Climate change is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed

The title is from a tweet by Kate Mackenzie, although I’m unsure if she was referencing someone else.

It highlights a central problem in tackling climate change.

By now most educated people around the world are at least aware of anthropogenic climate change. Even if they refuse to accept it.

So the problem is not really one of education, but salience. Even if most are aware of, and intellectually accept, the phenomena, it’s just not present in their day to day lives.

Climate change is already devastating farmers with increased variability and hammering certain exposed communities. But for most it only really exists in the periodic news report. It’s like a far away war or natural disaster – easy to miss in an increasingly comfortable and abstracted day to day.

Given both the looming catastrophe and what we know of the health impact of pollution, it’s insufficient to simply “inform people” and sit back – the most comfortable mode for the news media.

Accurate reporting and discussion of climate change is more than highlighting the results. We have to engage with the process. The currently invisible must be made unmissable.

The question is – how do you turn something that takes place subtly and slowly, often only visible in the varied probability and intensity of “normal” events, into something that can’t be missed? That affects their day to day?

How do you increase salience?

Tab dump

Research, articles, podcasts and videos in no particular order.


Singles not home runs

Watching professional sports, you often see a team that is behind suddenly go into desperation mode. The clock is ticking, so a flailing three pointer is launched from ten feet behind the line. Or the batter suddenly tries to hit the skin off of every pitch.

In reality it’s often not so dire. And trying to catch up in one go will likely doom you to failure. Hence the refrain – heard in many sports, not just baseball – that the way to go is by hitting singles, not home runs.

Just get onto first base. The person behind you will try and get you to second, etc. Go for a two pointer and not a three.

Don’t try to win it in one go. You won’t be the big hero. But you’ve got a better chance of succeeding.

I’ve been thinking about the weight given to big leaps, and in turn the relegation of smaller, safer gains, as I continue to read The Hidden Half.

We need to face the possibility that big influences are not as orderly or consistent as we expect, that the way things turn out is bound less by observable laws, forces or common factors than by the mass of uncommon factors, the jumble of hidden, micro-influences. Our habit of thinking of this as ‘noise’–and then thinking of ‘noise’ in turn as an annoying residual–diminishes one of life’s most magical elements.

Because of course, just as on the playing field, the heroes of academia and intellect are the ones who make the big play, not the tinkerers and exception finders.

But so often these big leaps wind up in incongruencies or pale in significance to the influence of smaller ones.

It’s not as sexy, but perhaps we should be emphasising something else – singles, not home runs.

We dream of laws and general truths; the practicality is often a patchwork of unexpected anomalies. Run with these ideas, apply them more widely, and you begin to conceive a world bustling with powerful but enigmatic differences that we just don’t see.

As always my emphasis.

A plea for more humility about what we ‘“know”

…we can’t help turning up our pattern-making instinct to 11–when life offers only a 5. Too often, we make bold claims about big forces with law-like effects, but with culpable overconfidence that leads us to waste time, money, talent and energy, and detract from real progress… I’d like our claims to be more proportionate to the awkwardness of the task. Every new generation needs reminding of the overconfidence of every previous generation, of how much there is still to know and do, and, above all, how resistant the raw materials of life can be.

Reading books like Thinking In Bets, The Lady Tasting Tea and The Drunkards Walk, it’s hard not to be thoroughly disaffected with the deterministic model of the universe most of us carry in our heads.

Green tea causes weight loss, your aunt tells you. You should try get into that school cause it’s the best, they say.

In fact, it’s tempting to draw this back to school, where we’re taught to find the right answer, not the best approximation of one. Confounding, selection, randomness and the dozens of other thorns in simple causation aren’t even really hinted at.

It’s like a civilisation-wide Dunning-Kruger effect. We engage in pattern matching, fuelled by ascertainment and confirmation bias.

And, most importantly for The Hidden Half, where these excerpts are form, we try to boil all of this down into iron laws. The “noise” that inevitably screws up these simple heuristics are willed away or ignored, to be settled later.

But it’s here where author Michael Blastland really shines – in a plea to embrace the beauty of that which confounds our attempts at simplification.

I’m only a couple of chapters in but it’s already a rollicking ride.

I’ve no desire to dismiss or discourage genuine, careful and humble efforts to understand, and no desire either to knock down robust houses of brick alongside the mansions of straw. It would be easy, but deluded, to see this book as part of an anti-science cynicism that says everything is uncertain, and therefore nothing can be done. I reject that view entirely. On the contrary, I want more robust evidence precisely so that our decisions and actions can be more reliable. I sympathize entirely with how difficult it is to do that well. I applaud those who devote themselves to the problem conscientiously and carefully. This is why we must recognize our limitations, try to understand how they arise, tread more carefully and test what we know vigorously. It was once said that at certain times the world is over-run by false scepticism, but of the true kind there can never be enough. 20 This book aspires to the true kind. The goal is not cynicism; it is to do better.

As always my emphasis.


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