Sunday, 31 July 2016

1 degree warmer is not enough

1°C is:
  • 6% of Earth's average temperature.
  • The energy of 94,000,000 Hiroshima bombs of extra heat in the atmosphere.
  • The energy of 840,000,000,000 Hiroshima bombs of extra heat in the oceans.
Update 16/8/2015: Skeptical Science was ahead of me.

The problem with the one degree target for global warming is that it does not communicate the magnitude. One degree sounds miniscule. There's 99 other degrees between it and boiling point. Furthermore, there's 359 other degrees to a complete revolution. As mistaken as those associations are, the point is that we interpret numbers and units through the filter of language, and language bears preconceptions and bias.

Let's try another perspective, Earth's average temperature is 15 degrees Celsius, making a one degree change six percent. While your coldest days warming by six percent sounds pleasant, imagine your hottest days doing the same.

For those who still think six percent is insignificant, imagine three of your fifty friends and relatives dying. Snuffed out. Erased from existence. Perhaps from heatstroke. Also think of how much you would sweat if central banks around the world suddenly adopted that rate, sending your mortgage repayments into overdrive. Six percent is no longer negligible.

'1 degree' may be accurate, but it is hardly exciting. We may sniff that minds are more important than hearts, but climate change deniers abandon accuracy for sensationalism, and they are not losing fast enough. That is not to say that the contest should devolve into a tournament of lies. Different expressions of the same concept can be just as accurate.

First, the numbers. The bigger the better. People don't get turned off by big numbers. Big numbers are tweet-worthy. They get shared and liked on Facebook. '1 degree' appears small and dorky.

That's why I did not use scientific notation above. If I wrote 9.4 x 107, I'd hear voices shouting 'Neeerrrd!' from the grandstand. Heck, I'd be one of them. Numbers separated by commas don't get understood or scrutinised, but they do get attention.

Which brings me to the units. Centigrade is Meteorology. Kelvin is Physics. Both make eyes glaze over. Percent is the alpha-speak of discounts, profit, and performance. Hiroshima bombs are not an SI unit but to people who may think a joule is a French dessert it is comprehensible, and ominous. One Hiroshima caused devastation and decades of fallout. Imagine thousands of millions. We've exploded none in recent years. It should be possible to prevent similarly damaging energy buildup in our environment.

To sum up, here's the reactions of everyday folks to different expressions:
  • '1 degree' = "Pshaw! Just deal with it. Don't even need to touch the thermostat."
  • 'Three of the people you know and love' = "Nooo! Not Uncle George!"
  • 'Six percent interest rate increase on your loans.' = "They'll take this farm over my dead body! [Loads shotgun]"
  • 'Eight bazillion Hiroshima bombs in the air and water around you' = "Holy $%#@! Let's murder the f@#$kers who are doing this! (Oh wait...)"

I'm not going to go full Hobbes and say people are stupid. However, I do think that the expertise of the majority lie outside science. They don't think science, nor do they speak it. Deniers use this to speak their language. Jobs! Economy! Conspiracy!

Communications in pure science will always be ignored. Even more so when opposed by those who use relatable language to pass obstruction off as common-sense caution. Let's acknowledge this and think of better ways to say '1 degree'.


1 comment:

  1. What could people understand more? Perhaps growth in size of deserts. Perhaps the latitudes where wheat will grow shifting towards the poles. Perhaps the distance up mountains a region of equal temperature will shift.

    Personally, I think a lot of people will refuse to believe it until it personally affects them, at which point they'll scream bloody murder. We've got a number of years before that happens.