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James Hansen on communicating climate change

Climate scientist and campaigner James Hansen has enlisted the help of his grandaughter Sophie to bring the climate change story to the masses in a way that is readable and jargon-free. The following is an excerpt from an explanatory letter to her, entitled Butterfly Report + Jeremiah, the Frog.

Climate is changing. The world is slowly getting warmer. We know that the main reason is air pollution from burning of coal, oil and gas, the sources of most of our energy.

Unfortunately, when this global warming story is presented to the public it almost always comes out as a “gloom and doom” story. You will see from my future letters that I do not agree with that. The picture for the future is actually very bright, if the necessary people wake up to the situation soon.

How can we help that to happen? I remember in one of my first classes in physics at the University of Iowa, the professor said “definition of the problem is 90 per cent of the solution.” I think he was right in the case of the big climate problem, and by the big problem I mean all the things that come with it, including the need for inexpensive energy for the world.

Defining the problem is a tall order, not because the concepts are difficult — they are not — rather because there are many facets to the climate story and we must “connect the dots” all the way to public policy. If we stop the problem definition a step short of defining needed policies, the final step will be defined in Washington and other capitals around the world — by the people with the most money, their paid lobbyists and paid media. Don’t be concerned about what I mean by “paid lobbyists and paid media.” They are “dots” in the climate story that we will consider later.

Before we get started, there are two points that I want to emphasize. These are things that I want you to always remember, so that you do not get discouraged by the size of the task.

First, we live on an incredible planet! There is nothing in the universe, nothing we know about, that can remotely compete with Earth, especially in our spectacular variety of living things. There are more than a million species on Earth, and we depend on each other. Keeping in mind the value of preserving our planet and the connections with all living things can overcome many obstacles, it’s like “the force” in Star Wars. Sorry, that’s a bit dated — there must be something similar in Avatar and other stories. But we will be talking about the real world.

Second, never be discouraged by nay-sayers! They come in many varieties. Some will say “it’s too late, climate change has already started, and there is more in the pipeline.” That is true, we are overshooting the level of pollution that is tolerable on the long run, if we want the planet to look like the one we know. But fortunately in some fundamental ways the planet responds slowly. That provides us some time to deal with the overshoot and bring our planet back to equilibrium, with relatively minor losses, if we begin to move in the right direction soon.

Others will say “it’s impossible to solve the problem because it is caused by overpopulation — the number of people continues to grow out of control, destroying our planet and the other species on it.” Yes, population growth is a problem and we are threatening many species. E.O. Wilson, the famous biologist, describes the “bottleneck” that will occur for the species on our planet this century, but he sees the potential for most species to make it through the bottleneck to a brighter future, when we will do a better job of living with nature. Wilson’s “bottleneck” for species is closely related to the “overshoot” of global pollution — don’t worry about understanding these subjects until we get to them in future letters — they have much the same solution, and their success depends upon when we achieve policies that begin to move us in the right direction.

Other naysayers say “it’s impossible to solve the problem because the pollution that causes climate change was released mainly by developed countries in the North, and developing countries, with large populations, will demand the right to emit as much pollution as the other countries already have emitted.” That statement is obvious nonsense. Nations do not want the right to pollute. They want low-cost energy that helps them bring their people out of poverty, which also happens to be a prime requirement for achieving population levels and environmental awareness needed for people to live with nature. What we need to show is that clean energy, with an honest accounting of costs, is lower cost than dirty energy. Furthermore, there is a ready potential to make clean energy even lower cost in the near future. We have ingenuity for that, but it will only happen in time if we can overcome the power of a small number of people who are making a huge amount of money from pollution.

That brings us to the final big group of naysayers. They say “it’s impossible to overcome the money of big polluters — they control governments — even candidates in presidential elections are beholden to big energy companies and do not have the courage to speak truth to the public.” It is true that politicians receive a lot of money, “campaign contributions”, from the energy industry, and thus they may owe some allegiance to polluters. However, the main problem is that politicians are afraid the public will not vote for them. They realize that public opinions about climate, energy, and economic issues are heavily influenced by the control that big energy companies exert through the media. These companies can afford to saturate the airways with advertisements such as for “clean coal”, and in some cases energy interests even own or control major media outlets.

“Wait a moment”, you may think, “this is beginning to seem pretty difficult!” Well, I never said it was going to be easy, but we can and will win this. Just remember: we have a remarkable planet that is worth fighting for and never give in to naysayers.

To read the full letter, click here.

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