smdxn: Why We Have to Act on Climate Now – In One…


Why We Have to Act on Climate Now – In One Chart

The precipitous rise in carbon pollution is what’s driving climate change, leading to rising sea levels, more extreme drought, superstorms, wildfires, and public health problems across the world. No nation is immune to these consequences. Humans caused this rise in pollution and temperature, and it will take all of us to actually do something about it.

Also: why we are failing.

I find this chart both interesting and depressing. Not just for the data.. For the evidence it contains of the human shortcomings that stand in the way of our solving the problem. Because this chart is a lie.

I noticed it after a few seconds, because I’ve seen honest versions of this chart before. But the difference is subtle.

Hint: If you click through to the source page at the lie isn’t there. It was introduced in the Tumblr version of the chart, presumably by the person running @smdxn, presumably because they thought it made the image more impactful, more motivating. This version does a better job of promoting fear and concern, but it does so by deceiving you.

Did you find the lie?

It’s the label circled in red at the center of the chart. On the original version of the chart it says “Carbon Dioxide Levels”, because the red line it is labeling is the line with the Mauna Loa carbon dioxide readings. That’s the number that has trended steadily upward for the last century as humanity has systematically pumped CO2 into the atmosphere. (The chart smooths out the annual wiggle in the data as Northern Hemisphere foliage sucks up and releases carbon, but that’s a legitimate simplification that helps visualize the underlying trend.)

The gray bars represent the ice-core-derived global temperature readings, sometimes up, sometimes down, but generally upward. But that data is messier, reflecting the many complexities, some of them not yet fully understood, of the global climate system. It’s still trending upward, and we’re still fucked. But it’s not quite as obvious. Also, it doesn’t have that sexy red color that we’re evolutionarily predisposed to react to emotionally: bright red = scary/important.

So for this version of the chart @smdxn switched the label so it reads “Global Temperature.” They also removed the red coloring from the numbers along the right side of the chart, presumably because that helps sell the deception that the red line refers to temperature rather than to CO2. So now, at least from a quick glance, it looks like the red line shows global temperature tracking steadily and scarily upward. Omg! We need to do something!

For a committed partisan, that deception probably seemed justified. The fact that global temperature has been climbing in fits and starts means that dishonest people on the other side like to cherry-pick particular slices of time in which temperature has held steady or even fallen for a few years and make a big deal about it. If you’ve ever come across an Internet commenter attacking the comments section of an article with references to “the hiatus”, that’s what they were talking about. And that’s clearly dishonest and deceptive. You don’t do that kind of cherry-picking on accident. But neither do you re-label a graph to switch the meaning of the two sets of data it shows on accident. The person who did that here intended to deceive.

Why does it matter that some activist decided it was okay to make this chart deceptive rather than communicative? That it was more important that the person viewing it be alarmed than that they understand?

It matters because of the scale of the problem. As long as we’re fighting politics-as-usual battles with each other, we’re losing this war. There’s just no way to make the kinds of changes we need to make unless we have not just a scientific consensus, but a societal consensus. The kind of partisanship that @smdxn is engaging in by deceptively relabeling the chart works against achieving that consensus.

There’s a reason why a scientific consensus on this issue exists. Science has rules, and a process, and when you do it right it allows the truth to win out over noise and human bias and self-interest. Society as currently constituted doesn’t have that rule. Or it does, but it’s more of a fragile guideline, one that gets trampled underfoot as soon as partisans start doing their rugby scrum back and forth over it.

Partisans think it’s okay to lie as long as they’re lying in the service of their cause. That’s why Peter Gleick thought it was okay to forge a sexier, more evil-sounding “strategy memo” to be released along with the internal documents he’d stolen from The Heartland Institute. That’s why Roger Pielke, Jr., gets maligned as “one of them” for saying top-down carbon pricing solutions can’t work given political economy as it currently operates. That’s why Naomi Oreskes recently called it “denialism” for climate scientists to say nuclear power needs to be part of our strategy. In each of those cases, partisans are stooping to deception precisely because they are partisans, because they are engaged in battle, because the people on the other side are doing it too, and that gets them upset and clouds their judgement.

For a committed partisan, lies become just another tool in service to the cause.

It’s a mistake. As long as there are two sides to this issue, we lose. We need to understand each other, to listen to each other, if we’re going to solve this. Lying won’t get it done, and those who engage in it are deluding themselves. They’re not part of the solution. They’re part of the problem.

Reposted from

Tags: climate change, tumblr lies, denialism, dark mountain, partisanship.

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