Thursday, August 15, 2013

Climate change is like a nice warm bubble bath?

Sou | 6:15 AM Go to the first of 34 comments. Add a comment

Warren Pearce is a Leverhulme Research Fellow on Making Science Public programme, University of Nottingham.  Last week he had an article in the Guardian which came across as praise (faint praise admittedly) of the efforts of disinformation merchants.  Thought it was a bit rich myself - as if they help us speed up the necessary transition to clean energy.

Today I see on his blog that he objects to using Hiroshima bombs to indicate the amount of energy that's accumulating on earth as we add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.  (Hiroshima bombs are used to indicate the size of earthquakes, for example.)  Warren prefers the notion of a bath to indicate how much energy is being accumulated.  He reckons expressing accumulating energy in terms of Hiroshima bombs is "catastrophic climate porn".

Climate change is like a bubble bath...mmmm, lovely!

Warren's argument is that people look out their window and think that if what they see is the equivalent to four Hiroshima bombs a second then four Hiroshima bombs a second can't be very bad.  He writes:
If four Hiroshimas per second result only in an intangible, incremental risk, rather than an *actual* catastrophe equivalent to Hiroshima, one might reach the opposite conclusion from that intended: that the earth is actually quite resilient to such energy retention, and that four Hiroshimas per second isn’t anything to worry about. 
He suggests talking about a bath filling up and what will happen when the bath overflows.

I can't say I agree with him at all, but would be interested in what you think.  I do think it's important to tailor the message to the audience.  But when the audience is the general public, then I have no problem in telling it like it is.

To me Warren comes across as wanting to downplay the impact of climate change.  In this particular blog article he comes across as a tone troll.  It's also got me wondering how the hell he got his job.  (He's a jack of all trades, listing himself as "Also research and teching (sic) teaching in climate change and local government policy. Trainer, writer, practitioner in data visualisation and presentations.")


  1. The whole University of Nottingham, Making Science Blog is really confusing (to put it politely). It really seems as though their view of the way to make science public is to engage with everyone who claims to be doing science. That some of those claiming to be doing science are getting it horribly and demonstrably wrong, doesn't seem to be taken as a serious issue. I'm really not sure what to make of it, so should probably give it more thought before commenting further as I may end up saying something that I later regret.

  2. "Also research and teching (sic) teaching in climate change and local government policy. Trainer, writer, practitioner in data visualisation and presentations" aka brand-new post-doc.

    Check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=09949c6ROLA, in which he demonstrates how very wet behind the ears he is.

    I asked him about his odd activities and he said he's engaging in participant research, the basic idea being to blend in with your research subjects (climate denialists in his case) so as to get data a perceived outsider would be unlikely to be able to gather. It seems to me he's taking the concept too far. OTOH climate science communication is a big academic deal these days, and his supervisor and perhaps also the Leverhulme Trust will have signed off on his approach.

    1. Well, what you say at the end of your comment doesn't seem consistent with his youtube video. He seems to be suggestion that people are trying to close down the scientific debate. This indicates to me that he doesn't really understand how science works. You don't debate your opinions. You present your work (evidence if you like) and you let the field progress. One might debate the strength of the evidence. You might discuss the validity of model assumptions. There clearly will be aspects that will be discussed and people will clearly not agree about everything. However, simply having a different opinion is meaningless if you don't have any evidence. Arguing that we should be including people who are getting the science demonstrably wrong into a debate about science seems completely absurd. Admittedly, maybe the latter part of your comment is right and he's trying to go undercover.

  3. Agreed with Wotts that the larger project is a little strange. I imagine sociologists are under considerable pressure to keep coming up with new research angles, not that that's any excuse.

    But this particular group aside, that fact that denialists are starting to get a lot more attention from social science academics is almost certainly a good thing.

  4. This time he is mainly right.

    Both Hiroshima bomb and Tōhoku are inappropriate. Not only that they clearly elicit an emotional response, and are also abstract as energy unit (you think of the outcome not of the energy contained), but also because these are energy pulses highly located in space and time and as such produce a completely different outcome.

    Warren Pearce suggestion to use the earthquake of Tōhoku is even more inappropriate as it suggests that climate change in natural. Which is an untenable position in 2013.

    Watt per square meter is a fine unit, isn't it? Relatively intuitive, neutral and scientific. If that is still too abstract, you can compute it as a percentage and divide it by the energy flux that comes from the sun.

    His idea that atomic bomb are not a good unit because it does not fit to looking "out of my window for evidence" is indeed very unscientific as he already admits himself. Still he makes this strange comparison. It would lead to saying there is no evidence for crime, terror, accidents, unemployment, economic growth, biodiversity loss, corruption, etc. Just look out of the window!

    1. Victor, I hadn't seen it has being wrong or inappropriate. I had always just seen it as an energy comparison and it's been used in that context in other scenarios. If it was clear that the people of Hiroshima or Nagasaki (or Japan) today find it objectionable, I might be more willing to acknowledge that it shouldn't be used. Admittedly, if there was another way to illustrate the point I wouldn't argue that we should stick with this comparison, I'm just still struggling to see why it's seen by some as being inappropriate. Admittedly, there are people on both sides of the debate who seem to think it's inappropriate, so maybe I should give this some more thought :-)

  5. I actually kind of agree with him. Four Hiroshimas would strike many people as being incredibly destructive but in the context of the earth's overall energy balance it's actually rather small, so I'm not sure how meaningful it is.

    It's kind of the converse argument to "but CO2 is only 0.04% of the atmosphere so it can't have a big effect.

  6. One other issue I have with this whole Hiroshima bomb criticism is how it seems to have evolved. Initially numerous people were criticising the comparison for being wrong. Then it became clear that it wasn't wrong and now all of a sudden it's inappropriate. I have no issue with people acknowledging something when it's right to do so. It just seems like another example of where it ends up being a discussion about terminology, or the meaning of words, rather than what was intended. Getting people to recognise that the Earth is accruing energy at quite a remarkable rate.

    1. Yes it is terminology. I feel it is very important that scientists use neutral terminology, certainly in the scientific literature. I find the language of the scientific literature very strange, all those speudo-objective passive sentences, etc. However, it does help in keeping your thinking neutral, to give proper attention to all sides of an argument. Thus it is definitely something to keep, if strange at times.

      What the politicians and the environmental movement does, is their choice.

      And it is the choice of SkS which group they want to belong to. Personally, I see them as part of the environmental movement. A part that knows the scientific literature very well. That is also an honourable role (as a private citizen, I am member of Friends of the Earth).

    2. Wotts writes:

      It just seems like another example of where it ends up being a discussion about terminology, or the meaning of words, rather than what was intended.

      Ahh... but that's how it's *supposed* to work!

  7. The bath tub analogy is also quite bad by the way. It suggests that everything is well as long as the water level has not risen to the top and that then a sudden catastrophe happens. Sounds similar to the, as far as I know, political 2°C limit.

    Funny that Warren Pearce should chose such an alarmistic analogy and that Sou interprets it as a nice warm bubble bath.

  8. Pearce actually described my intuitive response to the hiroshima bomb explanation almost word for word.Having said that, there has been quite a lot of discussion around this communication strategy and the responses suggest that it is an extremely effective explanation for many people. So while I can confirm that his conjecture was correct for at least one person, this doesn't appear to be the broader response.

    Importantly, I am stuck using words like 'appear'. Responses to different science education strategies can and should be measured.

    He is basically just raising the known risk of using analogies.

  9. I tell the people in my workplace about '4 Hiroshima bombs a second', and their eyes open wide.

    Mention 'watts per metre squared' and their eyes glaze over.

    What is it about being effective that some people find so troubling?

    There is no historic link between being 'nice' or 'reasonable' and winning. If anything, the reverse is true.

    So, don't waste time attacking your allies because you're trying to make concessions to the world-view of rejectionists and people who instinctively feel that being effective is being abrasive, that making people uncomfortable is inherently wrong.

    I also think that, like Denial, playing the false-balance 'Solomonic' critic is seen, consciously or otherwise, as a ticket to recognition for people who would otherwise find little chance of gaining attention in a mainstream already swamped by high-performers. In fact, this is becoming quite the little cottage industry of late.

    TOP TIP: If you actually want to get somewhere in this struggle, and you do, don't waste your time attacking the likes of SkS and Joe Romm. Seriously. Get a grip.

    I come from an active campaigning background. It is painfully, almost unendurably obvious to me that our side in this debate generally doesn't. You'd almost think it wasn't the planet we were playing for! Like it or not, people, we're in this to win - we have to be - and if you're constantly pulling down your own side in a spirit of misplaced righteousness you won't. It really is that simple.

    As for my fellow employees, never fear; whatever you might say, and however 'nicely' you put it, they'll spot something shiny shortly afterwards anyway. Tying yourself in knots in an effort to win-over those who are too comfortable and/or cowardly to commit themselves anyway - and that's currently the overwhelming majority in all Western countries - is a crazy way to try to win a debate, a close cousin to the equally crazy economic theory of 'rational actors'.

    But they're certainly smart enough to realize '4 Hiroshima bombs a second' doesn't actually mean there's a mushroom cloud popping up in an ocean somewhere. The idea will linger in the back of their minds though - 'watts per m2'?; not a freakin' chance! - so when the genuinely capable people start to actually do something they'll have something truly catchy to recall as to why this is happening.

    1. I worked out here that it equates to one Hiroshima bomb every four square km every year. Assuming my arithmetic is correct.

      Maybe the impact depends on the level and type of education and life experience of the person hearing about it. Different reactions could be expected - eg science graduate, arts graduate, office worker, unskilled labourer, war veteran etc etc

    2. Sorry, I am not willing to "win" at any price. Even if it were more effective, giving up my moral values and becoming like WUWT would be a too high price for me.

    3. "becoming like WUWT".

      Because we are discussing more effective ways to communicate science?

      That is really a very silly and offensive comment.

      I am very surprised that you would compare science communication with science disinformation.

    4. Seriously?

      The planet is building up heat at the equivalent of four Hiroshima bombs worth of energy every second. And 90% of that heat is going into the oceans.

      Right, now I’ve got your attention.

      Again, what is it about being effective you find so offensive?

      Do you spend much time with ordinary, lay people?

      (However many gigawatt/ recognisable named local power stations devoted to nothing but warming the oceans is another effective metric e.g. 'a typical nuclear power plant has an output of 1 gigawatt, imagine 190,000 nuclear power plants pouring their energy output directly into our oceans' and for this reason it will also be decried be deniers and those with unreal expectations of human psychology. It's not likely to be a meme to rival '4 Hiroshima Bombs', though... and it wasn't!)

      And 'like WUWT'?! Is that really what you're saying?

    5. Sorry for the harsh term. WUWT is willing to do anything to win. That is what I wanted to refer to. I am not.

      If you think it is effective and you are not a scientist by all means try to use this metaphor. As a scientist I am not willing to do so, not even as a private citizen. And if I read the similar discussion on WottUpWithThat, most scientists seem to agree with me.

      I worry that it may attract attention on the short term, but that it is destructive in the long term. The moment people realize that the energy imbalance is actually tiny, that the number is just so big because the Earth is big. Then they may start to wonder what other stuff you exaggerated.

      Or maybe the moment that people start to find it disrespectful towards the victims of Hiroshima. Somewhat rhetorically Tom Curtis noted that: "The metaphor should no more be used than, for example a metaphor of so many Auschwitz ovens." If you do, maybe just writing atomic bombs and not Hiroshima bombs is saver.

    6. Victor, as usual you've made me think and re-think my view on this. I was being a bit slow. I now see that what you and probably Warren Pearce object to is the word Hiroshima, more so than the size of the explosion. The linking to an atrocity. I would agree 100% with that because each person(obviously) may react quite differently.

      So say the comparison was less emotive and more a straight comparison. Just comparing to atomic bombs. It could be argued it's still emotive because of the war connotation. (I wouldn't buy the argument that Hiroshima indicates size where the generic term "atom bomb" lacks dimension. The intent is not to be precise mathematically but to provide a sense of scale and size.)

      Then think of a more neutral, less combative imagery and compare it to the size of a natural event, like an earthquake that everyone knows about (I don't know what I'd pick).

      The next point you raise is that you think people will be misled because they won't think it through. You are suggesting it over-dramatises it. That people will go the other way and think things are happening faster than they are. Or they will confuse the effect of the impact with the energy involved to create that impact.

      That's a tougher one. You could be correct about that, I don't know. It depends on the comparison being made and what the person hearing it understands of scale and size. Thing is, there are some similarities. There will be effects that are due solely to the speed with which we're acting. That's one of the points that needs to be conveyed in my opinion.

      The problem being addressed as I see it is that where people aren't aware of the size and speed in the other direction. They don't realise the speed with which the climate is changing. So the task is to find something to convey the actuality that global warming is happening very quickly, compared to what the earth system can adjust to. That even though, because our lifetime is so short, it may not seem fast to us, that from the point of view of the earth system as a whole, it is changing stupendously quickly. So quickly that many things will not be able to adjust. All of which has implications for humanity and everything that lives on earth.

      Do you have any other suggestions? I think Dana's question was serious - and I will be thinking on this more myself. (Apart from here on this blog, I don't think I've referred to the analogy myself. Maybe I innately had a sense of discomfort with it that I couldn't quite put my finger on at the time.)

      Perhaps making use of a time scale, like the ones that put the age of earth into perspective with human life appearing as a tiny dot at the far right of the scale. It's not a soundbite so couldn't be used in an interview, but something along those lines could be used in a presentation to an audience. Maybe starting the timescale with when primates evolved, showing the evolution of modern humans along with the time of other events - and adding the time of what is likely to happen over the coming millennia.

    7. It is not just Hiroshima, that is an additional argument. Also atomic bomb would give the wrong impression. As well as an Earthquake because they are all strongly located in time and space and consequently have a very different influence as global warming, which is a small force but everywhere and always there.

      And easy to understand meme would be that we increase the energy flux at the surface by a few percent. That is easy to understand, but I guess some do not find that sufficiently spectacular and effective. I cannot help it, it is a tiny change, the consequences can still be large and that is maybe simply what we should focus on.

      Your suggestion to think of time scales is a good one. If you think of variability, you always have to specify the time and spatial scales you are considering. Depending on the phenomenon you are thinking of either the global, catchment or local scale would be important. One generation, one life or the average duration of a civilization could be appropriate time scales. That would be the variability life or civilization is adapted to.

      You could theoretically compute the variability over such time periods in the global mean temperature. Or maybe more intuitively the magnitude of a typical trend you could expect over such a time scale in the global mean temperature. Then you could compare this natural variability to what we are doing now. That could give an impressive number, that indicates that we are likely not adapted to that much change.

      Unfortunately we do not have the data at the moment to compute such a number. We only have about 150 years of instrumental temperature data to compute the global mean, much of which is already influenced by man made global warming.

      Climate models are not very good at modelling the temporal structure of natural variability, science is typically much more interested in the mean and put more work in that.

      And also proxy data is likely not sufficiently reliable when it comes to the variability, especially after averaging to a global mean because of dating uncertainty. (Maybe some proxies are suited for this? And you could compute a global mean from just those proxies? Could be an interesting study.)

    8. Afterthought. The term "like WUWT", seems to be effective. I sure got your attention. ;-)

      Maybe that is because the term elicits an emotions response and while the analogy is correct in one dimension, it fails in others.

      Like Hiroshima.

  10. Good to see a lot of different views expressed.

    I don't know if there is a right or wrong answer. Like I said - IMO the message needs to be tailored to the audience, whether it's the general public or a segment.

    In my case a full bath is a luxury. An overflowing bathtub is a slight inconvenience at best. A mop and bucket job if that. (There is a drain in the floor in our bathroom so no risk of flooding.)

    I note that John Cook is also employed as a science communicator at Queensland Uni and AFAIK it's the subject of his PhD (but I could be wrong about that). I also note that he picked this up from a scientist. I believe he first saw it used by a Professor of Geology, Mike Sandiford, writing for The Conversation. (Sandiford's research interests include tectonics, earthquake geology, geomorphology and geothermics with a special focus on the young tectonic activity in the Indo-Australian tectonic plate.) The measure is commonly used when referring to earthquakes. The article was republished on SkepticalScience.

    I agree with Lauren that such things can and should be measured and quite probably have been, at least in the general sense.

    What I am more concerned about is Warren Pearce, who professes to accept the science, polarising the debate by positioning statements like Hiroshima bombs as being "political" and "catastrophic climate porn". This suggests to me that he is completely unaware of just how serious climate change is. This and other things he's written also suggests to me that he is more sympathetic to science deniers than to science communicators or the general public. A bit of a worry for someone in his position.

    1. BTW - if Warren Pearce is faking his allegiance to science deniers in order to immerse himself in among them to study them, that would be even worse. It would confirm all the worst conspiracy theories of the conspiracy theorising deniers who would become even more tribal.

      I'm not suggesting he is, but that was hinted at in a comment above - or it's how I read it.

    2. I'm intrigued about Pearce's narrative. In the video Steve Bloom links to above he contrasts Milibands "Settled Science" in 2008 with Climategate in late 2009, and as good as says that climate "skepticism" (*coff*) emerged into the public consciousness at that point, with all previous debate being played out below the radar on small-scale blogs and so on. He also has no hesitation in pointing out who he thinks politicised it.

      But his entire narrative is bogus, because its premised on utter bollocks. Climate denial, and politically-motivated attacks on the science precede Climategate by a decade or two. If he starts in 2009, he misses the majority of the history of public-sphere climate science rejectionism. Fail.


    3. I saw Mike Sandiford give his 'Welcome to the Anthropocene' presentation at Womad Earth Station a couple of years ago, and it literally left me dazed.

      His comparison of all the energy going in to global plate tectonics, as against the amount of peak energy demand in the state of Victoria when all the air-conditioners come on on a hot summer afternoon was literally gobsmacking.

      As was being told that we are now, by far, the major erosive force acting on the globe's surface! I walked away wondering if I'd really heard him right!

      I had (as previously noted by Sou above).

      Now, this guy knows how to convey an image to the public.

      I have no idea what Pearce is trying to convey, but I'll bet interventions like this contribute not-one-jot towards the public really grasping the issue or accepting the inevitability of a rational energy future.

  11. If anybody can think of a better way to help people visualize 2.5 x 10^14 Joules per second, we're open to suggestions. We had a team of folks brainstorming for weeks trying to come up with something better. IMO nothing even came close. It's easy to visualize the amount of energy in a Hiroshima atomic bomb detonation, and it's easy to visualize 4 of them per second.

    Pearce's complaint isn't exactly clear. In the comments he seems to be suggesting that the 4 Hiros per second analogy is too scary and will make people curl into a fetal position and wet their pants. Frankly I suspect his perception of how the public will react has been skewed by spending too much time amongst deniers.

    John Cook has used the analogy several times in public talks, always to successful effect in terms of audience response. I'll be using it in a talk next month as well. So far the evidence clearly indicates that it's an effective message.

    1. Whatever you do, don't be dictated to by science deniers or their sympathisers. Not that there's any risk of that, Dana:D

      I like the indicator but that doesn't mean it is (or isn't) the best one to use with the general public.

      One reason I like it is that people generally (me too) find it very hard to conceptualise "fast" in the geological context. I mean geologists would say that a rise of four or five degrees Celsius over, say, five thousand years was very, very fast. And biologists and ecologists will tell you that this has huge connotations for life on earth. Here we are probably doing the same thing in only two or three hundred years. The result will have some similarities to exploding atom bombs (ie hastening the sixth major extinction).

      Visualising the amount of energy accumulating on earth in terms of explosions would help people make the time and scale connection.

      Remembering of course that this is just one indicator among several. I'm sure John's presentations aren't focused on atomic bombs! It would be just a minute or two in a much longer presentation.

      (Do you use feedback forms at your presentations, Dana? It would be interesting to see if the audience comments on this.)

    2. There was a discussion of this yesterday at The Conversation by David Holmes, Senior Lecturer, Communications and Media Studies at Monash University.

      Four Hiroshima bombs a second: how we imagine climate change

      Two "skeptics" independently botched attempts to downplay the figure by comparing the 4 Hiroshimas/second to the insolation per second and total global energy use per second.

      But the comparisons when calculated correctly do add power to the metaphor.

      Total insolation per second = 1950 Hiroshimas

      Total global energy use per second = approx 0.5 Hiroshimas

      The latter comparison is actually staggering and was a real eyeopener for me when I calculated it. (Independently Glenn Tamblyn came up with approx the same figure but give it a go yourself if you think it is wrong).

      As humans, we are simply not good at grasping scale. The scale of the universe is a fantastic and very popular tool for getting perspective.

  12. Rising bath water? Very dangerous,; one could easily drown in a bath, if you weren't paying attention.

  13. OT but interesting report:

    'Historic and future increase in the global land area affected by monthly heat extremes'


  14. In case there is any doubt about where Warren Pearce is coming from, he retweeted this from Anthony Watts. I think that pretty well says it all.

    Sorry to find my instincts were correct.

    1. On the face of it I see WP as an impressionable non-specialist who has spent too long listening to the deniers. But the wrinkle about deep cover makes it impossible to be sure what we are seeing here. Perhaps if/when he publishes something it will all get a little clearer.

    2. Or he may have used the highly emotive expression "climate porn" deliberately. Using a highly emotive term to illustrate that he believes Hiroshima to have strong emotive overtones of the wrong kind.

  15. no idea where i saw it now, but a comparison that i found quite effective expressed the energy imbalance in terms of vaporising aircraft carriers. i can't remember the exact figures, and i can't be arsed to work it out right now, but istr it being of the order of multiple ships an hour. wrt the (not at all unreasonable) objections brought up:

    * anyone who has watched Top Gun (or the news) should have some concept of their size. if not, a few seconds' worth of image search can find pictures with your choice of people, vehicles or buildings for scale.
    * it avoids the associations of nuclear fallout and incinerated people.
    * heating things up is conceptually quite a slow process (cf. boiling water), unlike explosions or eruptions.


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