Cognitive Daily

We usually try to stay focused on cognitive psychology here at Cognitive Daily, but today I did want to point you to a book review I’ve written in The Quarterly Conversation. I think Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers may just be the kind of book that can change the way the world thinks about global warming. Here’s some of why I found it so compelling:

Perhaps most convincing is The Weather Makers’ presentation of the vast amount of knowledge about historical climate change that has been accumulated. The information puts our era into context, and provides a compelling rebuttal for those who say that a few degrees change in temperature is no big deal.

The book explains how a variety of geohistorical techniques have independently demonstrated that many of the epochal climate variations of the earth’s past can be explained by variations in the amount of greenhouse gases then present in the atmosphere. In the past, the earth has ranged from hundred-thousand-year ice ages that made vast portions of the northern hemisphere uninhabitable, to completely unglaciated periods lasting millions of years that turned nearly the entire planet into a primordial tropical swamp. The most dramatic and relevant of these episodes occurred 55 million years ago, when the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose from around 500 parts per million (roughly 1.5 times the current level) to over 2000 parts per million, probably due to volcanic activity. The earth, already much warmer than today, heated by 5 to 10 degrees centigrade, causing mass extinctions on land. The atmospheric carbon dioxide was then absorbed by the oceans, where it was converted into carbonic acid, which in turn wiped out shelled marine life as their protective armor dissolved. Today, if atmospheric carbon dioxide levels continue to increase at current rates, the resulting climate change will be even more dramatic, because it’s starting at a point where many more animals–including ourselves–are adapted to a much colder planet.

I encourage you to read the whole review. Then, read the whole book.


  1. #1 Carel
    March 6, 2006

    Looks like a must read. Thanks. Is that the Australian mammalogist Tim Flannery?

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    March 6, 2006

    Yep, that’s the guy. He’s an excellent writer with a great sense of how to give lay readers what they need without dumbing things down too much.

  3. #3 SkookumPlanet
    March 6, 2006

    I’m glad you posted this, but I’m going to toss a little water on your enthusiasm. I’m a writer, not a scientist, but have followed GW research for decades.

    Let me first emphasize the quote above is correct, and even underplays the nature and volatility of Earth’s past climate extremes. Even worse for us, there’s increasing nervousness among many researchers that the episode 55 millon years ago had another cause. The warming is known as the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. The concern is it might have been caused by the collapse of a large, underwater methane hydrate field on the continental shelf and a candidate site has even been proposed off Scandinavia.

    For the uninitiated, methane hydrate fields are water ice, with a molecule of methane trapped within the crystalline “box” created by 8 water molecules. [Those who know will correct any errors, I trust.] There are around a two dozen massive fields, similar in size to the largest oil fields, in the permafrost and on continental shelves around the world. If the ice melts the methame gets released. Methane is a very effecient greenhouse gas, and dumping huge amounts quickly into the atmosphere is likely to overwhelm the natural chemistry that converts it to [carbon dioxide?].

    The threat to the permafrost fields from GW is obvious, but those on the continental shelf may be under even more threat. We don’t know. My understanding is that they are kept frozen by very cold [but above freezing] ocean water and pressure. I’ve seen photos of part of such fields exposed, white, on the ocean floor. [This stuff is cool. I’ve also seen photos of it on the surface, in someone’s open hand, a hunk of ice with it’s top in flames!] As understanding of the past volatility of the Gulf Stream/Thermohaline Conveyor Belt quickly grows, the unknown factors that keep the continental shelf fields stable are becoming a focus of researchers.

    Shifting gears, here’s the cold water. Nobody reads books. Those that do, probably everybody who comes by scienceblogs, are a tiny fraction, a few percent, of the population. And books about science? Books, even great ones as I assume Flannery’s book is, end up being props in the real communication arena. What I call psychomarketing.

    I’ve posted a bit about it on scienceblogs over the last few weeks, but won’t link back unless someone is really interested. But it very successfully operates, by influencing emotional decision making, using “persuasion”-based messages and is highly science-based. Many fields over many years have contributed technology, but you guys are in one of the currently most important — cognitive psychology.

    The “carbon lobby” has taken to using this stuff and the average American is cluless about the state of GW science and the actual threat. Survey data repeatedly shows this. The strategists of the far right are the only group that has successfully applied psychomarketing to politics. Nobody else stands a chance unless they do so also, and even scientists don’t seem to be able to see this as a scientific problem. As much of a book lover as I am, I understand books are just props in this struggle. Except books about the various tools, techniques, and knowledge used by psychomarketing. No, I don’t know of any.

  4. #4 Dave Munger
    March 6, 2006

    I wouldn’t call my attitude “enthusiasm.” I think there’s a lot of hard work to be done, and I have no illusions that one book will solve the problem. As I point out in my review, a key difficulty is convincing the general public that a problem exists, and that the cure isn’t worse than the disease.

    That said, you make a lot of important points in your comment — the carbon lobby is a formidable nemesis, and anti-global warming advocates need to organize a systematic response. I’d prefer if they didn’t resort to underhanded techniques in order to attain their goals, but that may be what’s necessary.

  5. #5 SkookumPlanet
    March 6, 2006

    I seem to have come off more negatively than I intended — it’s frustration. From what you posted about Flannery’s book, I’m enthusiastic about it, and any well-written, insightful survey of GW for the general reader.

    Whether or not some or all of psychomarketing is “underhanded” or ethical has, in a strange and horrible way, become a moot argument. Not meaningless, but moot.

    For the last 5 months I’ve been absorbing, first, the discussion inside the environmental movement about “The Death of Environmentalism” paper presented over a year ago, then much discussion on science blogs about the emerging political issues facing science. I’ve seen ongoing evidence that almost everyone involved analyzes the cause of and solutions to these sociopolitical issues in outdated and generally ineffective terms.

    There’s much evidence for this, but I’ll mention one item. Linguist George Lakoff has applied the concepts and research and vocabulary of his field to the rise and success of the far right. His is a cogent and psychological deep explanation that fits history. Very few people discussing him in these venues, even favorably, understand his points. And specifically, over and over again people show they think of Lakoff’s “framing” as a variation of spin or propaganda or sales or marketing, etc. Lakoff repeatedly and specifically and overtly says it isn’t, and his long, detailed explanations of “framing” make clear its something much more profound. People simply don’t get it. But they think they do.

    It seems to me that psychomarketing has become so powerful in the political arena, and it’s use so onesided, that standard approaches to countering these trends will always be outmaneuvered. It’s the equivilant of going up against machine guns with flintlocks. Sophisticated political forces in America are using science-derived technology to manipulate a constituency. If they need to defund or even wreck areas of science, as sops to this consituency, to get and maintain political power, they’ll do it without a second thought.

    Contemporary America is ALL MESSAGE, all the time. Talk about survival of the fittest. Citizens are so overwhelmed with messages that just to get their attention long enough to deliver your message is a brutal, highly competitive, junkyard-dog struggle.

    Out of necessity the only way into people’s minds is through sophisticated mass communication tools derived from 50 years of applying a growing, increasingly nuanced scientific knowledge of how humans process information. It has to be emotional, persuasion-based communication and there is immense competition to do this. There is no other alternative.

    How honestly can this be done? That’s an open question.

    But I’m very, very frustrated.

    Again, thanks for posting about Flannery’s book.

  6. #6 P.M.Bryant
    March 7, 2006

    I’m reading this book at the moment–about half-way through. It is extremely engaging and terrifically well-written.

    As I read about past climate and current effects of climate change, I find myself recoiling in horror and disbelief. I have a keen understanding of the physical issues involved–how the energy balance of our planet is being messed with, big-time. Yet my instinct on reading this stuff is to say, no that is too horrific–it can’t be that bad. My innate scientific skepticism kicks in.

    And if it is that bad, I find myself not wanting to think about it. It is too depressing.

    Of course I haven’t gotten to the latter part of the book yet, which I hope is more optimistic about what we can do to address the problems.

    I suspect it could be attitudes like my instinctual ones, on a large scale, that get in the way of serious public action on this issue.

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