June 5, 2017

The Pitfalls of Anecdotes

Mark Trexler

In the flood of “climate opinion” I monitor, two pieces jumped out at me a few weeks ago. First, in the Environmental Forum (published by the Environmental Law Institute), Editor Stephen Dujack’s editorial bemoans the “doom and gloom” dominating the climate change conversation. He notes: “Never in my nearly thirty years as an environmental journalist have I seen such doom and gloom. And that era has seen a lot of doom and gloom.”

Steve provides a list of positive news on the climate front, much of it technology-based, noting that: “[a] scan of the headlines reveals that there is abundant good news in the race to save the planet.”

Also recently, UC-Berkeley law professor Dan Farber, in his Legal Planet column, provided a long list of things that law schools are doing on climate change. He concluded: “Not that law schools are central to the effort, but it’s good to know that we’re making a contribution to the fight against climate change.”

This is the power of the anecdote. We love to use anecdotes to support whatever point of view or argument we’re advocating for, and when it comes to climate change the list of anecdotes is infinitely long. Unfortunately, that’s a problem in its own right.

The Anecdote Problem: It’s not clear what barrier to climate change progress we’re trying to influence with anecdote lists. Anecdotes tend to feed into our confirmation biases and can easily distract us from the realities of actually tackling climate change as a “wicked problem.” There is nothing contradictory about the many “good news” and the many “bad news” lists when it comes to climate change. They are simultaneously true. The underlying good news message is that we can act against climate change, and that it would be MUCH less costly to do so than we might have thought 20 years ago. The underlying bad news message is that climate change is getting worse faster than we expected and that we’re not doing much about it, less costly or not. Simply generating more lists of good news or bad news anecdotes doesn’t change the fact that there’s a huge missing link in the middle.

If half of the climate conversation today focuses on a “we’re getting it done!” techno-optimism message, and half focuses on a “we’re all going to die!” policy-pessimism message, do we somehow conclude that, ON AVERAGE, we’re engaged in a productive conversation about solving the climate change problem? We’re not. And yes, I could provide a long list of anecdotes to support my point (but I won’t)!

I’m not suggesting that pointing to positive news is a bad idea when it comes to combating climate change. If it was, it would be difficult to get out of bed in the morning. And as Steve and Dan’s pieces point out, there is plenty of positive news to report. But good news isn’t an alternative story line to bad news when it comes to future climate change; rather, they’re both part of the same big picture. And unless we can do something about the bad news, we’re very likely looking at 4-5 degrees C of climate change this century.

Instead of limiting ourselves to anecdotes that feed into a specific story-line, whether intended to make use feel better or worse, we need to find ways to internalize both story lines to motivate and guide our efforts. In whatever venue we happen to operate in and with whatever tools at our disposal (mine happens to be climate risk knowledge management), what could we be doing differently to help change the course of likely climate change? Because 4-5 degrees C is very bad news indeed.


This post was originally published on LinkedIn (5/16/2017).

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Mark Trexler

Mark has more than 30 years of regulatory and energy policy experience. He has advised clients around the world on climate change risk and risk management. He is widely published on business risk management topics surrounding climate change, including in the design and deployment of carbon markets. Mark has served as a lead author for the IPCC and holds advanced degrees from the University of California at Berkeley.

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