Being right, and being persuasive: a primer on ‘talking climate’

Also published at

Given that most people in industrialized countries accept that climate change is a scientific reality, why do so few rank climate change as one of their high priorities? Why do so few people discuss climate change with their families, friends, and neighbours? Are clear explanations of the ‘big numbers’ of climate change a good foundation for public engagement?

These are among the key questions in a thought-provoking new book by Adam Corner and Jamie Clarke – Talking Climate: From Research to Practice in Public Engagement.

In a brief review of climate change as a public policy issue, Corner and Clarke make the point that climate change action was initially shaped by international responses to the ozone layer depletion and the problem of acid rain. In these cases technocrats in research, government and industry were able to frame the problem and implement solutions with little need for deep public engagement.

The same model might once have worked for climate change response. But today, we are faced with a situation where climate change will be an ongoing crisis for at least several generations. Corner and Clarke argue that responding to climate change will require public engagement that is both deep and broad.

That kind of engagement can only be built through wide-ranging public conversations which tap into people’s deepest values – and climate change communicators must learn from social science research on what works, and what doesn’t work, in growing a public consensus.

Talking Climate is at its best in explaining the limitations of dominant climate change communication threads. But the book is disappointingly weak in describing the ‘public conversations’ that the authors say are so important.


Narratives and numbers

“Stories – rather than scientific facts – are the vehicles with which to build public engagement”, Corner and Clarke say. But climate policy is most often framed by scientifically valid and scientifically important numbers which remain abstract to most people. In particular, the concept of a 2°C limit to overall global warming has received oceans of ink, and this concept was the key component of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Unfortunately, the 2° warming threshold does not help move climate change from a ‘scientific reality’ to a ‘social reality’:

In research conducted just before the Paris negotiations with members of the UK public, we found that people were baffled by the 2 degrees concept and puzzled that the challenge of climate change would be expressed in such a way. … People understandably gauge temperature changes according to their everyday experiences, and a daily temperature fluctuation of 2 degrees is inconsequential, pleasant even – so why should they worry?

“Being right is not the same as being persuasive,” Corner and Clarke add, “and the ‘big numbers’ of the climate change and energy debate do not speak to the lived experience of ordinary people going about their daily lives ….”

While they cite interesting research on what doesn’t work in building public engagement, the book is frustratingly skimpy on what does work.

In particular, there are no good examples of the narratives or stories that the authors hold out as the primary way most people make sense of the world.

“Narratives have a setting, a plot (beginning, middle, and end), characters (heroes, villains, and victims), and a moral of the story,” Corner and Clarke write. How literally should we read that statement? What are some examples of stories that have emerged to help people understand climate change and link their responses to their deepest values? Unfortunately we’re left guessing.

Likewise, the authors write that they have been involved with several public consultation projects that helped build public engagement around climate change. How did these projects select or attract participants, given that only a small percentage of the population regards climate change as an issue of deep personal importance?

Talking Climate packs a lot of important research and valuable perspectives into a mere 125 pages, plus notes. Another 25 pages outlining successful communication efforts might have made it an even better book.

Photos: rainbow over South Dakota grasslands, and sagebrush in Badlands National Park, June 2014.

Fake news as official policy

Also published at

Faced with simultaneous disruptions of climate and energy supply, industrial civilization is also hampered by an inadequate understanding of our predicament. That is the central message of Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed’s new book Failing States, Collapsing Systems: BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence.

In the first part of this review, we looked at the climate and energy disruptions that have already begun in the Middle East, as well as the disruptions which we can expect in the next 20 years under a “business as usual” scenario. In this installment we’ll take a closer look at “the perpetual transmission of false and inaccurate knowledge on the origins and dynamics of global crises”.

While a clear understanding of the real roots of economies is a precondition for a coherent response to global crises, Ahmed says this understanding is woefully lacking in mainstream media and mainstream politics.

The Global Media-Industrial Complex, representing the fragmented self-consciousness of human civilization, has served simply to allow the most powerful vested interests within the prevailing order to perpetuate themselves and their interests ….” (Failing States, Collapsing Systems, page 48)

Other than alluding to powerful self-serving interests in fossil fuels and agribusiness industries, Ahmed doesn’t go into the “how’s” and “why’s” of their influence in media and government.

In the case of misinformation about the connection between fossil fuels and climate change, much of the story is widely known. Many writers have documented the history of financial contributions from fossil fuel interests to groups which contradict the consensus of climate scientists. To take just one example, Inside Climate News revealed that Exxon’s own scientists were keenly aware of the dangers of climate change decades ago, but the corporation’s response was a long campaign of disinformation.

Yet for all its nefarious intent, the fossil fuel industry’s effort has met with mixed success. Nearly every country in the world has, at least officially, agreed that carbon-emissions-caused climate change is an urgent problem. Hundreds of governments, on national, provincial or municipal levels, have made serious efforts to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. And among climate scientists the consensus has only grown stronger that continued reliance on fossil fuels will result in catastrophic climate effects.

When it comes to continuous economic growth unconstrained by energy limitations, the situation is quite different. Following the consensus opinion in the “science of economics’, nearly all governments are still in thrall to the idea that the economy can and must grow every year, forever, as a precondition to prosperity.

In fact, the belief in the ever-growing economy has short-circuited otherwise well-intentioned efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Western politicians routinely play off “environment’ and ”economy” as forces that must be balanced, meaning they must take care not to cut carbon emissions too fast, lest economic growth be hindered. To take one example, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claims that expanded production of tar sands bitumen will provide the economic growth necessary to finance the country’s official commitments under the Paris Accord.

As Ahmed notes, “the doctrine of unlimited economic growth is nothing less than a fundamental violation of the laws of physics. In short, it is the stuff of cranks – yet it is nevertheless the ideology that informs policymakers and pundits alike.” (Failing States, Collapsing Systems, page 90)

Why does “the stuff of cranks” still have such hold on the public imagination? Here the work of historian Timothy Mitchell is a valuable complement to Ahmed’s analysis.

Mitchell’s 2011 book Carbon Democracy outlines the way “the economy” became generally understood as something that could be measured mostly, if not solely, by the quantities of money that exchanged hands. A hundred years ago, this was a new and controversial idea:

In the early decades of the twentieth century, a battle developed among economists, especially in the United States …. One side wanted economics to start from natural resources and flows of energy, the other to organise the discipline around the study of prices and flows of money. The battle was won by the second group …..” (Carbon Democracy, page 131)

A very peculiar circumstance prevailed while this debate raged: energy from petroleum was cheap and getting cheaper. Many influential people, including geologist M. King Hubbert, argued that the oil bonanza would be short-lived in a historical sense, but their arguments didn’t sway corporate and political leaders looking at short-term results.

As a result a new economic orthodoxy took hold by the middle of the 20th century. Petroleum seemed so abundant, Mitchell says, that for most economists “oil could be counted on not to count. It could be consumed as if there were no need to take account of the fact that its supply was not replenishable.”

He elaborates:

the availability of abundant, low-cost energy allowed economists to abandon earlier concerns with the exhaustion of natural resources and represent material life instead as a system of monetary circulation – a circulation that could expand indefinitely without any problem of physical limits. Economics became a science of money ….” (Carbon Democracy, page 234)

This idea of the infinitely expanding economy – what Ahmed terms “the stuff of cranks” – has been widely accepted for approximately one human life span. The necessity of constant economic growth has been an orthodoxy throughout the formative educations of today’s top political leaders, corporate leaders and media figures, and it continues to hold sway in the “science of economics”.

The transition away from fossil fuel dependence is inevitable, Ahmed says, but the degree of suffering involved will depend on how quickly and how clearly we get on with the task. One key task is “generating new more accurate networks of communication based on transdisciplinary knowledge which is, most importantly, translated into user-friendly multimedia information widely disseminated and accessible by the general public in every continent.” (Failing States, Collapsing Systems, page 92)

That task has been taken up by a small but steadily growing number of researchers, activists, journalists and hands-on practitioners of energy transition. As to our chances of success, Ahmed allows a hint of optimism, and that’s a good note on which to finish:

The systemic target for such counter-information dissemination, moreover, is eminently achievable. Social science research has demonstrated that the tipping point for minority opinions to become mainstream, majority opinion is 10% of a given population.” (Failing States, Collapsing Systems, page 92)


Top image: M. C. Escher’s ‘Waterfall’ (1961) is a fanciful illustration of a finite source providing energy without end. Accessed from

St Marys Cement environmental assessment: does climate policy matter?

A proposal to excavate hundreds of millions of tonnes of limestone from beneath Lake Ontario raises many questions, starting with a big one: should we be planning for the continued expansion of the concrete industry, given what we already know about climate change?

St Marys Cement, a Canadian branch of Brazilian multinational Votorantim Cimentos, operates a limestone quarry and cement factory on the shore of Lake Ontario at Bowmanville, Ontario. The company wants to expand by tunnelling under Lake Ontario from the existing quarry, and removing up to 4 million tonnes of limestone a year for the next 100 years. (The Project Description for the expansion is here.)

Graphic from St Marys project description at

Graphic from St Marys Project Description

(A note on terminology: in this article I use “cement” to refer to the white powder that is mixed with gravel and water, and “concrete” to refer to the construction material that results when the gravel-cement mixture reacts with water and solidifies.)

While concrete is one of the most important and ubiquitous materials in modern life, the cement industry is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 8% of global carbon emissions (Macleans, 7 March 2016). The emissions occur because when limestone is cooked to transform it into cement its natural carbon content is released, and because it takes prodigious amounts of heat to effect this chemical transformation. That is why the St Marys plant in Bowmanville burns both coal and bitcoke (the black powder left over from bitumen after refining) by the shipload.

Not only is cement production carbon-emissions intensive, but the way we use cement tends to encourage further carbon emissions. The biggest share of cement in Ontario goes into concrete pavement which is used to widen roads and add new parking lots – which in turn promotes greater use of cars and trucks.

Which brings us back to the St Marys expansion plan. The company is not saying it will expand its cement production in Bowmanville, but the additional limestone will most likely be used with cement. For further clarity, the limestone extracted from under Lake Ontario will be marketed in industry parlance as “aggregate” – what most people refer to as gravel. And that aggregate will mostly be mixed with cement, to form concrete, or used as a base layer underneath slabs of concrete. In other words, the quarrying of limestone for aggregate will complement St Marys core business of quarrying limestone for cement.

Is a major new source of aggregate needed in the Toronto area? St Marys says in their Project Description:

Over the past 20 years, Ontario has consumed over 3 billion tonnes of aggregate and limestone or about 164 million tonnes per year on average. Given expected levels of economic and population growth, Ontario’s consumption of aggregates and limestone for cement is projected to average about 186 million tonnes per year over the next 20 years.” (Project Description, page 8) [emphasis mine]

The key phrase here is “given expected levels of economic and population growth”. If the economic trends of the past 20 years continue on the same track for the next 20 years, aggregate use will go up by 13 per cent – from 164 million tonnes per year to 186 million. In other words, if we continue Business As Usual, we will need more aggregate.

How is this aggregate used?

Aggregate and limestone are used for a wide range of applications in Ontario; however, the primary use is in construction work, either directly on construction sites, or in the manufacturing of concrete and other building products. Roads (provincial highways, as well as municipal and private roads) account for the largest share of aggregate used in construction work.” (Project Description, page 8) [emphasis mine]

In recent decades the area of pavement has grown faster than the population has grown, because urban sprawl has been the dominant form of development. If we project that “Business As Usual” scenario into the next generation, we’ll need to build a lot more roadway, we’ll need a lot more aggregate, and we’ll need a lot more cement.

But the “Business As Usual” scenario collides head-on with Canada’s official climate policy commitments. Although no one thinks we can or should stop using cement (or fossil fuels) tomorrow, it is clear that we should be making every effort to reduce our carbon emissions immediately, and reduce those emissions at a faster rate with each passing year. That means we should be planning to reduce, not increase, the role of car-dependent sprawl in our urban developments; reduce, not increase, the amount of new pavement we place atop our land each year; and reduce, not increase, the amount of cement we need to cook up and mix with aggregate for concrete each year.

The Business As Usual scenario means we don’t take seriously the climate science consensus that continued growth in carbon emissions will be catastrophic for our grandchildren, and we don’t take seriously our government’s commitment to an economy-wide reduction of emissions.

St Marys Cement notice of Public Information Centre, Monday December 5, 2016

St Marys Cement notice of Public Information Centre, Monday December 5, 2016

Yet there is no evidence in the St Marys Project Description that anything other than a Business As Usual scenario is being considered. Regarding the carbon emissions of the project, the most substantive comment is that the quarry will have “reduced GHG [Green House Gas] emission intensity compared to other quarries that are located further from market.” The report does note, however, that “potential effects on climate change as a result of the Project will be characterized through the EA [Environmental Assessment] process.”

When this Environmental Assessment process gets underway, will St Marys be required to show that the expansion project is consistent with Ontario’s and Canada’s official climate policies? Stay tuned.



Top photo: The Peter Cresswell docked at the St Marys Cement port on Lake Ontario near Bowmanville.