gove announced next week that he’s introducing a carbon tax and it’ll eventually be high enough that meat and dairy consumption will fall 90% unless the industry effectively eliminates its emissions. There would be outrage. There’s no way it would pass. (and now, for a laugh, imagine a left-wing party that didn’t have the support of most of the media doing the same)

The only way food emissions will fall is if there’s public support for the switch. That’s only going to happen if the problem and the solution are first normalised. Emissions from agriculture are far too high and have to fall, which means far more people will have to eat a low-carbon diet – and that low-carbon diet has to be much more appealing than it is now.

This is why it’s right – maybe essential – for people like me to eat less meat and dairy. We’re showing that cutting emissions is something that people do, which starts conversations about what dealing with climate change will actually look like, which will make it seem less bizarre when the time comes for a government to try to reduce emissions from food.

We’re also creating incentives for the food industry to come up with better alternatives to meat, which eases the way for others to follow. In short, someone has to try the coconut wensleydale, so that no-one else has to.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.

 

The return of vote blue, go green? Polling Matters

Posted in Climate Sock, Politics, Polling Matters on January 20th, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on The return of vote blue, go green? Polling Matters

On this week’s podcast, I talked with Keiran about the Tories’ push on environmental policies, how it’s backed up by polling and what it might mean for the electoral landscape.

We also talked about why Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson are indicating support for another referendum on Brexit and what recent polling tells us about public opinion on the issue.

And what’s going on with Labour following the NEC elections, is a Corbynite succession now inevitable and will Corbyn’s age be an issue at the next election?

You can listen here:

How 2017 killed climate denial

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on December 29th, 2017 by Leo – Comments Off on How 2017 killed climate denial

Business Green have published my article about why 2017 was the death of climate denial and why we should worry instead about climate apathy. You can read it here.

 

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.