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Who Will Tell the People? And How?
Alex Steffen, 20 Feb 08

The Australian government's top adviser has come forward with a major report on climate change. His conclusions? It's worse than we thought. We need to move much more quickly:

On the eve of the release today of his interim report on climate change, Professor Garnaut told a conference in Adelaide yesterday that without intervention before 2020, it would be impossible to avoid a high risk of dangerous climate change. "The show will be over," he said.

The Government's existing target is to cut greenhouse emissions by 60% by 2050. Professor Garnaut said Australia would need to go "considerably further" as part of a global agreement, with full participation by developing countries, to keep climate change at acceptable levels.

Ominously, he said major reports of recent years, including the UN Intergovernmental Panel assessments and the Stern report, had used scenarios that were already out of date.

Here's the rub: we're going to be seeing reports like this on a frequent basis over the next couple years. It seems to be clear to most serious observers that even the dire predictions of the last IPCC report are extremely conservative.

Here in the U.S., it's the follow on implication that ought to concern us most: that we'll need to slash our emissions much more drastically over the next decade or two than anyone in American political life is currently discussing. For instance, the Lieberman-Warner bill would reportedly only cut greenhouse gas emissions by 15% by 2020 (compared with 2005 levels) and 65% or so by 2050 (if it works).

In comparison, I'm increasingly hearing science-based realism described as an 80-90% reduction in the U.S. climate footprint by 2030, partnered with massive effort to diffuse the resulting innovations around the globe.

As I wrote last May:

In private, some of the best informed people I know -- who are by virtue of their positions some of the best informed people in the world on these issues, period -- confide, with increasing and disturbing regularity, that they believe we need to be planning 90% cuts in resource and energy use, alongside profoundly improved environmental performance in all manner of fields, by 2030, in part because we need to not only change our own behaviors, but do so in time for the innovations we pioneer to diffuse across the rest of the world. It is one of the great paradoxes of our day, it seems to me, that the more we learn about the large, slow-moving problems we face, the more manifestly urgent the need for action becomes.

This presents some challenges, not least of which is that people are disinclined to change dramatically until forced to do so by events, and climate change, environmental collapse and worsening poverty and conflict are unlikely to fully manifest the kind of events that get our attention in the daily lives of the people of the Global North until it's too late to do much about them. (And, indeed, our tolerance for disturbing news sometimes seems to be increasing much faster than our will to act -- two weeks ago, the first F5 tornado ever on the Enhanced Fujita Scale devastated Greensburg, Kansas, and provided what several experts said might be a taste of the future on the Great Plains; and already the story has all but disappeared from the American media.) We have, as I've heard it called, a profound perception-reality gap.

The only thing that's changed since then is that the climate news has gotten worse.

We're running into a situation here where the acceptable political action is to move from A to C, but where realism demands that -- if we want to dodge a catastrophic collision with ecological reality -- we move from A to say Q. And that gap, between C and Q, is large enough to lose a future in (Those of us in Europe shouldn't be too smug, as the debate there is still more along the lines of moving from say A to L.)

There's enormous pressure here in the U.S. on environmental groups, scientists and public officials; pressure to play ball, to support targets that are politically safe, to be moderate. But this is not a situation where such gamesmanship will help our cause. Incremental and limited gains in this situation are in fact disastrous losses.

At the same time, we need to talk with people where they're at on the issue, not where we wish they were. Somehow we need, in the next couple years, to guide millions of Americans through the progress of emotions -- awareness, horror, despair, resignation, engagement, chosen optimism -- that most of the people reading this site have gone through... and we have to do it in the next few years.

People are not really ready for this, but we're not in a position to let that stop us. I'm not sure it's too much of an overstatement to say that what's needed is not just some issue education but a national mind-blowing.

But how do we do that? What's your best or favorite idea for dramatically changing environmental perspectives on a mass basis?

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I agree, the antie is up and hiding our heads in the sand isn't going to make things any easier. Even the nations who's governments are actively involved in reducing climate change are still not up to the speed that's needed to make the crucial impact in time.

In 1989 I was inspired to have a radio talk show where subjects like these could be discussed, by 1997 that show was on the air and eventually progressed to nation wide on satellite radio. As of last week the network my show aired on went off the air from satellite. I thank God that there are numerous other resources out there that keep these discussions going strong and growing. The collective voice has grown to a volume that will continue to reach more and more individuals, communities, corporations, and leaders of nations. What use to be a trickle is now a sea...and to keep it from drying up every effort must continue to be made. I especially feel that as more information reaches the public, what may have been taken lightly one day, may be taken more seriously the next. Organizations who are raising funds to air commercial spots on TV about these issues, websites like yours, independant media, film makers like Laurie David and Davis Guggenheim who produced An Inconvenient Truth, Ed Begley Jr with his TV program on sustainable living, and the plethora of people out there who are not only making the changes but sharing about them simply through word of mouth and by how they live, the risk takers in industry who are creating the amazing new tools we need for the change, etc.; all are contributing to changing environmental perspectives on a mass basis. It's not easy to pick just one, but I'm glad you asked anyway.
My solared paneled hat is off to you.

Posted by: Claire Papin on 20 Feb 08

In the UK we are starting to debate how to start informing people about the changes they will *have* to make, rather than just educating about the fact of climate change and what they *could* do.

We find that most people and politicians in UK accept climate change and our role in causing it - it's the next step that is lacking.

The issue is then how do you enable politicians to create tough legislation that forces people to change? An early example is congestion charging in London.

My view is tending towards communication that prepares people to be able to accept forced change and then have the politicians create regional and global regulation that forces companies to change. (the persuaded people of course work at these companies).

This is the most efficient and equitable way forward.

Posted by: John Kazer on 21 Feb 08

Great question: Who will tell the people, and how?

Here's part of the answer: Adapt what flubies do! Click on my username!

Hmm - this sentence is too short and won't be seen.

So I'll write it again:

Adapt what flubies do! Click on my username!

*Now* it's more visible.

Thanks for the room.


Posted by: lugon on 21 Feb 08


One strategy for quickening the response of people in the U.S. to climate change is to 1) convince them to take science more seriously and 2) then convey what the majority of scientists are suggesting.

To this end, would it be possible for you to post references from peer-reviewed research articles supporting the claim that the IPCC projections are conservative and that what is needed, as far as the U.S. anyway, is an 80 - 90% reduction in climate footprint by 2030? If near-future articles you're planning do not lend themselves to providing this info publicly, please e-mail references to me. Thank you.

Posted by: Gordon on 21 Feb 08

John-- The what we *have* to do distinction is an excellent one.

Gordon-- You can start with Jim Hansen's recent papers, but the IPCC = conservative position is hardly a fringe/radical one, and you'll find plenty of references here and elsewhere online if you look...

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 21 Feb 08

In the U.S. on January 31st 2008, we organized "Focus the Nation," a national dialogue between students, educators, and decision-makers about global warming solutions. It was the largest teach-in ever held in the U.S.; by the end of the day, events at over 1,900 colleges, universities, schools, faith institutions, and local organizations had engaged one million participants in the dialogue. 75 US senators and representatives participated in roundtable dialogue with students at events around the country.

Next year, after the Inauguration and in the first 100 days of a new US administration, we have to do more: enlist more participants, engage more political leaders, and energize the generation that must develop, enact, and sustain solutions. We'll do it through our network, through new partnerships with foresightful businesses, through new technologies to spread and share the experience, and through alliance with the student climate movement that is providing the moral leadership to enact solutions.

For more, see

I'd welcome thoughts in this thread for how we can make Focus the Nation even more consequential in 2009 and beyond.

Posted by: Ted on 21 Feb 08

For the normal everyday person to notice how they live and how to change their ways (so to say) is educate them in ways that fit into the life of that individual. I am really big on the finding the information on my own but people who are your neighbors or mine are not really listening and why? We can obviously see the weather is drastically changing and (another obvious notion) that it won't get better on its own. Start targeting the producers of the products that are destroying our world and force the change...I am a student studying to become a "Green Interior Designer" and the more I learn the more I feel the world needs to know. I hardly ever write what I think about this subject because I don't feel my voice is strong enough but this was a great question; "Who will tell the people, and how?" We need to think "simple"...For instance, Get these larger companies and people to understand and lead the people, I know this isn't so simple but we have to start somewhere. Getting them to agree in something so obvious shouldn't take a rocket scientist. And give information about the problem to the little people. When we all unite as one, we will solve problems as one. Coming together because our world is such a horrible state is the key to our success. Thanks for listening to my thoughts! Victoria

Or we can all start to bury our thoughts in the ground and hope someday, some other life finds our experiences and journeys...

Posted by: Victoria on 21 Feb 08

These really drastic visions scare me; not for the obvious reasons, but because not a single person I know even has a basic grasp on what climate change is really all about, let alone consider it a priority. In a society like that, how on Earth do expect to make such drastic changes in so short a time? It's quite depressing.

Posted by: Terra on 21 Feb 08

Terra, Depression is the biggest problem, people feel they are useless on a subject and leave it at that. Even though emotions shouldn't factor in, we should be more worried about what we will have and our children will have in the future. This is the main problem with society today. If the information was out there in lame terms (so that all can understand)we would then know what we can do to change. We really need to prove that we are the most Intellegent Species that we say we are.

Posted by: Victoria on 21 Feb 08

Are many too many leaders of the global political economy spurning their moral obligations by turning a blind eye to human over-consumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities that can be seen recklessly dissipating the natural resources and drastically degrading the environs of our planetary home? The Earth is being ravaged; but it appears too many politicians, CEOs and institutional executives are willfully refusing to acknowledge what is happening.

Because the emerging global challenges that could soon be confronted by humanity appear to so many responsible, able and courageous scientists to be human-induced, many of our political leaders and economic powerbrokers have evidently been eschewing unwelcome responsibilities and unexpected duties which must be assumed now if life as we know it and the integrity of Earth are to be preserved for our children and coming generations.

Posted by: stevenearlsalmony on 21 Feb 08

John, good point about moving beyond the idea of what people "could do" and start the process of preparing them for what they will "have to do." The U.S. government is a bit behind on creating tough legislation that forces people to change in the area of climate change, however, if the UK leads the way successfully, there's hope that some catching up may follow...even better, have a good number of U.S. politicians jump on board now.

Your view on having communication that prepares people to be able to accept forced change and then have the politicians create regional and global regulation that forces companies to change sounds like a logical next step.
Will there be subsidies or government funding support for some of the costs involved in the change companys will have to start making? Would there also be possible incentives that might allow the public to off set some of the expenses for the areas of conversion?

Posted by: Claire Papin on 21 Feb 08

There are several different ways forward, and we need all of them, working in tandem. We need to increase political will for action, we need specific solutions & policies, and we need it grounded in good science.

Politics. What do “we” need to do? Well, who are “we”? With few exceptions, politicians will not step forward to lead on this issue until we “the people” demand it loud enough, so we need a vocal and convincing citizen call for action. Whoever gets elected US president in 2008 MUST have a grasp of the issue, and create a strong climate action plan in the first 100 days. They must also work with other leaders to increase action on the issue globally. No tool should be off limits: subsidies, trade agreements, IMF & World Bank, EPA, R&D, and any other acronyms that might help…

The mandates, the funding, the over-arching vision – all comes from the top down; but the need to act must come from the bottom up, as will the actual solutions.

Solutions & Policies. Worldchanging is full of good ideas – we need repositories of these ideas, and case studies of where they have worked. Ideas need to be translated locally and re-applied. We don’t have good processes for doing this, as evidenced by 20th century ‘development’ practices in places that should be leapfrogging to better systems. We need a new global competition, for who can make the biggest cuts in impact – and for this, carbon will have to be very very expensive.

Science. There is a lot of misunderstanding out there about climate change, from both sides of the debate (I recently overheard someone trying to convince a climate skeptic that it was causing worse earthquakes). We need clearly identified sources of accessible, understandable information, to navigate the waters of a highly political and complicated issue.

How do we move people to demand these things? The biggest lever is cost – always; the second biggest is local threat – people may care about polar bears and far-away famine, but they ACT when it’s their backyard; third is the idea – worldchanging’s specialty – that the road that leads away from disaster also leads toward a healthier, wealthier world.

Posted by: justus on 21 Feb 08

I was just on a panel discussion in Boston about climate change. One of the things I've found in such venues is that when you introduce people to the full extent of the problem, they tend to throw their hands up in despair. They just get overwhelmed by the sheer number of problems that have to be solved. Therefore, I've evolved the following strategy: I explain the concept of climate change "wedges" and tell them, "You can't effectively focus on every issue that needs solving. But you can become an effective actor in one wedge. Pick one, and make it your cause; let the others be taken care of by others who've made the same decision." As with so much else in life, it's vitally important not to be overwhelmed, and important to break big problems down into smaller, bite-sized chunks. This is why actually panicking people won't motivate them. You need them concerned, and determined, and for them to be determined they have to have a problem on their own scale they can solve. Give them one wedge apiece. Collectively, they can do it.

Posted by: Karl Schroeder on 22 Feb 08

I'm leading a large British Council (UK cultural relations organisation) project to identify 400 future influencers and leaders accross 20 European countries each year over the next three years. We're challenging them to develop and execute three large worldchanging and climatesaving ideas per country, and we're supporting them through that process with academic, financial and PR resources provided by a cross society mix of enlightened corporates and other government and non-government partner organisations. Our vision and hope is that when you get a critical mass of highly intelligent and charismatic thought leaders arguing for and driving forward innovative low carbon living scenarios and processes accross a whole continent, they will "infect" other influencers and the general population with their ideas and you'll begin to see things happen in society. It's only a partial answer to your question, Alex, but given this is the 21st century where the power is in the network, we're prioritising our resources on the future influencers and supporting them to make a difference.

Posted by: Simon Giverin on 22 Feb 08

It's "terriblisma" all over again. I know most readers won't like this idea, even I don't like it, but one way to wake people up is to gently scare them with images of what the future might look like, in say 2500, when survivors of global warming have to take refuge in northern retreats, what I am calling polar cities. See new blog entry here: It's still off the radar, and most people don't want to talk about it. That's okay. I am patient, and there's a method to my PR campaign. It's not to scare people, but to sound the alarm in a visual way.

Posted by: danny bloom on 24 Feb 08

Question: "What's your best or favorite idea for dramatically changing environmental perspectives on a mass basis?"

One answer: start talking publicly about possible future adaptation strategies that might be needed if we don't act soon.....such as polar cities for survivors of glo war.

Nina Munteanu in Canada, a well known sci fi writer there, nailed it here: both pro and con.

Posted by: danny bloom on 24 Feb 08

I agree.

I am saying "100% by 2030" in all my messaging, while knowing that we will not have any good solution for flying by then, apart from massive taxes.

I also believe that it is doable. The small town of Gussing, in eastern Austria, has achieved a 93% reduction in its emissions since 1995.

The Kalmar region of Sweden is aiming for zero carbon by 2030.

And Britain is announcing that all new buildings must be zero carbon by 2016-2020, probably this week.

The approach is going to be different, depending on where you live, but this is what's needed.

best wishes,

Guy Dauncey
Author of Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to GLobal Climate Change (New Society Publishers, 2001)
The Great CLimate Challenge: 101 Solutions to GLobal Warming (New Society Publishers, 2009)

President, BC Sustainable Energy Association

Posted by: Guy Dauncey on 25 Feb 08

As back-up for Karl Schroeder's comments above, about the "wedges", I have the same experience.

I give lots of public presentations, and also an all-day workshop on Climate Solutions at Royal Roads University, here in Victoria, BC, Canada, and I find that when I go through the areas of change systematically, showing all the amazing things that are happening, people come away inspired, and ready to get work.

I have found this solutions-oriented approach successful wherever I have spoken, from oil investors to high school students.

best wishes,
Guy Dauncey

Posted by: Guy Dauncey on 25 Feb 08

BRING IT ALL BACK HOME. Most people spend most of their time near where they live. That's where they will experience the impacts from global warming. They may be changing their lightbulbs to reduce the planetary impact, but it's in their back yards that they'll be dealing with the actual impacts.

So, I say, build a global network of local sites that can provide both the planetary viewpoint and the localized, more practical, perspective on what might happen and how to go about mitigating that.

The local is where the meaning and relevance is for the vast majority of us.

Posted by: Cliff Figallo on 27 Feb 08

Dear Alex and Worldchanging, thank you for this post. I live in Australia so the Garnaut Interim Report was particularly significant. It is the first words of truth we have ever had from any prominent official. As many will know, Australia was the "other climate outlaw", with the U.S. that has effectively put brakes on efforts to address this global catastrophe.
All it takes is an election !!!

The problem arises when the new government takes over. Garnaut has been roundly criticised for his report, even the government reducing this report every environmentalist has waited for, to just another "input". We have to sit here and twiddle thumbs until the final report is produced in September, nothing will happen until then. Meanwhile the big infrastructure projects for airports and shipping ramp up continue. There always seems to be this "lag" time.

I have witnessed the denial, despair and helplessness that accompanies the reality, John Seed and Ross Gelbspan have DVD's telling of exactly this response.

Even given this known reaction, I am a firm believer that the basis of a response lies in the TRUTH.

People MUST be told the truth, and it appears that only when the light of Kyoto shines in all countries can the truth be revealed and discussed.

What are we going to do ? tell the truth... I'm also a firm believer that the answer will not come from "the markets", but in the dialogue that takes place when the truth is known.

I would suggest that EVERYONE in the world takes 2 weeks off to discuss this issue. STOP everything and talk about the most dangerous issue the planet has faced, surely it's worth it.

Posted by: Richard Laverack on 1 Mar 08



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