Plastics and the Public Periphery

Laysan Albatross & Plastic Debris

My first blog feature on Climate Shifts was about marine debris. I wanted to get the word out there after recent Pacific travels. The usual litmus test encouraged me: does my family know about this issue? They didn’t. So, the video I had made for an academic class entered the YouTube world for Mom and blog-followers alike.

My first blog as an official contributor is about public awareness. Both Good Morning America and Stephen Colbert have spotlighted this issue in the past few months. But there really has been no mass response to the overwhelmingly apparent problem. Today,  CNN presents a long form video piece on pacific “plastic soup” featuring Capt. Charles Moore whom some accredit with discovering – what the media has dubbed – the “garbage patch.” The man has salt in his hair but not too many citations to his name. And, surprise: he didn’t discover it. Biologists at Midway Atoll have been quantifying the peculiarly abundant presence of plastic in the north Pacific since the late 1960s.

As an aspiring scientist myself, I’m struck by the lack of scientific faces in these media pieces.  The anthropogenic blame here is undeniable and disturbing. While many scientists are going on the front lines defending climate change, other phenomena of global environmental change are being left in the periphery.

The task asked of scientists is different than that of defending climate change. Instead of sound science and strong arguments, the issue needs eloquence and persistence in communicating the growing body of science assessing the ecological effects of marine debris. Fortunately, the three letters “PhD” still command a level of respect and recognition from mass audiences. It may be this recognition that can draw the “garbage patch” problem fully out from the periphery of the public consciousness.

Annual trends in reporting of climate change in the media and scientific literature

Screen shot 2009-09-10 at 1.06.41 PM

Here’s an interesting graph taken from a recent publication by Russill & Nyssa in the journal Global Environmental Change (“The tipping point trend in climate change communication”, 19:336-344). The entire article is a fascinating read, but if the methods are to be believed, the data implies a HUGE increase in the reporting of the phrase “Climate Change” by the Australian media in the last five years – more than the US and UK media combined at last count (2007). The solid line (ISI Web of Science) represents the use of the phrase “Climate Change” in the scientific literature. Methodological bias or a genuine representation of the climate change ‘feeding-frenzy’ by the Australian press in recent years? Food for thought.

” Climate change isn’t something to be believed or disbelieved”

The Guardian, September 4th 2008 (by Martin Parry, lead author of the 2007 assessment of impacts and adaptation by the IPCC)

"The media love a good argument, and what better than to pitch polemicists against each other from opposite ends of the spectrum? Thus we are given Björn Lomborg v Oliver Tickell in a so-called "climate debate" (Tickell’s apocalyptic view obscures the solutions; Lomborg’s stats won’t mean much underwater, August 21). Regrettably, we learned from this only that sensible solutions are unlikely to flow from entrenched and extreme positions. Most scientists are amazed and alarmed that the issue of climate change should be treated as an article of faith – something either to be believed or disbelieved – rather than a problem surrounded by a lot of uncertainty. What we got from these two was very misleading.

Lomborg claimed: "A lead economist of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] did a survey of all the problems and all the benefits accruing from a temperature rise over this century of about approximately 4C. The bottom line is that benefits right now outweigh the costs." There have been a few studies of the current effects of climate change (for example, on ice shelf and glacier retreat, and on plants and animals) and the IPCC has concluded these are happening faster than had been expected. But despite what Lomborg says there has been no useful assessment of whether these are beneficial or not, because aggregation of effects involves meaningless trade-offs such as comparing the destruction of Inuit communities with the benefits of ice-freed shipping lanes.

Lomborg believes that 4C of global warming "will not be a challenge to our civilisation" and derides Tickell, whom he quotes as stating that warming of this amount would bring "the beginning of the extinction of the human race". Both of these are heroic conclusions, since there has been no study of the limits to our adaptive capacity. The climate change issue has never been about whether we can survive or not, but keeping damages and costs to a tolerable level. The IPCC concluded in 2007 that we risk billions more people being short of water due to climate change, and hundreds of millions at risk of flooding and hunger. That is a lot of suffering, but not the end of civilisation.

There is a strong emerging view, proposed by the IPCC in its latest assessment in 2007, that a careful mixture of mitigation (reducing emissions) and adaptation will be necessary to meet the challenge of climate change. And this is broadly accepted by governments now striving for agreement by the end of next year. The polarised views of both Tickell and Lomborg miss this completely. We know we cannot avoid some serious climate change (our vacillation over the past 10 years has put paid to that), but we can avoid the worst of it. At a minimum we will have to adapt to about 2C of warming. The choice still available to us is whether we should try to avoid more than this amount of warming. Common sense suggests we should, since we do not really know what impacts the future holds, and we risk repeating the mistake of the movie producer Lew Grade who, looking back on the mounting losses of his film Raise the Titanic, concluded: "It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic."