Back to Cherry-Picking and Political Feedback

In the last few blogs, I was busy summarizing our trip to Australia. It’s time to return to the real world.  The dominating features in the news are the various legal issues of ex-president Trump and his acolytes and the devastating wildfires in Maui that destroyed Lahaina. More than 100 people have been reported dead  and around 1,000 are still missing, so it is predicted that the number of fatalities is going to increase substantially. As strange as it seems, the two issues are related. Also taking place “now” is a series of warnings about the threats of global changes—namely, the anthropogenic (human-caused) changes in the atmospheric chemistry that directly result in temperature increase:

Weeks of scorching summer heat in North America, Europe, Asia and elsewhere are putting July on track to be Earth’s warmest month on record, the European Union climate monitor said on Thursday, the latest milestone in what is emerging as an extraordinary year for global temperatures.

Last month, the planet experienced its hottest June since records began in 1850. July 6 was its hottest day. And the odds are rising that 2023 will end up displacing 2016 as the hottest year. At the moment, the eight warmest years on the books are the past eight.

“The extreme weather which has affected many millions of people in July is unfortunately the harsh reality of climate change and a foretaste of the future,” Petteri Taalas, the secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization, said in a statement. “The need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is more urgent than ever before.”

It’s hot almost everywhere and the symptoms are predictable. I will return to these in greater length in future blogs. Below is a short list:

Sea ice is melting at an accelerated pace around Antarctica and Greenland. This is bound to accelerate land ice melting in these locations. Both factors are predicted to accelerate global sea level rise.

More than 90% of the increase in solar heat is absorbed by the Earth’s oceans. This means that ocean temperatures are also rising at an accelerated pace, as can be seen in Figure 1. The extra heat is sure to accelerate extreme weather events such as hurricanes and tornadoes and prolong the impact of climate change even after we have control of greenhouse gases.

Figure 1 – Ocean temperatures by year (Source: ERA5, C3S/ECMWF via BBC)

This rise in water temperature and influx of fresh water is causing a major decrease in ocean currents, which will have a strong impact on global heat flow. That, in turn, will have a strong impact on global weather.

As we will see below, considerable progress has been made in mitigating and adapting to the anthropogenic forces that trigger devastating consequences of climate change. Even so, all of that progress can be reversed through a change of governments. One concrete example from the US is sufficient to demonstrate the risk:

During a summer of scorching heat that has broken records and forced Americans to confront the reality of climate change, conservatives are laying the groundwork for a future Republican administration that would dismantle efforts to slow global warming.

The move is part of a sweeping strategy dubbed Project 2025 that Paul Dans of the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank organizing the effort, has called a “battle plan” for the first 180 days of a future Republican presidency.

The climate and energy provisions would be among the most severe swings away from current federal policies.

The plan calls for shredding regulations to curb greenhouse gas pollution from cars, oil and gas wells and power plants, dismantling almost every clean energy program in the federal government and boosting the production of fossil fuels — the burning of which is the chief cause of planetary warming.

However, our new era “enjoys” an avalanche of communication. It is up to us to pick and choose. None of us has the time or interest to follow all the available news. What we often tend to follow are sources that fit our worldview. If we are living in democratic countries in which periodically, we choose our governments, we likely cherry-pick information that strengthens our worldview and justifies our preconceived priorities. This practice provides a positive feedback loop iiiand serves to strengthen our polarization. A good example of all of this took place on the morning of Sunday, August 12th.

I was still busy with the blogs that summarized our Australian trip. However, when we are home, our routine for Sunday morning is to read the New York Times, followed by breakfast. On Sunday, the paper usually arrives a bit late, so we often supplement it with the digital edition on our iPads. On August 12th, I saw in the digital edition of the NYT a large survey of the status of our energy transition, summarized in three articles. Each article was introduced in the following way:

This is the first article in a three-part series examining the speedchallenges and politics of the American economy moving toward clean energy.   Aug 16, 2023

It mentions August 16, 2023 with no explanation.

This series was clearly “bread and butter” for me, and for this blog, but not necessarily for everybody else, my wife included. Below are the “cherry-picked” citations that give the essence of the three articles:

Energy Transition: Speed

“We look at energy data on a daily basis, and it’s astonishing what’s happening,” said Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency. “Clean energy is moving faster than many people think, and it’s become turbocharged lately.”

More than $1.7 trillion worldwide is expected to be invested in technologies such as wind, solar power, electric vehicles and batteries globally this year, according to the I.E.A., compared with just over $1 trillion in fossil fuels. That is by far the most ever spent on clean energy in a year.

Those investments are driving explosive growth. China, which already leads the world in the sheer amount of electricity produced by wind and solar power, is expected to double its capacity by 2025, five years ahead of schedule. In Britain, roughly one-third of electricity is generated by wind, solar and hydropower. And in the United States, 23 percent of electricity is expected to come from renewable sources this year, up 10 percentage points from a decade ago.

Figure 2 – The rate of solar and wind power adaptation in the three most populous countries and the EU (Source: The Energy Institute’s 2023 Statistical Review of World Energy via The New York Times)

Energy Transition: Challenges

One key to harnessing that wind lies at the end of a causeway jutting into the bay, on a mostly undeveloped island where eagles fish offshore and people walk in the quiet shade. Many officials see this spot, known as Sears Island, as the ideal site to build and launch a flotilla of turbines that could significantly lessen Maine’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Standing in their way are environmental groups and local residents, all of whom are committed to a clean energy future and worried about the rapid warming of the earth. Still, they want the state to pick a different site for its so-called wind port, citing the tranquility of Sears Island and its popularity and accessibility as a recreation destination.

On a recent summer morning one conservationist against the plan, Scott Dickerson, sat on a picnic bench and predicted environmental groups would sue to thwart development of the island, as they had many times in the past.

“And that, as you can imagine, is going to run the clock,” he said, costing the state valuable time that could be saved by looking elsewhere.

The NIMBY (not in my backyard) mentality has never left us and it is completely bipartisan (See my August 27, 2012 blog).

Energy Transition: Politics

In conversations with activists, policymakers, and corporate executives, it becomes clear that a save-the-planet argument doesn’t go very far. Most people won’t buy green technology unless it will clearly save them money and wows them with stunning designs or jaw-dropping performance.

Many, conservatives in particular, chafe at the prospect of the government forcing them to buy electric cars or ditch their natural gas appliances, polls show. That’s perhaps why those pitching the technology often avoid mentioning climate change. They emulate evangelists who don’t lead with Jesus when trying to win over nonbelievers.

The Inflation Reduction Act passed by Democrats last year allocated hundreds of billions of dollars in incentives for wind and solar manufacturing, electric vehicles, and other clean energy.

Although no Republicans voted for the bill, much of the money has gone to G.O.P.-led states in the South where many automakers, battery manufacturers and solar companies are building factories in part to take advantage of the law’s tax breaks.

Getting credit for the new jobs is a political imperative for President Biden, who will be seeking re-election next year. That helps explain why his energy secretary, Jennifer Granholm, spent part of July traversing the Southeast in a caravan of electric vehicles.

Among residents benefiting from the economic boost, attitudes may be softening. Outside Dalton, Ga., Qcells, a maker of solar panels, is planning to expand a manufacturing plant. The factory is in the congressional district represented by Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican who has called fossil fuels “amazing” and climate change a “scam.”

William Turner, 49, one of Ms. Greene’s constituents, said he didn’t “really buy into that stuff” about global warming. But he added, “I don’t have anything against solar, especially if it’s creating jobs.”

My wife didn’t start with the digital version but waited for the printed version. I doubted that she would read all three articles but was curious to find out if she would read any and if so, which one she would choose. Well, the answer was simple – the series didn’t show up on the printed version. I thought, well, maybe the mysterious “August 16” written after the introduction could mean that the printed version would include the articles on the 16th. It didn’t. Aside from the August 12th digital version, I have yet to see it anywhere.*

A sort of “revisit” of the energy transition series showed up in the August 18th printed edition of the NYT in the “The Story Behind the Story” section written by David Gelles.

*I generally write these posts ahead of time. After writing about the missing articles above, they finally appeared as a full supplement in the printed version that showed up this past Saturday. My wife and I were able to see it only on Sunday because we were traveling away from home. I mention to my wife what I had written in the blog and asked her the same questions I had planned on asking her originally. Her response was that she “scanned” all three.

This gave me another idea about how to quantify “cherry-picking” of a larger, more complex, reality: every weekend the NYT comes out with a quiz. Both my wife and I usually try to solve the multiple-choice quizzes. If we are doing well, we brag; if we are not doing so well, we keep quiet. They generally cover a few explanatory articles. It will be interesting to take such a quiz on a single complex issue with political implications. From this exercise, I will try to quantify the informational cherry-picking and thus contribute to our understanding of polarized attitudes that public information can address.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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3 Responses to Back to Cherry-Picking and Political Feedback

  1. Zoe P. Davis says:

    Hi Professor,

    You spoke with us about cherry picking in class. I never thought about how it could apply to the conversation of the climate. More and more I am thinking about the role that media plays in my life. It has a vital role in our understanding of different topics. Climate is not an exception. If you’re listening to people like Marjorie Taylor Greene, you’ll think of climate change as a scam, whereas people who listen to AOC are probably a bit more likely to push for a green new deal or at least know what it is.

    This issue shouldn’t be as divisive as it is. There needs to be a balanced conversation on climate change. One that highlights the truth and doesn’t let bias get in the way of anything. It’s sad though – asking for that in our society is like asking God to give pigs the ability to fly.

    I wish people didn’t need to be “won over” or convinced into caring about climate change. We’re all living on the planet. It affects all of us. That should be enough of a reason to care.


  2. Niamh Zanghi says:

    Hello professor,

    I, too, follow the NYT. I try to read The Daily every morning. I have a theory that the NYT Games drives more interest in the articles, as readers are more inclined to read them to prepare for the quiz.

    I have another theory: I think, if NYT were to implement a quiz that is based around their climate articles, then more people would be interested in climate politics and research. This could increase interest in a subject many people (including myself, sometimes) find daunting. Plus, the games must generate a lot of revenue and traffic for NYT, which is a plus.

    Niamh Zanghi

  3. Mar Romagosa Marruedo says:

    It’s fascinating to see how this blog delves into the intricate connections between climate change, politics, and media consumption. Dr. Tomkiewicz’s approach of linking recent events like the wildfires in Maui and the legal issues surrounding ex-President Trump to the broader issue of climate change paints a vivid picture of the complex challenges we face.

    I appreciate the emphasis on the role of media in shaping our understanding of these critical issues and how it can contribute to polarization. The idea of quantifying “cherry-picking” information through quizzes is a unique approach that could provide valuable insights into how people engage with and prioritize news.

    This blog serves as a reminder of the urgency of climate action and the need for informed, balanced, and thoughtful discussions on the topic. It’s a valuable resource for anyone looking to deepen their understanding of climate change and its multifaceted impacts. I can’t wait to read more entries 🙂

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