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How to Solve the Climate Problem: a Step-by-Step Guide

Posted on 14 September 2012 by dana1981

Recently we have seen that if we fail to take serious action very soon to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, the future climate will be much less hospitable than today's, with potentially catastrophic results.  We have also seen that our political leaders are currently failing to take the necessary steps to avoid a potentially catastrophic future.  This begs an important question - how do we change that?  In this post we will begin with the large-scale changes that are necessary, and work backwards to see what we can do as individuals on a smaller scale to make those big changes happen.

Pricing or Regulating Carbon Emissions?

In order to achieve the necessary large-scale greenhouse gas emissions reductions, some form of government action is required.  There is simply no way we can stay within our carbon emissions budget with only individual or small-scale efforts.  On a national level, emissions can be reduced through simple government regulation, as the USA  has begun implementing through the Environmental Protection Agency.

However, putting a price on carbon emissions will generally have a smaller economic impact than government regulations.  A carbon emissions price allows consumers to consider the costs of these emissions and adjust their purchasing decisions accordingly, effectively allowing the free market to assist in the emissions reductions.  Currently, carbon emissions are what's known as an economic "externality" - a factor whose true costs are not included in the price of associated products (i.e. fossil fuels). 

Carbon emissions do damage through their impacts as a result of climate change (for example, economic losses via damaged crops from increased drought frequency), but that cost is not currently reflected in the products' market price, so consumers cannot take them into account when they purchase fossil fuels.  Economists consider this type of externality an economic and free market failure.

There are many different options in implementing carbon pricing - a carbon tax, cap and trade system, cap and dividend, etc.  Each has upsides and downsides which are worth debating, but the important first step is to remedy this market failure and put some sort of price on carbon emissions.

Fortunately, some governments have listened to these economists and implemented carbon pricing systems.  The European Union (EU) has long led the way, implementing a cap and trade system in 2005.  Australia just recently set a carbon tax and plans to join the EU emissions trading market (although the opposition party is trying to kill the Australian carbon pricing system).  In the USA, nine northeastern states have a modest cap and trade system, and California is poised to implement a much more ambitious system in 2013British Columbia has implemented a successful carbon tax, but the USA and Canada do not have national carbon pricing systems.

fig 3.2

Implemented and planned climate change actions in some major emitting economies.  Blue represents a sub-national action, pink represents a planned national action, and red represents an implemented national action.

So how do we ensure that the countries with national carbon pricing systems keep and strengthen them, and convince the countries without such national systems to implement them?

Demand Climate Policy

Most of us live in democracies, and we can therefore influence national climate policy by making our priorities known.  Climate change is the gravest threat humans currently face, and it should therefore be at the top of policymakers' list of priorities.  However, in a democracy, policymakers' priorities are generally determined by the voters who put them in office.

So first of all, we can make climate policy one of our top determining factors in who we vote for.  We can write letters and/or sign petitions to our policymakers to ensure they know our vote is contingent on their support for climate policy.  We can encourage other voters to follow suit.  The only way to make carbon pricing a top priority for our policymakers is to show them that it's a top priority for their voting constituents.

Educate People

Before they will make it a top priority, people must first understand the magnitude of the climate problem, which many currently do not.  In the USA for example, while a majority of the population supports climate policy, they do not see it as a priority.  Until the issue is considered a top priority by voters, there is no pressure for policymakers to implement carbon pricing.

The climate disinformation campaign has been very effective on this issue.  Despite the overwhelming consensus amongst climate experts that humans are causing global warming, only 53% of Americans believe humans are the primary cause, and only 58% believe that most scientists agree that global warming is even occurring.

According to the March 2012 George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication (CCCC) national poll, climate scientists are the most trusted source for climate science information, with 74% of public trust.

george mason poll

Responses to the George Mason CCCC poll question "How much do you trust or distrust the following as a source of information about global warming?"

Thus as Ding et al. (2011) concluded, if a larger percentage of people realized that there is a scientific consensus on the issue amongst the group they trust most on the subject, more people would believe that humans are causing global warming, and more people would demand that we do something about it.  Thus it is critical to educate people not just on the scientific evidence, but perhaps more importantly, about the existence of the expert climate consensus.

A populace can only make informed decisions if it is adequately informed, and right now the public as a whole is misinformed about climate change.  We can all make a difference on this issue by educating those we know, and we believe Skeptical Science is a good resource to accomplish this.  However, our individual and collective reach is limited - most people are informed (and/or misinformed) by the mainstream media.

Demand Factually Accurate News

Unfortunately the mainstream media tends to believe that false balance is more important than factually accurate reporting.  Too many journalists and news organizations are afraid of being labeled as "biased" if they do not report "both sides" of a story, even if one side is not supported by the evidence.  Thus the climate contrarian position receives nearly as much media coverage as the mainstream position, even though the contrarians comprise less than 3% of climate experts.  This over-representation of the climate contrarian position in the mainstream media for the sake of false balance is undoubtedly the main reason why such a large percentage of the populace is unaware of the climate consensus.

So how do we influence the mainstream media to prioritize factually accurate reporting over false balance?  Just as politicians are influenced by their voting constituencies, the media can be influenced by its viewers/readers.  Television advertising dollars are often driven by the number of viewers, newspaper advertising dollars are driven by the number of subscribers, and online media advertising dollars are driven by the number of pageviews. 

An independent study demonstrated that viewers prefer quality TV programming.  We can reward good stories and media outlets by viewing and subscribing to them (and encouraging others to follow suit) and discourage bad stories and media outlets by ignoring them; thus we can begin to influence journalists' priorities by making them recognize that their readers value factual accuracy over false balance.

This is something of a challenge for Skeptical Science, because we believe debunking climate myths in the mainstream media is an important exercise, but we draw attention to those stories in the process.  By quoting directly from the stories, we do allow our readers to see the myths and debunkings without necessarily having to read the stories themselves and give them additional pageviews.  However, we may reduce our number of mainstream media debunkings in the future.  As they say, "do not feed the trolls."

Using Social Media

We can each extend our individual reach on this issue through the use of social media.  For example, when encountering a factually accurate mainstream media story which does not fall into the false balance trap, we can share it on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to encourage those in our social media circle to also view the article and add to its traffic.  Right now the media also tends to operate under the principle that "controversy sells," and climate contrarian positions inevitably create the controversy that generates viewer traffic. 

Only by increasing traffic to the stories that focus on factually accurate information rather than creating a false sense of controversy can we convince the media otherwise, and social media is a useful tool to accomplish that.


Only when the media focuses on factually accurate reporting will the public become correctly informed on climate change.  Only then will the public come to understand that the experts are in agreement about the climate threat, and that we must make it a priority.  Only then will the public demand that our policymakers take action to address climate change, and only then will those policymakers implement serious climate change mitigation policies.

It's important to remember that in both democratic and capitalist systems, we each have a significant amount of influence.  Our traffic drives advertising dollars for the media, and our votes determine our policymakers' priorities.  We can each extend our individual influence through the tools of the internet such as social media.  So let's get to work and solve this problem.

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Comments 51 to 70 out of 70:

  1. Those who favor Carbon Pricing schemes might find the following post from The Oil Drum enlightening. If you have not read much about the current state of coal production in the world there are a number of links in the article which will lead you further.
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  2. Mole, my apologies. Since the article was "step by step", I took your reference to a first "step" to be a reference to the original article.
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  3. Old Mole - further to this. An example of an international treaty that worked well would be the Montreal accord on CFCs. Just because a naval treaty didnt work, doesnt mean that all treaties are futile. I would lay the blame for Kyoto failure squarely at door of the non-signatories. I would consider GATT and WTO as the proper place to work out the international carbon pricing. A per-capita carbon tariff is absurd. You price carbon internally and you charge tariff on any import for the carbon cost that is less than that internal tariff. That way you have a level-playing field for international trade. If you want less tariff imposed on your goods, then eliminate carbon from your manufacture. Because internally carbon is taxed at source, (ie the manufacturer pays it in his energy bill),this is not a tax on exports and so doesnt violate your constitution as far as I can see. (I am not in US so I defer completely to you on such matters).
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  4. "Only when the media focuses on factually accurate reporting will the public become correctly informed on climate change." Last night here in the states the PBS News Hour, formerly a well respected source of reliable reporting, demonstrated that they are not interested in informing the public on climate change. They still cling to supposed controversy story. They spoke of the vast majority of researchers whose work has demonstrated that greenhouse gasses do trap heat and that climate change is taking place as “believers” and they spent a large part of the story interviewing Watts as if he were a scientist with opposing research. So I wonder which will happen first: Factually accurate reporting or and international agreement to limit GHG or peace in the Middle East. My guess is we have a better chance at solving the Middle East situation.
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  5. There must be a reason so many people still don't buy your "scientific arguments." (-snip). (-snip-). Your misunderstanding of journalism is another sore spot. "Environmental journalism" is a license to preach a one-sided argument. How many articles have you seen on the downsides of what the Sierra Club, Greenpeace et. al. have done? Are they 100% right all the time? Of course not. But they appear to be beyond reproach, and that strikes reasonable people as odd. If you were truly concerned about the climate, you would be shouting from the roof-tops that we need more nuclear energy, which is carbon-free. (-snip-). If you are willing to do that, why should we believe (-SNIP-) you say? What you fail to realize is that in your zeal to get (-SNIP-) to believe you, you have created a climate of skepticism. Ironic, isn't it?
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    Moderator Response: [DB] Snipped: Inflammatory, political, accusation of dishonesty, all-caps, all caps. Please read the Comments Policy.
  6. Jack, just out of curiosity, where does the theory fail for you? Oh, and before anyone else asks it, let me be the first: who is "you"?
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  7. JackFate @55: "There must be a reason so many people still don't buy your "scientific arguments."" Going by the rest of your post one answer would be those who dismiss claims made here don't actually look at the arguments but instead choose to dismiss them for extra-scientific reasons. "Are they 100% right all the time? Of course not." And of course nobody said they were. "If you are willing to do that, why should we believe EVERYTHING you say?" Who said you should believe everything anybody says? I don't recall anybody associated with this website promoting that. If you would stop spending your time creating straw-men to knock down and instead spent it looking at the scientific arguments proposed here, you'd be a lot better off, and a lot better prepared to make an informed critique of something claimed here.
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  8. @RobertMurphy "Are they 100% right all the time? Of course not." "And of course nobody said they were." You agree, then. Good. So where are all the articles from the environmental journalists pointing out where they fall short? See the point? Why should I believe your numbers and data if I don't believe (-SNIP-) (i.e. -snip-)? See the point? This piece laments that you can't get through with your message, even though you have all this (-snip-) You use two great words: argument and theory. Arguments presuppose there is another side, theories can be proven wrong. And I appreciate your avoiding the "straw man" of nuclear energy. Are you a supporter? --) (-snip-) @DSL This is a response to the piece that was posted, hence the "Your" would refer to the author of said post and the points he makes therein.
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    Moderator Response: [DB] Snipped: All-caps, sloganeering, inflammatory tone, off-topic.
  9. Jack, you make my point: "Going by the rest of your post one answer would be those who dismiss claims made here don't actually look at the arguments but instead choose to dismiss them for extra-scientific reasons."
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  10. And you, sir, have made mine.
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  11. I see, JackFate. Well, I eagerly await Dana's response. I think I know about half of what he's going to say. However, I am a bit confused. You say in your response to Robert Murphy that "you" is the "climate science complex." Science, Jack, doesn't give 100% certainty on anything. If you want that, go to a priest. All science can do is narrow the range of probability for a given proposition. After all, it's still possible that aliens are creating the illusion that the Earth revolves around the sun. When you talk about journalists not talking about the remaining uncertainty, there's a good reason for it. In the case of climate science, and in particular the basic theory of anthropogenic global warming, the uncertainty is systematic. We have directly measured the greenhouse effect -- many times -- from both surface and space. However, it's possible that the various instruments have all failed in exactly the same way each time. It's highly improbable, but it's still possible. It could also be aliens jacking with our instrumentation. Do you want every journalist to go through all the different ways something could be wrong when the likelihood of the dominant theory is 99%+? I know: "where do you get off claiming 99%+?" That's where you have to be conversant with the science. Can you, for example, articulate how the greenhouse gas effect works?
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  12. JackFate,
    your "scientific arguments."
    That you put this in quotes demonstrates your own ignorance combined with a preset opinion.
    so much self-interest (i.e. grants, funding etc.).
    This is complete nonsense, and that you believe it and espouse it demonstrates how out of touch you are with reality. You are a lost cause, because you have no independent thought and no interest in discovering the truth, just self-satisfying, smug indignation.
    I don't believe YOU (i.e. the climate science complex)
    So you won't trust experts. Instead you trust... what? Weatherman-bloggers and disgruntled, self-important right-wing nutjobs? Good for you. I'm sorry, but your position is basically that you dismiss the truth because you don't understand it and don't want to. With a position such as that, you are the one who needs dismissing. You have no place here, because this site is about facts and truth, and you are all about spin and nonsense.
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  13. (continuing after a power surge - thank god) And in the author's post - this is the key paragraph: "The climate disinformation campaign has been very effective on this issue. Despite the overwhelming consensus amongst climate experts that humans are causing global warming, only 53% of Americans believe humans are the primary cause, and only 58% believe that most scientists agree that global warming is even occurring." Scientists are generally poor communicators, and communicators (journalists) are generally poor scientists. My original post makes no overt claim that I deny global warming exists, or that it is not man-made. You infer that is what I believe because I am challenging how you handle the non-scientific issues that you must deal with - but fail to grasp. You mention it in your own post: "...those who dismiss claims made here don't actually look at the arguments but instead choose to dismiss them for extra-scientific reasons." Right! That is my point. You have to effectively deal with the non-scientific stuff and, so far, (-snip-). (-snip-).
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    Moderator Response: [DB] Projection and off-topic snipped. Please ensure that all comments are formulated to comply with the Comments Policy. Specifics about baseload energy belong on another thread, such as Renewables can't provide baseload power.
  14. Jack, this is a climate science website. You seem to equate environmental groups (i.e. Greenpeace) with climate scientists. It's not our place to criticize Greepeace, or criticize the media for failing to criticize Greenpeace, because as far as I'm aware that group has not made any major incorrect arguments regarding climate science. You also claim
    "This piece laments that you can't get through with your message"
    That is not at all what this post says. The post is talking about balance - the fact that the 3% minority of climate contrarians get a disproportionate amount of media coverage.
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  15. (-snip-)
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    Moderator Response: [DB] Moderation complaints snipped.
  16. JackFate. I hope that you've completed the rehash of Lewandowsky's survey that Watts is hosting. Please inform us that you have. You've very conspicuously proved Lewandowsky's original point, and I am curious to see how well the 'repeat' will demonstrate this... or whether folk such as yourself reply otherwise, in order to disguise what's really fulminating just beneath the surface.
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  17. Jack, you used the phrase "climate science complex," an allusion to "military-industrial complex." That use strongly suggests that you think there is some organized extra-scientific effort that controls climate science. In other words, you don't think the actual science warrants action, so there must be a conspiracy to prop up a weak science in order to achieve political goals (one world government? Marxism-Leninism? HAARP?) that go well beyond the science. If that's true--and it may not be, but the evidence so far leads me there--then you have two problems. One, you've yet to show that the science is weak, and I've asked you. Two, you've yet to give evidence that SkS supports the "climate science complex." If you'd look around a little, you'd notice that the site does not advocate for any one solution. Solar and individual "at-home" responses come closest to having universal appeal among the dozens of regular posters. That's where my analysis of your comments is so far. I'll be quite happy to have more data to work with, as long as it doesn't confirm the suspicions I outline above. Further, if you are serious about engaging in an exchange of ideas (in other words, if you think your ideas are worth a _____), then you'd be much more effective by removing the accusatory tone and foregone conclusion from your rhetoric. Your comments thusfar contain very little information useful to an on-topic discussion. They strongly suggest that you're here to teach everyone a lesson. Maybe I'm wrong, but the problem is at least half yours: you chose the words and their order.
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  18. DSL, The key word is "rhetoric." There is nothing else there. Nada. Zilch. Search for "Jack Fate" on the Internet and look for his opinions on creationism, Obama, etc. There is no rational discussion to be had here. Only "rhetoric."
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  19. Okay Jack, I do support nuclear energy. I think it will have to part of the solution for some countries. I would also say that I earn my living substantially in petroleum, coal, and energy and I get no grants for climate science. From a substantial study of the science (I have physics as well as geology background), I concluded that the sooner the world can find a way to kill my area (especially coal), the better. I would conclude from your comments that you are substantially ill-informed on the science but fortunately, you have reached a good site to remedy that. Please dont confuse scientists with greenpeace activists.
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  20. I see, Sph. Apparently, I didn't know Jack's . . .
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