Sunday, September 9, 2018

Stunning News from the Memesphere: Forest Fires had no Effect on the Public's Perception of Climate Change


In 2018, the fires in California and in other parts of the world have been especially devastating. But they had little or no effect on people's perception of global warming and climate change. It seems that we are operating on the basis of a wrong model of governance: the bottom-up mechanism is simply not working.



This year, we had the largest forest fires ever seen in history in California. And we had terrible forest fires in Greece, Portugal, and Scandinavia. Climate scientists were quick in stating that these fires were made more likely and more severe by global warming, but you don't need to be a climate scientist to understand that higher temperatures mean drier conditions and more fires.

Then, if you live, as I do, in a bubble in the memesphere where climate change is regarded as a serious and imminent problem, you surely had the impression that the fires of this summer was an important factor in affecting the perception of the general public. All that sound and fury couldn't signify nothing, right? I saw several self-congratulatory messages in the meme bubble stating something like, "now they will start understanding the problem of climate change!"

Alas, that's not true. The results are stark clear: there is NO evidence of an increased public interest in global warming as a result of the fires. Below, you can see the results of a search on Google Trends for the United States. These data record the number of times that a certain term was searched on the Google Search Engine.


Note how the interest in the term "wildfires" spikes up in correspondence with major wildfire events. You can see in the graph the three California fires of 2017, August, October, and November. You can also see the rising interest in the 2018 fires. But climate change? No detectable effect. At best, a very minor increase, not even compensating the decline generated by the Trump administration starting to use deception by omission. (note how the spike in interest in climate change in 2017 is the result of Trump's announcement that the US would withdraw from the Paris treaty). Other countries showed the same pattern: I could detect some rising interest in climate during the 2018 fire season only in France, in Germany, and in some other countries of central Europe. A minor effect, anyway.

All that is nothing less than stunning. We had this big disaster, fires everywhere, giant columns of smoke, incinerated buildings, all pointing directly to global warming. Of course, it is possible to argue that there are other factors that caused the fires, but at least you would think that people would have been stimulated to look over the Web on the subject. Instead, nothing, zero, null, zilch, nada. No detectable rise in interest in climate change despite the fires. People just didn't make the connection.

So, what's happening? One of the problems is that the media didn't emphasize the climate factor in causing the fires. The many articles published on the subject normally contained a few sentences about the effects of climate change buried somewhere in the text, but the subject never appeared in the title and was never emphasized in the summaries. But it was not a conspiracy of the media: simply, they found that mentioning climate change in the news about the fires was a "palpable ratings killer." So, the media had no interest in diffusing a subject that the public found uninteresting and the public found the subject uninteresting because it was not diffused by the media. It is a damping feedback which is gradually marginalizing climate change to the status of a non-problem. (see this post on Cassandra's Legacy and this article).

In the end, the problem is that we have a wrong model for how to generate action against climate change. We tend to think that, as the change becomes more evident in the form of major disasters, people will take notice and that will force politicians and opinion leaders to do something. That's not happening. We are having giant fires, scorching heatwaves, and droughts, besides, of course, rising temperatures. But people don't care if they are not directly affected and, if they are, they have other priorities than worrying about climate change. The bottom-up model of diffusion of the climate change meme is simply not working.

So, what do we need? One thing that can be said is that no major environmental problem was ever solved by means of a bottom-up meme diffusion mechanism: refrigerator owners never pushed for their CFC refrigerating fluid to be replaced with non-ozone depleting fluids. Instead, manufacturers were forced by law to stop their production of CFCs. We need to find a way to go in that direction in order to stop greenhouse emissions, hoping that it is not too late.


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As a further note, during this year's fire season, I published a comment on an Italian newspaper on the fires in Greece, trying to highlight the connection with climate change. The result was discouraging: most commenters angrily disagreed with me and much preferred a conspiracy theory that attributed the fires to "arsonists." It seems that not only people can't see the connection between forest fires and climate change, they become positively angry when it is pointed out to them.


35 comments:

  1. I suspect it could be possible that people are now becoming desensitized to extreme weather events, which is very typical of us as a species. We adapt after awhile to new normals. Plus not searching for it on the internet does not necessarily mean people do not think there is a connection. It could be that more are just coming to accept it and no longer debate or argue about it being a major factor.

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    1. I would agree. 'Desensitization' occurs due to normalcy bias (and the attempt to reduce cognitive dissonance). I am doubtful the Eastern Islanders who were busy cutting down the giant palms that sustained their island flora and fauna, and provided numerous benefits to the inhabitants, ever contemplated the negative consequences of their actions. Most people are, as James Howard Kunstler has suggested, just 'too busy with the thrum of daily life' to give much serious thought to existential threats to humanity such as runaway climate change or the Ponzi that is our financialised economic system.
      I'm fairly certain we will have to experience the collapse that accompanies overshoot, and even then we will fail to do things 'better' going forward. If the past few thousand years has shown anything about human sociocultural evolution (and the constant rise and fall of complex societies), it's that it repeats the same type of mistakes again, and again, and again...

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    2. Steve two book how we manage the Denial (of Death) in our daily life, there are several ways to keep busy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Denial_of_Death newer one is from varki http://ernestbecker.org/book-review-test/

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  2. Why we stick to false beliefs: Feedback trumps hard evidence

    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/09/180904150353.htm

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  3. I find that many people have come to accept climate change, but are embarrassed to talk about it, and will only discuss it with people they trust: just like with Lord Voldemort, they do not dare to speak its name.

    So it could be that many people think about CC, but do not necessarily go google it.

    Myself, I am on the far edge of climate catastrophism, but I never talk about it with other people, and try to change topic as soon as possible.

    I am surprised when my interlocutors share my perspective, and this happens more and more often, and with the most unlikely people.

    Maybe something similar happens on the greater internet: there is only a limited number of people actually interested in climate change (deniers, environmentalists, doomers), but many more people connect the dots on their own without googling the problem.

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  4. Ah, to make my point: I was doing my portion of evening collapse reading, when I came across this blog post on Peak Surfer (https://peaksurfer.blogspot.com/2018/08/readying-mind.html).

    I am not a regular reader, so the post is a few weeks old. Towards the end, I quote:

    'A few years ago I was attending the International Permaculture Convergence at a summer camp south of Havana and we were having a breakout meeting about climate change led by Starhawk. I said something about the goal being to educate people and was brought up short by a young woman from England. “Everyone already knows,” she said. “There is no point in trying to teach anyone anything.”'

    So, everyone already knows, climate change has been explained to death for 50+ years. I used to take ecology classes in primary school at the end of the 1980s: it was all in that nice little book, recent events have added urgency, but little more.

    Everybody already knows: why would they google it now, instead of getting on with their lives?

    That people do not google climate change does not imply that they are deniers.

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    1. It may well imply that they gave up with the idea that they can do something about it. Which is the same, in the end

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    2. DiSc

      If everybody already knows then why are the comment sections in almost every climate change article riddled with denier comments?

      If everybody already knows then why are industry groups like the API and think tanks (Heartland) still churning out denial and muddy the waters articles every damn day?

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  5. The majority value their foreign holidays, their cars, more than their own children's futures. They prefer not to read things that remind them of the fact.

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    1. Andy - I don't think you need to imply malfeasance or ignorance to make your point more clear.

      People, first and foremost, have to go to work in the morning...every morning. Primarily because they value their childrens lives and if they don't go to work in the morning, or do something that is perceived to be securing their ability to "make a living" they know for a fact that their children will suffer and so will they.

      I have been following the discussions of collapse in all of its iterations for about 20 years now and virtually no one addresses the fact that people have to "make a living" somehow. All anyone says is we have to do this or that, stop doing this or that, completely dismissing the fact that all of those things have huge negative impacts on the average persons ability to "make a living". Instead we all point out the bad behavior exhibited by humans and write them all off as simply bad.

      Address how we can all still "make a living" or at least not "be a dying" and yet still do the right thing, change how we live on the planet in a fundamental way. No one...I mean no one has addressed this.

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    2. Sawing off the branch you are sitting on is more or less the only job in town for all of us......

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    3. I have never found any difficulty making a living while living a green lifestyle. I do not possess superpowers.

      But what compels people to take foreign holidays? Here in the UK we are building a 3rd runway at Heathrow - passenger surveys indicate the majority of flights there are for leisure.

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    4. Andy - What exactly is a "green lifestyle"? Do you have a car? Do you have a house, possessions, do you put your trash out at the curb every week, do you have a wife, kids, ever travel, vacation, or do you do all that only in a "green" way?

      The fact is the one and only reason you can make any sort of "living" at all is because everyone else is doing what they are doing. They stop "making a living" so do you.

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    5. I found out long ago that rampant consumerism is not necessary to having an enjoyable life.

      I don't have car. While there are trash collections every 2 weeks I only put out my trash 3 times a year. I don't go away on holiday: my lifestyle is such that I don't need a break from it. I don't have a wife and kids: I won't bring children into this world if "everyone else" is going to deny them any kind of a future.

      As for the "everyone else": no they don't need to do all that they do now to keep the world turning. If they would reduce their economic activity and their own lifestyle impacts proportionately we could all get along very well. What is certain is that continuing along their current path leads to disaster for everyone.

      But I do love the idea that when I see one of them driving 200 yards to the local shops to pick up a packet of fags and the Daily Mail, it is only as an act of solidarity with the proletariat.

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    6. I disagree, Jef - 'making a living' is not binary, there are very different levels and patterns of consumption even within a house, a street, a suburb, never mind between countries. If *everyone* in my rich country cut their consumption by 90% in an incredibly short period (say a year) then yes, there would be massive economic disruption. But there has been great disruption and will be more anyway, for a host of causes, relevant and not.

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  6. Jef, at least with respect to GHG emissions, ways have been pointed to and substantive issues have been largely covered in both small and large scales and with quite small impacts on most individual's ability to make a living. What are your GHG emissions per annum?

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    1. CB (GB) - I live what I speak. I have little or nothing. I do little or nothing, or at least that is what most of my family and friends say about me. I manage several acres of growth. I would not call it a farm, not "permaculture" (BS), not a business. Mostly I try and help things not die. My rewards are negative for the most part although there are times when people come into my world and are completely overcome with the awe of nature. I take no credit for that nor do I get paid although I also don't get destroyed.

      The examples you mention are proven six ways from sunday to not be anything even close to approaching an economic reality.

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    2. Jef, what is the meaning of (GB)?
      Have you done a quantification of your GHG emissions in your own terms? I take the physical reality of substantial renewables installations as indicating economic reality is not disproven yet at least. Nebulous arguments against undertaking a low power, low emissions, lifestyle prove nothing and perhaps just indicate ennui. The proliferation of these nebulous arguments is a major impediment, what is the motivation? We have no choice but to get on top of GHG emissions. It may not be sufficient, it may not be successful. What substantial and additional harm can it do?

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    3. Sorry Crybaby, I was abbreviating your name with initials then got a flash of a club I went to about 50 years ago called CBGB. As for the rest of your comment I would refer you to my original remarks above.

      Everything that represents a so called solution translates to significantly lower economic activity which translates to the 99% becoming poorer faster.

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  7. Jef, there are lots of things we can do as individuals to lessen our collective impact. Needing to make a living is not an excuse to do nothing. Having no or less kids is a big one. So is reducing our consumption dramatically. Generally the more money we spend the more harm is done. Be frugal. Most are earning just to spend on non-essentials and the misguided aim of bettering their children's lives in future when what they are in fact doing is destroying said future. Yes our system compels the majority to be wage/debt slaves, but change can only come from the bottom, you can be sure the elites will never do anything that disadvantages the ruling class.

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    1. Ian - Reducing consumption, which is over 70% of the economy, will collapse the economy increasing poverty, suffering, and death. Any other ideas?

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    2. Ah yes I can see it. "Kids: I am only destroying the planet to keep the poor workers fed." Its all being done in the name of charity.

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    3. Andy - I know you are being sarcastic but you are also on the right path to seeing how psychotic the global economy is. Every country everywhere is doing everything they possibily can to increase extracting resources, producing, manufacturing, distributing, buying, selling, and... most important to the success of it all...throwing out all the stuff in order to "make a living".

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  8. I agree with DiSc — my anecdotal experience is that many people accept that the climate is changing. I even have tea party friends who used to be strong climate change deniers but have now changed their opinion. (However, they still do not accept that the changes are caused by human activity — they say that it is to do with changes in the tilt of the Earth’s axis.).

    As to why they choose not to respond or take action, following on from Jef’s comment:

    • Events such as the fires and increased hurricane activity do not affect most people directly. It is still something that they watch on the evening news.
    • They don’t have time to think about these issues. They are busy going to work, taking the kids to school, worrying about credit card payments, and so on. Climate change is simply not a factor in their lives.
    • Even if they wanted to change things, they cannot — at least not without making huge personal sacrifices. For example, a sales person who has clients all over the country will continue with air travel if he or she wants to keep their job. And they need that job to pay for all the activities just listed.

    The vast majority of them/us are not prepared to make major sacrifices for an issue that is still on the edge of their conscious.

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    1. History tells us that the majority of people will do wrong if enough other people are doing the same.

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    2. very few people are proactively virtuous. they are only as good as they have to be,as mandated by society, but no more. which is as good as saying saying they are not virtuous at all. the environment falls into the optional virtue category. because it is not rewarded, or actively punished, it is the test for real virtue and character. but of course, this wont be recognised by anybody else.

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  9. Chemeng: para 1: those tea party people you describe are hard core climate change deniers.

    Para 2: events on the news are in peoples faces,non attribution to agw is a deep denial process and demonstrates lack of imagination and leadership from presenters if that denial process is not directly confronted.
    Re: emissions associated directly with jobs- my view is this is a responsibility within the corporation, it is no excuse for personal emissions not being consciously moved towards the ultra low.
    Final para: the sacrifices made by individuals taking responsibility for personal emissions are not usually major, considering the effectiveness and cost of current resources to ameliorate emissions.

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  10. First we work a job so that we and our loved ones do not have to suffer and die.

    Then we work a little harder (make more money) because we know that it can all go away in a snap and we would like to have the peace of mind of having some surplus.

    Then we work a little harder because there are somethings we would like to have to make life just a little bit better for ourselves and our loved ones.

    Then we work a little harder because we see that the "cost of living" is constantly going up.

    Then we work a little harder because we can, because of all the above, and because we would like to be comfortable in retirement.

    I can go on and on but the point is nobody is going to decide to not make more money, just not going to happen. Unless all of the insecurity of life in the modern world is addressed as best we can.

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    1. And so we march like lemmings over the cliff. I don't have the answer to the predicament obviously. But we do know BAU is definitely hastening our demise. I'd like to think that everyone consuming significantly less is still better than just ignoring the problem. Yes the economy will collapse, but is that worse than continuing with the destruction of the very foundation of all life? If collapse is the way to save other life on this planet, I believe I am not alone in welcoming it. Damned if you do and damned if you don't. I choose the latter.

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    2. Ian, you are aware of the problem and methinks close to the answers. Modelling of the 'designed products for multiple use and recycling' economy indicate hefty savings in garbage and factor of 2 to 3 increased amenity of materials. That process if events don't overtake us first and is given a chance to take hold, will buy us a lot of time (relatively). The near term collapse methinks, comes from the many tonnes of GHG emissions we put out per year as 'garbage'. This is the dominant waste stream by weight for most high power, high emissions lifestyles and globally. This is the waste stream I am suggesting Jef and everyone else takes responsibilty for and gets on top of ASAP. As I affirm repeatedly, this is not so hard for any level of society and relies on every level to act now. It has intrinsic economic returns which support further refinements and ongoing more beneficial activities without of itself collapsing the economy. Clearly I don't concur with Jef's "negative to doing that" responses.

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    3. CB - my response is not "negative to doing that". I agree completely that that is what need s to be done. I only state that those positive actions will collapse the world economy. Right now doing all the wrong things is the only way to raising billions out of poverty...according to the system in place that all humanity is organized under.

      You can't just say "it could be different" and then "hope" for it to be so.

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    4. First we work a job so that we and our loved ones do not have to suffer and die."

      thats why the first rule of not needing to work (very hard) so you cause as little global warming as necessary is of course, dont have any children. let our problem with carbon die with us. anyone who uses children as an excuse for a job or travel deserves total condemnation. everyone should know the implications of breeding, and what the population stands at today even in 3rd world countries. ignorance of this issue is not acceptable.

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  11. 'Green lifestyles' are just that -a lifestyle, a delusion.

    Hilarious that anyone can take it seriously or feel complacently virtuous.

    Moreover, the small number of people leading superficially'green lifestyles are in fact riding on the backs of all those who do not -a mere indulgence.


    Rather like wind turbines and solar panels -an extension of the fossil fuel economy, not a true alternative.

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)