Mean Climate: Daily PlanetWatch

Thomas Schueneman

Thinking about the latest environmental news headlines from the Daily PlanetWatch every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon. Friday, September 6.

Knowing that I write about climate change, a good friend of mine occasionally sends me texts with his latest findings. Recently moved from the Bay Area, my friend was, as far as I could tell, non-political. He had no particular interest in global warming when we worked together (for 19 years). There’s been an apparent awakening since his moving out-of-state.

I believe a main source of his information is from YouTube. I am thus presented with common denialist talking points. Arguments that are invalid, long-disproved, and surprisingly persistent.

They used to call it global warming, now they call it climate change or, God forbid, climate “disruption”. Speaking of God, he’d never let it happen. Who are we to think we have a global impact? CO2 is good for plants and we need more of it, not less. Anyway, CO2 comprises only a trace amount of the atmosphere. It’s a guise for world domination, socialism, or communism. Most anyone who has paid any attention to the issue has likely heard these rationalizations and more. My friend has.

He’s a smart, talented guy. An excellent sound engineer and musician. A straight-up guy if a little grumpy sometimes. Who isn’t grumpy sometimes?

Unfortunately, if not totally buying-in to these tired, old memes, he suggests to me that it may be true. His politics are his right, of course. Even if I vehemently disagree with some of it. What frustrates me is the misleading, painfully oversimplified, and politically motivated as a means to an ideological end instead of attempting to solve problems and protect the Public Trust.

It isn’t my friend’s fault. His curiosity is admirable. The wrong narrative reaches that curiosity. Confirmation bias ensures this narrative captures the attention of anyone predisposed to climate denial. Which, to some degree, is most of us.

I’d argue there is a bell curve distribution of actions denying the reality of the daily impacts on climate from human behavior. It is, in fact, difficult for any of us in the industrialized world to get through the day without some bit of quiet denial. It is psychologically overwhelming to consider.

Stretching across many scientific disciplines, climate science is enormously complex, let alone the emotionally-charged narrative surrounding it.

It’s a wicked problem. 

Mean climate and the bell curve

The standard bell distribution curve is a useful tool for understanding the multilayered complexity of climate change, from human behavior to science. Typically, we expect the “mean” extreme weather events (as in nasty, unwanted) to fall at the edges of the bell curve. A few instances above and below the mean average. A shameless play on words (you’re welcome).

As explained in an Inverse article, bell curves can flatten out, more instances of extremes, or they can move, a new extreme becomes the average. In other words, changes in frequency and intensity, as demonstrated in changing trends is global climatic trends.

Looking at this idea in the framework of human behavior, we might see on the one hand a wide swath of extreme views and actions on climate change. People jumping off ledges or hiding in caves. Call this the “extreme doomsday” scenario.

On the other hand are people actively seeking to emit as much carbon, cause as much deforestation, actually go to the ocean and dump plastic into it, burn the recycle symbol on environmentalists lawns (who, arguably, shouldn’t have lawns in the first place). We’ll call this the “dumbass” scenario.

If most people are somewhere in the middle, the doomsdayers and the dumbasses are rare. Flattening the curve means there is less average and more extremes. A wild swing from one to the other. More people in caves, more lawns burned with recycle symbols. Concerted action to normalize extreme climate and variability would be all but impossible, with everyone all over the place in their actions.

Moving the curve would move the average one way or another. Toward doomsday and we could, before we jump off a cliff, find the right balance of despair for what we have done and motivating hope for a transition to a new age. In the other direction we risk succumbing to the worst of our nature. Or perhaps, not our nature at all, but some perverted ghost of it.

It’s not easy to move toward despair to find hope. The time of easy solutions is long past. 

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