By Kate T. Luong (Postdoctoral Research Fellow, George Mason University), Ed Maibach (Director of Center for Climate Communication, George Mason University), and John Kotcher (Assistant Professor of Communications, George Mason University)
People’s views about climate change, from how worried they are about it affecting them to how willing they are to do something about it, have shifted in developed countries around the world in recent years, a new survey by the Pew Research Center finds.
The study polled more than 16,000 adults in 17 countries considered to be advanced economies. Many of these countries have been large contributors to climate change and will be expected to lead the way in fixing it.
In general, the survey found that a majority of people are concerned about global climate change and are willing to make lifestyle changes to reduce its effects.
However, underneath this broad pattern lie more complicated trends, such as doubt that the international community can effectively reduce climate change and deep ideological divides that can hinder the transition to cleaner energy and a climate-friendly world. The survey also reveals an important disconnect between people’s attitudes and the enormity of the challenge climate change poses.
In all the countries surveyed in early 2021 except Sweden, between 60% and 90% of the citizens reported feeling somewhat or very concerned about the harm they would personally face from climate change. While there was a clear increase in concern in several countries between 2015, when Pew conducted the same survey, and 2021, this number did not change significantly in the U.S.
Similarly, in all countries except Japan, at least 7 out of 10 people said they are willing to make some or a lot of changes in how they live and work to help address global climate change.
Across most countries, young people were much more likely than older generations to report higher levels of both concern about climate change and willingness to change their behaviors.
Perceptions about government responses
Clearly, on a global level, people are highly concerned about this existential threat and are willing to change their everyday behaviors to mitigate its impacts. However, focusing on changing individual behaviors alone will not stop global warming.
When we look at people’s attitudes regarding how their own country is handling climate change and how effective international actions would be, the results painted a more complex picture.
On average, most people evaluated their own government’s handling of climate change as “somewhat good,” with the highest approval numbers in Sweden, the United Kingdom, Singapore and New Zealand. However, data shows that such positive evaluations are not actually warranted. The 2020 U.N. Emissions Gap Report found that greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise. Many countries, including the U.S., are projected to miss their target commitments to reduce emissions by 2030; and even if all countries achieve their targets, annual emissions need to be reduced much further to reach the goals set by the Paris climate agreement.
When it comes to confidence in international actions to address climate change, the survey respondents were more skeptical overall. Although the majority of people in Germany, the Netherlands, South Korea and Singapore felt confident that the international community can significantly reduce climate change, most respondents in the rest of the countries surveyed did not. France and Sweden had the lowest levels of confidence with more than 6 in 10 people being unconvinced.
Together, these results suggest that people generally believe climate change to be a problem that can be solved by individual people and governments. Most people say they are willing to change their lifestyles, but they may not have an accurate perception of the scale of actions needed to effectively address global climate change. Overall, people may be overly optimistic about their own country’s capability and commitment to reduce emissions and fight climate change, and at the same time, underestimate the value and effectiveness of international actions.
As with most surveys about climate change attitudes, the new Pew report reveals a deep ideological divide in several countries.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the U.S. leads in ideological differences for all but one question. In the U.S., 87% of liberals are somewhat or very concerned about the personal harms from climate change, compared to only 28% of conservatives – a stark 59-point difference. This difference persists for willingness to change one’s lifestyle (49-point difference), evaluation of government’s handling of climate change (41-point difference), and perceived economic impacts of international actions (41-point difference).
And the U.S. is not alone; large ideological differences were also found in Canada, Australia and the Netherlands. In fact, only Australians were more divided than Americans on how their government is handling the climate crisis.
This ideological divide is not new, but the size of the gap between people on the two ends of the ideological spectrum is astounding. The differences lie not only in how to handle the issue or who should be responsible but also in the scope and severity of climate change in the first place. Such massive, entrenched differences in public understanding and acceptance of the scientific facts regarding climate change will present significant challenges in enacting much-needed policy changes.
Better understanding of the cultural, political and media dynamics that shape those differences might reveal helpful insights that could ease the path toward progress in slowing climate change.
This week, the C.D.C. acknowledged what scientists have been saying for months: The risk of catching the coronavirus from surfaces is low.
April 8, 2021
When the coronavirus began to spread in the United States last spring, many experts warned of the danger posed by surfaces. Researchers reported that the virus could survive for days on plastic or stainless steel, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised that if someone touched one of these contaminated surfaces — and then touched their eyes, nose or mouth — they could become infected.
Americans responded in kind, wiping down groceries, quarantining mail and clearing drugstore shelves of Clorox wipes. Facebook closed two of its offices for a “deep cleaning.” New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority began disinfecting subway cars every night.
“People can be affected with the virus that causes Covid-19 through contact with contaminated surfaces and objects,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the C.D.C., said at a White House briefing on Monday. “However, evidence has demonstrated that the risk by this route of infection of transmission is actually low.”
The admission is long overdue, scientists say.
“Finally,” said Linsey Marr, an expert on airborne viruses at Virginia Tech. “We’ve known this for a long time and yet people are still focusing so much on surface cleaning.” She added, “There’s really no evidence that anyone has ever gotten Covid-19 by touching a contaminated surface.”
During the early days of the pandemic, many experts believed that the virus spread primarily through large respiratory droplets. These droplets are too heavy to travel long distances through the air but can fall onto objects and surfaces.
In this context, a focus on scrubbing down every surface seemed to make sense. “Surface cleaning is more familiar,” Dr. Marr said. “We know how to do it. You can see people doing it, you see the clean surface. And so I think it makes people feel safer.”
But over the last year, it has become increasingly clear that the virus spreads primarily through the air — in both large and small droplets, which can remain aloft longer — and that scouring door handles and subway seats does little to keep people safe.
“The scientific basis for all this concern about surfaces is very slim — slim to none,” said Emanuel Goldman, a microbiologist at Rutgers University, who wrote last summer that the risk of surface transmission had been overblown. “This is a virus you get by breathing. It’s not a virus you get by touching.”
The C.D.C. has previously acknowledged that surfaces are not the primary way that the virus spreads. But the agency’s statements this week went further.
“The most important part of this update is that they’re clearly communicating to the public the correct, low risk from surfaces, which is not a message that has been clearly communicated for the past year,” said Joseph Allen, a building safety expert at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Catching the virus from surfaces remains theoretically possible, he noted. But it requires many things to go wrong: a lot of fresh, infectious viral particles to be deposited on a surface, and then for a relatively large quantity of them to be quickly transferred to someone’s hand and then to their face. “Presence on a surface does not equal risk,” Dr. Allen said.
In most cases, cleaning with simple soap and water — in addition to hand-washing and mask-wearing — is enough to keep the odds of surface transmission low, the C.D.C.’s updated cleaning guidelines say. In most everyday scenarios and environments, people do not need to use chemical disinfectants, the agency notes.
“What this does very usefully, I think, is tell us what we don’t need to do,” said Donald Milton, an aerosol scientist at the University of Maryland. “Doing a lot of spraying and misting of chemicals isn’t helpful.”
Still, the guidelines do suggest that if someone who has Covid-19 has been in a particular space within the last day, the area should be both cleaned and disinfected.
“Disinfection is only recommended in indoor settings — schools and homes — where there has been a suspected or confirmed case of Covid-19 within the last 24 hours,” Dr. Walensky said during the White House briefing. “Also, in most cases, fogging, fumigation and wide-area or electrostatic spraying is not recommended as a primary method of disinfection and has several safety risks to consider.”
And the new cleaning guidelines do not apply to health care facilities, which may require more intensive cleaning and disinfection.
Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist at George Mason University, said that she was happy to see the new guidance, which “reflects our evolving data on transmission throughout the pandemic.”
But she noted that it remained important to continue doing some regular cleaning — and maintaining good hand-washing practices — to reduce the risk of contracting not just the coronavirus but any other pathogens that might be lingering on a particular surface.
Dr. Allen said that the school and business officials he has spoken with this week expressed relief over the updated guidelines, which will allow them to pull back on some of their intensive cleaning regimens. “This frees up a lot of organizations to spend that money better,” he said.
Schools, businesses and other institutions that want to keep people safe should shift their attention from surfaces to air quality, he said, and invest in improved ventilation and filtration.
“This should be the end of deep cleaning,” Dr. Allen said, noting that the misplaced focus on surfaces has had real costs. “It has led to closed playgrounds, it has led to taking nets off basketball courts, it has led to quarantining books in the library. It has led to entire missed school days for deep cleaning. It has led to not being able to share a pencil. So that’s all that hygiene theater, and it’s a direct result of not properly classifying surface transmission as low risk.”
When the polio vaccine was declared safe and effective, the news was met with jubilant celebration. Church bells rang across the nation, and factories blew their whistles. “Polio routed!” newspaper headlines exclaimed. “An historic victory,” “monumental,” “sensational,” newscasters declared. People erupted with joy across the United States. Some danced in the streets; others wept. Kids were sent home from school to celebrate.
One might have expected the initial approval of the coronavirus vaccines to spark similar jubilation—especially after a brutal pandemic year. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the steady drumbeat of good news about the vaccines has been met with a chorus of relentless pessimism.
The problem is not that the good news isn’t being reported, or that we should throw caution to the wind just yet. It’s that neither the reporting nor the public-health messaging has reflected the truly amazing reality of these vaccines. There is nothing wrong with realism and caution, but effective communication requires a sense of proportion—distinguishing between due alarm and alarmism; warranted, measured caution and doombait; worst-case scenarios and claims of impending catastrophe. We need to be able to celebrate profoundly positive news while noting the work that still lies ahead. However, instead of balanced optimism since the launch of the vaccines, the public has been offered a lot of misguided fretting over new virus variants, subjected to misleading debates about the inferiority of certain vaccines, and presented with long lists of things vaccinated people still cannot do, while media outlets wonder whether the pandemic will ever end.
This pessimism is sapping people of energy to get through the winter, and the rest of this pandemic. Anti-vaccination groups and those opposing the current public-health measures have been vigorously amplifying the pessimistic messages—especially the idea that getting vaccinated doesn’t mean being able to do more—telling their audiences that there is no point in compliance, or in eventual vaccination, because it will not lead to any positive changes. They are using the moment and the messaging to deepen mistrust of public-health authorities, accusing them of moving the goalposts and implying that we’re being conned. Either the vaccines aren’t as good as claimed, they suggest, or the real goal of pandemic-safety measures is to control the public, not the virus.
Five key fallacies and pitfalls have affected public-health messaging, as well as media coverage, and have played an outsize role in derailing an effective pandemic response. These problems were deepened by the ways that we—the public—developed to cope with a dreadful situation under great uncertainty. And now, even as vaccines offer brilliant hope, and even though, at least in the United States, we no longer have to deal with the problem of a misinformer in chief, some officials and media outlets are repeating many of the same mistakes in handling the vaccine rollout.
The pandemic has given us an unwelcome societal stress test, revealing the cracks and weaknesses in our institutions and our systems. Some of these are common to many contemporary problems, including political dysfunction and the way our public sphere operates. Others are more particular, though not exclusive, to the current challenge—including a gap between how academic research operates and how the public understands that research, and the ways in which the psychology of coping with the pandemic have distorted our response to it.
Recognizing all these dynamics is important, not only for seeing us through this pandemic—yes, it is going to end—but also to understand how our society functions, and how it fails. We need to start shoring up our defenses, not just against future pandemics but against all the myriad challenges we face—political, environmental, societal, and technological. None of these problems is impossible to remedy, but first we have to acknowledge them and start working to fix them—and we’re running out of time.
The past 12 months were incredibly challenging for almost everyone. Public-health officials were fighting a devastating pandemic and, at least in this country, an administration hell-bent on undermining them. The World Health Organization was not structured or funded for independence or agility, but still worked hard to contain the disease. Many researchers and experts noted the absence of timely and trustworthy guidelines from authorities, and tried to fill the void by communicating their findings directly to the public on social media. Reporters tried to keep the public informed under time and knowledge constraints, which were made more severe by the worsening media landscape. And the rest of us were trying to survive as best we could, looking for guidance where we could, and sharing information when we could, but always under difficult, murky conditions.
Despite all these good intentions, much of the public-health messaging has been profoundly counterproductive. In five specific ways, the assumptions made by public officials, the choices made by traditional media, the way our digital public sphere operates, and communication patterns between academic communities and the public proved flawed.
One of the most important problems undermining the pandemic response has been the mistrust and paternalism that some public-health agencies and experts have exhibited toward the public. A key reason for this stance seems to be that some experts feared that people would respond to something that increased their safety—such as masks, rapid tests, or vaccines—by behaving recklessly. They worried that a heightened sense of safety would lead members of the public to take risks that would not just undermine any gains, but reverse them.
The theory that things that improve our safety might provide a false sense of security and lead to reckless behavior is attractive—it’s contrarian and clever, and fits the “here’s something surprising we smart folks thought about” mold that appeals to, well, people who think of themselves as smart. Unsurprisingly, such fears have greeted efforts to persuade the public to adopt almost every advance in safety, including seat belts, helmets, and condoms.
But time and again, the numbers tell a different story: Even if safety improvements cause a few people to behave recklessly, the benefitsoverwhelmthe ill effects. In any case, most people are already interested in staying safe from a dangerous pathogen. Further, even at the beginning of the pandemic, sociological theory predictedthat wearing masks would be associated with increased adherence to other precautionary measures—people interested in staying safe are interested in staying safe—and empirical research quickly confirmedexactly that. Unfortunately, though, the theory of risk compensation—and its implicit assumptions—continue to haunt our approach, in part because there hasn’t been a reckoning with the initial missteps.
Rules in Place of Mechanisms and Intuitions
Much of the public messaging focused on offering a series of clear rules to ordinary people, instead of explaining in detail the mechanisms of viral transmission for this pathogen. A focus on explaining transmission mechanisms, and updating our understanding over time, would have helped empower people to make informed calculations about risk in different settings. Instead, both the CDC and the WHO chose to offer fixed guidelines that lent a false sense of precision.
In the United States, the public was initially told that “close contact” meant coming within six feet of an infected individual, for 15 minutes or more. This messaging led to ridiculous gaming of the rules; some establishments moved people around at the 14th minute to avoid passing the threshold. It also led to situations in which people working indoors with others, but just outside the cutoff of six feet, felt that they could take their mask off. None of this made any practical sense. What happened at minute 16? Was seven feet okay? Faux precision isn’t more informative; it’s misleading.
All of this was complicated by the fact that key public-health agencies like the CDC and the WHO were late to acknowledge the importance of some key infection mechanisms, such as aerosol transmission. Even when they did so, the shift happened without a proportional change in the guidelines or the messaging—it was easy for the general public to miss its significance.
Frustrated by the lack of public communication from health authorities, I wrote an article last July on what we then knew about the transmission of this pathogen—including how it could be spread via aerosols that can float and accumulate, especially in poorly ventilated indoor spaces. To this day, I’m contacted by people who describe workplaces that are following the formal guidelines, but in ways that defy reason: They’ve installed plexiglass, but barred workers from opening their windows; they’ve mandated masks, but only when workers are within six feet of one another, while permitting them to be taken off indoors during breaks.
Perhaps worst of all, our messaging and guidelines elided the difference between outdoor and indoor spaces, where, given the importance of aerosol transmission, the same precautions should not apply. This is especially important because this pathogen is overdispersed: Much of the spread is driven by a few people infecting many others at once, while most people do not transmit the virus at all.
After I wrote an article explaining how overdispersion and super-spreading were driving the pandemic, I discovered that this mechanism had also been poorly explained. I was inundated by messages from people, including elected officials around the world, saying they had no idea that this was the case. None of it was secret—numerous academic papers and articles had been written about it—but it had not been integrated into our messaging or our guidelines despite its great importance.
Crucially, super-spreading isn’t equally distributed; poorly ventilated indoor spaces can facilitate the spread of the virus over longer distances, and in shorter periods of time, than the guidelines suggested, and help fuel the pandemic.
Outdoors? It’s the opposite.
There is a solid scientific reason for the fact that there are relatively few documented cases of transmission outdoors, even after a year of epidemiological work: The open air dilutes the virus very quickly, and the sun helps deactivate it, providing further protection. And super-spreading—the biggest driver of the pandemic— appears to be an exclusively indoor phenomenon. I’ve been tracking every report I can find for the past year, and have yet to find a confirmed super-spreading event that occurred solely outdoors. Such events might well have taken place, but if the risk were great enough to justify altering our lives, I would expect at least a few to have been documented by now.
And yet our guidelines do not reflect these differences, and our messaging has not helped people understand these facts so that they can make better choices. I published my first article pleading for parks to be kept open on April 7, 2020—but outdoor activities are still banned by some authorities today, a full year after this dreaded virus began to spread globally.
We’d have been much better off if we gave people a realistic intuition about this virus’s transmission mechanisms. Our public guidelines should have been more like Japan’s, which emphasize avoiding the three C’s—closed spaces, crowded places, and close contact—that are driving the pandemic.
Scolding and Shaming
Throughout the past year, traditional and social media have been caught up in a cycle of shaming—made worse by being so unscientific and misguided. How dare you go to the beach? newspapers have scolded us for months, despite lacking evidence that this posed any significant threat to public health. It wasn’t just talk: Many cities closed parks and outdoor recreational spaces, even as they kept open indoor dining and gyms. Just this month, UC Berkeley and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst both banned students from taking even solitary walks outdoors.
Even when authorities relax the rules a bit, they do not always follow through in a sensible manner. In the United Kingdom, after some locales finally started allowing children to play on playgrounds—something that was already way overdue—they quickly ruled that parents must not socialize while their kids have a normal moment. Why not? Who knows?
On social media, meanwhile, pictures of people outdoors without masks draw reprimands, insults, and confident predictions of super-spreading—and yet few note when super-spreading fails to follow.
While visible but low-risk activities attract the scolds, other actual risks—in workplaces and crowded households, exacerbated by the lack of testing or paid sick leave—are not as easily accessible to photographers. Stefan Baral, an associate epidemiology professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says that it’s almost as if we’ve “designed a public-health response most suitable for higher-income” groups and the “Twitter generation”—stay home; have your groceries delivered; focus on the behaviors you can photograph and shame online—rather than provide the support and conditionsnecessary for more people to keep themselves safe.
And the viral videos shaming people for failing to take sensible precautions, such as wearing masks indoors, do not necessarily help. For one thing, fretting over the occasional person throwing a tantrum while going unmasked in a supermarket distorts the reality: Most of the public has been complying with mask wearing. Worse, shaming is often an ineffective way of getting people to change their behavior, and it entrenches polarization and discourages disclosure, making it harder to fight the virus. Instead, we should be emphasizing safer behavior and stressing how many people are doing their part, while encouraging others to do the same.
Amidst all the mistrust and the scolding, a crucial public-health concept fell by the wayside. Harm reduction is the recognition that if there is an unmet and yet crucial human need, we cannot simply wish it away; we need to advise people on how to do what they seek to do more safely. Risk can never be completely eliminated; life requires more than futile attempts to bring risk down to zero. Pretending we can will away complexities and trade-offs with absolutism is counterproductive. Consider abstinence-only education: Not letting teenagers know about ways to have safer sex results in more of them having sex with no protections.
As Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, told me, “When officials assume that risks can be easily eliminated, they might neglect the other things that matter to people: staying fed and housed, being close to loved ones, or just enjoying their lives. Public health works best when it helps people find safer ways to get what they need and want.””
Another problem with absolutism is the “abstinence violation” effect, Joshua Barocas, an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Medicine and Infectious Diseases, told me. When we set perfection as the only option, it can cause people who fall short of that standard in one small, particular way to decide that they’ve already failed, and might as well give up entirely. Most people who have attempted a diet or a new exercise regimen are familiar with this psychological state. The better approach is encouraging risk reduction and layered mitigation—emphasizing that every little bit helps—while also recognizing that a risk-free life is neither possible nor desirable.
Socializing is not a luxury—kids need to play with one another, and adults need to interact. Your kids can play together outdoors, and outdoor time is the best chance to catch up with your neighbors is not just a sensible message; it’s a way to decrease transmission risks. Some kids will play and some adults will socialize no matter what the scolds say or public-health officials decree, and they’ll do it indoors, out of sight of the scolding.
And if they don’t? Then kids will be deprived of an essential activity, and adults will be deprived of human companionship. Socializing is perhaps the most important predictor of health and longevity, after not smoking and perhaps exercise and a healthy diet. We need to help people socialize more safely, not encourage them to stop socializing entirely.
The Balance Between Knowledge And Action
Last but not least, the pandemic response has been distorted by a poor balance between knowledge, risk, certainty, and action.
Sometimes, public-health authorities insisted that we did not know enough to act, when the preponderance of evidence already justified precautionary action. Wearing masks, for example, posed few downsides, and held the prospect of mitigating the exponential threat we faced. The wait for certainty hampered our response to airborne transmission, even though there was almost no evidence for—and increasing evidence against—the importance of fomites, or objects that can carry infection. And yet, we emphasized the risk of surface transmission while refusing to properly address the risk of airborne transmission, despite increasing evidence. The difference lay not in the level of evidence and scientific support for either theory—which, if anything, quickly tilted in favor of airborne transmission, and not fomites, being crucial—but in the fact that fomite transmission had been a key part of the medical canon, and airborne transmission had not.
Sometimes, experts and the public discussion failed to emphasize that we were balancing risks, as in the recurring cycles of debate over lockdowns or school openings. We should have done more to acknowledge that there were no good options, only trade-offs between different downsides. As a result, instead of recognizing the difficulty of the situation, too many people accused those on the other side of being callous and uncaring.
And sometimes, the way that academics communicate clashed with how the public constructs knowledge. In academia, publishing is the coin of the realm, and it is often done through rejecting the null hypothesis—meaning that many papers do not seek to prove something conclusively, but instead, to reject the possibility that a variable has no relationship with the effect they are measuring (beyond chance). If that sounds convoluted, it is—there are historical reasons for this methodology and big arguments within academia about its merits, but for the moment, this remains standard practice.
At crucial points during the pandemic, though, this resulted in mistranslations and fueled misunderstandings, which were further muddled by differing stances toward prior scientific knowledge and theory. Yes, we faced a novel coronavirus, but we should have started by assuming that we could make some reasonable projections from prior knowledge, while looking out for anything that might prove different. That prior experience should have made us mindful of seasonality, the key role of overdispersion, and aerosol transmission. A keen eye for what was different from the past would have alerted us earlier to the importance of presymptomatic transmission.
Thus, on January 14, 2020, the WHO stated that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” It should have said, “There is increasing likelihood that human-to-human transmission is taking place, but we haven’t yet proven this, because we have no access to Wuhan, China.” (Cases were already popping up around the world at that point.) Acting as if there was human-to-human transmission during the early weeks of the pandemic would have been wise and preventive.
Later that spring, WHO officials stated that there was “currently no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection,” producing many articles laden with panic and despair. Instead, it should have said: “We expect the immune system to function against this virus, and to provide some immunity for some period of time, but it is still hard to know specifics because it is so early.”
Similarly, since the vaccines were announced, too many statements have emphasized that we don’t yet know if vaccines prevent transmission. Instead, public-health authorities should have said that we have many reasons to expect, and increasing amounts of data to suggest, that vaccines will blunt infectiousness, but that we’re waiting for additional data to be more precise about it. That’s been unfortunate, because while many, many things have gone wrong during this pandemic, the vaccines are one thing that has gone very, very right.
As late as April 2020, Anthony Fauci was slammed for being too optimistic for suggesting we might plausibly have vaccines in a year to 18 months. We had vaccines much, much sooner than that: The first two vaccine trials concluded a mere eight months after the WHO declared a pandemic in March 2020.
Moreover, they have delivered spectacular results. In June 2020, the FDA said a vaccine that was merely 50 percent efficacious in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 would receive emergency approval—that such a benefit would be sufficient to justify shipping it out immediately. Just a few months after that, the trials of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines concluded by reporting not just a stunning 95 percent efficacy, but also a complete elimination of hospitalization or death among the vaccinated. Even severe disease was practically gone: The lone case classified as “severe” among 30,000 vaccinated individuals in the trials was so mild that the patient needed no medical care, and her case would not have been considered severe if her oxygen saturation had been a single percent higher.
These are exhilarating developments, because global, widespread, and rapid vaccination is our way out of this pandemic. Vaccines that drastically reduce hospitalizations and deaths, and that diminish even severe disease to a rare event, are the closest things we have had in this pandemic to a miracle—though of course they are the product of scientific research, creativity, and hard work. They are going to be the panacea and the endgame.
And yet, two months into an accelerating vaccination campaign in the United States, it would be hard to blame people if they missed the news that things are getting better.
Yes, there are new variants of the virus, which may eventually require booster shots, but at least so far, the existing vaccines are standing up to them well—very, very well. Manufacturers are already working on new vaccines or variant-focused booster versions, in case they prove necessary, and the authorizing agencies are ready for a quick turnaround if and when updates are needed. Reports from places that have vaccinated large numbers of individuals, and even trials in places where variants are widespread, are exceedingly encouraging, with dramatic reductions in cases and, crucially, hospitalizations and deaths among the vaccinated. Global equity and access to vaccines remain crucial concerns, but the supply is increasing.
Here in the United States, despite the rocky rollout and the need to smooth access and ensure equity, it’s become clear that toward the end of spring 2021, supply will be more than sufficient. It may sound hard to believe today, as many who are desperate for vaccinations await their turn, but in the near future, we may have to discuss what to do with excess doses.
So why isn’t this story more widely appreciated?
Part of the problem with the vaccines was the timing—the trials concluded immediately after the U.S. election, and their results got overshadowed in the weeks of political turmoil. The first, modest headline announcing the Pfizer-BioNTech results in The New York Times was a single column, “Vaccine Is Over 90% Effective, Pfizer’s Early Data Says,” below a banner headline spanning the page: “BIDEN CALLS FOR UNITED FRONT AS VIRUS RAGES.” That was both understandable—the nation was weary—and a loss for the public.
Just a few days later, Moderna reported a similar 94.5 percent efficacy. If anything, that provided even more cause for celebration, because it confirmed that the stunning numbers coming out of Pfizer weren’t a fluke. But, still amid the political turmoil, the Moderna report got a mere two columns on The New York Times’ front page with an equally modest headline: “Another Vaccine Appears to Work Against the Virus.”
So we didn’t get our initial vaccine jubilation.
But as soon as we began vaccinating people, articles started warning the newly vaccinated about all they could not do. “COVID-19 Vaccine Doesn’t Mean You Can Party Like It’s 1999,” one headline admonished. And the buzzkill has continued right up to the present. “You’re fully vaccinated against the coronavirus—now what? Don’t expect to shed your mask and get back to normal activities right away,” began a recent Associated Press story.
People might well want to party after being vaccinated. Those shots will expand what we can do, first in our private lives and among other vaccinated people, and then, gradually, in our public lives as well. But once again, the authorities and the media seem more worried about potentially reckless behavior among the vaccinated, and about telling them what not to do, than with providing nuanced guidance reflecting trade-offs, uncertainty, and a recognition that vaccination can change behavior. No guideline can cover every situation, but careful, accurate, and updated information can empower everyone.
Take the messaging and public conversation around transmission risks from vaccinated people. It is, of course, important to be alert to such considerations: Many vaccines are “leaky” in that they prevent disease or severe disease, but not infection and transmission. In fact, completely blocking all infection—what’s often called “sterilizing immunity”—is a difficult goal, and something even many highly effective vaccines don’t attain, but that doesn’t stop them from being extremely useful.
As Paul Sax, an infectious-disease doctor at Boston’s Brigham & Women’s Hospital, put it in early December, it would be enormously surprising “if these highly effective vaccines didn’t also make people less likely to transmit.” From multiple studies, we already knew that asymptomatic individuals—those who never developed COVID-19 despite being infected—were much less likely to transmit the virus. The vaccine trials were reporting 95 percent reductions in any form of symptomatic disease. In December, we learned that Moderna had swabbed some portion of trial participants to detect asymptomatic, silent infections, and found an almost two-thirds reduction even in such cases. The good news kept pouring in. Multiple studies found that, even in those few cases where breakthrough disease occurred in vaccinated people, their viral loads were lower—which correlates with lower rates of transmission. Data from vaccinated populations further confirmed what many experts expected all along: Of course these vaccines reduce transmission.
What went wrong? The same thing that’s going wrong right now with the reporting on whether vaccines will protect recipients against the new viral variants. Some outlets emphasize the worst or misinterpret the research. Some public-health officials are wary of encouraging the relaxation of any precautions. Some prominent experts on social media—even those with seemingly solid credentials—tend to respond to everything with alarm and sirens. So the message that got heard was that vaccines will not prevent transmission, or that they won’t work against new variants, or that we don’t know if they will. What the public needs to hear, though, is that based on existing data, we expect them to work fairly well—but we’ll learn more about precisely how effective they’ll be over time, and that tweaks may make them even better.
A year into the pandemic, we’re still repeating the same mistakes.
The top-down messaging is not the only problem. The scolding, the strictness, the inability to discuss trade-offs, and the accusations of not caring about people dying not only have an enthusiastic audience, but portions of the public engage in these behaviors themselves. Maybe that’s partly because proclaiming the importance of individual actions makes us feel as if we are in the driver’s seat, despite all the uncertainty.
Psychologists talk about the “locus of control”—the strength of belief in control over your own destiny. They distinguish between people with more of an internal-control orientation—who believe that they are the primary actors—and those with an external one, who believe that society, fate, and other factors beyond their control greatly influence what happens to us. This focus on individual control goes along with something called the “fundamental attribution error”—when bad things happen to other people, we’re more likely to believe that they are personally at fault, but when they happen to us, we are more likely to blame the situation and circumstances beyond our control.
An individualistic locus of control is forged in the U.S. mythos—that we are a nation of strivers and people who pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. An internal-control orientation isn’t necessarily negative; it can facilitate resilience, rather than fatalism, by shifting the focus to what we can do as individuals even as things fall apart around us. This orientation seems to be common among children who not only survive but sometimes thrive in terrible situations—they take charge and have a go at it, and with some luck, pull through. It is probably even more attractive to educated, well-off people who feel that they have succeeded through their own actions.
You can see the attraction of an individualized, internal locus of control in a pandemic, as a pathogen without a cure spreads globally, interrupts our lives, makes us sick, and could prove fatal.
There have been very few things we could do at an individual level to reduce our risk beyond wearing masks, distancing, and disinfecting. The desire to exercise personal control against an invisible, pervasive enemy is likely why we’ve continued to emphasize scrubbing and cleaning surfaces, in what’s appropriately called “hygiene theater,” long after it became clear that fomites were not a key driver of the pandemic. Obsessive cleaning gave us something to do, and we weren’t about to give it up, even if it turned out to be useless. No wonder there was so much focus on telling others to stay home—even though it’s not a choice available to those who cannot work remotely—and so much scolding of those who dared to socialize or enjoy a moment outdoors.
And perhaps it was too much to expect a nation unwilling to release its tight grip on the bottle of bleach to greet the arrival of vaccines—however spectacular—by imagining the day we might start to let go of our masks.
The focus on individual actions has had its upsides, but it has also led to a sizable portion of pandemic victims being erased from public conversation. If our own actions drive everything, then some other individuals must be to blame when things go wrong for them. And throughout this pandemic, the mantra many of us kept repeating—“Wear a mask, stay home; wear a mask, stay home”—hid many of the real victims.
Study after study, in country after country, confirms that this disease has disproportionately hit the poor and minority groups, along with the elderly, who are particularly vulnerable to severe disease. Even among the elderly, though, those who are wealthier and enjoy greater access to health care have fared better.
The poor and minority groups are dying in disproportionately large numbers for the same reasons that they suffer from many other diseases: a lifetime of disadvantages, lack of access to health care, inferior working conditions, unsafe housing, and limited financial resources.
Many lacked the option of staying home precisely because they were working hard to enable others to do what they could not, by packing boxes, delivering groceries, producing food. And even those who could stay home faced other problems born of inequality: Crowded housing is associatedwith higher rates of COVID-19 infection and worse outcomes, likely because many of the essential workers who live in such housing bring the virus home to elderly relatives.
Individual responsibility certainly had a large role to play in fighting the pandemic, but many victims had little choice in what happened to them. By disproportionately focusing on individual choices, not only did we hide the real problem, but we failed to do more to provide safe working and living conditions for everyone.
For example, there has been a lot of consternation about indoor dining, an activity I certainly wouldn’t recommend. But even takeout and delivery can impose a terrible cost: One study of California found that line cooks are the highest-risk occupation for dying of COVID-19. Unless we provide restaurants with funds so they can stay closed, or provide restaurant workers with high-filtration masks, better ventilation, paid sick leave, frequent rapid testing, and other protections so that they can safely work, getting food to go can simply shift the risk to the most vulnerable. Unsafe workplaces may be low on our agenda, but they do pose a real danger. Bill Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard, pointed me to a paper he co-authored: Workplace-safety complaints to OSHA—which oversees occupational-safety regulations—during the pandemic were predictive of increases in deaths 16 days later.
New data highlight the terrible toll of inequality: Life expectancy has decreased dramatically over the past year, with Black people losing the most from this disease, followed by members of the Hispanic community. Minorities are also more likely to die of COVID-19 at a younger age. But when the new CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, noted this terrible statistic, she immediately followed up by urging people to “continue to use proven prevention steps to slow the spread—wear a well-fitting mask, stay 6 ft away from those you do not live with, avoid crowds and poorly ventilated places, and wash hands often.”
Those recommendations aren’t wrong, but they are incomplete. None of these individual acts do enough to protect those to whom such choices aren’t available—and the CDC has yet to issue sufficient guidelines for workplace ventilation or to make higher-filtration masks mandatory, or even available, for essential workers. Nor are these proscriptions paired frequently enough with prescriptions: Socialize outdoors, keep parks open, and let children play with one another outdoors.
Vaccines are the tool that will end the pandemic. The story of their rollout combines some of our strengths and our weaknesses, revealing the limitations of the way we think and evaluate evidence, provide guidelines, and absorb and react to an uncertain and difficult situation.
But also, after a weary year, maybe it’s hard for everyone—including scientists, journalists, and public-health officials—to imagine the end, to have hope. We adjust to new conditions fairly quickly, even terrible new conditions. During this pandemic, we’ve adjusted to things many of us never thought were possible. Billions of people have led dramatically smaller, circumscribed lives, and dealt with closed schools, the inability to see loved ones, the loss of jobs, the absence of communal activities, and the threat and reality of illness and death.
Hope nourishes us during the worst times, but it is also dangerous. It upsets the delicate balance of survival—where we stop hoping and focus on getting by—and opens us up to crushing disappointment if things don’t pan out. After a terrible year, many things are understandably making it harder for us to dare to hope. But, especially in the United States, everything looks better by the day. Tragically, at least 28 million Americans have been confirmed to have been infected, but the real number is certainly much higher. By one estimate, as many as 80 million have already been infected with COVID-19, and many of those people now have some level of immunity. Another 46 million people have already received at least one dose of a vaccine, and we’re vaccinating millions more each day as the supply constraints ease. The vaccines are poised to reduce or nearly eliminate the things we worry most about—severe disease, hospitalization, and death.
Not all our problems are solved. We need to get through the next few months, as we race to vaccinate against more transmissible variants. We need to do more to address equity in the United States—because it is the right thing to do, and because failing to vaccinate the highest-risk people will slow the population impact. We need to make sure that vaccines don’t remain inaccessible to poorer countries. We need to keep up our epidemiological surveillance so that if we do notice something that looks like it may threaten our progress, we can respond swiftly.
And the public behavior of the vaccinated cannot change overnight—even if they are at much lower risk, it’s not reasonable to expect a grocery store to try to verify who’s vaccinated, or to have two classes of people with different rules. For now, it’s courteous and prudent for everyone to obey the same guidelines in many public places. Still, vaccinated people can feel more confident in doing things they may have avoided, just in case—getting a haircut, taking a trip to see a loved one, browsing for nonessential purchases in a store.
But it is time to imagine a better future, not just because it’s drawing nearer but because that’s how we get through what remains and keep our guard up as necessary. It’s also realistic—reflecting the genuine increased safety for the vaccinated.
Public-health agencies should immediately start providing expanded information to vaccinated people so they can make informed decisions about private behavior. This is justified by the encouraging data, and a great way to get the word out on how wonderful these vaccines really are. The delay itself has great human costs, especially for those among the elderly who have been isolated for so long.
Public-health authorities should also be louder and more explicit about the next steps, giving us guidelines for when we can expect easing in rules for public behavior as well. We need the exit strategy spelled out—but with graduated, targeted measures rather than a one-size-fits-all message. We need to let people know that getting a vaccine will almost immediately change their lives for the better, and why, and also when and how increased vaccination will change more than their individual risks and opportunities, and see us out of this pandemic.
We should encourage people to dream about the end of this pandemic by talking about it more, and more concretely: the numbers, hows, and whys. Offering clear guidance on how this will end can help strengthen people’s resolve to endure whatever is necessary for the moment—even if they are still unvaccinated—by building warranted and realistic anticipation of the pandemic’s end.
Hope will get us through this. And one day soon, you’ll be able to hop off the subway on your way to a concert, pick up a newspaper, and find the triumphant headline: “COVID Routed!”
Zeynep Tufekci is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and an associate professor at the University of North Carolina. She studies the interaction between digital technology, artificial intelligence, and society.
Science has taken center stage during the COVID-19 pandemic. Early on, as SARS-CoV-2 started spreading around the globe, many researchers pivoted to focus on studying the virus. At the same time, some scientists and science advisors—experts responsible for providing scientific information to policymakers—gained celebrity status as they calmly and cautiously updated the public on the rapidly evolving situation and lent their expertise to help governments make critical decisions, such as those relating to lockdowns and other transmission-slowing measures.
“Academia, in the case of COVID, has done an amazing job of trying to get as much information relevant to COVID gathered and distributed into the policymaking process as possible,” says Chris Tyler, the director of research and policy in University College London’s Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP).
But the pace at which COVID-related science has been conducted and disseminated during the pandemic has also revealed the challenges associated with translating fast-accumulating evidence for an audience not well versed in the process of science. As research findings are speedily posted to preprint servers, preliminary results have made headlines in major news outlets, sometimes without the appropriate dose of scrutiny.
Some politicians, such as Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, have been quick to jump on premature findings, publicly touting the benefits of treatments such as hydroxychloroquine with minimal or no supporting evidence. Others have pointed to the flip-flopping of the current state of knowledge as a sign of scientists’ untrustworthiness or incompetence—as was seen, for example, in the backlash against Anthony Fauci, one of the US government’s top science advisors.
Some comments from world leaders have been even more concerning. “For me, the most shocking thing I saw,” Tyler says, “was Donald Trump suggesting the injection of disinfectant as a way of treating COVID—that was an eye-popping, mind-boggling moment.”
Still, Tyler notes that there are many countries in which the relationship between the scientific community and policymakers during the course of the pandemic has been “pretty impressive.” As an example, he points to Germany, where the government has both enlisted and heeded the advice of scientists across a range of disciplines, including epidemiology, virology, economics, public health, and the humanities.
Researchers will likely be assessing the response to the pandemic for years to come. In the meantime, for scientists interested in getting involved in policymaking, there are lessons to be learned, as well some preliminary insights from the pandemic that may help to improve interactions between scientists and policymakers and thereby pave the way to better evidence-based policy.
Cultural divisions between scientists and policymakers
Even in the absence of a public-health emergency, there are several obstacles to the smooth implementation of scientific advice into policy. One is simply that scientists and policymakers are generally beholden to different incentive systems. “Classically, a scientist wants to understand something for the sake of understanding, because they have a passion toward that topic—so discovery is driven by the value of discovery,” says Kai Ruggeri, a professor of health policy and management at Columbia University. “Whereas the policymaker has a much more utilitarian approach. . . . They have to come up with interventions that produce the best outcomes for the most people.”
Scientists and policymakers are operating on considerably different timescales, too. “Normally, research programs take months and years, whereas policy decisions take weeks and months, sometimes days,” Tyler says. “This discrepancy makes it much more difficult to get scientifically generated knowledge into the policymaking process.” Tyler adds that the two groups deal with uncertainty in very different ways: academics are comfortable with it, as measuring uncertainty is part of the scientific process, whereas policymakers tend to view it as something that can cloud what a “right” answer might be.
This cultural mismatch has been particularly pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as scientists work at breakneck speeds, many crucial questions about COVID-19—such as how long immunity to the virus lasts, and how much of a role children play in the spread of infection—remain unresolved, and policy decisions have had to be addressed with limited evidence, with advice changing as new research emerges.
“We have seen the messy side of science, [that] not all studies are equally well-done and that they build over time to contribute to the weight of knowledge,” says Karen Akerlof, a professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University. “The short timeframes needed for COVID-19 decisions have run straight into the much longer timeframes needed for robust scientific conclusions.”
Academia has done an amazing job of trying to get as much information relevant to COVID gathered and distributed into the policymaking process as possible. —Chris Tyler, University College London
Widespread mask use, for example, was initially discouraged by many politicians and public health officials due to concerns about a shortage of supplies for healthcare workers and limited data on whether mask use by the general public would help reduce the spread of the virus. At the time, there were few mask-wearing laws outside of East Asia, where such practices were commonplace long before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Gradually, however, as studies began to provide evidence to support the use of face coverings as a means of stemming transmission, scientists and public health officials started to recommend their use. This shift led local, state, and federal officials around the world to implement mandatory mask-wearing rules in certain public spaces. Some politicians, however, used this about-face in advice as a reason to criticize health experts.
“We’re dealing with evidence that is changing very rapidly,” says Meghan Azad, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Manitoba. “I think there’s a risk of people perceiving that rapid evolution as science [being] a bad process, which is worrisome.” On the other hand, the spotlight the pandemic has put on scientists provides opportunities to educate the general public and policymakers about the scientific process, Azad adds. It’s important to help them understand that “it’s good that things are changing, because it means we’re paying attention to the new evidence as it comes out.”
Bringing science and policy closer together
Despite these challenges, science and policy experts say that there are both short- and long-term ways to improve the relationship between the two communities and to help policymakers arrive at decisions that are more evidence-based.
Better tools, for one, could help close the gap. Earlier this year, Ruggeri brought together a group of people from a range of disciplines, including medicine, engineering, economics, and policy, to develop the Theoretical, Empirical, Applicable, Replicable, Impact (THEARI) rating system, a five-tiered framework for evaluating the robustness of scientific evidence in the context of policy decisions. The ratings range from “theoretical” (the lowest level, where a scientifically viable idea has been proposed but not tested) to “impact” (the highest level, in which a concept has been successfully tested, replicated, applied, and validated in the real world).
The team developed THEARI partly to establish a “common language” across scientific disciplines, which Ruggeri says would be particularly useful to policymakers evaluating evidence from a field they may know little about. Ruggeri hopes to see the THEARI framework—or something like it—adopted by policymakers and policy advisors, and even by journals and preprint servers. “I don’t necessarily think [THEARI] will be used right away,” he says. “It’d be great if it was, but we . . . [developed] it as kind of a starting point.”
Other approaches to improve the communication between scientists and policymakers may require more resources and time. According to Akerlof, one method could include providing better incentives for both parties to engage with each other—by offering increased funding for academics who take part in this kind of activity, for instance—and boosting opportunities for such interactions to happen.
Akerlof points to the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, which place scientists and engineers in various branches of the US government for a year, as an example of a way in which important ties between the two communities could be forged. “Many of those scientists either stay in government or continue to work in science policy in other organizations,” Akerlof says. “By understanding the language and culture of both the scientific and policy communities, they are able to bridge between them.”
In Canada, such a program was established in 2018, when the Canadian Science Policy Center and Mona Nemer, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, held the country’s first “Science Meets Parliament” event. The 28 scientists in attendance, including Azad, spent two days learning about effective communication and the policymaking process, and interacting with senators and members of parliament. “It was eye opening for me because I didn’t know how parliamentarians really live and work,” Azad says. “We hope it’ll grow and involve more scientists and continue on an annual basis . . . and also happen at the provincial level.”
The short timeframes needed for COVID-19 decisions have run straight into the much longer timeframes needed for robust scientific conclusions. —Karen Akerlof, George Mason University
There may also be insights from scientist-policymaker exchanges in other domains that experts can apply to the current pandemic. Maria Carmen Lemos, a social scientist focused on climate policy at the University of Michigan, says that one way to make those interactions more productive is by closing something she calls the “usability gap.”
“The usability gap highlights the fact that one of the reasons that research fails to connect is because [scientists] only pay attention to the [science],” Lemos explains. “We are putting everything out there in papers, in policy briefs, in reports, but rarely do we actually systematically and intentionally try to understand who is on the other side” receiving this information, and what they will do with it.
The way to deal with this usability gap, according to Lemos, is for more scientists to consult the people who actually make, influence, and implement policy changes early on in the scientific process. Lemos and her team, for example, have engaged in this way with city officials, farmers, forest managers, tribal leaders, and others whose decision making would directly benefit from their work. “We help with organization and funding, and we also work with them very closely to produce climate information that is tailored for them, for the problems that they are trying to solve,” she adds.
Azad applied this kind of approach in a study that involves assessing the effects of the pandemic on a cohort of children that her team has been following from infancy, starting in 2010. When she and her colleagues were putting together the proposal for the COVID-19 project this year, they reached out to public health decision makers across the Canadian provinces to find out what information would be most useful. “We have made sure to embed those decision makers in the project from the very beginning to ensure we’re asking the right questions, getting the most useful information, and getting it back to them in a very quick turnaround manner,” Azad says.
There will also likely be lessons to take away from the pandemic in the years to come, notes Noam Obermeister, a PhD student studying science policy at the University of Cambridge. These include insights from scientific advisors about how providing guidance to policymakers during COVID-19 compared to pre-pandemic times, and how scientists’ prominent role during the pandemic has affected how they are viewed by the public; efforts to collect this sort of information are already underway.
“I don’t think scientists anticipated that much power and visibility, or that [they] would be in [public] saying science is complicated and uncertain,” Obermeister says. “I think what that does to the authority of science in the public eye is still to be determined.”
Talking Science to PolicymakersFor academics who have never engaged with policymakers, the thought of making contact may be daunting. Researchers with experience of these interactions share their tips for success. 1. Do your homework. Policymakers usually have many different people vying for their time and attention. When you get a meeting, make sure you make the most of it. “Find out which issues related to your research are a priority for the policymaker and which decisions are on the horizon,” says Karen Akerlof, a professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University. 2. Get to the point, but don’t oversimplify. “I find policymakers tend to know a lot about the topics they work on, and when they don’t, they know what to ask about,” says Kai Ruggeri, a professor of health policy and management at Columbia University. “Finding a good balance in the communication goes a long way.” 3. Keep in mind that policymakers’ expertise differs from that of scientists. “Park your ego at the door and treat policymakers and their staff with respect,” Akerlof says. “Recognize that the skills, knowledge, and culture that translate to success in policy may seem very different than those in academia.” 4. Be persistent. “Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get a response immediately, or if promising communications don’t pan out,” says Meghan Azad, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Manitoba. “Policymakers are busy and their attention shifts rapidly. Meetings get cancelled. It’s not personal. Keep trying.” 5. Remember that not all policymakers are politicians, and vice versa. Politicians are usually elected and are affiliated with a political party, and they may not always be directly involved in creating new policies. This is not the case for the vast majority of policymakers—most are career civil servants whose decisions impact the daily living of constituents, Ruggeri explains.
One South Korean contact-tracing study suggests that is a bad idea. In analyzing 5,706 COVID-19 patients and their 59,073 contacts, it concluded – albeit with a significant caveat – that 10- to 19-year-olds were the most contagious age group within their household.
A study out of Iceland, meanwhile, found that children under 10 are less likely to get infected and less likely than adults to become ill if they are infected. Coauthor Kári Stefánsson, who is CEO of a genetics company tracking the disease’s spread, said the study didn’t find a single instance of a child infecting a parent.
So when leaders explain their decision on whether to send kids back to school by saying they’re “following the science,” citizens could be forgiven for asking what science they’re referring to exactly – and how sure they are that it’s right.
But it’s become difficult to ask such questions amid the highly polarized debate around pandemic policies. While areas of consensus have emerged since the pandemic first hit the United States in March, significant gaps remain. Those uncertainties have opened the door for contrarians to gain traction in popular thought.
Some Americans see them as playing a crucial role, challenging a fear-driven groupthink that is inhibiting scientific inquiry, driving unconstitutional restrictions on individual freedom and enterprise, and failing to grapple with the full societal cost of shutting down businesses, churches, and schools. Public health experts who see shutdowns as crucial to saving lives are critical of such actors, due in part to fears that they are abetting right-wing resistance to government restrictions. They have also voiced criticism that some contrarians appear driven by profit or political motives more than genuine concern about public health.
The deluge of studies and competing interpretations have left citizens in a tough spot, especially when data or conclusions are shared on Twitter or TV without full context – like a handful of puzzle pieces thrown in your face, absent any box top picture to help you fit them together.
“You can’t expect the public to go through all the science, so you rely on people of authority, someone whom you trust, to parse that for you,” says Aleszu Bajak, a science and data journalist who teaches at Northeastern University in Boston. “But now you have more than just the scientists in their ivory tower throwing out all of this information. You have competing pundits, with different incentives, drawing on different science of varying quality.”
The uncertainties have also posed a challenge for policymakers, who haven’t had the luxury of waiting for the full arc of scientific inquiry to be completed.
“The fact is, science, like everything else, is uncertain – particularly when it comes to predictions,” says John Holdren, who served as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for the duration of President Barack Obama’s eight-year tenure. “I think seasoned, experienced decision-makers understand that. They understand that there will be uncertainties, even in the scientific inputs to their decision-making process, and they have to take those into account and they have to seek approaches that are resilient to uncertain outcomes.”
Some say that in an effort to reassure citizens that shutdowns were implemented based on scientific input, policymakers weren’t transparent enough about the underlying uncertainties.
“We’ve heard constantly that politicians are following the science. That’s good, of course, but … especially at the beginning, science is tentative, it changes, it’s evolving fast, it’s uncertain,” Prof. Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute in London, recently told a British Parliament committee. One of the founding partners of his independent institute is Imperial College, whose researchers’ conclusions were a leading driver of U.S. and British government shutdowns.
“You can’t just have a single top line saying we’re following science,” he adds. “It has to be more dealing with what we know about the science and what we don’t.”
A focus on uncertainty
One scientist who talks a lot about unknowns is John Ioannidis, a highly cited professor of medicine, epidemiology, and population health at Stanford University in California.
Dr. Ioannidis, who has made a career out of poking holes in his colleagues’ research, agrees that masks and social distancing are effective but says there are open questions about how best to implement them. He has also persistently questioned just how deadly COVID-19 is and to what extent shutdowns are affecting mental health, household transmission to older family members, and the well-being of those with non-COVID-19-relatedconditions.
It’s very difficult, he says, to do randomized trials for things like how to reopen, and different countries and U.S. states have done things in different ways.
“For each one of these decisions, action plans – people said we’re using the best science,” he says. “But how can it be that they’re all using the best science when they’re so different?”
Many scientists say they and their colleagues have been open about the uncertainties,despite a highly polarized debate around the pandemic and the 2020 election season ramping up.
“One of the remarkable things about this pandemic is the extent to which many people in the scientific community are explicit about what’s uncertain,” says Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who is working on a study about how biases can affect COVID-19 research. “There has been a sort of hard core of scientists, even with different policy predispositions, who have been insistent on that.”
“In some ways the politicized nature has made people more aware of the uncertainties,” adds Professor Lipsitch, who says Twitter skeptics push him and his colleagues to strengthen their arguments. “That’s a good voice to have in the back of your head.”
For the Harvard doctor, Alex Berenson is not that voice. But a growing number of frustrated Americans have gravitated toward the former New York Times reporter’s brash, unapologetic challenging of prevailing narratives. His following on Twitter has grown from around 10,000 to more than 182,000 and counting.
Mr. Berenson, who investigated big business before leaving The New York Times in 2010 to write spy novels, dives into government data, quotes from scientific studies, and takes to Twitter daily to rail against what he sees as a dangerous overreaction driven by irrational fear and abetted by a liberal media agenda and corporate interests – particularly tech companies, whose earnings have soared during the shutdowns. He refers satirically to those advocating government restrictions as “Team Apocalypse.”
Dr. Lipsitch says that while public health experts pushing for lockdown like himself could be considered hawks while contrarians like Mr. Berenson could be considered doves, his “name-calling” doesn’t take into account the fact that most scientists have at least a degree of nuance. “It’s really sort of unsophisticated to say there are two camps, but it serves some people’s interest to demonize the other side,” he says.
Mr. Berenson, the author of a controversial 2019 book arguing that marijuana increases the risk of mental illness and violence, has been accused of cherry-picking data and conflating correlation and causation. Amazon initially blocked publication of his booklet “Unreported Truths about COVID-19 and Lockdowns: Part 1” until Elon Musk got wind of it and called out the tech giant on Twitter. Mr. Berenson prevailed and recently released Part 2 on the platform, which has already become Amazon’s No. 1 best-seller among history of science and medicine e-books.
He strives to broaden the public’s contextual understanding of fatality rates, emphasizing that the vast majority of deaths occur among the elderly; in Italy, for instance, the median age of people who died is 81. He calls into question the reliability of COVID-19 death tolls, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can be categorized as such even without a positive test if the disease is assumed to have caused or even contributed to a death.
Earlier this spring, when a prominent model was forecasting overwhelmed hospitals in New York, he pointed out that their projection was quadruple that of the actual need.
“Nobody had the guts or brains to ask – why is your model off by a factor of four today, and you made it last week?” says Mr. Berenson, referring to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projection in early April and expressing disappointment that his former colleagues in the media are not taking a harder look at such questions. “I think unfortunately people have been blinded by ideology.”
Politicization of science
Amid a sense of urgency, fear, and frustration with Americans who refuse to fall in line with government restrictions as readily as their European or especially Asian counterparts, Mr. Berenson and Dr. Ioannidis have faced blowback for airing questions about those restrictions and the science behind them.
Mr. Berenson’s book installments have prompted criticism that he’s looking for profits at the expense of public health, which he has denied. Dr. Ioannidis’ involvement in an April antibodies study in Santa Clara, California, which purported to show that COVID-19 is much less deadly than was widely believed was discredited by other scientists due to questions about the accuracy of the test used and a BuzzFeed report that it was partially funded by JetBlue Airways’ cofounder. Dr. Ioannidis says those questions were fully addressed within two weeks in a revised version that showed with far more extensive data that the test was accurate, and adds he had been unaware of the $5,000 donation, which came through the Stanford development office and was anonymized.
The dismay grew when BuzzFeed News reported in July that a month before the Santa Clara study, he had offered to convene a small group of world-renowned scientists to meet with President Donald Trump and help him solve the pandemic “by intensifying efforts to understand the denominator of infected people (much larger than what is documented to-date)” and developing a more targeted, data-driven approach than long-term shutdowns, which he said would “jeopardiz[e] so many lives,” according to emails obtained by BuzzFeed.
While the right has seized on Dr. Ioannidis’ views and some scientists say it’s hard not to conclude that his work is driven by a political agenda, the Greek doctor maintains that partisanship is antithetical to the scientific method, which requires healthy skepticism, among other things.
“Even the word ‘science’ has been politicized. It’s very sad,” he says, observing that in the current environment, scientific conclusions are used to shame, smear, and “cancel” the opposite view. “I think it’s very unfortunate to use science as a silencer of dissent.”
The average citizen, he adds, is filtering COVID-19 debates through their belief systems, media sources, and political ideology, which can leave science at a disadvantage in the public square. “Science hasn’t been trained to deal with these kinds of powerful companions that are far more vocal and better armed to penetrate into social discourse,” says Dr. Ioannidis.
The polarization has been fueled in part by absolutist pundits. In a recent week, “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC daily hammered home the rising rate in cases, trumpeted the daily death toll, and quoted Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, while “The Tucker Carlson Show” on Fox News did not once mention government data, featuring instead anecdotes from business owners who have been affected by the shutdowns and calling into question the authority of unelected figures such as Dr. Fauci.
Fed on different media diets, it’s not surprising that partisan views on the severity of the pandemic have diverged further in recent months, with 85% of Democrats seeing it as a major threat – nearly double the percent of Republicans, according to a Pew Research poll from mid-July. And in a related division that predates the pandemic, another Pew poll from February showed that Republicans are less likely to support scientists taking an active role in social policy matters – just 43% compared with 73% for Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.
“If you have more of a populist type of worldview, where you are concerned that elites and scientists and officials act in their own interests first, it becomes very easy to make assumptions that they are doing something to control the population,” says Prof. Asheley Landrum, a psychologist at Texas Tech University who specializes in science communication.
Beyond following the science
Determining what exactly “the science” says is only one part of the equation; figuring out precisely how to “follow” it poses another set of challenges for policymakers on questions like whether to send students back to school.
“Even if you had all the science pinned down, there are still some tough value judgments about the dangers of multiplying the pandemic or the dangers of keeping kids at home,” says Dr. Holdren, President Obama’s science adviser, an engineer and physicist who now co-directs the science, technology, and public policy program at Harvard Kennedy School.
Dr. Lipsitch echoes that point and offers an example of two schools that both have a 10% risk of an outbreak. In one, where there are older students from high-income families who are more capable of learning remotely, leaders may decide that the 10% risk isn’t worth reopening. But in another school with the same assessed risk, where the students are younger and many depend on free and reduced lunch, a district may decide the risk is a trade-off they’re willing to make in support of the students’ education and well-being.
“Following the science just isn’t enough,” says Dr. Lipsitch. “It’s incumbent on responsible leaders to use science to do the reasoning about how to do the best thing given your values, but it’s not an answer.”
Have you heard the axiom “In war, truth is the first casualty?”
As healthcare providers around the world wage war against the COVID-19 pandemic, national governments have taken to brawling with researchers, the media and each other over the veracity of the data used to monitor and track the disease’s march across the globe.
Allegations of deliberate data tampering carry profound public health implications. If a country knowingly misleads the World Health Organization (WHO) about the emergence of an epidemic or conceals the severity of an outbreak within its borders, precious time is lost. Time that could be spent mobilising resources around the globe to contain the spread of the disease. Time to prepare health systems for a coming tsunami of infections. Time to save more lives.
No one country has claimed that their science or data is perfect: French and US authorities confirmed they had their first coronavirus cases weeks earlier than previously thought.
Still, coronavirus – and the data used to benchmark it – has become grist for the political mill. But if we tune out the voices of politicians and pundits, and listen to those of good governance experts, data scientists and epidemiological specialists, what does the most basic but consequential data – the number of confirmed cases per country – tell us about how various governments around the globe are crunching coronavirus numbers and spinning corona-narratives?
What the good governance advocates say
Similar to how meteorologists track storms, data scientists use models to express how epidemics progress, and to predict where the next hurricane of new infections will batter health systems.
This data is fed by researchers into computer modelling programmes that national authorities and the WHO use to advise countries and aid organisations on where to send medical professionals and equipment, and when to take actions such as issuing lockdown orders.
The WHO also harnesses this data to produce a daily report that news organisations use to provide context around policy decisions related to the pandemic. But, unlike a hurricane, which cannot be hidden, epidemic data can be fudged and manipulated.
“The WHO infection numbers are based on reporting from its member states. The WHO cannot verify these numbers,” said Michael Meyer-Resende, Democracy Reporting International’s executive director.
To date, more than 8 million people have been diagnosed as confirmed cases of COVID-19. Of that number, more than 443,000 have died from the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Those numbers are commonly quoted, but what is often not explained is that they both ultimately hinge on two factors: how many people are being tested, and the accuracy of the tests being administered. These numbers we “fetishise”, said Meyer-Resende, “depend on testing, on honesty of governments and on size of the population”.
“Many authoritarian governments are not transparent with their data generally, and one should not expect that they are transparent in this case,” he said. To test Meyer-Resende’s theory that less government transparency equals less transparent COVID-19 case data, Al Jazeera used Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index as lenses through which to view the number of reported cases of the coronavirus.
The examination revealed striking differences in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases that those nations deemed transparent and democratic reported compared to the numbers reported by nations perceived to be corrupt and authoritarian.
Denmark, with a population of roughly six million, is ranked in the top 10 of the most transparent and democratic countries. The country reported on May 1 that it had 9,158 confirmed cases of COVID-19, a ratio of 1,581 confirmed cases per million. That was more than triple the world average for that day – 412 cases per million people – according to available data.
Meanwhile, Turkmenistan, a regular in the basement of governance and corruption indexes, maintains that not one of its roughly six million citizens has been infected with COVID-19, even though it borders and has extensive trade with Iran, a regional epicentre of the pandemic.
Also on May 1, Myanmar, with a population of more than 56 million, reported just 151 confirmed cases of infection, a rate of 2.8 infections per million. That is despite the fact that every day, roughly 10,000 workers cross the border into China, where the pandemic first began.
On February 4, Myanmar suspended its air links with Chinese cities, including Wuhan, where COVID-19 is said to have originated last December (however, a recent study reported that the virus may have hit the city as early as August 2019).
“That just seems abnormal, out of the ordinary. Right?” said Roberto Kukutschka, Transparency International’s research coordinator, in reference to the numbers of reported cases.
“In these countries where you have high levels of corruption, there are high levels of discretion as well,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s counter-intuitive that these countries are reporting so few cases, when all countries that are more open about these things are reporting way more. It’s very strange.”
While Myanmar has started taking steps to address the pandemic, critics say a month of preparation was lost to jingoistic denial. Ten days before the first two cases were confirmed, government spokesman Zaw Htay claimed the country was protected by its lifestyle and diet, and because cash is used instead of credit cards to make purchases.
Turkmenistan’s authorities have reportedly removed almost all mentions of the coronavirus from official publications, including a read-out of a March 27 phone call between Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov.
It is unclear if Turkmenistan even has a testing regime.
Russia, on the other hand, touts the number of tests it claims to have performed, but not how many people have been tested – and that is a key distinction because the same person can be tested more than once. Transparency International places Russia in the bottom third of its corruption index.
On May 1, Russia, with a population just above 145 million, reported that it had confirmed 106,498 cases of COVID-19 after conducting an astounding 3.72 million “laboratory tests”. Just 2.9 percent of the tests produced a positive result.
Remember, Denmark’s population is six million, or half that of Moscow’s. Denmark had reportedly tested 206,576 people by May 1 and had 9,158 confirmed coronavirus cases, a rate of 4.4 percent. Finland, another democracy at the top of the transparency index, has a population of 5.5 million and a positive test result rate of 4.7 percent.
This discrepancy spurred the editors of PCR News, a Moscow-based Russian-language molecular diagnostics journal, to take a closer look at the Russian test. They reported that in order to achieve a positive COVID-19 result, the sample tested must contain a much higher volume of the virus, or viral load, as compared to the amount required for a positive influenza test result.
In terms of sensitivity or ability to detect COVID-19, the authors wrote: “Is it high or low? By modern standards – low.”
They later added, “The test will not reveal the onset of the disease, or it will be decided too early that the recovering patient no longer releases viruses and cannot infect anyone. And he walks along the street, and he is contagious.”
Ostensibly, if that person then dies, COVID-19 will not be certified as the cause of death.
Good governance experts see a dynamic at play.
Countries who test less will be shown as less of a problem. Countries that test badly will seem as if they don’t have a problem. Numbers are very powerful.
Michael Meyer-Resende, Democracy Reporting International
“In many of these countries, the legitimacy of the state depends on not going into crisis,” said Kukutschka, adding that he counts countries with world-class health systems among them.
“Countries who test less will be shown as less of a problem. Countries that test badly will seem as if they don’t have a problem,” said Meyer-Resende. “Numbers are very powerful. They seem objective.”
Meyer-Resende highlighted the case of China. “The Chinese government said for a while that it had zero new cases. That’s a very powerful statement. It says it all with a single digit: ‘We have solved the problem’. Except, it hadn’t. It had changed the way of counting cases.”
China – where the pandemic originated – recently escaped a joint US-Australian-led effort at the World Health Assembly to investigate whether Beijing had for weeks concealed a deadly epidemic from the WHO.
China alerted the WHO about the epidemic on December 31, 2019. Researchers at the University of Hong Kong estimated that the actual number of COVID-19 cases in China, where the coronavirus first appeared, could have been four times greater in the beginning of this year than what Chinese authorities had been reporting to the WHO.
“We estimated that by Feb 20, 2020, there would have been 232,000 confirmed cases in China as opposed to the 55,508 confirmed cases reported,” said the researchers’ report published by the Lancet.
The University of Hong Kong researchers attribute the discrepancy to ever-changing case definitions, the official guidance that tells doctors which symptoms – and therefore patients – can be diagnosed and recorded as COVID-19. China’s National Health Commission issued no less than seven versions of these guidelines between January 15 and March 3.
All of which adds to the confusion.
“Essentially, we are moving in a thick fog, and the numbers we have are no more than a small flashlight,” said Meyer-Resende.
What the epidemiological expert thinks
Dr Ghassan Aziz monitors epidemics in the Middle East. He is the Health Surveillance Program manager at the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Middle East Unit. He spoke to Al Jazeera in his own capacity and not on behalf of the NGO.
“I think Iran, they’re not reporting everything,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s fair to assume that [some countries] are underreporting because they are under-diagnosing. They report what they detect.”
“Maybe [it’s] on purpose, and maybe because of the sanctions and the lack of testing capacities,” said Aziz.
Once China shared the novel coronavirus genome on January 24, many governments began in earnest to test their populations. Others have placed limits on who can be tested.
In Brazil, due to a sustained lack of available tests, patients using the public health network in April were tested only if they were hospitalised with severe symptoms. On April 1, Brazil reported that 201 people had died from the virus. That number was challenged by doctors and relatives of the dead. A month later, after one minister of health was fired and another resigned after a week on the job, the testing protocols had not changed.
On May 1, Brazil reported that COVID-19 was the cause of death for 5,901 people. On June 5, Brazil’s health ministry took down the website that reported cumulative coronavirus numbers – only to be ordered by the country’s Supreme Court to reinstate the information.
Right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly played down the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, calling it “a little flu”. Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes accused the government of attempting to manipulate statistics, calling it “a manoeuvre of totalitarian regimes”.
Brazil currently has the dubious distinction of having the second-highest number of COVID-19 deaths in the world, behind the US. By June 15, the COVID-19 death toll in the country had surpassed 43,300 people.
Dr Aziz contends that even with testing, many countries customarily employ a “denial policy”. He said in his native country, Iraq, health authorities routinely obfuscate health emergencies by changing the names of outbreaks such as cholera to “endemic diarrhoea”, or Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever to “epidemic fever”.
“In Iraq, they give this idea to the people that ‘We did our best. We controlled it,'” Dr Aziz said. “When someone dies, ‘Oh. It’s not COVID-19. He was sick. He was old. This is God’s will. It was Allah.’ This is what I find so annoying.”
What the data scientist says
Sarah Callaghan, a data scientist and the editor-in-chief of Patterns, a data-science medical journal, told Al Jazeera the numbers of confirmed cases countries report reflect “the unique testing and environmental challenges that each country is facing”.
But, she cautioned: “Some countries have the resources and infrastructure to carry out widespread testing, others simply don’t. Some countries might have the money and the ability to test, but other local issues come into play, like politics.”
According to Callaghan, even in the best of times under the best circumstances, collecting data on an infectious disease is both difficult and expensive. But despite the difficulties presented by some countries’ data, she remains confident that the data and modelling that is available will indeed contribute much to understanding how COVID-19 spreads, how the virus reacts to different environmental conditions, and discovering the questions that need answers.
Her advice is: “When looking at the numbers, think about them. Ask yourself if you trust the source. Ask yourself if the source is trying to push a political or economic agenda.”
“There’s a lot about this situation that we don’t know, and a lot more misinformation that’s being spread, accidentally or deliberately.”
The tensions we now face between science, politics and economics also arose before the country’s most destructive volcanic eruption.
Mr. Roberts is a former editor at ProPublica and The Washington Post.
When I met David A. Johnston, it was on a spring evening, about a month before he would be erased from existence by a gigantic cloud of volcanic ash boiling over him at 300 miles per hour. He was coming through the door of a makeshift command center in Vancouver, Wash., the closest city to the graceful snow-capped dome of Mount St. Helens, a volcano that had been dormant for 123 years. This was April 1980, and Mr. Johnston, a 30-year-old geologist, was one of the first scientists summoned to monitor new warning signs from the mountain — shallow earthquakes and periodic bursts of ash and steam.
As a young reporter I had talked my way into the command center. At first Mr. Johnston was wary; he wasn’t supposed to meet the press anymore. His supervisors had played down the chance that the smoking mountain was about to explode, and they had already reprimanded him for suggesting otherwise. But on this night he’d just been setting measuring equipment deep in the surrounding forest, and his runner-thin frame vibrated with excitement, his face flushed under his blond beard, and Mr. Johnston couldn’t help riffing on the likelihood of a cataclysmic event.
“My feeling is when it goes, it’s going to go just like that,” he told me, snapping his fingers. “Bang!” At best, he said, we’d have a couple of hours of warning.
Mr. Johnston was mostly right. Early on a Sunday morning several weeks later, the mountain did blow, in the most destructive eruption in U.S. history. But there was no warning. At his instrument outpost, on a ridge more than five miles from the summit, Mr. Johnston had only seconds to radio in a last message: “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!”
Monday, May 18, marks the 40th anniversary of the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption, and as we now face our own struggle to gauge the uncertain risks presented by nature, to predict how bad things will get and how much and how long to protect ourselves, it may be useful to revisit the tension back then between science, politics and economics.
The drama played out on a much smaller stage — one region of one state, instead of the whole planet — but many of the same elements were present: Scientists provided a range of educated guesses, and public officials split on how to respond. Business owners and residents chafed at the restrictions put in place, many flouted them, and a few even threatened armed rebellion. In the end, the government mostly accepted the analyses of Mr. Johnston and his fellow geologists. As a result, while the eruption killed 57 people and flattened hundreds of square miles of dense Pacific Northwest forestland, the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands, were spared.
At the first warning signs, state and federal officials moved to distance people from the mountain. They sought to block nonessential visitors from nearby Spirit Lake, ringed with scout camps and tourist lodges. Other than loggers, few people hung around the peak year-round, but the population surged in late spring and summer, when thousands hiked, camped and moved into vacation homes. Many regulars dismissed the risk. Slipping past roadblocks became a popular activity. Locals sold maps to sightseers and amateur photographers that showed how to take old logging roads up the mountain. The owner of a nearby general store shared a common opinion of the threat: “It’s just plain bull. I lived here 26 years, and nothing like this happened before.”
Like the probability of a pandemic, though, it was well-established that one of the dozen or so volcanoes in the 800-mile Cascade Range might soon turn active. Averaging two eruptions a century, they were overdue. A 1978 report by the U.S. Geological Survey, where Mr. Johnston worked, identified Mount St. Helens as most likely to blow next. Yet forecasting how big the event could be was a matter of art as well as science. Geologists could model only previous explosions and list the possible outcomes. (“That position was difficult for many to accept, because they believed we could and should make predictions,” a U.S.G.S. report said later.)
Some scientists suggested a much larger evacuation, but uncertainty, a hallmark of their discipline, can be difficult for those making real-time public policy. The guidelines from federal and state representatives camped out in Vancouver, and from Washington’s governor, Dixy Lee Ray, often seemed in conflict. Moreover, the Weyerhaeuser Company, which owned tens of thousands of acres of timber, opposed logging restrictions, even as some crews got nervous about working near the rumbling dome.
By mid-April, a bulge grew on the north flank, a clue that highly pressurized magma was trapped and expanding. If it burst, a landslide might bury Spirit Lake. The governor, a conservative Democrat who was a biologist by training, finally agreed to stronger measures. She ordered an inner “red zone” where only scientists and law enforcement personnel could enter, and a “blue zone” open to loggers and property owners with day passes. If the zones didn’t extend as far as many geologists hoped, they were certainly an improvement.
Then the mountain got deceptively quiet. The curve of seismic activity flattened and turned downward. Many grew complacent, and restless. On Saturday, May 17, people with property inside the red zone massed in cars and pickup trucks at the roadblock on State Highway 504. Hearing rumors that some carried rifles, the governor relented, allowing them through, with a police escort, to check on their homes and leave again. The state patrol chief, Robert Landon, told them, “We hope the good Lord will keep that mountain from giving us any trouble.” The property owners vowed to return the next day.
The next day was Sunday. At 8:32 a.m., a powerful quake shook loose the snow-covered north face of Mount St. Helens, releasing the superheated magma, which roared out of the mountain in a lateral blast faster than a bullet train, over the spot where Mr. Johnston stood, mowing down 230 square miles of trees, hurling trunks into the air like twigs. It rained down a suffocating storm of thick gray ash, “a burning sky-river wind of searing lava droplet hail,” as the poet Gary Snyder described it. Mudflows clogged the river valleys, setting off deadly floods. A column of ash soared 15 miles high and bloomed into a mushroom cloud 35 miles wide. Over two weeks, ash would circle the globe. Among the 57 dead were three aspiring geologists besides Mr. Johnston, as well as loggers, sightseers and photographers.
About a week later, the Forest Service took reporters up in a helicopter. I had seen the mountain from the air before the eruption. Now the sprawling green wilderness that appeared endless and permanent had disappeared in a blink. We flew for an hour over nothing but moonscape. The scientists had done their best, but nature flexed a power far more deadly than even they had imagined.
Lawrence Roberts, a former editor at ProPublica and The Washington Post, is the author of the forthcoming “Mayday 1971: A White House at War, a Revolt in the Streets, and the Untold History of America’s Biggest Mass Arrest.”
Carl Bergstrom’s two disparate areas of expertise merged as reports of a mysterious respiratory illness emerged in January
Julia Carrie Wong, Tue 28 Apr 2020 11.00 BST
Carl Bergstrom is uniquely suited to understanding the current moment. A professor of biology at the University of Washington, he has spent his career studying two seemingly disparate topics: emerging infectious diseases and networked misinformation. They merged into one the moment reports of a mysterious respiratory illness emerged from China in January.
The coronavirus touched off both a pandemic and an “infodemic” of hoaxes, conspiracy theories, honest misunderstandings and politicized scientific debates. Bergstrom has jumped into the fray, helping the public and the press navigate the world of epidemiological models, statistical uncertainty and the topic of his forthcoming book: bullshit.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been teaching a course and have co-written a book about the concept of bullshit. Explain what you mean by bullshit?
The formal definition that we use is “language, statistical figures, data, graphics and other forms of presentation that are intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener with a blatant disregard for truth or logical coherence”.
The idea with bullshit is that it’s trying to appear authoritative and definitive in a way that’s not about communicating accurately and informing a reader, but rather by overwhelming them, persuading them, impressing them. If that’s done without any allegiance to truth, or accuracy, that becomes bullshit.
We’re all used to verbal bullshit. We’re all used to campaign promises and weasel words, and we’re pretty good at seeing through that because we’ve had a lot of practice. But as the world has become increasingly quantified and the currency of arguments has become statistics, facts and figures and models and such, we’re increasingly confronted, even in the popular press, with numerical and statistical arguments. And this area’s really ripe for bullshit, because people don’t feel qualified to question information that’s given to them in quantitative form.
Are there bullshit narratives about the coronavirus that you are concerned about right now?
What’s happened with this pandemic that we’re not accustomed to in the epidemiology community is that it’s been really heavily politicized. Even when scientists are very well-intentioned and not trying to support any side of the narrative, when they do work and release a paper it gets picked up by actors with political agendas.
Whether it’s talking about seroprevalence or estimating the chance that this is even going to come to the United States at all each study gets picked up and placed into this little political box and sort of used as a cudgel to beat the other side with.
So even when the material isn’t being produced as bullshit, it’s being picked up and used in the service of that by overstating its claims, by cherry-picking the information that’s out there and so on. And I think that’s kind of the biggest problem that we’re facing.
One example [of intentional bullshit] might be this insistence for a while on graphing the number of cases on a per-capita basis, so that people could say the US response is so much better than the rest of the world because we have a slower rate of growth per capita. That was basically graphical malfeasance or bullshit. When a wildfire starts spreading, you’re interested in how it’s spreading now, not whether it’s spreading in a 100-acre wood or millions of square miles of national forest.
Is there one big lesson that you think that the media should keep in mind as we communicate science to the public? What mistakes are we making?
I think the media has been adjusting really fast and doing really well. When I’m talking about how to avoid misinformation around this I’m constantly telling people to trust the professional fact-based media. Rather than looking for the latest rumor that’s spreading across Facebook or Twitter so that you can have information up to the hour, recognize that it’s much better to have solidly sourced, well-vetted information from yesterday.
Hyper-partisan media are making a huge mess of this, but that’s on purpose. They’ve got a reason to promote hydroxychloroquine or whatever it is and just run with that. They’re not even trying to be responsible.
But one of the biggest things that people [in the media]could do to improve would be to recognize that scientific studies, especially in a fast-moving situation like this, are provisional. That’s the nature of science. Anything can be corrected. There’s no absolute truth there. Each model, each finding is just adding to a weight of evidence in one direction or another.
A lot of the reporting is focusing on models, and most of us probably don’t have any basic training in how to read them or what kind of credence to put in them. What should we know?
The key thing, and this goes for scientists as well as non-scientists, is that people are not doing a very good job thinking about what the purpose of different models are, how the purposes of different models vary, and then what the scope of their value is. When these models get treated as if they’re oracles, then people both over-rely on them and treat them too seriously – and then turn around and slam them too hard for not being perfect at everything.
Are there mistakes that are made by people in the scientific community when it comes to communicating with the public?
We’re trying to communicate as a scientific community in a new way, where people are posting their data in real time. But we weren’t ready for the degree to which that stuff would be picked up and assigned meaning in this highly politically polarized environment. Work that might be fairly easy for researchers to contextualize in the field can be portrayed as something very, very different in the popular press.
The first Imperial College model in March was predicting 1.1 million to 2.2 million American deaths if the pandemic were not controlled. That’s a really scary, dramatic story, and I still think that it’s not unrealistic. That got promoted by one side of the partisan divide. Then Imperial came back and modeled a completely different scenario, where the disease was actually brought under control and suppressed in the US, and they released a subsequent model that said, ‘If we do this, something like 50,000 deaths will occur.’ That was picked up by the other side and used to try to discredit the Imperial College team entirely by saying, ‘A couple of weeks ago they said a million now they’re saying 50,000; they can’t get anything right.’ And the answer , of course, is that they were modeling two different scenarios.
We’re also not doing enough of deliberately stressing the possible weaknesses of our interpretations. That varies enormously from researcher to researcher and team to team.
It requires a lot of discipline to argue really hard for something but also be scrupulously open about all of the weaknesses in your own argument.
But it’s more important than ever, right? A really good paper will lay out all the most persuasive evidence it can and then in the conclusion section or the discussion section say, ‘OK, here are all the reasons that this could be wrong and here are the weaknesses.’
When you have something that’s so directly policy relevant, and there’s a lot of lives at stake, we’re learning how to find the right balance.
It is a bit of a nightmare to put out data that is truthful, but also be aware that there are bad faith actors at the moment who might pounce on it and use it in a way you didn’t intend.
There’s a spectrum. You have outright bad faith actors – Russian propaganda picking up on things and bots spreading misinformation – and then you have someone like Georgia Governor Brian Kemp who I wouldn’t calla bad faith actor. He’s a misinformed actor.
There’s so much that goes unsaid in science in terms of context and what findings mean that we don’t usually write in papers. If someone does a mathematical forecasting model, you’re usually not going to have a half-page discussion on the limitations of forecasting. We’re used to writing for an audience of 50 people in the world, if we’re lucky, who have backgrounds that are very similar to our own and have a huge set of shared assumptions and shared knowledge. And it works really well when you’re writing on something that only 50 people in the world care about and all of them have comparable training, but it is a real mess when it becomes pressing, and I don’t think any of us have figured out exactly what to do about that because we’re also trying to work quickly and it’s important to get this information out.
One area that has already become contentious and in some ways politicized is the serology surveys, which are supposed to show what percentage of the population has antibodies to the virus. What are some of the big picture contextual caveats and limitations that we should keep in mind as these surveys come out?
The seroprevalence in the US is a political issue, and so the first thing is to recognize that when anyone is reporting on that stuff, there’s a political context to it. It may even be that some of the research is being done with an implicitly political context, depending on who the funders are or what the orientations and biases of some of the researchers.
On the scientific side, I think there’s really two things to think about. The first one is the issue of selection bias. You’re trying to draw a conclusion about one population by sampling from a subset of that population and you want to know how close to random your subset is with respect to the thing you’re trying to measure. The Santa Clara study recruited volunteers off of Facebook. The obvious source of sampling bias there is that people desperately want to get tested. The people that want it are, of course, people that think they’ve had it.
The other big piece is understanding the notion of positive predictive value and the way false positive and false negative error rates influence the estimate. And that depends on the incidence of infection in the population.
If you have a test that has a 3% error rate, and the incidence in the population is below 3%, then most of the positives that you get are going to be false positives. And so you’re not going to get a very tight estimate about how many people have it. This has been a real problem with the Santa Clara study. From my read of the paper, their data is actually consistent with nobody being infected. A New York Citystudy on the other hand showed 21% seropositive, so even if there has a 3% error rate, the majority of those positives have to be true positives.
Now that we’ve all had a crash course in models and serosurveys, what are the other areas of science where it makes sense for the public to start getting educated on the terms of the debate?
One that I think will come along sooner or later is interpreting studies of treatments. We’ve dealt with that a little bit with the hydroxychloroquine business but not in any serious way because the hydroxychloroquine work has been pretty weak and the results have not been so positive.
But there are ongoing tests of a large range of existing drugs. And these studies are actually pretty hard to do. There’s a lot of subtle technical issues: what are you doing for controls? Is there a control arm at all? If not, how do you interpret the data? If there is a control arm, how is it structured? How do you control for the characteristics of the population on whom you’re using the drug or their selection biases in terms of who’s getting the drug?
Unfortunately, given what we’ve already seen with hydroxychloroquine, it’s fairly likely that this will be politicized as well. There’ll be a parallel set of issues that are going to come around with vaccination, but that’s more like a year off.
If you had the ability to arm every person with one tool – a statistical tool or scientific concept – to help them understand and contextualize scientific information as we look to the future of this pandemic, what would it be?
I would like people to understand that there are interactions between the models we make, the science we do and the way that we behave. The models that we make influence the decisions that we take individually and as a society, which then feed back into the models and the models often don’t treat that part explicitly.
Once you put a model out there that then creates changes in behavior that pull you out of the domain that the model was trying to model in the first place. We have to be very attuned to that as we try to use the models for guiding policy.
That’s very interesting, and not what I expected you to say.
What did you expect?
That correlation does not imply causation.
That’s another very good one. Seasonality is a great example there. We’re trying a whole bunch of things at the same time. We’re throwing all kinds of possible solutions at this and lots of things are changing. It’s remarkable to me actually, that so many US states are seeing the epidemic curve decrease. And so there’s a bunch of possibilities there. It could be because people’s behavior is changing. There could be some seasonality there. And there are other possible explanations as well.
But what is really important is that just because the trend that you see is consistent with a story that someone’s selling, there may be many other stories that are also consistent, so inferring causality is dangerous.
Paul Jürgens – Publicado em: 09/04/2020 | Atualizado em: 10/04/2020
Luiz Davidovich: o presidente da Academia Brasileira de Ciências espera que a positiva exposição midiática por que passa a ciência neste momento não cesse após a epidemia ser superada
A chegada do coronavirus ao País provocou um impacto sem precedentes na rotina do funcionamento das instituições e empresas brasileiras, e no dia da dia da população. Com o trabalho da Imprensa, não foi diferente. Em poucos dias, jornalistas reviravam suas agendas em busca de contatos no meio científico, na tentativa de entender o que estava em jogo com a chegada da Covid-19 e de oferecer informações seguras a seus leitores. Um dos jornais impressos de maior circulação no País anunciou há poucos dias que estava convidando cinco cientistas para, alternadamente, assinaram coluna diária em suas páginas, intitulada “A Hora da Ciência”. O Boletim FAPERJ foi ouvir o que os pesquisadores e gestores que atuam na área da Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovação pensam desse súbito interesse de todos os meios de comunicação pela pesquisa no País, e que legado isso pode deixar para as relações da comunidade científica com os jornalistas, uma vez superada a crise sanitária.
Para o presidente da Academia Brasileira de Ciências, o físico Luiz Davidovich, a crise atual envolve todo o planeta, atingindo ricos e pobres, que agora estão tendo a oportunidade de acompanhar os avanços mais recentes da ciência, que por meio de técnicas cada vez mais sofisticadas permite conhecer o modo de ação do vírus, e que motiva equipes em todo o mundo para encontrar remédios e vacina. “A comunidade científica está tendo a oportunidade de dar o seu recado, diariamente, de forma clara e objetiva, sem partidarismo político. A primeira pessoa a anunciar a vitória da humanidade contra esse inimigo invisível e insidioso não será um político. A notícia virá, em primeira mão, com um comunicado redigido com termos técnicos, do grupo de pesquisas que descobrir a vacina”, diz Davidovich, professor do Instituto de Física da Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Ele espera que a positiva exposição midiática por que passa a ciência neste momento não cesse após a epidemia ser dominada. “Temos muitas ameaças no horizonte, por exemplo, com novos vírus que aparecem frequentemente e a questão das mudanças climáticas.E certamente muitas descobertas que mudarão nosso quotidiano, em benefício da qualidade de vida, ainda estão por vir”, acrescentou.
O coordenador de estratégias de integração regional e nacional da Fundação Oswaldo Cruz (Fiocruz), Wilson Savino, avalia que uma parte significativa da população do planeta já tinha motivos para acreditar na ciência. Ele, no entanto, acredita que isso não necessariamente se traduz por tomadas de consciência em termos de atitudes e de ações. “Somente quando a vida está em perigo, e, no caso da pandemia de Covid-19 esse medo tem dimensão planetária, é que a percepção de que a ciência poderá dar respostas (res)surge”, diz. “A mídia não age de maneira diferente. Não apenas os atores da comunicação midiática sentem o mesmo, procurando informação da melhor qualidade possível junto aos cientistas e instituições científicas, mas também sabem que seus leitores e ouvintes estão ávidos por informação confiável sobre seus próprios destinos”, fala. Vice-coordenador geral das redes de Pesquisa em Arboviroses, que recebe apoio da FAPERJ, Savino, que também é membro da Academia Brasileira de Ciências, torce para que a avidez por respostas científicas para resolver questões relevantes na vida da sociedade não desapareça após o controle da pandemia. “Que a ciência tenha uma nova iluminação nos corações e mentes deste nosso Brasil”.
Eliete Bouskela: para a médica e pesquisadora, aproximação da sociedade com os cientistas pode trazer enormes benefícios
Primeira mulher a ocupar o cargo de diretora Científica da FAPERJ, a médica e pesquisadora Eliete Bouskela afirma que cientistas costumam abordar os problemas de forma mais racional e que isso também contribui para o aumento do interesse dos meios de comunicação pela ciência, sobretudo em um momento como esse, de pandemia. “Nós, pesquisadores, tratamos das questões de forma mais racional, transparente, e, quando necessário, não hesitamos em declarar que não temos uma resposta, que estamos buscando soluções”, diz. Professora Titular da Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (Uerj) e membro associado da Academia Francesa de Medicina, ela acredita que o atual escrutínio da imprensa pelo trabalho dos cientistas deve contribuir para aproximar a comunidade científica do resto da sociedade. “À medida que saímos da torre de marfim e construímos um canal de comunicação com a população, isso certamente resultará em um aumento do interesse das pessoas pelo conhecimento científico e pela carreira de professor e pesquisador. A aproximação da sociedade com os cientistas, que também fazem parte da sociedade, pode trazer enormes benefícios”, assegura.
“Mais fortes e maduros”. É assim que o médico e Professor Titular de Psiquiatria da Faculdade de Medicina da Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) Antonio Egidio Nardi acredita que sairemos da crise sanitária atual. “Vidas serão perdidas e isso é muitíssimo lamentável. Mas a sociedade também ganhará com esta crise relacionada à Covid-19, por exemplo, com a valorização da educação e dos investimentos em ciência e saúde”. Segundo o pesquisador, é possível observar que tanto nos sites informais, quanto na mídia de qualidade, já se discute, com algum embasamento científico, a origem da pandemia, a forma de propagação, como evitar o contágio rápido e as possibilidades de tratamento. “Artigos científicos comentários de pesquisadores e editoriais de revistas com credibilidade circulam nas mídias sociais de forma surpreendente. A ciência está viva, sendo mundo valorizada. O conhecimento científico está atingindo um grande público. Este é o objetivo primordial da ciência e das sociedades científicas: ajudar a sociedade a viver melhor”, destaca. “A sociedade pós-pandemia será melhor e saberá reconhecer o valor de pesquisas, dos profissionais de saúde e da educação de qualidade”, aposta o médico, membro da Academia Nacional de Medicina e que recebe apoio da FAPERJ para suas pesquisas por meio do programa Cientista do Nosso Estado.
Idealizador e ex-diretor do Parque Tecnológico da UFRJ, o engenheiro Mauricio Guedes, que desde julho de 2018 ocupa o cargo de diretor de Tecnologia da FAPERJ, acredita que a humanidade está tendo uma rara oportunidade para repensar o seu modelo de sociedade. “Essa grande exposição midiática sobre as atividades ligadas à ciência, com horas e horas de transmissões ao vivo nas tevês e pela Internet, e também em reportagens que agora ocupam quase todo o espaço disponível em jornais e revistas, certamente trará uma contribuição decisiva para que a população e os meios de comunicação reconheçam o valor da pesquisa e o papel central dos cientistas e tecnólogos no nosso futuro”, observa. “Enxergo aqui uma nova chance de entendermos o mais rápido possível que universidades e empresas precisam se unir para promover o avanço do conhecimento, ao mesmo tempo em que criam soluções em grande escala para o enfrentamento desta crise planetária”, diz. “O mundo não será como antes”.
Para o médico e imunologista Cláudio Tadeu Daniel-Ribeiro, coordenador do Centro de Pesquisa Diagnóstico e Treinamento em Malária no Instituto Oswaldo Cruz (IOC/Fiocruz), o papel da mídia tem sido exemplar, confrontando informações e tentando esclarecer dúvidas da população. “Nesse contexto dramático e assustador, temos a sorte de ver uma imprensa que busca os fatos, lá onde o conhecimento é produzido; na ciência, para esclarecer a sociedade, desinformada, parte por não saber como e onde ter acesso a dados fidedignos, parte por que leigos, agindo em nome de vísões tão desinformadas quanto descoladas da realidade dos fatos, insistem em propalar notícias e opiniões incorretas, que confundem a população”, diz.
Professor TItular de Fisiologia e Biofísica Instituto de Biofísica Carlos Chagas Filho da UFRJ, Antonio Carlos Campos de Carvalho alerta que só a ciência pode oferecer soluções que minimizem os estragos que esta crise fará no mundo. “Em situações de crise mundial, como a atual, a sociedade e os governos sempre se voltam para a ciência, buscando projetar cenários e as melhores respostas para o problema. Sem a ciência, a mídia já percebeu que estaremos sujeitos a achismos de pessoas desqualificadas para lidar com a crise”, diz. “Se nossos governantes entenderem que a ciência é capaz de trazer soluções racionais para nossos problemas, veremos adiante um apoio maciço às universidades e institutos de pesquisa através das agências de fomento, como a FAPERJ. Só ciência e tecnologia geram inovação e progresso social e econômico. O que sustenta nossa economia atualmente é o agronegócio, fortemente impactado justamente pelos avanços científicos e tecnológicos, promovidos, no passado, por diversas instituições nacionais de pesquisa. Com o avanço das técnicas de edição de genomas, vários países terão ganhos significativos de produtividade e temo pelo que pode acontecer com a economia brasileira se perdermos nossa posição de liderança no agronegócio mundial”, analisa o assessor para área da Saúde da Diretoria Científica da FAPERJ.
À frente da Assessoria de Relações Internacionais da FAPERJ, a pesquisadora Vânia Paschoalin acredita que, frente a uma situação de muito agravo à saúde humana, onde um vírus reemergente provoca mortes e sofrimentos, a humanidade parece ter entendido a importância da ciência para salvar vidas, diminuir o sofrimento humano e proporcionar bem estar e saúde. “Os cientistas sempre estiveram à disposição para explicar, com conhecimento e profundidade, o que lhes é perguntado. Assim, acabaram por assumir, neste momento, um papel muito importante de esclarecimentos e direções, devido à credibilidade que a sociedade sempre conferiu a eles”, avalia. Para a diretora-adjunta de Pós-Graduação do Instituto de Química da UFRJ, a humanidade está passando por muitas mudanças neste momento e o interesse dos jornalistas em ouvir os cientistas é reflexo disso. “Espero que tenhamos um apreço ainda mais respeitoso pela Ciência e pelo trabalho obstinado dos cientistas daqui para a frente, e que isso seja revertido em verbas regulares a pesquisa, de maneira que os cientistas possam gerar e disponibilizar conhecimentos para o bem da humanidade”, conclui.
Em dez países, 85% dos entrevistados disseram que precisam ouvir mais os cientistas e menos os políticos; no Brasil, esta porcentagem foi de 89%
09/04/2020 – 12:31 / Atualizado em 09/04/2020 – 13:35
RIO – A pandemia do coronavírus, que já matou cerca de 80 mil pessoas e adoeceu cerca de 1,3 milhão (dados oficiais da Organização Mundial da Saúde do último dia 8), fez crescer no mundo inteiro a confiança na Ciência.
Segundo pesquisa da Edelman Trust Barometer, sobre a “Confiança e o Coronavírus”, 85% dos entrevistados disseram que precisam ouvir mais os cientistas e menos os políticos. No Brasil, esta porcentagem foi de 89%.
Sobre porta vozes confiáveis, os cientistas são os mais citados no geral (83%), seguido pelo médico pessoal (82%), assim como no Brasil (91% e 86% respectivamente). Autoridades governamentais receberam 48% (geral) e 53% (Brasil) das indicações — era possível escolher mais de uma resposta.
— Talvez a notícia que mais esperamos nos dias de hoje é a descoberta de uma vacina contra o coronavírus. E ela será dada por um cientista — declarou o físico Luiz Davidovich, presidente da Academia Brasileira de Ciências. — A Ciência está muito presente nesse momento atual no mundo inteiro. Aqui no Brasil, na mídia e na fala do nosso ministro da Saúde. O tempo inteiro, (Luiz Henrique) Mandetta enfatiza o papel da Ciência no combate ao coronavírus. Cientistas do mundo todo se comunicam, trocam informações e estão nessa corrida contra o tempo. Não sei o que acontecerá depois desta pandemia, mas os governos e as pessoas em geral deveriam manter seus apoios e confiança nos cientistas.
A pesquisa foi feita entre 6 e 10 de março de 2020, por sondagem on-line em 10 países: África do Sul, Alemanha, Brasil, Canadá, Coreia do Sul, Estados Unidos, França, Itália, Japão e Reino Unido. Foram 10 mil entrevistados (1.000 por país) e todos os dados têm representatividade nacional em termos de idade, região e gênero. A margem de erro é de três pontos percentuais para mais ou para menos.
Mostrou ainda que a maioria se disse preocupada com a politização da crise: na Coreia do Sul este índice foi o maior (67%), seguindo pela África do Sul e Estados Unidos (62%), França e Alemanha (61%) e Brasil, com 58%, mesma porcentagem no total geral.
Davidovich afirma que antes desta pandemia, a “atitude anticiência” mostrava-se presente em vários países do mundo, inclusive no Brasil. Citou a falta de investimentos e apoio na área e também exemplos dos movimentos contra a vacinação e o “exótico” terraplanismo, que ganhou força nos Estados Unidos a partir de 2014.
— Quando um presidente de um país, poderoso como os EUA, fala contra as evidencias cientificas com relação às mudanças climáticas, por exemplo, ele afeta o mundo inteiro. Isso vai ser corrigido depois desta epidemia, em que os cientistas seguem como fonte mais confiável?
Para o antropólogo Ruben George Oliven, titular do programa de pós-graduação de Antropologia Social da Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, acredita que pesquisa mostra o quanto o cientista e os profissionais da saúde estão valorizados nos tempos atuais. Mesmo que a pesquisa tenha sido feita em países tão diferentes. Observou que no Brasil, os discursos antagônicos entre a presidência e o Ministério da Saúde colocam as autoridades governamentais em xeque.
— Mesmo num país como Brasil, em que a religiosidade é importante e os lideres religiosos não estão citados na pesquisa, as pessoas confiam no cientista. Diferentemente do político, que precisa estar bem com todo mundo para se reeleger, que tem discursos diferentes para diferentes grupos, o cientista tem alto grau é visto como alguém que se dedica a descobrir a verdade. Está numa especie de altar, ao lado dos profissionais da saúde — comenta Oliven, que destaca ainda o médico pessoal. — O meu medico é a pessoa que me trata, no qual eu deposito confiança e o que ele diz tem grau de veracidade muito grande. É o que caracteriza uma boa relação médico-paciente.
Ana Julião, gerente geral da Edelman, agência global de comunicação e responsável pela pesquisa, afirma que a empresa faz pesquisas sobre confiança, no mundo inteiro, há 20 anos e tem observado uma polarização entre informação e opinão:
— Essa crise gera um medo natural nas pessoas e faz com que os cientistas sejam os mais confiáveis. Nesse momento, a gente vê o quanto a informação é muito mais importante que a opinião.
Sobre a busca por informações, a pesquisa mostrou que a Italia destacou as fonte governamentais (63%). Na África do Sul (72%) e no Brasil (64%), as mídias sociais são citadas como principal fonte de informação. Mas a maioria, sete países, buscam dados prioritariamente com os veículos de comunicação, cujo índice total (incluindo todos os pesquisados) é de 64%. No Brasil, a imprensa (59%) aparece em segundo e depois, as fontes do governo (40%).
No total geral, depois da imprensa, aparecem: fontes do governo nacional (40%), mídias sociais (38%), organizações globais de saúde como a OMS (34%), autoridades sanitárias nacionais (29%), amigos e familiares (27%) e fontes do governo local (26%).
Segundo a pesquisa, no Brasil, 85% dizem se preocupar com fake news sobre a pandemia. Além disso, 52% admitem ter dificuldade para encontrar informações confiáveis e de credibilidade sobre o coronavírus e seus efeitos e 89% afirmam que precisam ouvir mais os cientistas e menos os políticos.
No geral, levando em consideração os dez países pesquisados, 74% se dizem preocupados com notícias falsas, 45% tem dificuldade para encontrar dados confiáveis e 85% confiam mais na ciência do que nos políticos.
A filosofa Carla Rodrigues, professora da Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, observa ainda que a pesquisa foi feita no início de março e que houve, no Brasil, uma explosão de fake news nos últimos dias. Assim, segundo ela, as pessoas devem ter mais dificuldade para buscar dados confiáveis. Também destacou o fato da pesquisa mostrar que entre os porta vozes mais eficientes não está as autoridades governamentais.
— Esse número de 52% seria muito maior, sem dúvida. Principalmente por causa da politização criada em torno do coronavírus. Há cerca de duas semanas, a quantidade de fake news é enorme e se criou uma confusão sobre o tema — diz Carla, que acrescenta que nos últimos anos se intensificou o uso de fake news como instrumento de mobilização contra diversas instituições. — Incluindo a Ciência que foi muito enfraquecida. Nesse contexto, é muito mais difícil fazer com que as instituições responsáveis pelo combate a pandemia sejam respeitadas. Ou seja, mais um obstáculo a enfrentar.
A “busca pela verdade”, pelos cientistas, segundo Carla, é constante, mutante, e que é preciso ter cuidado. Isso porque as descobertas serão, em sua maioria, superadas e não se pode usar este fenômeno para desacreditar a classe.
— O coronavírus é um problema novo. E a Ciência vai continuar a pesquisar e investigar. A resposta será sempre atualizada e passível de revisão. Muitas vezes este fenômeno é usado para desacreditar a Ciência. Mas, a boa Ciência não é absoluta, não tem uma verdade final. Ainda bem.
Climate protection and public health have striking similarities. The benefits of both can be enjoyed by everyone, even by individuals who do not contribute to the collective efforts to address these problems. If climate change slows down, both drivers of gas-guzzlers and electric cars will benefit – although the former did not help in climate efforts. Similarly, if the spread of Coronavirus is halted (the so-called flattening the curve), individuals who refused to wash their hands, as well as the ones who washed them assiduously, will enjoy the restored normal life.
Most countries have gotten their acts together, although belatedly, on Coronavirus. Citizens also seem to be following the advice of public health officials. Could then the Coronavirus policy model be applied to climate change? We urge caution because these crises are different, which means that policies that worked well for Coronavirus might not be effective for climate change.
Different Penalties for Policy and Behavioral Procrastination
Climate change is the defining crisis of our times. Floods, hurricanes, forest fires, and extreme weather events have become more frequent and severe over the years. Although climate change generates passionate discussions in big cities and university campuses, there is inadequate public clamor for immediate action. Some types of decarbonization policies are certainly in place. However, carbon-intensive lifestyles continue (with “flying shame” in Scandinavia being an exception). Today In: Green Tech
This policy lethargy and behavioral inertia are due to many reasons, including concerted opposition by the fossil fuel industry to deep decarbonization. But there are other reasons as well. Climate change is cumulative and does not have a quick onset. Its effects are not always immediate and visible. Many individuals probably do not see a clear link between their actions and the eventual outcome. This reduces the willingness to alter lifestyles and tolerate personal sacrifices for the collective good.
In contrast, Coronavirus is forcing an immediate policy response and behavioral changes. Its causality is clear and its onset quick. Lives are at stake, especially in western countries. The stock markets are tanking, and the economy is heading towards a recession. Politicians recognize that waffling can lead to massive consequences, even in the short-term. Corona-skeptic President Trump has reversed course and declared a national emergency.
In the US, there is federal inaction on climate change. But Coronavirus seems different. 2020 is a Presidential election year, and perhaps this motivates the federal government to (finally) act decisively so that Coronavirus does not become Hurricane Katrina type of political liability.
Climate policies are hobbled by “spatial optimism,” whereby individuals believe that their risk of getting affected by climate change is less than for others. This reduces the willingness to tolerate personal sacrifices for deep decarbonization.
Coronavirus episode began with some level of spatial optimism in the Western world. After all, it was happening in China. But this confidence has quickly disappeared. Globalization means a lot of international travel and trade. China is the main global supplier of many products. Prominent companies such as Apple (AAPL) and Tesla (TSLA) depend on China for manufacturing and sales of their products. Spatial optimism has been overwhelmed by international travel as well as globalized supply chains and financial markets.
Belief in the Efficacy of Adaptation
Some might believe that climate change can be “managed.” Innovators will probably develop commercial-scale negative carbon technologies and societies will adapt to sea-level rise by building seawalls, or maybe relocating some communities to safer areas.
Coronavirus offers no such comfort. Unlike the seasonal flu, there is no vaccine (yet). It is difficult to adapt to the Coronavirus threat when you don’t know what to touch, where to go, and if your family members and neighbors are infected. Not to mention, how many rolls of tissue paper you need to stock before the supplies run out at the local grocery store.
Different Incentives to Attack Scientific Knowledge
On Coronavirus, citizens seem to be willing to follow the advice of public health professionals (at least when it comes to social distancing as reflected in empty roads and shopping centers). Every word of Dr. Anthony Fauci counts.
Why has this advice not drawn scorn from politicians who are suspicious of the “deep state”? After all, the same politicians attack scientific consensus on climate change.
Climate skeptics probably see substantial political and economic payoffs by delaying climate action. Stock markets have not penalized climate skepticism in the US: markets hit record high levels in the first three years of the Trump presidency. And, climate opposition is not leading to electoral losses. On the contrary, the climate agendas in liberal states, such as Oregon and Washington, have stalled.
Nobody seems to gain by attacking scientific consensus to delay policy action on Coronavirus. Airlines, hospitality, and tourism industries, who have taken a direct hit from social-distancing policies, probably want the problem to be quickly addressed so that people can get back to their “normal” lives.
US politicians who talk about the “deep state,” may want Coronavirus issue resolved before the November 2020 election. Attacking science does not further their political objectives. After all, the looming recession and the stock market decline could influence the election outcomes.
Depth, Scale, and Duration of Changes
Climate policy will cause economic and social dislocation. Decarbonization means that some industries will shut down. Jobs will be lost, and communities will suffer unless “just transition” policies are in place.
Coronavirus policies will probably not cause long-term structural changes in the economy. People will resume flying, tourists will flock to Venice, Rome, and Paris, and the basketball arenas will again overflow with spectators.
However, some short-term measures could lead to long-term changes. For example, individuals may realize that telecommuting is easy and efficient. As a result, they may permanently reduce their work-related travel. Coronavirus may provide the sort of a “nudge” that shifts long-term behavioral preferences.
In sum, the contrast between the rapid response to Coronavirus and policy waffling on climate change reveals how citizens think of risk and how this shapes their willingness to incur costs for the collective good. Further, it suggests that politicians respect science when its recommendations serve their political ends.
Nives Dolsak is Stan and Alta Barer Professor in Sustainability Science and Director of the School of Marine & Environmental Affairs. Aseem Prakash is the Walker Family Professor and the Director of the Center for Environmental Politics. Both are at the University of Washington, Seattle.
So why can’t we stop such views from spreading? My opinion is that we have failed to understand their root causes, often assuming it is down to ignorance. But new research, published in my book, Knowledge Resistance: How We Avoid Insight from Others, shows that the capacity to ignore valid facts has most likely had adaptive value throughout human evolution. Therefore, this capacity is in our genes today. Ultimately, realising this is our best bet to tackle the problem.
So far, public intellectuals have roughly made two core arguments about our post-truth world. The physician Hans Rosling and the psychologist Steven Pinker argue it has come about due to deficits in facts and reasoned thinking – and can therefore be sufficiently tackled with education.
Meanwhile, Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler and other behavioural economists have shown how the mere provision of more and better facts often lead already polarised groups to become even more polarised in their beliefs.
The conclusion of Thaler is that humans are deeply irrational, operating with harmful biases. The best way to tackle it is therefore nudging – tricking our irrational brains – for instance by changing measles vaccination from an opt-in to a less burdensome opt-out choice.
Such arguments have often resonated well with frustrated climate scientists, public health experts and agri-scientists (complaining about GMO-opposers). Still, their solutions clearly remain insufficient for dealing with a fact-resisting, polarised society.
In my comprehensive study, I interviewed numerous eminent academics at the University of Oxford, London School of Economics and King’s College London, about their views. They were experts on social, economic and evolutionary sciences. I analysed their comments in the context of the latest findings on topics raging from the origin of humanity, climate change and vaccination to religion and gender differences.
It became evident that much of knowledge resistance is better understood as a manifestation of social rationality. Essentially, humans are social animals; fitting into a group is what’s most important to us. Often, objective knowledge-seeking can help strengthen group bonding – such as when you prepare a well-researched action plan for your colleagues at work.
But when knowledge and group bonding don’t converge, we often prioritise fitting in over pursuing the most valid knowledge. In one large experiment, it turned out that both liberals and conservatives actively avoided having conversations with people of the other side on issues of drug policy, death penalty and gun ownership. This was the case even when they were offered a chance of winning money if they discussed with the other group. Avoiding the insights from opposing groups helped people dodge having to criticise the view of their own community.
Similarly, if your community strongly opposes what an overwhelming part of science concludes about vaccination or climate change, you often unconsciously prioritise avoiding getting into conflicts about it.
This is further backed up by research showing that the climate deniers who score the highest on scientific literacy tests are more confident than the average in that group that climate change isn’t happening – despite the evidence showing this is the case. And those among the climate concerned who score the highest on the same tests are more confident than the average in that group that climate change is happening.
This logic of prioritising the means that get us accepted and secured in a group we respect is deep. Those among the earliest humans who weren’t prepared to share the beliefs of their community ran the risk of being distrusted and even excluded.
And social exclusion was an enormous increased threat against survival – making them vulnerable to being killed by other groups, animals or by having no one to cooperate with. These early humans therefore had much lower chances of reproducing. It therefore seems fair to conclude that being prepared to resist knowledge and facts is an evolutionary, genetic adaptation of humans to the socially challenging life in hunter-gatherer societies.
Today, we are part of many groups and internet networks, to be sure, and can in some sense “shop around” for new alliances if our old groups don’t like us. Still, humanity today shares the same binary mindset and strong drive to avoid being socially excluded as our ancestors who only knew about a few groups. The groups we are part of also help shape our identity, which can make it hard to change groups. Individuals who change groups and opinions constantly may also be less trusted, even among their new peers.
In my research, I show how this matters when it comes to dealing with fact resistance. Ultimately, we need to take social aspects into account when communicating facts and arguments with various groups. This could be through using role models, new ways of framing problems, new rules and routines in our organisations and new types of scientific narratives that resonate with the intuitions and interests of more groups than our own.
There are no quick fixes, of course. But if climate change were reframed from the liberal/leftist moral perspective of the need for global fairness to conservative perspectives of respect for the authority of the father land, the sacredness of God’s creation and the individual’s right not to have their life project jeopardised by climate change, this might resonate better with conservatives.
If we take social factors into account, this would help us create new and more powerful ways to fight belief in conspiracy theories and fake news. I hope my approach will stimulate joint efforts of moving beyond disputes disguised as controversies over facts and into conversations about what often matters more deeply to us as social beings.
For influence, engaging stakeholders is key, study shows
February 21, 2017
University of Vermont
Researchers analyzed 15 policy decisions worldwide, with outcomes ranging from new coastal preservation laws to improved species protections, to produce the first quantitative analysis of how environmental knowledge impacts the attitudes and decisions of conservation policymakers.
Environmental scholars have greater policy influence when they engage directly with stakeholders, a UVM-led study says. Credit: Natural Capital Project
Why does some research lead to changes in public policy, while other studies of equal quality do not?
That crucial question — how science impacts policy — is central to the research of University of Vermont (UVM) Prof. Taylor Ricketts and recent alum Stephen Posner.
According to their findings, the most effective way environmental scholars can boost their policy influence — from protecting wildlife to curbing pollution — is to consult widely with stakeholders during the research process.
Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting talk, The Effectiveness of Ecosystem Services Science in Decision-Making, on Feb 18., the team briefed scientists and policy experts on their 2016 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Outreach trumps findings
Surprisingly, the study finds that stakeholder engagement is a better predictor of future policy impacts than perceived scientific credibility, says Ricketts, Director of UVM’s Gund Institute and Gund Professor in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.
The study is the first quantitative analysis of how environmental knowledge impacts the attitudes and decisions of conservation policymakers. Researchers from the UVM, World Wildlife Fund and Natural Capital Project analyzed 15 policy decisions worldwide, with outcomes ranging from new coastal preservation laws to improved species protections.
One hand clapping, academic style
Stephen Posner, a Gund researcher and COMPASS policy engagement associate, characterizes policy-related research without outreach as the academic equivalent of “the sound of one hand clapping.”
“Scholars may have the best policy intentions and important research, but our results suggest that decision-makers are unlikely to listen without meaningful engagement of them and various stakeholders,” he says.
When scholars meet with constituent groups — for example, individual landowners, conservation organizations, or private businesses — it improves policymakers’ perception of scientific knowledge as unbiased and representative of multiple perspectives, the study finds.
“For decision-makers, that made research more legitmate and worthy of policy consideration,” Ricketts adds.
Ways to improve consultation
The research team suggests research institutions offer scholars more time and incentives to improve engagement. They also encourage researchers to seek greater understanding of policy decision-making in their fields, and include stakeholder outreach plans in research projects.
“For those working on policy-related questions, we hope these findings offer a reminder of the value of engaging directly with policy makers and stakeholders, ” Posner says. “This will be crucial as we enter the new political reality of the Trump administration.”
Previous research on science-policy decision-making used qualitative approaches, or focused on a small number of case studies.
The study is called “Policy impacts of ecosystem services knowledge” by Stephen Posner, Emily McKenzie, and Taylor H. Ricketts.
Co-author Emily McKenzie hails from WWF and the Natural Capital Project.
The study used a global sample of regional case studies from the Natural Capital Project, in which researchers used the standardized scientific tool InVest to explore environmental planning and policy outcomes.
Data included surveys of decision-makers and expert review of 15 cases with different levels of policy impact. The forms of engagement studied included emails, phone conversations, individual and group meetings, as well as decision-maker perceptions of the scientific knowledge.
Stephen M. Posner, Emily McKenzie, Taylor H. Ricketts. Policy impacts of ecosystem services knowledge. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2016; 113 (7): 1760 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1502452113
Researchers have coined this trend the ‘anti-enlightenment movement‘, and there’s been a lot of frustration and finger-pointing over who or what’s to blame. But a team of psychologists has identified some of the key factors that can cause people to reject science – and it has nothing to do with how educated or intelligent they are.
In fact, the researchers found that people who reject scientific consensus on topics such as climate change, vaccine safety, and evolution are generally just as interested in science and as well-educated as the rest of us.
The issue is that when it comes to facts, people think more like lawyers than scientists, which means they ‘cherry pick’ the facts and studies that back up what they already believe to be true.
So if someone doesn’t think humans are causing climate change, they will ignore the hundreds of studies that support that conclusion, but latch onto the one study they can find that casts doubt on this view. This is also known as cognitive bias.
“We find that people will take a flight from facts to protect all kinds of belief including their religious belief, their political beliefs, and even simple personal beliefs such as whether they are good at choosing a web browser,” said one of the researchers, Troy Campbell from the University of Oregon.
“People treat facts as relevant more when the facts tend to support their opinions. When the facts are against their opinions, they don’t necessarily deny the facts, but they say the facts are less relevant.”
This conclusion was based on a series of new interviews, as well as a meta-analysis of the research that’s been published on the topic, and was presented in a symposium called over the weekend as part of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology annual convention in San Antonio.
The goal was to figure out what’s going wrong with science communication in 2017, and what we can do to fix it.
The research has yet to be published, so isn’t conclusive, but the results suggest that simply focussing on the evidence and data isn’t enough to change someone’s mind about a particular topic, seeing as they’ll most likely have their own ‘facts’ to fire back at you.
Instead, the researchers recommend looking into the ‘roots’ of people’s unwillingness to accept scientific consensus, and try to find common ground to introduce new ideas.
So where is this denial of science coming from? A big part of the problem, the researchers found, is that people associate scientific conclusions with political or social affiliations.
New research conducted by Kahan showed that people have actually always cherry picked facts when it comes to science – that’s nothing new. But it hasn’t been such a big problem in the past, because scientific conclusions were usually agreed on by political and cultural leaders, and promoted as being in the public’s best interests.
“Rather than taking on people’s surface attitudes directly, tailor the message so that it aligns with their motivation,” said Hornsey. “So with climate skeptics, for example, you find out what they can agree on and then frame climate messages to align with these.”
The researchers are still gathering data for a peer-reviewed publication on their findings, but they presented their work to the scientific community for further dissemination and discussion in the meantime.
Hornsey told the LA Times that the stakes are too high to continue to ignore the ‘anti-enlightenment movement’.
“Anti-vaccination movements cost lives,” said Hornsey. “Climate change skepticism slows the global response to the greatest social, economic and ecological threat of our time.”
“We grew up in an era when it was just presumed that reason and evidence were the ways to understand important issues; not fear, vested interests, tradition or faith,” he added.
“But the rise of climate skepticism and the anti-vaccination movement made us realise that these enlightenment values are under attack.”
Scientists and science communicators are engaged in a constant battle with ignorance. But that’s an approach doomed to failure
Be quiet. It’s good for you. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA
Tuesday 23 August 2016 08.00 BST. Last modified on Tuesday 23 August 2016 11.33 BST
A video did the rounds a couple of years ago, of some self-styled “skeptic” disagreeing – robustly, shall we say – with an anti-vaxxer. The speaker was roundly cheered by everyone sharing the video – he sure put that idiot in their place!
Scientists love to argue. Cutting through bullshit and getting to the truth of the matter is pretty much the job description. So it’s not really surprising scientists and science supporters frequently take on those who dabble in homeopathy, or deny anthropogenic climate change, or who oppose vaccinations or genetically modified food.
It makes sense. You’ve got a population that is – on the whole – not scientifically literate, and you want to persuade them that they should be doing a and b (but not c) so that they/you/their children can have a better life.
And yet … it leaves me cold. Is this really what science communication is about? Is this informing, changing minds, winning people over to a better, brighter future?
I doubt it somehow.
There are a couple of things here. And I don’t think it’s as simple as people rejecting science.
First, people don’t like being told what to do. This is part of what Michael Gove was driving at when he said people had had enough of experts. We rely on doctors and nurses to make us better, and on financial planners to help us invest. We expect scientists to research new cures for disease, or simply to find out how things work. We expect the government to try to do the best for most of the people most of the time, and weather forecasters to at least tell us what today was like even if they struggle with tomorrow.
But when these experts tell us how to live our lives – or even worse, what to think – something rebels. Especially when there is even the merest whiff of controversy or uncertainty. Back in your box, we say, and stick to what you’re good at.
We saw it in the recent referendum, we saw it when Dame Sally Davies said wine makes her think of breast cancer, and we saw it back in the late 1990s when the government of the time told people – who honestly, really wanted to do the best for their children – to shut up, stop asking questions and take the damn triple vaccine.
Which brings us to the second thing.
On the whole, I don’t think people who object to vaccines or GMOs are at heart anti-science. Some are, for sure, and these are the dangerous ones. But most people simply want to know that someone is listening, that someone is taking their worries seriously; that someone cares for them.
It’s more about who we are and our relationships than about what is right or true.
This is why, when you bring data to a TV show, you run the risk of appearing supercilious and judgemental. Even – especially – if you’re actually right.
People want to feel wanted and loved. That there is someone who will listen to them. To feel part of a family.
The physicist Sabine Hossenfelder gets this. Between contracts one time, she set up a “talk to a physicist” service. Fifty dollars gets you 20 minutes with a quantum physicist … who will listen to whatever crazy idea you have, and help you understand a little more about the world.
How many science communicators do you know who will take the time to listen to their audience? Who are willing to step outside their cosy little bubble and make an effort to reach people where they are, where they are confused and hurting; where they need?
Atul Gawande says scientists should assert “the true facts of good science” and expose the “bad science tactics that are being used to mislead people”. But that’s only part of the story, and is closing the barn door too late.
Because the charlatans have already recognised the need, and have built the communities that people crave. Tellingly, Gawande refers to the ‘scientific community’; and he’s absolutely right, there. Most science communication isn’t about persuading people; it’s self-affirmation for those already on the inside. Look at us, it says, aren’t we clever? We are exclusive, we are a gang, we are family.
That’s not communication. It’s not changing minds and it’s certainly not winning hearts and minds.
James Hansen and 18 leading climate experts have published a peer-reviewed version of their 2015 discussion paper on the dangers posed by unrestricted carbon pollution. The study adds to the growing body of evidence that the current global target or defense line embraced by the world — 2°C (3.6°F) total global warming — “could be dangerous” to humanity.
That 2°C warming should be avoided at all costs is not news to people who pay attention to climate science, though it may be news to people who only follow the popular media. The warning is, after all, very similar to the one found in an embarrassingly underreported report last year from 70 leading climate experts, who had been asked by the world’s leading nations to review the adequacy of the 2°C target.
Specifically, the new Hansen et al study — titled “Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2 C global warming could be dangerous” — warns that even stabilizing at 2°C warming might well lead to devastating glacial melt, multimeter sea level rise and other related catastrophic impacts. The study is significant not just because it is peer-reviewed, but because the collective knowledge about climate science in general and glaciology in particular among the co-authors is quite impressive.
Besides sea level rise, rapid glacial ice melt has many potentially disastrous consequences, including a slowdown and eventual shutdown of the key North Atlantic Ocean circulation and, relatedly, an increase in super-extreme weather. Indeed, that slowdown appears to have begun, and, equally worrisome, it appears to be supercharging both precipitation, storm surge, and superstorms along the U.S. East Coast (like Sandy and Jonas), as explained here.
It must be noted, however, that the title of the peer-reviewed paper is decidedly weaker than the discussion paper’s “Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2°C global warming is highly dangerous.” The switch to “could be dangerous” is reminiscent of the switch (in the opposite direction) from the inaugural 1965 warning required for cigarette packages, “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health” to the 1969 required label “Warning: The Surgeon General Has Determined that Cigarette Smoking Is Dangerous to Your Health.”
And yes I’m using the analogy to suggest readers should not be sanguine about the risks we face at 2°C warning. Based on both observations and analysis, the science is clearly moving in the direction that 2°C warming is not “safe” for humanity. But as Hansen himself acknowledged Monday on the press call, the record we now have of accelerating ice loss in both Greenland and West Antarctica is “too short to infer accurately” whether the current exponential trend will continue through the rest of the century.
Hansen himself explains the paper’s key conclusions and the science underlying them in a new video:
The fact that 2°C total warming is extremely likely to lock us in to sea level rise of 10 feet or more has been obvious for a while now. The National Science Foundation (NSF) itself issued a news release back in 2012 with the large-type headline, “Global Sea Level Likely to Rise as Much as 70 Feet in Future Generations.” The lead author explained, “The natural state of the Earth with present carbon dioxide levels is one with sea levels about 70 feet higher than now.” Heck, a 2009 paper in Science found the same thing.
What has changed is our understanding of just how fast sea levels could rise. In 2014 and 2015, a number of major studies revealed that large parts of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are unstable and headed toward irreversible collapse — and some parts may have already passed the point of no return. Another 2015 study found that global sea level rise since 1990 has been speeding up even faster than we knew.
The key question is how fast sea levels can rise this century and beyond. In my piece last year on Hansen’s discussion draft, I examined the reasons the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and scientific community have historically low-balled the plausible worst-case for possible sea level rise by 2100. I won’t repeat that all here.
The crux of the Hansen et al. forecast can be found in this chart on ice loss from the world’s biggest ice sheet:
Antarctic ice mass change from GRACE satallite data (red) and surface mass balance method (MBM, blue). Via Hansen et al.
Hansen et al. ask the question: if the ice loss continues growing exponentially how much ice loss (and hence how much sea level rise) will there be by century’s end? If, for instance, the ice loss rate doubles every 10 years for the rest of the century (light green), then we would see multi-meter sea level rise before 2100? On the other hand, it is pretty clear just from looking at the chart that there isn’t enough data to make a certain projection for the next eight decades.
The authors write, “our conclusions suggest that a target of limiting global warming to 2°C … does not provide safety.” On the one hand, they note, “we cannot be certain that multi-meter sea level rise will occur if we allow global warming of 2 C.” But, on the other hand, they point out:
There is a possibility, a real danger, that we will hand young people and future generations a climate system that is practically out of their control.
We conclude that the message our climate science delivers to society, policymakers, and the public alike is this: we have a global emergency. Fossil fuel CO2 emissions should be reduced as rapidly as practical.
I have talked to many climate scientists who quibble with specific elements of this paper, in particular whether the kind of continued acceleration of ice sheet loss is physically plausible. But I don’t find any who disagree with the bold-faced conclusions.
Since there are a growing number of experts who consider that 10 feet of sea level rise this century is a possibility, it would be unwise to ignore the warning. That said, on our current emissions path we already appear to be headed toward the ballpark of four to six feet of sea level rise in 2100 — with seas rising up to one foot per decade after that. That should be more than enough of a “beyond adaptation” catastrophe to warrant strong action ASAP.
The world needs to understand the plausible worst-case scenario for climate change by 2100 and beyond — something that the media and the IPCC have failed to deliver. And the world needs to understand the “business as usual” set of multiple catastrophic dangers of 4°C if we don’t reverse course now. And the world needs to understand the dangers of even 2°C warming.
So kudos to all of these scientists for ringing the alarm bell: James Hansen, Makiko Sato, Paul Hearty, Reto Ruedy, Maxwell Kelley, Valerie Masson-Delmotte, Gary Russell, George Tselioudis, Junji Cao, Eric Rignot, Isabella Velicogna, Blair Tormey, Bailey Donovan, Evgeniya Kandiano, Karina von Schuckmann, Pushker Kharecha, Allegra N. Legrande, Michael Bauer, and Kwok-Wai Lo.
O australiano John Cook, editor do site Skeptical Science, fala durante encontro do IPCC em Oslo. Foto: Claudio Angelo/OC
IPCC faz sua primeira reunião sobre comunicação disposto a mudar a cultura do segredo e a linguagem arcana de seus relatórios – mas esbarra numa estrutura de governança conservadora.
Por Claudio Angelo, do OC, em Oslo –
Luís Bernardo Valença, protagonista do romance Equador, do português Miguel de Souza Tavares, recebe do rei de Portugal uma missão virtualmente impossível: assumir o governo de São Tomé e Príncipe para convencer os compradores ingleses de cacau de que não existe trabalho escravo nas ilhas – e, ao mesmo tempo, garantir que o sistema de trabalho escravo não mude, de forma a não prejudicar a economia local.
A história guarda uma analogia com o momento pelo qual passa o IPCC, o painel do clima da ONU, que na semana passada realizou em Oslo, na Noruega, a primeira reunião de sua história dedicada à comunicação. O comitê internacional de cientistas, agraciado com o Prêmio Nobel da Paz em 2007, reconhece que a forma como se comunica com seus diversos públicos precisa mudar: os sumários de seus relatórios de avaliação são indecifráveis para leigos e para os próprios formuladores de políticas públicas a quem supostamente se dedicam; as decisões são tomadas em reuniões fechadas, o que alimenta rumores de que o painel é ora uma conspiração de ambientalistas para distorcer a ciência, ora uma vítima de ações de governos para aguar conclusões impactantes sobre a gravidade das mudanças do clima; a maneira como a incerteza e o risco são expressos pelo painel é bizantina.
A vontade de abrir-se mais ao público, porém, esbarra no conservadorismo do próprio painel, que preserva um modo de operação da década de 1990, quando lançou seu primeiro relatório de avaliação). Os métodos, as regras e os rituais do IPCC precisam permanecer os mesmos – e seus líderes parecem não querer abrir mão disso. Ao mesmo tempo, eles mesmos pedem mais transparência e mais acessibilidade. Qual é a chance de isso dar certo?
O próprio encontro de Oslo pode ser um termômetro. Foram convidados a participar cerca de 50 especialistas em comunicação do mundo inteiro e mais duas dezenas de autoridades do próprio painel. A reunião foi a primeira em toda a história do IPCC a ser transmitida ao vivo pela internet. Mas isso que só aconteceu depois da cobrança de algumas personalidades da área, como o jornalista americano Andrew Revkin. Ela foi aberta também pela internet pelo presidente do painel, o sul-coreano Hoesung Hwang. Os co-presidentes dos três grupos de trabalho que cuidam de avaliar os três grandes aspectos da mudança do clima (a base física, impactos e vulnerabilidades e mitigação) estiveram presentes o tempo todo, assim como dois dos três vice-presidentes, a americana Ko Barrett e o malês Youba Sokona. Cientistas que coordenaram a produção do AR5, o quinto relatório do IPCC, também estiveram nos dois dias de encontro.
Um consenso importante formado em Oslo foi que a comunicação precisa integrar o processo de produção dos relatórios desde o início. O modelo atual seguido pelo IPCC consiste em preparar primeiro os relatórios e então divulgá-los aos diversos públicos – tomadores de decisão, imprensa e o público geral. É o que Paul Lussier, especialista em mídia da Universidade Yale, chamou de “passar batom num porco” durante sua apresentação.
Enfeitar o suíno, até aqui, tem sido a receita para o fiasco de comunicação do painel. Isso foi mais ou menos matematicamente demonstrado pelo cientista ambiental português Suraje Dessai, professor da Universidade de Leeds, no Reino Unido, e coautor do AR5 (Quinto Relatório de Avaliação do IPCC, publicado entre 2013 e 2014). Uma análise dos sumários do IPCC conduzida por Dessai e colegas com a ajuda de softwares que olham simplicidade e legibilidade foi publicada no ano passado no periódico Nature Climate Change. O trabalho mostrou que não apenas o IPCC é menos legível do que outras publicações científicas, como também o grau de compreensibilidade dos sumários despencou de 1990 para cá.
Uma das recomendações feitas ao final do encontro, e que serão encaminhadas à plenária do IPCC em abril, é para que se incorporem comunicadores profissionais, jornalistas de ciência, psicólogos e antropólogos desde a chamada fase de “definição do escopo” dos relatórios. Isso começaria no AR6, o Sexto Relatório de Avaliação do IPCC, que deverá ser publicado em algum momento entre 2020 e 2022. Essa própria definição, que hoje é feita pelas autoridades do painel e pelos governos, poderá vir a ser realizada numa espécie de consulta pública – na qual diferentes atores, desde a sociedade civil até empresários e mesmo crianças, digam o que querem que o painel avalie sobre a mudança climática. Tamanha abertura seria uma revolução no IPCC, rompendo a lógica professoral que impera hoje na definição das perguntas às quais os relatórios tentam responder.
Outra sugestão, apresentada por um grupo que discutiu as relações entre o IPCC e os meios de comunicação, foi para que os rascunhos dos sumários executivos sejam abertos para o público antes da aprovação final pelos governos. Cada sumário passa por uma série de rascunhos até chegar ao formato final de revisão, que é enviado aos governos para comentários. Os sumários são aprovados por governos e cientistas na plenária do IPCC, onde recebem alterações finais. A regra é que os governos modifiquem muito o texto, mas – e este é um “mas” importante, porque é o que define a credibilidade do IPCC – a palavra final é sempre dos cientistas.
Os rascunhos hoje não são públicos, mas qualquer pessoa pode solicitar ao IPCC fazer parte do comitê de revisores – e ganham, assim, acesso aos documentos. Em 2013, um negacionista do clima vazou em seu blog uma versão do AR5, alegando que o painel estava escondendo evidências de que o aquecimento global se devia a raios cósmicos (não estava). A proposta apresentada em Oslo foi para que os rascunhos de revisão fossem tornados públicos, de forma a minimizar o impacto de vazamentos e a conter desinformação na imprensa.
Outras recomendações feitas em Oslo vão de dar ao site do IPCC uma nova interface pública até produzir infográficos animados da ciência avaliada pelos relatórios.
Na prática, porém, a teoria é outra: um dos dogmas do IPCC é que ele não pode produzir prescrições políticas, ou seja, precisa se limitar a dizer aos países o que acontece com o mundo em cada cenário de emissões e o que é preciso fazer para atingir níveis de emissão x, y ou z no futuro. A rigor, o painel do clima não pode incitar as pessoas a combater a mudança climática – isso seria uma posição de militância. Pior, entre os mais de 150 governos que integram o IPCC e de fato mandam nele (daí a sigla significar Painel Intergovernamental sobre Mudanças Climáticas) há os que não querem resolver o problema, porque vivem da sua causa – os combustíveis fósseis. Essas são amarras importantes à comunicação.
Outro problema é que o IPCC ainda vive no século XX, num sentido bem real. Enquanto a comunicação hoje é digital, o painel do clima decidiu, por consenso, que seus relatórios são aprovados linha por linha pelos governos – e isso significa caneta e papel. Não há nem sequer método para submeter um infográfico animado à plenária, caso alguém ache que é o caso usar esse tipo de recurso no AR6. Sugestões de ter uma equipe de vídeo acompanhando o “making of” dos relatórios foram rejeitadas no passado, porque algumas pessoas no painel não queriam que ninguém ficasse “espionando” seu trabalho. E por aí vai.
O IPCC foi criado em 1988, mas só ganhou uma estratégia de comunicação em 2012. Tem um longo aprendizado pela frente e precisa começar de algum lugar. Pessoas com quem conversei em Oslo disseram duvidar que a maior parte das recomendações seja acatada. Mas é auspicioso, num momento em que o mundo se prepara para implementar o Acordo de Paris, que o templo do conhecimento climático esteja disposto a embarcar na tarefa da comunicação. Ela é mais necessária do que nunca agora. (Observatório do Clima/ #Envolverde)
Segundo Fritz, a ciência climática não chegou a um nível tão preciso para ter uma previsão confiável
“Nós não queremos ser Deus, apenas tentamos antecipar o que pode acontecer”. Nascido em Natal, no Rio Grande do Norte, Raul Fritz, de 53 anos, é supervisor da unidade de Tempo e Clima da Fundação Cearense de Meteorologia e Recursos Hídricos (Funceme). Ele, que afirmou não querer tomar o lugar de Deus nas decisões sobre o clima, começou a trabalhar para a Funceme em 1988, ainda como estagiário, pouco após uma estiagem que se prolongou por cinco anos no Estado, entre 1979 e 1983.
Os anos de prática e a especialização em meteorologia por satélite conferem a Fritz a credibilidade necessária para, por meio de mapas, equações numéricas e o comportamento da natureza, estimar se chove ou não no semiárido cearense. Ele compôs, portanto, a equipe de meteorologistas da Fundação que, na última quarta-feira, 20, previu 65% de chances de chuvas abaixo da média entre os meses de fevereiro e abril deste ano prognóstico que, se concretizado, fará o Ceará completar cinco anos de seca.
Em entrevista ao O POVO, ele detalha o parecer, define o sistema climático cearense e comenta sobre a conflituosa relação entre a Funceme e a população, que sustenta o hábito de desconfiar de todas as previsões do órgão, principalmente porque, um dia após a divulgação do prognóstico, o Estado foi tomado de susto por uma intensa chuvarada.
O POVO – Mesmo com o prognóstico desanimador de 65% de chances de chuvas abaixo da média entre os meses de fevereiro e abril, o cearense tem renovado a fé num “bom inverno” devido às recentes precipitações influenciadas pelo Vórtice Ciclônico de Altos Níveis (VCAN). Há a possibilidade de esse fenômeno perdurar?
Raul Fritz – Sim. Esse sistema que está atuando agora apresenta maior intensidade em janeiro. Ele pode perdurar até meados de fevereiro, principalmente pelas circunstâncias meteorológicas atmosféricas que a gente vê no momento.
OP – Por que o VCAN não tem relação com a quadra chuvosa?
Raul – A quadra chuvosa é caracterizada pela atuação de um sistema muito importante para o Norte e o Nordeste, que é a Zona de Convergência Intertropical (ZCI). É o sistema que traz chuvas de forma mais regular para o Estado. O vórtice é muito irregular. Tem anos em que ele traz boas chuvas, tem anos em que praticamente não traz.
OP – O senhor consegue lembrar outra época em que o VCAN teve uma atuação importante em relação às chuvas?
Raul – Em 2004, houve muita chuva no período de janeiro. Em fevereiro também tivemos boas chuvas, mas, principalmente, em janeiro, ao ponto de encher o reservatório do Castanhão, que tinha sido recém-construído. Mas, os meses seguintes a esses dois não foram bons meses de chuva, então é possível a gente ter esse período de agora bastante chuvoso, seguido de chuvas mais escassas.
OP – O que impulsiona o quadro de estiagem
Raul – Geograficamente, existem fatores naturais que originam um estado climático de semiaridez. É uma região que tem uma irregularidade muito grande na distribuição das chuvas, tanto ao longo do território como no tempo. Chuvas, às vezes, acontecem bem num período do ano e ruim no seguinte, e se concentram no primeiro semestre, principalmente entre fevereiro e maio, que a gente chama de ‘quadra chuvosa’. Aí tem a pré-estação que, em alguns anos, se mostra boa. Aparenta ser o caso deste ano.
OP – A última seca prolongada no Ceará, que durou cinco anos, ocorreu de 1979 a 1983. Estamos, atualmente, seguindo para o mesmo quadro. O que é capaz de interromper esse ciclo?
Raul – O ciclo geralmente não ultrapassa ou tende a não ultrapassar esse período. A própria variabilidade climática natural interrompe. Poucos casos chegam a ser tão extensos. É mais frequente de dois a três anos. Mas, às vezes, podem se estender a esses dois exemplos, de cinco anos seguidos de chuvas abaixo da média. Podemos ter, também, alguma influência do aquecimento global, que, possivelmente, perturba as condições naturais. Fenômenos como El Niños intensos contribuem. Quando eles chegam e se instalam no Oceano Pacífico, tendem a ampliar esse quadro grave de seca, como é o caso de agora. Esse El Niño que está atuando no momento é equivalente ao de 1997 e 1998, que provocou uma grande seca.
OP – É uma tendência esse panorama de grandes secas intercaladas?
Raul – Sim, e é mais frequente a gente ter anos com chuvas entre normal e abaixo da média, do que anos acima da média.
OP – A sabedoria popular, na voz dos profetas da chuva, aposta em precipitações regulares este ano. Em que ponto ela converge com o conhecimento científico?
Raul – O profeta da chuva percebe, pela análise da natureza, que os seres vivos estão reagindo às condições de tempo e, a partir disso, elabora uma previsão de longo prazo, que é climática. Mas, essa previsão climática pode não corresponder exatamente a um prolongamento daquela variação que ocorreu naquele momento em que ele fez a avaliação. Se acontecer, ele acha que acertou a previsão de clima. Se não, ele considera que errou. Mas, pode coincidir que essa variação a curto prazo se repita e se transforme em longo prazo. Aí é o ponto em que converge. A Funceme tenta antecipar o que pode acontecer num prazo maior, envolvendo três meses a frente. É um exercício muito difícil.
OP – Geralmente, há uma descrença da população em torno das previsões da Funceme. Como desmistificar isso?
Raul – A previsão oferece probabilidades e qualquer uma delas pode acontecer, mas, a gente indica a mais provável. São três que nós lançamos. Acontece que a população não consegue entender essa informação, que é padrão internacional de divulgação. Acha que é uma coisa determinística. Que, se a Funceme previu como maior probabilidade termos chuvas abaixo da média em certo período, acha que já previu seca. Mas, a mais provável é essa mesmo, até para alertar às pessoas com atividades que dependem das chuvas e ao próprio Governo a tomarem precauções, se prevenirem e não só reagirem a uma seca já instalada.
OP – A Funceme, então, também se surpreende com as ocorrências de menor probabilidade, como o VCAN?
Raul – Sim, porque esses vórtices são de difícil previsibilidade. A ciência não conseguiu chegar num nível de precisão grande para ter uma previsão confiável para esse período (de pré-estação chuvosa). De qualquer forma, nos é exigido dar alguma ideia do que possa acontecer. É um risco muito grande que a Funceme assume. A gente sofre críticas por isso. Por exemplo, a gente lançou a previsão de chuvas abaixo da média, aí no outro dia vem uma chuva muito intensa. As pessoas não compreendem, acham que essas chuvas do momento vão se prolongar até o restante da temporada. Apesar da crítica da população, que chega até a pedir para fechar o órgão, a gente fica feliz com a chegada
“A gente lançou a previsão de chuvas abaixo da média, aí no outro dia vem uma chuva muito intensa. As pessoas não compreendem, acham que essas chuvas do momento vão se prolongar até o restante da temporada”
Nascido em Natal, no Rio Grande do Norte, Raul Fritz, de 53 anos, é supervisor da unidade de Tempo e Clima da Fundação Cearense de Meteorologia e Recursos Hídricos (Funceme). Ele começou a trabalhar para a Funceme em 1988, ainda como estagiário, pouco após uma estiagem que se prolongou por cinco anos no Estado, entre 1979 e 1983.
Experiências internacionais inspiram governo de São Paulo a criar cargo de cientista-chefe em secretarias estaduais
BRUNO DE PIERRO | ED. 236 | OUTUBRO 2015
Uma medida inédita no país anunciada pelo governo do estado de São Paulo pretende aproximar ciência e gestão pública. Até o início de 2016, cada secretaria estadual deverá contar com um cientista-chefe, cuja função principal será apontar as melhores soluções baseadas no conhecimento científico para enfrentar desafios da respectiva pasta. O anúncio foi feito por Márcio França, vice-governador e secretário estadual de Desenvolvimento Econômico, Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovação, na abertura do Fórum Nacional das Fundações Estaduais de Amparo à Pesquisa (Confap), realizado em 27 e 28 de agosto, na capital paulista. A iniciativa é inspirada no modelo de aconselhamento científico praticado em diferentes níveis de governo em países como Estados Unidos, Reino Unido e Israel.
A iniciativa começou a amadurecer em uma reunião do Conselho Superior da FAPESP, no dia 18 de março, da qual o vice-governador participou como convidado. Na ocasião, França mencionou a dificuldade de identificar pesquisadores com ideias para auxiliar a gestão pública. A sugestão de criar a função de cientista-chefe partiu de Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, diretor científico da Fundação. “O professor Brito citou a experiência de países europeus, entre eles o Reino Unido, que criaram o cargo de cientista-chefe em suas estruturas de governo para auxiliar ministros, primeiros-ministros ou presidentes a tomar decisões”, relata Fernando Costa, professor da Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp) e membro do Conselho Superior da FAPESP, um dos presentes à reunião.
No encontro, Brito Cruz explicou ao vice-governador que cerca de 55% dos recursos da FAPESP são investidos em pesquisas voltadas para aplicações, e Eduardo Moacyr Krieger, vice-presidente da instituição, acrescentou que quase 30% dos investimentos da Fundação são direcionados para a área da saúde e podem beneficiar diretamente ações da Secretaria da Saúde. “Outros campos, como agricultura, educação e segurança pública, também deveriam aproveitar mais a contribuição de pesquisadores”, afirma Krieger. Márcio França gostou da sugestão. “Pensei: por que não aprimorar o diálogo com a comunidade científica por meio de uma fundação como a FAPESP?”, recorda-se o vice-governador, que levou a ideia ao governador Geraldo Alckmin e recebeu sinal verde para implementá-la.
Robin Grimes, do governo britânico, em visita ao campus da Universidade de Nottingham na Malásia, em 2013 (acima, de gravata)
“Essa medida não significa que o governo de São Paulo não vem ouvindo a comunidade científica”, observa Marilza Vieira Cunha Rudge, vice-reitora da Universidade Estadual Paulista (Unesp), também membro do Conselho Superior da FAPESP. Segundo ela, o objetivo é fazer com que os conhecimentos gerados em universidades e instituições de pesquisa do estado sejam absorvidos rapidamente pela administração pública. Uma minuta do decreto está sendo redigida com assessoria da Fundação. Um dos objetivos é que os cientistas-chefes ampliem a aplicação de resultados de pesquisas, entre as quais as apoiadas pela FAPESP, sugerindo articulações com projetos em andamento e propondo novos projetos.
O governo analisa agora os detalhes da iniciativa. O primeiro passo será selecionar os cientistas-chefes que atuarão nas secretarias. Segundo França, o mais provável é que se convidem professores vinculados às três universidades estaduais paulistas – a de São Paulo (USP), a Unicamp e a Unesp – que poderiam ou não se licenciar. Também se discute qual seria o prazo mais adequado para o seu mandato. Para França, uma coisa é certa: os cientistas-chefes terão muito trabalho. “Os problemas e os desafios surgem aos montes na administração pública. Todos os dias e nas mais diversas áreas”, observa o vice-governador.
A bússola que orienta os caminhos futuros é a dos exemplos internacionais. Em setembro de 2014, o presidente dos Estados Unidos, Barack Obama, ofereceu um prêmio de US$ 20 milhões para o grupo de pesquisa que conseguir desenvolver o melhor teste de diagnóstico capaz de reconhecer rapidamente infecções causadas por bactérias resistentes a antibióticos. Segundo informações do Centro para Controle e Prevenção de Doenças (CDC), essas infecções são responsáveis pela morte anual de 23 mil norte-americanos. A ação foi motivada por uma avaliação encomendada pela Casa Branca ao Conselho de Ciência e Tecnologia (PCAST), formado por cerca de 20 especialistas, entre ganhadores de Prêmio Nobel e representantes do setor industrial. O grupo é comandado por John Holdren, professor da Universidade Harvard e conselheiro científico de Obama.
Os Estados Unidos têm tradição em aconselhamento científico. Em 1933, o presidente Franklin Roosevelt criou um comitê consultivo formado por cientistas, engenheiros e profissionais da saúde para assessorá-lo. Em 1957, o país foi o primeiro a nomear um cientista-chefe para trabalhar na Casa Branca. Logo departamentos e autarquias passaram a contar com a consultoria de especialistas. Em 1998, a então secretária de Estado, Madeleine Albright, encomendou um relatório para as Academias Nacionais de Ciências dos Estados Unidos sobre o suporte que a ciência poderia dar em assuntos relativos à política externa. A recomendação foi que ela escolhesse um assessor científico. “Minha tarefa é ajudar o governo a aproveitar os recursos da ciência e da tecnologia para embasar a política externa”, disse à Pesquisa FAPESP Vaughan Turekian, assessor científico de John Kerry, o atual secretário de Estado. Ex-diretor internacional da Associação Americana para o Avanço da Ciência (AAAS), Turekian conta que foi submetido a um rigoroso processo de análise de suas credenciais científicas. “O assessor é nomeado por um período determinado. Isso é intencional. Convém lembrar que o cargo não é uma indicação política”, esclarece.
Outra referência é o Reino Unido, que criou o cargo em 1964. A função de cientista-chefe é desempenhada hoje pelo imunologista Mark Walport, ex-diretor do Wellcome Trust, fundação que financia pesquisa biomédica. Desde 2013, Walport assessora o premiê David Cameron. Um dos primeiros temas tratados por Walport no governo foi o da experimentação animal. Em 2014, após estatísticas mostrarem que o número de animais utilizados em testes pré-clínicos aumentou nos últimos anos no Reino Unido, o governo anunciou medidas para reduzir ou substituir seu uso. Walport atuou como ponte entre o governo e a comunidade científica. Reconheceu a necessidade de mudanças, mas salientou que a abolição de animais em estudos científicos ainda é inviável.
Walport também preside o Conselho de Ciência e Tecnologia (CST), ligado ao Departamento de Negócios, Inovação e Capacitação do Reino Unido. O órgão dispõe de uma divisão de especialistas que forma o Grupo de Aconselhamento Científico para Emergências (Sage). A equipe foi acionada em 2010, quando cinzas de um vulcão na Islândia afetaram o espaço aéreo do Reino Unido, e em 2011, após o incidente nuclear de Fukushima, no Japão.
O Reino Unido conta com cientistas-chefes em departamentos e ministérios. “Há uma rede de conselheiros científicos dentro do governo. Isso aproximou ainda mais os diferentes ministérios. O professor Walport organiza uma reunião semanal com os conselheiros, que discutem juntos as prioridades de cada área”, disse à Pesquisa FAPESP Robin Grimes, conselheiro-chefe para assuntos científicos do Ministério das Relações Exteriores do Reino Unido. “Acredito que São Paulo conseguirá se articular melhor com a ciência ao adotar essa medida, além de obter acesso a conceituadas redes de pesquisadores no Brasil e no mundo”, afirmou Grimes.
Para James Wilsdon, especialista em política científica da Universidade de Sussex, Inglaterra, esses exemplos ajudaram outros países a criar modelos de aconselhamento científico adaptados a suas realidades. “Há uma grande variedade de temas que demandam o olhar da ciência, como mudanças climáticas, pandemias, segurança alimentar e pobreza”, explica Wilsdon em um relatório apresentado na conferência da Rede Internacional para Aconselhamento Científico a Governos (INGSA), realizada em agosto de 2014 em Auckland, na Nova Zelândia. A entidade reúne tomadores de decisão e pesquisadores com o objetivo de compartilhar experiências e discutir a utilização de informações científicas em governos. O documento apresenta uma avaliação dos modelos de aconselhamento adotados em 20 países. Além dos exemplos clássicos, são apresentados casos de países que criaram recentemente o cargo, como a Nova Zelândia, cujo primeiro cientista-chefe, Peter Gluckman, foi nomeado em 2009.
O estudo mostra que alguns países optaram por formas de aconselhamento não atreladas à figura de um cientista-chefe. No Japão, o Conselho de Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovação (CSTI) é um dos quatro conselhos que auxiliam o gabinete do primeiro-ministro. Ele é formado pelo primeiro-ministro, seis ministros de Estado e representantes da comunidade científica e do setor industrial. Já países como China, Alemanha, Holanda e África do Sul aproveitam a expertise das entidades representativas da comunidade científica. A Sociedade Alemã de Pesquisas Científicas (DFG), agência não governamental de apoio à pesquisa, é consultada pelo governo e ajuda a elaborar políticas públicas. “Fazemos declarações em comissões do
Senado e temos interação direta com o governo”, diz Dietrich Halm, diretor-presidente da DFG para a América-Latina. Segundo Wilsdon, uma das vantagens desse modelo é que os pesquisadores gozam de independência em relação ao governo.
Na região da América-Latina e Caribe, o relatório do fórum de aconselhamento científico cita os exemplos de Cuba e El Salvador. No modelo cubano, há um escritório de aconselhamento científico vinculado ao conselho de Estado, formado por 31 membros. Embora o Brasil nunca tenha contado com a figura do cientista-chefe, a administração pública no país criou mecanismos de articulação com pesquisadores. “Informalmente, o governo federal é aconselhado pela comunidade científica em vários temas”, disse Aldo Rebelo, então ministro da Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovação (MCTI). “No meu caso, mantive contato com a Academia Brasileira de Ciências (ABC), com a Sociedade Brasileira para o Progresso da Ciência (SBPC) e com sociedades científicas.” Segundo o vice-presidente da FAPESP, Eduardo Moacyr Krieger, que também foi presidente da ABC, a atuação do cientista-chefe deve complementar o trabalho que as academias de ciências desenvolvem. “As recomendações dadas pelas academias aos governos estão no plano macro. Já o cientista-chefe está no plano da implementação e do detalhamento do que deve ser feito no cotidiano da administração pública”, diz ele.
No estado de São Paulo a assessoria científica ao governo já era praticada em situações específicas, mesmo sem a presença de cientistas-chefes. É o caso da interlocução entre especialistas ligados ao Programa Biota-FAPESP e a Secretaria Estadual do Meio Ambiente. Desde o lançamento do programa em 1999, 23 resoluções e decretos estaduais mencionam resultados do Biota como referência para a tomada de decisões. Há um canal de diálogo com gestores das unidades de conservação onde são desenvolvidos projetos. “Os pesquisadores costumam ser membros de conselhos consultivos de parques estaduais e outras áreas protegidas”, observa Carlos Joly, professor da Unicamp e coordenador do programa. Os especialistas vinculados ao Biota também trabalham em parceria com instituições ligadas à secretaria, como o Instituto de Botânica, o Instituto Florestal e a Fundação Florestal. E o próprio gabinete da secretária do Meio Ambiente, Patricia Faga Iglecias Lemos, acompanha a produção científica do programa.
Outra experiência é a do Conselho Estadual de Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovação em Saúde, criado em 2014 para assessorar a Secretaria da Saúde na formulação e condução de políticas. O órgão é composto por representantes de universidades públicas instaladas em São Paulo, institutos, centros de pesquisa, hospitais e entidades ligadas ao setor industrial. “Atualmente, o conselho discute a proposta de criação de uma política estadual de ciência, tecnologia e inovação em saúde”, explica Sergio Swain Muller, presidente do conselho. “Já realizamos oficinas, ouvimos a contribuição das universidades e estamos preparando um documento com diagnósticos e ações para a consolidação desse plano.” Cabe também ao conselho auxiliar na definição de prioridades para o próximo edital do Programa de Pesquisa para o Sistema Único de Saúde (PPSUS), conduzido pela FAPESP em parceria com a Secretaria da Saúde, o Ministério da Saúde e o CNPq. “Uma das prioridades é apoiar pesquisas sobre novos mecanismos de gestão pública da saúde”, diz Muller. Já no âmbito da Secretaria Estadual de Agricultura e Abastecimento foi criada em 2002 a Agência Paulista de Tecnologia dos Agronegócios (Apta), que atua na coordenação de pesquisas de interesse da pasta. Sua estrutura compreende os institutos Agronômico (IAC), Biológico, de Economia Agrícola, de Pesca, de Tecnologia de Alimentos e o de Zootecnia, além de 15 polos regionais de pesquisa.
“Prospectamos estudos capazes de resolver problemas enfrentados por agricultores e os encaminhamos para a secretaria”, diz Orlando Melo de Castro, coordenador da Apta. Um dos desafios da secretaria cuja solução vem sendo debatida entre os institutos abrigados pela agência é tornar a cana-de-açúcar mais resistente à seca. “O IAC foi procurado, porque já trabalha nesse assunto, inclusive em parceria com usinas localizadas em Goiás, onde há um período de seca prolongado. A ideia é aproveitar essas pesquisas em programas da secretaria”, explica Castro.
Para o sociólogo Simon Schwartzman, estudioso da comunidade científica brasileira e pesquisador do Instituto de Estudos do Trabalho e Sociedade, o país não tem tradição no uso da ciência por gestores públicos. “Claro, há exceções”, pondera. “O Ministério da Saúde conta com um centro de pesquisas próprio, o Instituto Oswaldo Cruz, assim como acontece com o Ministério da Agricultura, que tem a ajuda da Embrapa.” Carlos Joly recorda-se que a comunidade científica costumava impor barreiras na hora de se sentar à mesa com políticos. “Colaborei como assessor de meio ambiente na elaboração da Constituição Federal de 1988. Na época, fui criticado por colegas, que pensavam que cientista não deveria se envolver com assuntos da política”, conta. Em 1995, Joly foi convidado pelo então secretário de Meio Ambiente do estado de São Paulo, Fábio Feldmann, a trabalhar como seu assessor. “Naquele momento isso já não foi visto como algo incomum. Aos poucos os pesquisadores se deram conta da importância de trabalhar em colaboração com gestores públicos”, afirma Joly.
O climatologista Carlos Nobre, presidente da Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (Capes), guarda na memória histórias da relação tensa entre políticos e cientistas. Em 1998, Nobre e sua equipe do Centro de Previsão de Tempo e Estudos Climáticos (CPTEC) encaminharam ao governo federal e ao Congresso um parecer prevendo uma seca de grande intensidade no Nordeste nos meses seguintes, em decorrência do El Niño. “Ninguém nos ouviu”, lembra Nobre. “Acho que não acreditavam, na época, que fosse possível fazer previsão de secas de qualidade com base em modelos matemáticos.”
O vice-governador Márcio França reconhece que há pontos de tensão quando políticos e cientistas se encontram. “A questão é que nem sempre o consenso científico é financeira e politicamente viável naquele momento”, diz ele. Para Carlos Nobre, que já ocupou cargos de gestão de política científica no MCTI e integra o corpo de especialistas do fórum global de aconselhamento científico, ainda assim a situação é melhor hoje. “Ambos os lados perceberam que a solução de problemas como secas e desastres naturais dependem de ações conjuntas”, afirma.
Autora do livro The fifth branch: science advisers as policymakers e de artigos que abordam a relação entre ciência, democracia e política, a norte-americana Sheila Jasanoff, da Universidade Harvard, adverte que o aconselhamento científico a governos exige muitos julgamentos. “Requer a tomada de decisões sobre, por exemplo, se é melhor correr um risco ou se precaver. É preciso saber como pesar as diversas evidências”, explica. Segundo ela, o aconselhamento pode de fato auxiliar os gestores. “Mas os órgãos científicos consultivos precisam operar de forma aberta e transparente. Isso é exigido por lei nos Estados Unidos”, explica. Em 2010, o governo britânico divulgou um documento no qual recomenda que os níveis de incerteza presentes em torno de questões científicas sejam explicitamente identificados nos pareceres enviados a gestores públicos, comunicados em linguagem simples e direta.
Posted: 02/05/2015 8:48 pm EST Updated: 02/05/2015 8:59 pm EST
How stakeholders communicate about climate change has long been framed by who’s doing the framing as much, or more so, than the information being communicated. So I am forever curious how various stakeholders — believers, skeptics and deniers alike — are talking about it and who, if anybody, is “moving the needle” in either direction.
Marshall’s work deserves to be spotlighted for how it illuminates why skeptics and deniers alike will not be moved to engage in thoughtful exchanges unless those communicating respect certain tenets of what academic and nonprofit research are finding.
George Marshall is the co-founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network, a nonprofit organization that specializes in public communication around climate change.
Marshall also taps into the works of authorities who’ve written and/or spoken extensively about climate change, such as Harvard Professor of Psychology Daniel Gilbert, GOP pollster Frank Luntz, Princeton Psychology and Public Affairs Professor Daniel Kahneman, former South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis, Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Oregon Kari Norgaard and ABC-TV network correspondent Bill Blakemore.
Perhaps it would behoove those preparing for the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties, aka COP21, in Paris November 30 – December 11, 2015 to heed much of what Marshall and other top-tier researchers are finding and sharing if they are serious about forging a legally binding and universal agreement on climate.
Here is my synthesis of the most illuminating take-a-ways from Marshall’s book. I offer it as a checklist with which to gauge climate communications efforts, regardless of which — if any — side of the issue you’re on. Be sure to share your thoughts.
Perceptions are shaped by individual psychological coping mechanisms and the collective narratives that they shape with the people around them.
A compelling emotional story that speaks to peoples’ core values has more impact than rational scientific data such as hotter global temperatures and rising sea levels.
People’s social identity has an extraordinary hold over their behaviors and views.
Drawing too much attention to an undesirable norm (e.g. catastrophic weather) can seriously backfire.
In high-carbon societies, EVERYone has a strong reason to ignore the problem or to write their own alibi. What might work better are narratives based on cooperation, mutual interests and a common humanity.
The real story is about our fear, denial and struggle to accept our own responsibility. “Climate change isn’t the elephant in the room; it’s the elephant we’re all inside of,” said ABC’s Bill Blakemore.
Our brains are UNsuited to deal with climate change unless the threats are personal, abrupt, immoral and immediate. A distant, abstract and disputed threat does not have the necessary characteristics for seriously mobilizing public opinion.
Without a clear deadline for action, we create our own timeline. We do so in ways that remove the compulsion to act. We make it just current enough to accept that something needs to be done but put it just too far into the future to require immediate action.
We’d all benefit the most from: what models for communicating about climate change are working, and which ones are not?
The messenger is more important than the message. The messenger can be the most important — but also the weakest link — between scientific information and personal conviction. Building on that, to break the partisan “deadlock” and public disinterest starts, Marshall asserts educational efforts need to create the means for new messengers to be heard.
There may be lessons learned from the campaign by oil giant BP in the early 2000s offering person-on-the-street testimonials about the need to deal with climate change. Full disclosure: While a Senior Vice President of Public Affairs with Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide from 2001-2006, I helped develop and execute elements of BP’s “Beyond Petroleum” campaign.
Until the economy is back on a strong growth track, climate change advocates will struggle to earn attention in their home countries as long as bread-and-butter ‘pocketbook’ issues are more important to an overwhelming majority of citizens.
While we’re on the subject, I recommend reading the excellent work by the MacArthur Foundation’s “Connecting on Climate” guide completed in 2014. It includes 10 principles for effective climate change communication based on research from various social science fields.
People who reject the findings of climate science are dismissed as “deniers” and “disinformers.” Those who accept the science are attacked as “alarmists” or “warmistas. ” The latter term, evoking the Sandinista revolutionaries of Nicaragua, is perhaps meant to suggest that the science is part of some socialist plot.
In the long-running political battles over climate change, the fight about what to call the various factions has been going on for a long time. Recently, though, the issue has taken a new turn, with a public appeal that has garnered 22,000 signatures and counting.
The petition asks the news media to abandon the most frequently used term for people who question climate science, “skeptic,” and call them “climate deniers” instead.
Climate scientists are among the most vocal critics of using the term “climate skeptic” to describe people who flatly reject their findings. They point out that skepticism is the very foundation of the scientific method. The modern consensus about the risks of climate change, they say, is based on evidence that has piled up over the course of decades and has been subjected to critical scrutiny every step of the way.
Drop into any climate science convention, in fact, and you will hear vigorous debate about the details of the latest studies. While they may disagree over the fine points, those same researchers are virtually unanimous in warning that society is running extraordinary risks by continuing to pump huge quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
In other words, the climate scientists see themselves as the true skeptics, having arrived at a durable consensus about emissions simply because the evidence of risk has become overwhelming. And in this view, people who reject the evidence are phony skeptics, arguing their case by cherry-picking studies, manipulating data, and refusing to weigh the evidence as a whole.
The petition asking the media to drop the “climate skeptic” label began withMark B. Boslough, a physicist in New Mexico who grew increasingly annoyed by the term over several years. The phrase is wrong, he said, because “these people do not embrace the scientific method.”
Dr. Boslough is active in a group called the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, which has long battled pseudoscience in all its forms. Late last year, he wrote a public letter on the issue, and dozens of scientists and science advocates associated with the committee quickly signed it. They include Bill Nye, of “Science Guy” fame, and Lawrence M. Krauss, the physicist and best-selling author.
A climate advocacy organization, Forecast the Facts, picked up on the letter and turned it into a petition. Once the signatures reach 25,000, the group intends to present a formal request to major news organizations to alter their terminology.
All of which raises an obvious question: If not “skeptic,” what should the opponents of climate science be called?
As a first step, it helps to understand why they so vigorously denounce the science. The opposition is coming from a certain faction of the political right. Many of these conservatives understand that since greenhouse emissions are caused by virtually every economic activity of modern society, they are likely to be reduced only by extensive government intervention in the market.
So casting doubt on the science is a way to ward off such regulation. This movement is mainly rooted in ideology, but much of the money to disseminate its writings comes from companies that profit from fossil fuels.
Despite their shared goal of opposing regulation, however, these opponents of climate science are not all of one mind in other respects, and thus no single term really fits them all.
Some make scientifically ludicrous claims, such as denying that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas or rejecting the idea that humans are responsible for its increase in the atmosphere. Others deny that Earth is actually warming, despite overwhelming evidence that it is, including the rapid melting of billions of tons of land ice all over the planet.
Yet the critics of established climate science also include a handful of people with credentials in atmospheric physics, and track records of publishing in the field. They acknowledge the heat-trapping powers of greenhouse gases, and they distance themselves from people who deny such basic points.
“For God’s sake, I can’t be lumped in with that crowd,” said Patrick J. Michaels, a former University of Virginia scientist employed by the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington.
Contrarian scientists like Dr. Michaels tend to argue that the warming will be limited, or will occur so gradually that people will cope with it successfully, or that technology will come along to save the day – or all of the above.
The contrarian scientists like to present these upbeat scenarios as the only plausible outcomes from runaway emissions growth. Mainstream scientists see them as being the low end of a range of possible outcomes that includes an alarming high end, and they say the only way to reduce the risks is to reduce emissions.
The dissenting scientists have been called “lukewarmers” by some, for their view that Earth will warm only a little. That is a term Dr. Michaels embraces. “I think it’s wonderful!” he said. He is working on a book, “The Lukewarmers’ Manifesto.”
When they publish in scientific journals, presenting data and arguments to support their views, these contrarians are practicing science, and perhaps the “skeptic” label is applicable. But not all of them are eager to embrace it.
“As far as I can tell, skepticism involves doubts about a plausible proposition,” another of these scientists, Richard S. Lindzen, told an audience a few years ago. “I think current global warming alarm does not represent a plausible proposition.”
Papers by Dr. Lindzen and others disputing the risks of global warming have fared poorly in the scientific literature, with mainstream scientists pointing out what they see as fatal errors. Nonetheless, these contrarian scientists testify before Congress and make statements inconsistent with the vast bulk of the scientific evidence, claiming near certainty that society is not running any risk worth worrying about.
It is perhaps no surprise that many environmentalists have started to call them deniers.
The scientific dissenters object to that word, claiming it is a deliberate attempt to link them to Holocaust denial. Some academics sharply dispute having any such intention, but others have started using the slightly softer word “denialist” to make the same point without stirring complaints about evoking the Holocaust.
Scientific denialism has crept into other aspects of modern life, of course, manifesting itself as creationism, anti-vaccine ideology and the opposition to genetically modified crops, among other doctrines.
To groups holding such views, “evidence just doesn’t matter any more,” said Riley E. Dunlap, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University. “It becomes possible to create an alternate reality.”
But Dr. Dunlap pointed out that the stakes with most of these issues are not as high as with climate-change denial, for the simple reason that the fate of the planet may hang in the balance.
A proposta de formalização de uma nova época da Terra levanta questões sobre utilidade, responsabilidade e formas alternativas de narrar a história do mundo em que vivemos
Por Daniela Klebis
Os impactos das ações humanas sobre o planeta nos últimos 200 anos têm sido tão profundos que podem justificar a definição de nova época para a Terra, o Antropoceno. No último dia 17 de outubro, a Comissão Internacional sobre Estratigrafia (ICS, na sigla inglês), reuniu-se em Berlim para dar continuidade às discussões sobre a formalização dessa nova época terrena, cuja decisão final será votada somente em 2016. A despeito dos processos burocráticos, o termo já foi informalmente assimilado por filósofos, arqueólogos, historiadores, ambientalistas e cientistas do clima e, nesse meio, o debate segue, para além da reunião de evidências físicas, no sentido de compreender sua utilidade: estamos prontos para assumir a época dos humanos?
A história da Terra se divide em escalas de tempo geológicas, que são definidas pela ICS, com sede em Paris, na França. Essas escalas de tempo começam com grandes espaços de tempos chamados éons, que se dividem em eras (como a Mezozóica), e então em períodos (Jurássico, Neogeno), épocas e por fim, em idades. Quem acenou pela primeira vez a necessidade de definir uma nova época, baseada nos impactos indeléveis das ações humanas sobre a paisagem terrestre foi o químico atmosférico Paul J. Crutzen, prêmio Nobel de química em 1995. Cutzen sugeriu o termo Antropoceno durante o encontro do Programa Internacional de Geofera e Biosfera (IGBP, na sigla em inglês), no México, em 2000. O evento tinha por objetivo discutir os problemas do Holoceno, a época em que nos encontramos há cerca de 11700 anos,desde o fim da era glacial.
A hipótese sustentada pelos defensores da nova denominação baseia-se nas observações sobre as mudanças iniciadas pelo homem sobre o ambiente desde 1800, cujas evidências geológicas possuem impacto a longo prazo na história da Terra. E quais são as evidências que podem justificar a adoção do termo Antropoceno? “O que nós humanos mais fizemos nesses dois séculos foi criar coisas que não existiram pelos 4,5 bilhões de anos da história da Terra”, denuncia o geólogo Jan Zalasiewicz, presidente do grupo de trabalho sobre o Antropoceno da ICS, em colóquio em Sidney, na Autrália, em março deste ano.
Minerais sintéticos, fibras de carbono, plásticos, concreto, são alguns exemplos de novos elementos criados pelo homem. O concreto, um material produzido pela mistura de cimento, areia, pedra e água, vem se espalhando na superfície de nosso planeta a uma velocidade de 2 bilhões de quilômetros por ano, conforme aponta o geólogo. Abaixo da superfície, escavações em busca de minérios e petróleo já abriram mais de 50 milhões de quilômetros em buracos subterrâneos.
Além das mudanças físicas, a emissão exagerada de dióxido de carbono e outros gases de efeito estufa, resultantes da ação humana, provocam mudanças químicas na atmosfera, como aquecimento global, descongelamento de calotas polares e acifidificação dos oceanos. A biosfera é também analisada, já que mudanças resultantes da perda de habitats, atividades predatórias e invasão de especies também provocam mudanças na composição química e física dos ambientes.
As evidências do impacto da ação humana,que vêm sendo consistentemente apontadas em estudos climáticos, foram reforçadas pelo 5º. Relatório do Painel Intercontinental de Mudanças Climáticas (IPCC), publicado no início do ano, com um consenso de 97% dos cientistas. Mais recentemente, no dia 30 de setembro, um relatório publicado no publicado pela WWF (World Wildlife Fund, em inglês), em parceria com a Sociedade Zoológica de Londres, apontou ainda que, nos últimos 40 anos, 52% da população de animais vertebrados na Terra desapareceu. Ao mesmo tempo, os seres humanos dobraram em quantidade. “Estamos empurrando a biosfera para a sua 6ª. extinção em massa”, alerta Hans-Otto Pörtner, do Instituto Alfred Wegener de Pesquisa Marinha e Polar, em Bremerhaven, Alemanha, e co-autor do capítulo sobre ecossistema do relatório do IPCC publicado nesse ano. Pörtner refere-se às cinco grandes extinções em massa registradas nos últimos 540 milhões de anos, caracterizadas por palentólogos como períodos em que mais de 75% das espécies foram extintas do planeta em um curto intervalo geológico.
“Há 200 anos, a coisas começaram a mudar o suficiente para visivelmente impactar o planeta: a população cresceu, assim como as emissões de CO2”, destaca Zalasiwicz. Segundo ele, o uso de energia cresceu 90 vezes entre 1800 e 2010, e já queimamos cerca de 200 milhões de anos de fósseis, entre carvão, óleo e gás. “Os humanos correspondem a 1/3 de todos os vertebrados da terra. Mas a dominação sem precedentes sobre todos os outros seres vivos, faz dessa a er a humana”, conclui.
Eileen Crist pesquisadora do Departamento de Ciências e Tecnologia na Sociedade, no Virginia Tech, no EUA, desafia a escolha do termo, defendendo que o discurso do Antropoceno deixa de questionar a soberania humana para propor, ao contrário, abordagens tecnológicas que poderiam tornar o domínio humano sustentável. “Ao afirmar a centralidade do homem – tanto como uma força causal quanto como objeto de preocupação – o Antropoceno encolhe o espaço discursivo para desafiar a dominação da biosfera, oferecendo, ao invés disso, um campo técnico-científico para a sua racionalização e um apelo pragmático para nos resignarmos à sua atualidade”, argumenta a pesquidadora em um artigo publicado em 2013.
O Antropoceno, dessa forma, entrelaça uma série de temas na formatação de seu discurso, como, por exemplo, o aumento acelerado da população que chegará a superar os 10 bilhões de habitantes; o crescimento econômico e a cultura de consumo enquanto modelo social dominante; a tecnologia como destino inescapável e, ao mesmo tempo, salvação da vida humana na Terra; e, ainda, o pressuposto de que o impacto humano é natural e contingente da nossa condição de seres providos de inteligência superior. Crist aponta que esse discurso mascara a opção de racionalizar o regime totalitátio do humano no planeta. “Como discurso coeso, ele bloqueia formas alternativas de vida humana na Terra”, indica.
Donna Haraway, professora emérita da Universidade da Califórina em Santa Cruz, EUA, comentou, em participação no Colóquio Os Mil Nomes de Gaia, em setembro, que essa discussão é um dos “modos de buscar palavras que soam muito grandes, porém, não são grandes o suficiente para compreender a continuidade e a precariedade de viver e morrer nessa Terra”. Haraway é também umas das críticas do termo Antropoceno. Segundo ela, o Antropoceno implica um homem individual, que se desenvolve, e desenvolve uma nova paisagem de mundo, estranho a todas as outras formas de vida: uma percepção equivocada de um ser que seria capaz existir sem se relacionar com o resto do planeta. “Devemos compreender que para ser um, devemos ser muitos. Nos tornamos com outros seres”, comenta.
Para Haraway, épreciso, problematizar essa percepção, e endereçar a responsabilidade pelas mudanças, que está justamente no sistema capitalista que criamos. Este sim tem impulsionado a exploração, pelos homens, da Terra: “A história inteira poderia ser Capitaloceno, e não Antropoceno”, diz. Tal percepção, de acordo com a filósofa, pemite-nos resistir ao senso inescapabilidade presente nesse discurso, como Crist mencionou acima. “Estamos cercados pelo perigo de assumir que tudo está acabado, que nada pode acontecer”, diz.
Haraway aponta, entretanto, que é necessário evocar um senso de continuidade (ongoingness,em inglês),a partir de outras possibilidades narrativas e de pensamento.Uma delas, seria o Cthulhuceno, criado pela filósofa. A expressão vem de um conto de H.P.Lovecraft, O chamado de Cthulhu, que fala sobre humanos que têm suas mentes deterioradas quando, em rituais ao deus Cthulhu – uma mistura de homem, dragão e polvo que vive adormecido sob as águas do Pacífico Sul – conseguem vislumbrar uma realidade diferente da que conheciam. No início da história, o autor norte-americano descreve o seguinte: “A coisa mais misericordiosa do mundo, acho eu, é a incapacidade da mente humana de correlacionar tudo que ela contém”. A partir desse contexto, Donna Haraway explica que é necessário “desestabilizar mundos de pensamentos, com mundos de pensamentos”. O Cthulhuceno não é sobre adotar uma transcendência, uma ideia de vida ou morte: “trata-se de abraçar a continuidade sinuosa do mundo terreno, no seu passado, presente e futuro. Entretanto, tal continuidade implica em assumir que existe um problema muito grande e que ele precisa ser enfrentado. Devemos lamentar o que aconteceu, pois não deveria ter ocorrido. Mas não temos que continuar no mesmo caminho”, sugere.
New research explores how culture affects our conceptions of nature
EVANSTON, Ill. — Do we think of nature as something that we enjoy when we visit a national park and something we need to “preserve?” Or do we think of ourselves as a part of nature? A bird’s nest is a part of nature, but what about a house?
The answers to these questions reflect different cultural orientations. They are also reflected in our actions, our speech and in cultural artifacts.
A new Northwestern University study, in partnership with the University of Washington, the American Indian Center of Chicago and the Menominee tribe of Wisconsin, focuses on science communication and how that discipline necessarily involves language and other media-related artifacts such as illustrations. The challenge is to identify effective ways of communicating information to culturally diverse groups in a way that avoids cultural polarization, say the authors.
“We suggest that trying to present science in a culturally neutral way is like trying to paint a picture without taking a perspective,” said Douglas Medin, lead author of the study and professor of psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern.
This research builds on the broader research on cultural differences in the understanding of and engagement with science.
“We argue that science communication — for example, words, photographs and illustrations — necessarily makes use of artifacts, both physical and conceptual, and these artifacts commonly reflect the cultural orientations and assumptions of their creators,” write the authors.
“These cultural artifacts both reflect and reinforce ways of seeing the world and are correlated with cultural differences in ways of thinking about nature. Therefore, science communication must pay attention to culture and the corresponding different ways of looking at the world.”
Medin said their previous work reveals that Native Americans traditionally see themselves as a part of nature and tend to focus on ecological relationships. In contrast, European-Americans tend to see humans as apart from nature and focus more on taxonomic relationships.
“We show that these cultural differences are also reflected in media, such as children’s picture books,” said Medin, who co-authored the study with Megan Bang of the University of Washington. “Books authored and illustrated by Native Americans are more likely to have illustrations of scenes that are close-up, and the text is more likely to mention the plants, trees and other geographic features and relationships that are present compared with popular children’s books not done by Native Americans.
“The European-American cultural assumption that humans are not part of ecosystems is readily apparent in illustrations,” he said.
The authors went to Google images and entered “ecosystems,” and 98 percent of the images did not have humans present. A fair number of the remaining 2 percent had children outside the ecosystem, observing it through a magnifying glass and saying, “I spy an ecosystem.”
“These results suggest that formal and informal science communications are not culturally neutral but rather embody particular cultural assumptions that exclude people from nature,” Medin said.
Medin and his research team have developed a series of “urban ecology” programs at the American Indian Center of Chicago, and these programs suggest that children can learn about the rest of nature in urban settings and come to see humans as active players in the world ecosystems.
Not long ago, my newspaper informed me that glaciers in the western Antarctic, undermined by the warmer seas of a hotter world, were collapsing, and their disappearance “now appears to be unstoppable.” The melting of these great ice sheets would make seas rise by at least four feet—ultimately, possibly 12—more than enough to flood cities from New York to Tokyo to Mumbai. Because I am interested in science, I read the two journal articles that had inspired the story. How much time do we have, I wondered, before catastrophe hits?
One study, in Geophysical Research Letters, provided no guidance; the authors concluded only that the disappearing glaciers would “significantly contribute to sea level rise in decades to centuries to come.” But the other, in Science, offered more-precise estimates: during the next century, the oceans will surge by as much as a quarter of a millimeter a year. By 2100, that is, the calamity in Antarctica will have driven up sea levels by almost an inch. The process would get a bit faster, the researchers emphasized, “within centuries.”
How is one supposed to respond to this kind of news? On the one hand, the transformation of the Antarctic seems like an unfathomable disaster. On the other hand, the disaster will never affect me or anyone I know; nor, very probably, will it trouble my grandchildren. How much consideration do I owe the people it will affect, my 40-times-great-grandchildren, who, many climate researchers believe, will still be confronted by rising temperatures and seas? Americans don’t even save for their own retirement! How can we worry about such distant, hypothetical beings?
In our ergonomic chairs and acoustical-panel cubicles, we sit cozy as kings atop 300 years of flaming carbon.
Worse, confronting climate change requires swearing off something that has been an extraordinary boon to humankind: cheap energy from fossil fuels. In the 3,600 years between 1800B.C. and 1800 A.D., the economic historian Gregory Clark has calculated, there was “no sign of any improvement in material conditions” in Europe and Asia. Then came the Industrial Revolution. Driven by the explosive energy of coal, oil, and natural gas, it inaugurated an unprecedented three-century wave of prosperity. Artificial lighting, air-conditioning, and automobiles, all powered by fossil fuels, swaddle us in our giddy modernity. In our ergonomic chairs and acoustical-panel cubicles, we sit cozy as kings atop 300 years of flaming carbon.
In the best of times, this problem—given its apocalyptic stakes, bewildering scale, and vast potential cost—would be difficult to resolve. But we are not in the best of times. We are in a time of legislative paralysis. In an important step, the Obama administration announced in June its decision to cut power-plant emissions 30 percent by 2030. Otherwise, this country has seen strikingly little political action on climate change, despite three decades of increasingly high-pitched chatter by scientists, activists, economists, pundits, and legislators.
The chatter itself, I would argue, has done its share to stall progress. Rhetorical overreach, moral miscalculation, shouting at cross-purposes: this toxic blend is particularly evident when activists, who want to scare Americans into taking action, come up against economists, with their cool calculations of acceptable costs. Eco-advocates insist that only the radical transformation of society—the old order demolished, foundation to roof—can fend off the worst consequences of climate change. Economists argue for adapting to the most-likely consequences; cheerleaders for industrial capitalism, they propose quite different, much milder policies, and are ready to let nature take a bigger hit in the short and long terms alike. Both envelop themselves in the mantle of Science, emitting a fug of charts and graphs. (Actually, every side in the debate, including the minority who deny that humans can affect the climate at all, claims the backing of Science.) Bewildered and battered by the back-and-forth, the citizenry sits, for the most part, on its hands. For all the hot air expended on the subject, we still don’t know how to talk about climate change.
As an issue, climate change was unlucky: when nonspecialists first became aware of it, in the 1990s, environmental attitudes had already become tribal political markers. As the Yale historian Paul Sabin makes clear in The Bet, it wasn’t always this way. The votes for the 1970 Clean Air Act, for example, were 374–1 in the House, 73–0 in the Senate. Sabin’s book takes off from a single event: a bet between the ecologist Paul R. Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon a decade later. Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), which decried humankind’s rising numbers, was a foundational text in the environmental movement. Simon’s Ultimate Resource (1981) was its antimatter equivalent: a celebration of population growth, it awakened opposition to the same movement.
Activist led by Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, protest the building of the Keystone XL pipeline at the White House, February 2013. (AP)
Ehrlich was moderately liberal in his politics but unrestrained in his rhetoric. The second sentence of The Population Bomb promised that “hundreds of millions of people” would starve to death within two decades, no matter what “crash programs” the world launched to feed them. A year later, Ehrlich gave even odds that “England will not exist in the year 2000.” In 1974, he told Congress that “a billion or more people” could starve in the 1980s “at the latest.” When the predictions didn’t pan out, he attacked his critics as “incompetent” and “ignorant,” “morons” and “idiots.”
Simon, who died in 1998, argued that “human resourcefulness and enterprise” will extricate us from our ecological dilemma. Moderately conservative in his politics, he was exuberantly uninhibited in his scorn for eco-alarmists. Humankind faces no serious environmental problems, he asserted. “All long-run trends point in exactly the opposite direction from the projections of the doomsayers.” (All? Really?) “There is no convincing economic reason why these trends toward a better life should not continue indefinitely.” Relishing his role as a spoiler, he gave speeches while wearing red plastic devil horns. Unsurprisingly, he attracted disagreement, to which he responded with as much bluster as Ehrlich. Critics, motivated by “blatant intellectual dishonesty” and indifference to the poor, were “corrupt,” their ideas “ignorant and wrongheaded.”
In 1980, the two men wagered $1,000 on the prices of five metals 10 years hence. If the prices rose, as Ehrlich predicted, it would imply that these resources were growing scarcer, as Homo sapiens plundered the planet. If the prices fell, this would be a sign that markets and human cleverness had made the metals relatively less scarce: progress was continuing. Prices dropped. Ehrlich paid up, insisting disingenuously that he had been “schnookered.”
Schnookered, no; unlucky, yes. In 2010, three Holy Cross economists simulated the bet for every decade from 1900 to 2007. Ehrlich would have won 61 percent of the time. The results, Sabin says, do not prove that these resources have grown scarcer. Rather, metal prices crashed after the First World War and spent most of a century struggling back to their 1918 levels. Ecological issues were almost irrelevant.
The bet demonstrated little about the environment but much about environmental politics. The American landscape first became a source of widespread anxiety at the beginning of the 20th century. Initially, the fretting came from conservatives, both the rural hunters who established the licensing system that brought back white-tailed deer from near-extinction and the Ivy League patricians who created the national parks. So ineradicable was the conservative taint that decades later, the left still scoffed at ecological issues as right-wing distractions. At the University of Michigan, the radical Students for a Democratic Society protested the first Earth Day, in 1970, as elitist flimflam meant to divert public attention from class struggle and the Vietnam War; the left-wing journalist I. F. Stone called the nationwide marches a “snow job.” By the 1980s, businesses had realized that environmental issues had a price tag. Increasingly, they balked. Reflexively, the anticorporate left pivoted; Earth Day, erstwhile snow job, became an opportunity to denounce capitalist greed.
Climate change is a perfect issue for symbolic battle, because it is as yet mostly invisible.
The result, as the Emory historian Patrick Allitt demonstrates in A Climate of Crisis, was a political back-and-forth that became ever less productive. Time and again, Allitt writes, activists and corporate executives railed against each other. Out of this clash emerged regulatory syntheses: rules for air, water, toxins. Often enough, businesspeople then discovered that following the new rules was less expensive than they had claimed it would be; environmentalists meanwhile found out that the problems were less dire than they had claimed.
Throughout the 1980s, for instance, activists charged that acid rain from midwestern power-plant emissions was destroying thousands of East Coast lakes. Utilities insisted that anti-pollution equipment would be hugely expensive and make homeowners’ electric bills balloon. One American Electric Power representative predicted that acid-rain control could lead to the “destruction of the Midwest economy.” A 1990 amendment to the Clean Air Act, backed by both the Republican administration and the Democratic Congress, set up a cap-and-trade mechanism that reduced acid rain at a fraction of the predicted cost; electric bills were barely affected. Today, most scientists have concluded that the effects of acid rain were overstated to begin with—fewer lakes were hurt than had been thought, and acid rain was not the only cause.
Rather than learning from this and other examples that, as Allitt puts it, “America’s environmental problems, though very real, were manageable,” each side stored up bitterness, like batteries taking on charge. The process that had led, however disagreeably, to successful environmental action in the 1970s and ’80s brought on political stasis in the ’90s. Environmental issues became ways for politicians to signal their clan identity to supporters. As symbols, the issues couldn’t be compromised. Standing up for your side telegraphed your commitment to take back America—either from tyrannical liberal elitism or right-wing greed and fecklessness. Nothing got done.
As an issue, climate change is perfect for symbolic battle, because it is as yet mostly invisible. Carbon dioxide, its main cause, is not emitted in billowing black clouds, like other pollutants; nor is it caustic, smelly, or poisonous. A side effect of modernity, it has for now a tiny practical impact on most people’s lives. To be sure, I remember winters as being colder in my childhood, but I also remember my home then as a vast castle and my parents as godlike beings.
In concrete terms, Americans encounter climate change mainly in the form of three graphs, staples of environmental articles. The first shows that atmospheric carbon dioxide has been steadily increasing. Almost nobody disputes this. The second graph shows rising global temperatures. This measurement is trickier: carbon dioxide is spread uniformly in the air, but temperatures are affected by a host of factors (clouds, rain, wind, altitude, the reflectivity of the ground) that differ greatly from place to place. Here the data are more subject to disagreement. A few critics argue that for the past 17 years warming has mostly stopped. Still, most scientists believe that in the past century the Earth’s average temperature has gone up by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
Rising temperatures per se are not the primary concern. What matters most is their future influence on other things: agricultural productivity, sea levels, storm frequency, infectious disease. As the philosopher Dale Jamieson points out in the unfortunately titled Reason in a Dark Time, most of these effects cannot be determined by traditional scientific experiments—white-coats in laboratories can’t melt a spare Arctic ice cap to see what happens. (Climate change has no lab rats.) Instead, thousands of researchers refine ever bigger and more complex mathematical models. The third graph typically shows the consequences such models predict, ranging from worrisome (mainly) to catastrophic (possibly).
Such charts are meaningful to the climatologists who make them. But for the typical citizen they are a muddle, too abstract—too much like 10th-grade homework—to be convincing, let alone to motivate action. In the history of our species, has any human heart ever been profoundly stirred by a graph? Some other approach, proselytizers have recognized, is needed.
To stoke concern, eco-campaigners like Bill McKibben still resort, Ehrlich-style, to waving a skeleton at the reader. Thus the first sentence of McKibben’sOil and Honey, a memoir of his climate activism, describes 2011–12, the period covered by his book, as “a time when the planet began to come apart.” Already visible “in almost every corner of the earth,” climate “chaos” is inducing “an endless chain of disasters that will turn civilization into a never-ending emergency response drill.”
Bill McKibben says we must “start producing a nation of careful, small-scale farmers … who can adapt to the crazed new world with care and grace.”
The only solution to our ecological woes, McKibben argues, is to live simpler, more local, less resource-intensive existences—something he believes is already occurring. “After a long era of getting big and distant,” he writes, “our economy, and maybe our culture, has started to make a halting turn toward the small and local.” Not only will this shift let us avoid the worst consequences of climate change, it will have the happy side effect of turning a lot of unpleasant multinational corporations to ash. As we “subside into a workable, even beautiful, civilization,” we will lead better lives. No longer hypnotized by the buzz and pop of consumer culture, narcotized couch potatoes will be transformed into robust, active citizens: spiritually engaged, connected to communities, appreciative of Earth’s abundance.
For McKibben, the engagement is full throttle: The Oil half of his memoir is about founding 350.org, a group that seeks to create a mass movement against climate change. (The 350 refers to the theoretical maximum safe level, in parts per million, of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a level we have already surpassed.) The Honey half is about buying 70 acres near his Vermont home to support an off-the-grid beekeeper named Kirk Webster, who is living out McKibben’s organic dream in a handcrafted, solar-powered cabin in the woods. Webster, McKibben believes, is the future. We must, he says, “start producing a nation of careful, small-scale farmers such as Kirk Webster, who can adapt to the crazed new world with care and grace, and who don’t do much more damage in the process.”
Poppycock, the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner in effect replies in The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse. A best-selling, telegenic public intellectual (a species that hardly exists in this country), Bruckner is mainly going after what he calls “ecologism,” of which McKibbenites are exemplars. At base, he says, ecologism seeks not to save nature but to purify humankind through self-flagellating asceticism.
To Bruckner, ecologism is both ethnocentric and counterproductive. Ethnocentric because eco-denunciations of capitalism simply give new, green garb to the long-standing Euro-American fear of losing dominance over the developing world (whose recent growth derives, irksomely, from fossil fuels). Counterproductive because ecologism induces indifference, or even hostility to environmental issues. In the quest to force humanity into a puritanical straitjacket of rural simplicity, ecologism employs what should be neutral, fact-based descriptions of a real-world problem (too much carbon dioxide raises temperatures) as bludgeons to compel people to accept modes of existence they would otherwise reject. Intuiting moral blackmail underlying the apparently objective charts and graphs, Bruckner argues, people react with suspicion, skepticism, and sighing apathy—the opposite of the reaction McKibbenites hope to evoke.
The ranchers and farmers in Tony Horwitz’s Boom, a deft and sometimes sobering e-book, suggest Bruckner may be on to something. Horwitz, possibly best known for his study of Civil War reenactors, Confederates in the Attic, travels along the proposed path of the Keystone XL, a controversial pipeline intended to take oil from Alberta’s tar-sands complex to refineries in Steele City, Nebraska—and the project McKibben has used as the rallying cry for 350.org. McKibben set off on his anti-Keystone crusade after the climatologist-provocateur James Hansen charged in 2011 that building the pipeline would be “game over” for the climate. If Keystone were built, Hansen later wrote, “civilization would be at risk.” Everyone Horwitz meets has heard this scenario. But nobody seems to have much appetite for giving up the perks of industrial civilization, Kirk Webster–style. “You want to go back to the Stone Age and use only wind, sun, and water?” one person asks. A truck driver in the tar-sands project tells Horwitz, “This industry is giving me a future, even if it’s a short one and we’re all about to toast together.” Given the scale of the forces involved, individual action seems futile. “It’s going to burn up anyhow at the end,” explains a Hutterite farmer, matter-of-factly. “The world will end in fire.”
Whereas McKibbenites see carbon dioxide as an emblem of a toxic way of life, economists like William Nordhaus of Yale tend to view it as simply a by-product of the good fortune brought by capitalism. Nordhaus, the president of the American Economic Association, has researched climate issues for four decades. His The Climate Casino has an even, unhurried tone; a classic Voice of Authority rumbles from the page. Our carbon-dioxide issues, he says, have a “simple answer,” one “firmly based in economic theory and history”:
The best approach is to use market mechanisms. And the single most important market mechanism that is missing today is a high price on CO2 emissions, or what is called “carbon prices” … The easiest way is simply to tax CO2 emissions: a “carbon tax” … The carbon price [from the tax] will be passed on to the consumer in the form of higher prices.
Nordhaus provides graphs (!) showing how a gradually increasing tax—or, possibly, a market in emissions permits—would slowly and steadily ratchet down global carbon-dioxide output. The problem, as he admits, is that the projected reduction “assumes full participation.” Translated from econo-speak, “full participation” means that the Earth’s rich and populous nations must simultaneously apply the tax. Brazil, China, France, India, Russia, the United States—all must move in concert, globally cooperating.
To say that a global carbon tax is a simple answer is like arguing that the simple answer to death is repealing the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
Alas, nothing like Nordhaus’s planetary carbon tax has ever been enacted. The sole precedent is the Montreal Protocol, the 1987 treaty banning substances that react with atmospheric ozone and reduce its ability to absorb the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. Signed by every United Nations member and successfully updated 10 times, the protocol is a model of international eco-cooperation. But it involves outlawing chemicals in refrigerators and spray cans, not asking nations to revamp the base of their own prosperity. Nordhaus’s declaration that a global carbon tax is a simple answer is like arguing that the simple answer to death is repealing the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
Does climate change, as Nordhaus claims, truly slip into the silk glove of standard economic thought? The dispute is at the center of Jamieson’s Reason in a Dark Time. Parsing logic with the care of a raccoon washing a shiny stone, Jamieson maintains that economists’ discussions of climate change are almost as problematic as those of environmentalists and politicians, though for different reasons.
Remember how I was complaining that all discussions of climate change devolve into homework? Here, sadly, is proof. To critique economists’ claims, Jamieson must drag the reader through the mucky assumptions underlying cost-benefit analysis, a standard economic tool. In the case of climate change, the costs of cutting carbon dioxide are high. What are the benefits? If the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rises only slightly above its current 400 parts per million, most climatologists believe, there is (roughly) a 90 percent chance that global temperatures will eventually rise between 3 and 8 degrees Fahrenheit, with the most likely jump being between 4 and 5 degrees. Nordhaus and most other economists conclude that humankind can slowly constrain this relatively modest rise in carbon without taking extraordinary, society-transforming measures, though neither decreasing the use of fossil fuels nor offsetting their emissions will be cheap or easy. But the same estimates show (again in rough terms) a 5 percent chance that letting carbon dioxide rise much above its current level would set off a domino-style reaction leading to global devastation. (No one pays much attention to the remaining 5 percent chance that the carbon rise would have very little effect on temperature.)
In our daily lives, we typically focus on the most likely result: I decide whether to jaywalk without considering the chance that I will trip in the street and get run over. But sometimes we focus on the extreme: I lock up my gun and hide the bullets in a separate place to minimize the chance that my kids will find and play with them. For climate change, should we focus on adapting to the mostprobable outcome or averting the most dangerous one? Cost-benefit analyses typically ignore the most-radical outcomes: they assume that society has agreed to accept the small but real risk of catastrophe—something environmentalists, to take one particularly vehement section of society, have by no means done.
On top of this, Jamieson argues, there is a second problem in the models economists use to discus climate change. Because the payoff from carbon-dioxide reduction will occur many decades from now, Nordhausian analysis suggests that we should do the bare minimum today, even if that means saddling our descendants with a warmer world. Doing the minimum is expensive enough already, economists say. Because people tomorrow will be richer than we are, as we are richer than our grandparents were, they will be better able to pay to clean up our emissions. Unfortunately, this is an ethically problematic stance. How can we weigh the interests of someone born in 2050 against those of someone born in 1950? In this kind of trade-off between generations, Jamieson argues, “there is no plausible value” for how much we owe the future.
Given their moral problems, he concludes, economic models are much less useful as guides than their proponents believe. For all their ostensible practicality—for all their attempts to skirt the paralysis-inducing specter of the apocalypse—economists, too, don’t have a good way to talk about climate change.
Years ago, a colleague and I spoke with the physicist Richard Feynman, later a national symbol of puckish wit and brash truth-telling. At the frontiers of science, he told us, hosts of unclear, mutually contradictory ideas are always swarming about. Researchers can never agree on how to proceed or even on what is important. In these circumstances, Feynman said, he always tried to figure out what would take him forward no matter which theory eventually turned out to be correct. In this agnostic spirit, let’s assume that rising carbon-dioxide levels will become a problem of some magnitude at some time and that we will want to do something practical about it. Is there something we should do, no matter what technical arcanae underlie the cost-benefit analyses, no matter when we guess the bad effects from climate change will kick in, no matter how we value future generations, no matter what we think of global capitalism? Indeed, is there some course of action that makes sense even if we think that climate change isn’t much of a problem at all?
As my high-school math teacher used to say, let’s do the numbers. Roughly three-quarters of the world’s carbon-dioxide emissions come from burning fossil fuels, and roughly three-quarters of that comes from just two sources: coal in its various forms, and oil in its various forms, including gasoline. Different studies produce slightly different estimates, but they all agree that coal is responsible for more carbon dioxide than oil is—about 25 percent more. That number is likely to increase, because coal consumption is growing much faster than oil consumption.
Geo-engineering involves tinkering with planetary systems we only partially understand. But planet-hacking does have an overarching advantage: it’s cheap.
Although coal and oil are both fossil fuels, they are used differently. In this country, for example, the great majority of oil—about three-quarters—is consumed by individuals, as they heat their homes and drive their cars. Almost all U.S. coal (93 percent) is burned not in homes but by electric-power plants; the rest is mainly used by industry, notably for making cement and steel. Cutting oil use, in other words, requires huge numbers of people to change their houses and automobiles—the United States alone has 254 million vehicles on the road. Reducing U.S. coal emissions, by contrast, means regulating 557 big power plants and 227 steel and cement factories. (Surprisingly, many smaller coal plants exist, some at hospitals and schools, but their contributions are negligible.) I’ve been whacking poor old Nordhaus for his ideas about who should pay for climate change, but he does make this point, and precisely: “The most cost-effective way to reduce CO2 emissions is to reduce the use of coal first and most sharply.” Note, too, that this policy comes with a public-health bonus: reining in coal pollution could ultimately avoid as many as 6,600 premature deaths and 150,000 children’s asthma attacks per year in the United States alone.
Different nations have different arrangements, but almost everywhere the basic point holds true: a relatively small number of industrial coal plants—perhaps 7,000 worldwide—put out an amazingly large amount of carbon dioxide, more than 40 percent of the global total. And that figure is rising; last year, coal’s share of energy production hit a 44-year high, because Asian nations are building coal plants at a fantastic rate (and, possibly, because demand for coal-fired electricity will soar as electric cars become popular). No matter what your views about the impact and import of climate change, you are primarily talking about coal. To my mind, at least, retrofitting 7,000 industrial facilities, however mind-boggling, is less mind-boggling than, say, transforming the United States into “a nation of careful, small-scale farmers” or enacting a global carbon tax with “full participation.” It is, at least, imaginable.
The focus of the Obama administration on reducing coal emissions suggests that it has followed this logic. If the pattern of the late 20th century still held, industry would reply with exaggerated estimates of the cost, and compromises would be worked out. But because the environment has become a proxy for a tribal battle, an exercise in power politics will surely ensue. I’ve given McKibben grief for his apocalyptic rhetoric, but he’s exactly correct that without a push from a popular movement—without something like 350.org—meaningful attempts to cut back coal emissions are much less likely to yield results.
Regrettably, 350.org has fixated on the Keystone pipeline, which the Congressional Research Service has calculated would raise this nation’s annual output of greenhouse gases by 0.05 to 0.3 percent. (James Hansen, in arguing that the pipeline would be “game over” for the climate, erroneously assumed that all of the tar-sands oil could be burned rapidly, instead of dribbling out in relatively small portions year by year, over decades.) None of this is to say that exploiting tar sands is a good idea, especially given the apparent violation of native treaties in Canada. But a popular movement focused on symbolic goals will have little ability to win practical battles in Washington.
If politics fail, the only recourse, says David Keith, a Harvard professor of public policy and applied physics, will be a technical fix. And soon—by mid-century. Keith is talking about geo-engineering: fighting climate change with more climate change. A Case for Climate Engineering is a short book arguing that we should study spraying the stratosphere with tiny glittering droplets of sulfuric acid that bounce sunlight back into space, reducing the Earth’s temperature. Physically speaking, the notion is feasible. The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, in the Philippines, created huge amounts of airborne sulfuric acid—and lowered the Earth’s average temperature that year by about 1 degree.
Keith is candid about the drawbacks. Not only does geo-engineering involve tinkering with planetary systems we only partially understand, it can’t cancel out, even in theory, greenhouse problems like altered rainfall patterns and increased ocean acidity. The sulfur would soon fall to the Earth, a toxic rain of pollution that could kill thousands of people every year. The carbon dioxide that was already in the air would remain. To continue to slow warming, sulfur would have to be lofted anew every year. Still, Keith points out, without this relatively crude repair, unimpeded climate change could be yet more deadly.
Planet-hacking does have an overarching advantage: it’s cheap. “The cost of geoengineering the entire planet for a decade,” Keith writes, “could be less than the $6 billion the Italian government is spending on dikes and movable barriers to protect a single city, Venice, from climate change–related sea level rise.”
That advantage is also dangerous, he points out. A single country could geo-engineer the whole planet by itself. Or one country’s geo-engineering could set off conflicts with another country—a Chinese program to increase its monsoon might reduce India’s monsoon. “Both are nuclear weapons states,” Keith reminds us. According to Forbes, the world has 1,645 billionaires, several hundred of them in nations threatened by climate change. If their businesses or homes were at risk, any one of them could single-handedly pay for a course of geo-engineering. Is anyone certain none of these people would pull the trigger?
Few experts think that relying on geo-engineering would be a good idea. But no one knows how soon reality will trump ideology, and so we may finally have hit on a useful form of alarmism. One of the virtues of Keith’s succinct, scary book is to convince the reader that unless we find a way to talk about climate change, planes full of sulfuric acid will soon be on the runway.