Thursday, November 22, 2012

Psychology of Climate Change

Yesterday my niece, Jenny, raised the following question:

I'm interested in the psychology behind people's views of global climate change. Specifically, it is so interesting that this is such a partisan issue. What a great example of the confirmation bias (i.e. people seek to confirm their pre-existing views rather than looking for contrary information). Also, this issue is a perfect example of how data is filtered through our own lenses. That's my random academic thought for the day. Any opinions?

Yes, Jenny, I do have an opinion. And it is opinion (not 'fact'), though one based on considerable study and thought. My main concern is that we live in a society built to a large degree on science and technology, but the general public does not know much science, does not understand how science works, and exhibits a deep distrust of science. Moreover, our leadership demonstrates many of the same characteristics. This is a dangerous set of circumstances. Why is this so? The psychology is fascinating.

The point you make about confirmation bias is a good start. It was interesting that several Comments to your post objected to the use of the word bias. The idea seems to be that (a) there is truth and (b) everything else is bias. Thus, claiming someone else is biased reveals my own bias unless I am right, and how do we know who is right? Well, no, we all exhibit confirmation bias to some degree, regardless of how close we are to the truth.

So the first thing to understand about science is that scientists are human, and they have confirmation bias like everyone else. But they are trained to minimize the impact of this by (1) always being skeptical, (2) following certain procedures to avoid the most egregious errors, and (3) submitting their work to the scrutiny of peers. Is the scientific method perfect? No. Is it better than the alternatives? Yep.

Here is what Steve said:

  1. Only .07 C is certainly not scientific evidence of anything
  2. and that increase stopped 16 years ago.
  3. Nearly all the heat records for our area were set in the 1930s during the dust bowl and have rarely been topped.
  4. The idea that men can control climate in any way is ludicrous.
  5. We can't even predict weather more than what 12 hours?
  6. What we have is political consensus there is no science involved.

Let me start with statement #5. With regard to Hurricane Sandy, the Weather Service made the disclaimer many times that "these conditions are so unusual that we cannot be sure of any of our predictions". They admitted the limitations of their computer models because of lack of previous similar conditions. Despite this, they were spot on days in advance probably saving hundreds of lives because of their accuracy. Remarkable. The computer models of a decade ago have come quite close, but the modeling of today is ten times better. Don't claim we don't know what is going on. About #4, of course we cannot control weather or climate specifically or directly, but to claim that our actions play no role is just putting our heads in the sand. One of the great successes of climate science is the way predictions about the impact of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide on the actual temperatures have born out. The models did not get it exactly right, but actually quite close. Points #2 and #3 are simply false. If you want me to post the evidence, just ask.

Point #1, however, is more interesting. To be honest, I felt this way for a long time. How could a fraction of a degree in average temperature make any difference, when our daily and seasonal temperatures vary widely? This is a powerful emotional argument. But that is all it is, emotional. The melting polar ice, sea level rises, extremes of drought and flooding, multiple hottest months on record, extreme 'once in a lifetime' storms cannot be ignored. But part of the reason we have such a hard time with this is not understanding the nature of causation. None of these phenomenon are direct cause and effect. They are systemic effects.

Jon rightly said that "It is not a partisan issue on the scientific level, just the political level." Later, presumably in response to my analogy about smoking and cancer, he said that "Technically, we still can't say with complete certainty that smoking causes lung cancer because we can't rule out all of the Possible causes. There will always be an infinitesimally small percentage chance that something else that we are unaware of caused the cancer." Actually the chance is not infinitesimally small, but this is an example of direct causal thinking. The evidence that smoking increases the chances of cancer and a host of other deadly conditions is unassailable, and this evidence was irrefutable decades before the public accepted it (and the tobacco industry admitted it). Jon goes on to say " The same is true with climate change. However, this discussion is not about the science so much as people's motivations for believing the way they do." Exactly! And what are these motivations? As with the tobacco industry, the fossil fuel industry began bankrolling a campaign of disinformation. The "Report" to which Brett posted a link is a good example. Whatever else it may be, it is not science.

So, yes Jenny there is a lot of "confirmation bias". But science works hard to minimize this bias among its individual members. Let me give you a good example. Several years ago, Professor Richard Muller identified problems in previous climate studies that, in his mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. He co-founded the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project to rectify the previous problems. After three years of work by dozens of climate scientists he changed his mind.

"The Berkeley project's research has shown," Muller says, "that the average temperature of the Earth’s land has risen by two and a half degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of one and a half degrees over the most recent 50 years. Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases."

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Grassroots Bipartisanship 4

Who does not believe that our nation spent far too much money on the recent political campaigns by both parties? Who does not think money is a powerful corrupting influence on government, especially at the federal and state levels? And who does not wish we could do something about it? Well, we are the people, and we can!

Fortunately a few highly creative people have started the ball rolling and now we have the opportunity to join in. At the moment I am most taken with the American Anti-Corruption Act written by former Federal Election Commission chairman Trevor Potter in consultation with dozens of strategists, democracy reform leaders and constitutional attorneys from across the political spectrum. Please consider becoming a citizen cosponsor of the act. Then watch this powerful video and read more about the movement at Represent.Us.

(Update: I pledged to get "Citizen Co-Sponsors" for a new law that will force politicians to REPRESENT US. Will you help me?)

For some time now I have been following (and supporting) Move to Amend, a coalition of hundreds of organizations and tens of thousands of individuals "committed to social and economic justice, ending corporate rule, and building a vibrant democracy that is genuinely accountable to the people, not corporate interests." We (I included) are calling for an amendment to the US Constitution to unequivocally state that "inalienable rights belong to human beings only, and that money is not a form of protected free speech under the First Amendment and can be regulated in political campaigns."

A group with which I have become familiar only recently is Fund for the Republic. The board is impressive and diverse, and its statement of purpose reassuring :

We are a new nonprofit philanthropic venture and are nonpartisan — this cause is about country, not party. We hope to catalyze reform, identifying and assisting those new to the cause, helping them understand and navigate a complex terrain of strategies and opportunities, and providing analysis of what works and what doesn't. We are committed to collaboration and will be diligent about identifying collective opportunities, supporting the best existing efforts, and avoiding duplication with funders and NGOs alike.

One arm of Fund for the Republic is RootStrikers, "a network of activists fighting the corrupting influence of money in politics," founded by Lawrence Lessig. The name comes from a quote from Thereau: "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root." Together, we must strike at the root of America's problems.

Another participant in this broad coalition is united re:rublic, Josh Silver, CEO, and its principle project is Get the Money Out with goals quite similar to Move to Amend. Two additional movements promoting campaign finance reform are and the CoffeePartyUSA.

Some of my friends may object that these movements are thinly veiled fronts for a liberal agenda because they would restrict the influence of individuals like Karl Rove, Sheldon Adelson, Donald Trump, the Koch brothers, and others at the conservative end of the spectrum. But the undue influence of big money is not limited to these individuals and their party, not by a long shot. In many races across the country this last cycle Democrats outspent their Republican opponents. The charters of all the organizations above specifically emphasize non-partisanship, and they all have substantial bipartisan support. "When the people lead, the leaders will follow."

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Grassroots Bipartisanship 3

It is now time (way past time) for Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). This act was passed in 1994 as a result of extensive grassroots efforts and with solid bipartisan support. It was reauthorized in 2000 and 2005, again with broad solid support. Violence against women remains a serious problem in our society and all of us should give firm support to this legislation. This is important.

Since I am seeking cooperation from all segments of the political spectrum, however, I must disclose and discuss the fact that the 2012 reauthorization measure was controversial. Conservative Republicans in Congress opposed the 2012 bill because it extended the protections to gay men, lesbians, American Indians, and illegal immigrants who are victims of domestic violence.

Personally, I believe victims of domestic violence deserve protection regardless of the circumstances, and I have a hard time seeing how this is a partisan issue. But giving all my friends the benefit of the doubt, I acknowledge that there is room for discussion on some provisions of the act. One way or another, though, Congress must act expeditiously to reauthorize the VAWA. Please tell your members of Congress that you expect them to protect the safety of women by reauthorizing the VAWA. Call (202) 224-3121 today. To look up your Members of Congress' names and direct lines, please check this website.

Two other great resource are The National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women and the National Women's Law Center.

For those unfamiliar with the VAWA legislation, here is a description from Wikipedia.

"The Violence Against Women Act was developed and passed as a result of extensive grassroots efforts in the late 80's and early 1990s, with advocates and professionals from the battered women's movement, sexual assault advocates, victim services field, law enforcement agencies, prosecutors' offices, the courts, and the private bar urging Congress to adopt significant legislation to address domestic and sexual violence. Since its original passage in 1994, VAWA's focus has expanded from domestic violence and sexual assault to also include dating violence and stalking. It funds services to protect adult and teen victims of these crimes, and supports training on these issues, to ensure consistent responses across the country. One of the greatest successes of VAWA is its emphasis on a coordinated community response to domestic violence, sex dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking; courts, law enforcement, prosecutors, victim services, and the private bar currently work together in a coordinated effort that had not heretofore existed on the state and local levels. VAWA also supports the work of community-based organizations that are engaged in work to end domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking, particularly those groups that provide culturally and linguistically specific services. Additionally, VAWA provides specific support for work with tribes and tribal organizations to end domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking against Indian women."

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Grassroots Bipartisanship 2

Now that the election is over there is no reason not to confirm a long list of judicial appointments that have been awaiting confirmation for months. Republican senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe fully agree. Please contact your senators (preferably by phone AND email) and encourage them to act expeditiously on this matter.

The "fiscal cliff" we keep hearing about would not only slash the Defense budget as well as Medicare and Medicaid, it would severely cut the International Affairs account. This fund is less than 2% of the entire Federal Budget (maybe less than 1%), and it provides much needed humanitarian assistance around the world, so it would be a travesty to reduce its funding by even a dollar. And these moneys are not mere handouts. They support smart programs that help people help themselves. This work is supported by such non-partisan organizations as ONE (call), Bread for the World (circle), and World Vision to name a few. Please let your senators know that you support maintaining the full amount of this budget.

The discussion following my first post in this series became a little partisan, but no one on either side thought Mr. Berman should be high on the list of candidates for Secretary of State. Nor did anyone speak up that we should not oppose all restrictions on the freedom of the Internet. (I support protecting intellectual property rights, but not at the expense of a free and open Internet.)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Grassroots Bipartisanship 1

Call me naïve in hoping for a national conversation on the issues that divide our nation, but in the meantime why don't we try to work together on areas where we agree, or at least where we seem to agree at the grassroots level?

Today's suggestion is for us to continue to oppose any and all efforts to restrict freedom of the Internet. We can do this today by telling President Obama that Democrats and Republicans alike oppose the possible appointment of Congressman Howard Berman as Secretary of State, because he was one of the original sponsors of SOPA.

In fairness, Mr. Berman has been an effective congressman as the Ranking Democrat of the House Committee of Foreign affairs, and he has a solid record for bipartisanship. But the Secretary of State plays a key role in developing global Internet policy, and here Mr. Berman's record is dismal. Berman has repeatedly tried to censor the web at Hollywood's behest, and Hollywood has been leading a global charge to clamp down on Internet freedom.

Add your name here to tell the President not to appoint Berman. Then pass it on.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Touch the Jungle Update

The nonprofit project, Touch The Jungle, is a rainforest and wildlife conservation project working in a rural area of Ecuador. So you are probably wondering why we are currently raising funds to build a high school and how that relates to habitat and wildlife conservation. It's really simple. The local people are ultimately the end line of defense to protect the habitat and wildlife. Without their direct cooperation and involvement, it is a losing battle to protect anything on a local level. Outsiders can buy all the forested land they want, and people can donate to "protect an acre of rainforest" but if the people who live there are not actively involved in habitat protection, then nothing is really protected at all.

However, the majority of the local people live in extreme poverty without even the most basic life necessities, which often is the reason why they will end up agreeing to timber clear cutting or mining, sometimes illegally. TTJ's approach is to work directly with the local people and help improve their lives in order to empower them to protect their own forests and wildlife. We have found in Intag, the community we work with, a very strong fundamental desire to protect their natural resources such as their forests, their rivers, their wildlife, even at great sacrifice to themselves. So TTJ works hard to help them protect their forests and watersheds.

In this case, they do not have a high school. TTJ believes that building a high school/trade school will give the young adults of this region the tools to help them protect their forests, watersheds, and wildlife better than ever before, and for many generations to come. Our high school will be a satellite location of the government schools, the government will provide the teachers, curriculum, and ongoing support once we build the school. The TTJ school will also be a trade school that students can earn degrees in organic agriculture and animal husbandry, watershed management, forestry management, wildlife management, etc, and our wildlife rehab facility will be directly involved with students as well.

Providing this type of education will not only improve the lives of generations of young adults, allows them a chance to have better jobs, but it also directly provides them with the tools to protect their habitats and wildlife. No longer will mining, drilling, or timber companies come in making false promises, lies about the environmental effects of their destructive practices. The local citizens will have the education to directly confront those lies and take a stand, with facts and knowledge on their side. They will have the knowledge to live sustainably in their own communities day to day as well. The Touch The Jungle school will become the training grounds for generations of Environmental Warriors and together we will save this area of tropical rainforest and cloud forests of Intag.

And not only will we help the Intag forests, but contamination of the Intag rivers and forests will run down into the Amazon forest and the coastal rainforests of Ecuador to further contaminate and harm wildlife, habitat, and peoples further downriver. In short, TTJ provides help in many ways to the area of Intag, Ecuador. We improve the lives of local people by providing education and health care for their children and young adults, supporting local businesses, helping women start their own businesses and supporting women's issues, creating jobs in Eco tourism, etc. The end gains of all those efforts are the protection of wildlife and habitat.

So no matter what your interest, whether it is helping children in poverty, education, healthcare, clean water, environmental issues, creating jobs, wildlife or habitat conservation, we hope you will see a way to help TTJ in our efforts. Our US nonprofit agency, Earthways, covers all overhead and admin expenses, so that 100% of your donations go directly to the project level. Everyone that works with TTJ are volunteers, including myself. This year, Earthways is matching all donations we raise towards the school project, so your donation is automatically doubled. You can read more about TTJ on our website at Please consider making a donation to Touch The Jungle this year.

Thanks! ~Tracy Wilson, TTJ project director.

Copied with permission.

Neighbor Helping Neighbor

When Hurricane Sandy pummeled the East Coast just days before the general election, we asked ourselves as a nation, what is the proper role of the government in providing relief and assisting with recovery? Today I want to turn the question around. What is the role of neighbor helping neighbor in a calamity such as Sandy?

In April of this year, my sister and her family in rural Kansas suffered a frightful tornado. Thankfully no one was injured but the loss of property was devastating. Most impressive, though, was the immediate response of the community in helping them clean up the damage and rebuild their lives. Neighbors helped a neighbor in a way that was rapid, efficient, and effective. I was moved by this, as were many who observed this outpouring of support.

As inspiring as this story is, however, I remember thinking at the time that this could only happen in a small community. In an urban area with widespread destruction, coordination would be too difficult and the needs too overwhelming for individuals to be of much help. It turns out I was wrong.

In parts of New York hardest-hit by Sandy, the Occupy Wall Street movement (now Occupy Sandy) is said to be out-performing the Red Cross and FEMA. How could this be possible? First, Red Cross and FEMA have to deal with a lot of bureaucracy, while Occupy already has a network of organizers with access to local community groups. Second, Occupy Sandy asks for in-kind donations that people can actually give and use immediately. Third, Occupy had developed a community of trust so it was easy for them to unite quickly around a common need. Fourth, the shared leadership style of Occupy is ideal for affording communities the ability to stand on their own.

One of the more creative ideas is the use of Internet to focus outside giving on actual needs through an Amazon Wedding Registry. It has gone viral, a great example of the wider community supporting one another.

Another interesting observation is that New Jersey had not been doing Occupy Wall Street, so there was no infrastructure in place. But InterOccupy (facebook) put out a call for assistance and received a great response.

In a subsequent post I hope to come back and address the role of government (both federal, and state and local), non-governmental agencies (large and small), insurance companies, and private business in relief and recovery efforts. But today I want to admit that Occupy Sandy has proven me wrong about neighbor helping neighbor in disasters of overwhelming proportions.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Obama's Second Term

An organization I hold in high regard has made a list of "ten awesome things Obama can do" in his second term. First on the list is "fight climate change." I endorse and have therefore adopted all ten of these goals, but I won't post the list here nor will I provide a link because today I want to focus on this first item, working to prevent and reverse climate change.

Based on the miniscule attention climate change received during the campaign, we might think it is not a controversial topic. To the contrary, both candidates avoided it precisely because it is such a political hot potato. But should it be so controversial? If intelligent, well-meaning people examine the evidence together and have a civil dialog about the pros and cons of the measures involved, should we not be able to arrive at effective solutions? Maybe that is naïve; I hope not.

As most of you know, I've put a lot of effort into examining this issue, and I believe the scientific evidence is clear that climate change is a real phenomenon and that it is primarily caused by human use of fossil fuels. I am open to exploring new evidence and other viewpoints always, but the remainder of this posting is based on the premise that this statement is accurate (subject to refutation).

If we are indeed the cause of real climate change, what should the President do about it in his second term? What can he do?

  1. Promote fair evaluation of scientific evidence in climate change discussions.
  2. Work to end fossil fuel subsidies.
  3. Help drive through a fair, and binding climate treaty.
  4. Consider climate change in evaluating the environmental impact of the Keystone XL Pipeline.
  5. Promote the clean sources of renewable energy.

These are a few ideas off the top of my head. I've not done a very good job of setting this up to be an open conversation, but eventually that is what I am hoping for.