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September 23, 2019

A Convenient Urgency

“’We need to create fear!’ That’s what Al Gore said to me at the start of our first conversation about how to teach climate change… Al Gore asked me to help him… to show a worst-case future impact of a continued increase in CO2 emissions.”

The quote above is from Hans Rosling’s Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. Rosling says he considers Al Gore a hero (nb. I don’t).  “I agreed with him completely that swift action on change was needed, and I was excited at the thought of collaborating with him.” However, Rosling decided not to work with Gore.

“I don’t like fear.” He cites two incidences where his own fear led him to mistakes. One mistake caused many deaths. “Fear and urgency make for stupid, drastic decisions with unpredictable side effects. Climate change is too important for that. It needs systematic analysis, thought- through decisions, incremental actions, and careful evaluation.

“And I don’t like exaggeration. Exaggeration undermines the credibility of well-founded data: in this case data showing that climate change is real…. Exaggeration, once discovered, makes people tune out altogether.”

“I insisted that I would never show the worst-case line without showing the probable and the best-case lines as well. Picking only the worst-case scenario and – worse – continuing the line beyond the scientifically based predictions would fall far outside Gapminder’s mission to help people understand the basic facts. [nb. Gapminder is an organization Rosling founded which uses great bubble graphics to illustrate complex data]. It would be using our credibility to make a call for action. Al Gore continued to press his case for fearful animated bubbles beyond the expert forecasts… until I finally closed the conversation down. ‘Mr. Vice President. No numbers, no bubbles.’…

“… the future is always uncertain to some degree. And whenever we talk about the future we should be open and clear about the level of uncertainty involved. We should not pick the most dramatic estimates and show a worst-case scenario as if it were certain… We should ideally show a mid-forecast, and also a range of alternative possibilities from best to worse… This protects our reputations and means we never give people a reason to stop listening.”

“…When people tell me we must act now, it makes me hesitate. In most cases, they are just trying to stop me from thinking clearly.”

Me too! “You must act now” were probably the first words out of the mouth of the first huckster on the planet. In the climate field it has led to the scam of corny ethanol, European cities banning the diesels they just gave people 20 years of incentives to buy (for climate reasons in both cases), and subsidies for rich people to buy electric cars they probably would have bought anyway (just a few examples). That’s not to say that all action to reduce energy consumptions and emissions is bad; it’s just to say we shouldn’t be panicked into anything ever.

If you are an advocate for climate action, you don’t want to sound like a huckster. People turn off when they think they’re being conned. You also, according to both Rosling and me, don’t want to fall in love with your own worst-case assumptions. That makes it impossible for you to join in the compromises which just might solve the problem you’re trying to solve.

Rosling concludes “Climate change is way too important a global risk to be ignored or denied… But it is also way too important to be left to sketch worst-case scenarios and doomsday prophets [nb. and marching children].

“When you are called to action, sometimes the most useful action you can take is to improve the data.”

For more on Factfulness, see:

Facts are Stranger than Fiction

Factfulness: Malthus is Wrong – Fortunately

Also see:

“There Are No Facts About the Future”

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