We’re all in this (test tube) together

In the wake of contributing to the Battle of Ideas ‘New Environmentalism’ debate yesterday, and a twitter exchange with OU colleagues Mark Brandon and Simon Kelley I recalled this 2008 post I put on OpenLearn about a really smart piece of climate change communications. So I’m posting it here on my own blog. My understanding is that most of the organisers and vocal participants at Battle of Ideas seemed to come from an old Trotskyite tradition, and carried their inbuilt opposition to environmental concerns into the room (and gripped tightly onto them). I didn’t hear or see much to contradict Jenny Turner’s piece in the LRB about where BOI is coming from [EDIT 8 hours on:NB Ben Pile tweeted to emphasise that he felt this LRB piece to be a ‘hatchet job’. I acknowledge that I’m not in a position to judge the politics of the piece. There were specific passages that I recognised from my experience of Battle of Ideas – may get back to post more one why just b/c they seem relevant to a discussion of ‘new environmentalism’ or, in my terms, the relationship between environmental thought and modernism – thanks Ben – you were one of the ‘nice people’…] . I had not been looking forward to contributing to the event, but had some interesting conversations and met some nice people, and in any case feel its an obligation on academics to accept invites to talk publicly about their ideas, so a worthwhile weekend at the office. I may find time to write more on this unusual experience later in the week, but either way I hope Greg’s video might offer another way into serious consideration of climate change research and policy for people who feel alienated by the idiom of environmentalism.

The best piece of climate change communications that I’ve come across in years does not come from the BBC, Hollywood, or a massively overpaid ad agency. Rather it’s the work of a geek-and-proud-of-it 38-year-old science teacher from Independence, Oregon. His line is that the American public is making a mistake approaching climate change as a question of whether the science of climate change is finished or not. Instead we all need to look at this as a risk management problem.

This ten-minute video ‘The Most Frightening Video You’ll Ever See’ looks pretty unpromising at first sight. Greg Craven has posted a homemade film that is structured as a dialogue between himself and a devils advocate (Greg in a silly hat). The piece is delivered straight to camera with the odd chemistry class explosion thrown in to keep the kids happy. It is structured as a logical argument that he believes leads conclusively to an argument in favour of action to limit the risks of climate change.

The argument is a version of Pascal’s Wager, that is, the argument put by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal more than 300 years ago that you may as well believe in God as belief may bring big rewards but carries few risks, whereas, scepticism carries dreadful risks, but few rewards. In fact Greg’s use of this kind of decision matrix is on much safer terrain that Pascal’s, because it is rooted in physics and economics not theology. Here is a version of his matrix:

Action on climate change No Action on climate change
Climate change science is false Economic harm with no immediate benefit No climate change and no costs to the economy
Climate change science is true Disaster averted Environmental, social, political & economic disaster

His incredibly efficient script acknowledges the simplifications in his argument. He adds some subtlety to all of these positions. For example in the case of the top left box action on climate brings plenty of economic benefits – including energy security. But ultimately he suggests we shouldn’t wait to see what the laws of physics are going to throw at us but should get on with reducing the risks of climate change with urgent action.

Gently funny but with deadly serious intent; clever but self-deprecating, I find this pitch-perfect. Despite Al Gore’s best efforts plenty of people, particularly in the US are sceptical, or at best confused, with regard to climate change science or policy action. One of the great things about Greg’s approach is that it invites all those people into a conversation about what risks they’re willing to take. It doesn’t brand them as foolish or greedy, but instead lets them listen to a reasoned conversation between Greg and his alter ego.

He embodies the contradictory emotions and thoughts that a lot of people carry around on this topic. And he encourages critique from viewers, resulting in updated versions of his argument. As with all things on the World Wild Web it is difficult to judge the tone and verify the source of some of the comment. I wasn’t sure whether the posting that said ‘this is scary – halfway through I went out to buy a Prius’ is a first class ironist or in need of quite a lot more study time on the subject.

But I find it really intriguing that a nerdy teacher can put together a ten minute film that is viewed by over four million people across a year, and then have a dialogue with anyone that chooses to respond. I’m no blind techno-optimist, but it is handy that the Internet came along at precisely the same moment as ‘the greatest challenge facing humanity’. Last word to Greg:

‘This is likely to be the greatest threat that humanity has ever faced. Think that’s overblown? Maybe. But can you be so certain that you’re willing to bet everything? Because we only get to run this experiment once. Hopefully this idea of risk management will be what ends the debate. How the world ends up? Well that depends in part on you and what you do next. We have greatness within us: innovative, giving, determined. It’s time for the best in us to come out.’

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