Pogo Revisited – From Household Trash to Atmospheric GHGs

Pogo, the title and central character of a long-running comic strip written by cartoonist Walt Kelly, often used political satire to make points about human nature and current events.  Perhaps Pogo’s most famous saying, uttered as he looks out over a trashy landscape, was that “we have met the enemy and he is us.”  That saying helped launch the Earth Day movement some 40 years ago.  The continuing relevance of Pogo’s statement to more recent concerns like global climate change is obvious.  Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to the atmosphere, after all, are themselves often a waste product of human energy production and land use activities.

But the complexity of the climate change problem creates many ways in which we can work at cross purposes to the ultimate goal — or in Pogo’s words, to find that the enemy is “us.”  This dilemma made itself clear at the recent Steven Schneider Memorial Symposium, entitled Climate Change: From Science to Policy, held August 24-27, 2011, at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO, one year after his tragic death.  Steve was a powerful advocate for more effectively communicating climate science to policy makers, and for crossing disciplinary divides in building a risk-based climate strategy.  In the face of how short a distance we’ve come in implementing a risk-based climate strategy, however, there was a considerable amount of introspection present at the Symposium.  To what extent are we finding that “we have met the enemy and he is us?”

Perhaps the greatest acknowledgement that the “enemy is us” was in the area of communication, and the recognition that the scientific community continues to face difficulties in effectively communicating climate risk.  Speakers emphasized the need for scientists to better distinguish between the implications of uncertainty for scientific and policy purposes; they also encouraged scientists to more effectively present climate science through risk management principles and metrics that individuals and policy makers can understand.

Another “enemy is us” moment was identified as the common refrain among both environmental and business groups that “the science doesn’t matter; the policy train is leaving the station.”  Beyond the fact that the policy train has clearly not left the station, basic behavioral science shows that this line of argument is a bad idea.  Convincing any person or organization to change behaviors requires that they answer two questions to their satisfaction: 1) is it worth it, and 2) can I do it?  As was noted by speaker Joe Romm, who writes Climate Progress (a climate blog for the public policy research organization Center for American Progress), how do you answer the climate change “is it worth it” question without reference to climate science?

Which leads us directly into a third “enemy is us” situation, namely the increasingly heard argument that “opportunity” should trump “risk” in motivating societal and business responses to climate change.  There is a fundamental Catch-22 in this argument, which makes transitioning from “climate risk” to “climate opportunity” a high-risk behavior modification strategy.  Presenting something as an opportunity (with no real associated cost) implicitly gives the target audience the right to choose one opportunity over another.

A final “enemy is us” moment at the Symposium came for me when multiple speakers emphasized that notwithstanding everything that had been discussed over 2+ days, climate change itself should be relatively easy to tackle since we have most of the technologies and tools we need. This is truly an “enemy is us” line of reasoning.  If climate change is perceived as easy to solve, some listeners will conclude that 1) it can’t be a big problem, and 2) it doesn’t need to be high up my priority list.

Even if the science makes clear the need to act, and engineering science makes clear the ability to act, we cannot conclude that the rest is easy!  The social science side of the equation includes the very complicated issues of risk perception and management, economics, law and policy development and implementation, not to mention game theory-driven behaviors. They are hardly the easier of the challenges to overcome!

When it comes to a risk-based climate strategy, we really have no idea of how to get from “here” to “there” in terms of successfully deploying a winning strategy.  It’s no longer primarily a science problem, although the science is critical.  It’s not primarily an engineering problem, although technology innovation is critical.  It is a social science problem, and it’s such a complex problem that 30 years of scientific and engineering progress has failed to more than scratch its surface.

Steve Schneider stood for better integration of the physical and social sciences to combat climate change.  To that end, ongoing introspection regarding methods and messages is important.  It’s not hard to identify methods and messages that fall into Pogo’s “the enemy is us” trap, where well-meaning efforts to advance climate risk management can backfire in their impact.  We need to think more about how audiences perceive risk and how they act on those perceptions.  We need to recognize the futility of responding to difficult scientific discussions by arguing the science doesn’t matter.  We need to be careful with double-edged swords, such as suggesting that “climate change as opportunity” should be the dominant message for managing climate risk.  We need to recognize the lessons from all relevant disciplines, and not suggest that this is an easy problem to solve.

We don’t know how to accomplish what needs to be done.  This doesn’t take anything away from the importance of the problem.  What it does to is illustrate how important it will be to experiment with lots of different ideas and approaches.  As Steve Schneider recognized many years ago, it’s a critically important journey; let’s get on with it.

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