Links for the Week Ending 9 March 2014

Apologies for the late posting of this week’s links. Has been a crazy week.

  • For those of a non-business background, any reference to The Economist magazine with respect to climate change may appear strange. Who cares what The Economist writes on the subject? I would beg to disagree. Few, if any, senior business executives will read posts on Real Climate or Skeptical Science, let alone academic articles on the subject. For English speakers, most climate change commentary will come out of the pages (much of which will, of course, be online these days) of The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, other serious non-financial dailies like The New York Times in the U.S. and The Telegraph in the U.K., a motley collection of weeklies like Forbes, and, of course, The Economist. And The Economist is rather special in terms of its reach into board rooms across the globe (and for that matter cabinet offices). For example, Playboy Magazine once asked Bill Gates what he reads. The answer: “The Economist, every page”. A year ago, The Economist wrote an extended article on the global warming ‘hiatus’ that, I thought, gave too much weight to a few studies suggesting that climate sensitivity was far lower than previously thought (here, free registration). This week, however, the magazine made amends by publishing an excellent piece titled “Who pressed the pause button?” on the so called ‘hiatus’ in temperature rise. It ended with this statement:  “Most of the circumstances that have put the planet’s temperature rise on “pause” look temporary. Like the Terminator, global warming will be back.”
  • Talking of ‘The Terminator’, The Guardian carries an interview with the Crown Prince of techno-optimists and Google geek in chief Ray Kurzweil. God help us if anyone actually believes this stuff.
  • Up the road from me in Oxford is the NGO Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN). Its founder George Marshall has an interesting blog that looks at the narratives surrounding climate change. In a post called “How the Climate Change Messengers Became Blamed for the Floods” he deconstructs the media’s reaction to the recent U.K. floods. It’s somewhat depressing stuff.
  • One of the sharpest observers of the shale hype has been the petroleum geologist Art Berman. He has a site called The Petroleum Truth Report, but, frustratingly, doesn’t keep it current. Fortunately, he has just given a new interview with Oilprice.com updating us on his recent thinking. The interview is full of gems such as this: “Oil companies have to make a big deal about shale plays because that is all that is left in the world. Let’s face it: these are truly awful reservoir rocks and that is why we waited until all more attractive opportunities were exhausted before developing them. It is completely unreasonable to expect better performance from bad reservoirs than from better reservoirs.” I highly recommend you read the whole thing.
  • The economist Noah Smith writes a lively blog called Noahpinion. In this post he makes some keen observations on the ‘jobs and robots’ debate, while in this article in The Week he compares America’s decline with the collapse of the Ming Dynasty.

8 responses to “Links for the Week Ending 9 March 2014

  1. Great links! Re: the role of the media, Jan Sinclair has studied all 1800 IPCC-related reports in the New York Times from 1990-2007. Only 2% of the articles were on the physical risks to the US from climate change, and 0.7% on observed climate changes in the US. (‘Global warming benefits’ got more attention – 3%.) The 2007 report had a whole chapter on impacts to North America, not reported by the New York Times. Most of the reporting on climate change impacts concerned countries far away, like Bangladesh. Further, she writes that “Throughout the 17-year analytical period, virtually all New York Times coverage of IPCC reports was based only on the more political and much briefer Policymakers Summaries.” She also argues that politicians get most of their information about these topics not from bodies like the IPCC, that were set up specifically to inform them, but from the media. Her thesis is available at https://researchspace.auckland.ac.nz/handle/2292/20346 and a summary is in the book “Living in a Warmer World”, ed Jim Salinger, published in 2013.
    I was in the UK during the release of the 2013 IPCC report. Although it got a lot of coverage, it was very spotty. The ‘hiatus’ got a lot of attention. Only one outlet that I saw (I think it was the news on channel 4) looked at actual current impacts of climate change around the world.

    • Robert: Thanks very much for the references. The Jan Sinclair research looks really interesting. I’m also intrigued as to why highly educated elites choose to stay uninformed with respect to climate change. In my past career as a hedge fund manager, you are forced to be a generalist because you are covering hundreds of companies in multiple industries but you still have to take daily multi-million dollar decisions from a generalist perspective. You do this through taking advantage of concentric layers of experts, and how deep you go with respect to any investment idea is a cost-benefit exercise in terms of time allocation. However, you would almost never make a decision based purely on the outer information/expert layer made up of financial media reports, broker reports, company financial statements and so on.

      Yet the same fund managers who are expert at information processing and decision-making don’t apply the same methodology to understanding climate change. They are broadly happy to form an opinion based on articles they have read in the financial press like the FT, WSJ, Economist and so on. They know that climate change is a huge topic for themselves and their kids, but they still will not spend a few weekends taking their knowledge up to a level that would be equivalent to the bare minimum for, say, investing in a pharma company or a tech IPO.

      This is why I think George Marshall’s work is interesting: we are not talking about rational decision-making under uncertainty here but rather social psychology – people making a subconscious choice to remain uninformed. There is also an interesting book, which again came out of a Phd thesis, by Kari Marie Norgaard called “Living in Denial” which looks at an identical dynamic but with a rural Norwegian community. But the reactions to climate change she records are very similar to those I witnessed among a highly educated financial elite, many of whose members have MBAs and advanced degrees with a quantitative component. They have the tools to dissect the climate change issue, they just don’t use them.

  2. I wonder why you think understanding climate change requires more than just keeping abreast of current news. This issue is very simple and intuitively understood. People are not making “a subconscious choice to remain uninformed”; they are making an informed decision to do nothing. I doubt that even expert climate scientists behave significantly differently than others, simply because doing so is extremely difficult.

    Almost two thirds of all human carbon emissions have occurred in the last 25 years, during which time the issue of climate change has been front and center. Since our whole culture is built around doing things that make climate change worse, doing something about it would require that we collectively change our way of life dramatically, change that virtually everyone would find very uncomfortable and expensive. Sadly, this means that we will do nothing deliberate about climate change until nature does it for us.

  3. Joe. I guess the point I am making is that climate change comes in different narratives. In the U.K. media, the narrative in The Guardian is completely different from that in The Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph. Similarly, in the financial press, The Wall Street Journal and Forbes push the climate skeptic line aggressively.

    Accordingly, you can, in effect, choose your narrative, and most people appear to choose a narrative that relegates the climate change challenge to that of a secondary problem.

    The majority of highly educated and quantitatively astute people in the industry I used to work within, fund management, just don’t think climate change poses any threat to their life narrative even if they have young kids.

    The critical thing here, however, is that such people are highly trained in stripping away media narratives or biased narratives – otherwise they would have been sacked long ago for poor performance. They are masters at finding relevant data and also locating and using relevant experts. They could apply these skills to further their understanding of climate change – but they don’t. Accordingly, they choose a level of ignorance that they would just never accept in their day to day work.

  4. OK. I believe you, but I am still amazed that anyone would choose to ignore such an enormous risk. Perhaps the folks you describe would rather believe obvious flim flam than endure the frustration of helplessness in the face of danger.

  5. A recent post on Dan Kahan’s blog (you may have linked to it before) at http://www.culturalcognition.net/blog/author/kahan explains a good bit of the GW denial syndrome. Kahan says, “individuals of opposing cultural identities (ones you can often measure adequately with right-left political outlooks but can get an even more discerning glimpse of with the two-dimensional cultural worldview scales) are using their knowledge and reasoning proficiencies to fit all the evidence they see to the position that predominates in their group.”

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