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The Biggest Story of the Century:
How to Tell It
Comment to: „The Biggest Story of the Century Needs More Coverage“ by James Fahn on 2018-11-15 in the blog of Scientific American https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-biggest-story-of-the-century-needs-more-coverage/
thanks for sharing your article in Scientific American.
Unfortunately there is no comment function under your article. So I choose this way to comment.
Honest, often, open – and transparent
Rightly you write that „journalists have a responsibility to be honest about our planetary prospects, and to report as often and openly as possible about climate change.“
Despite the fact, that publishers and other media have a much greater responsibility to increase climate and climate policy reporting, it is not honest and not open to frighten people with phrases like „planetary catastrophe“. There will be no doomsday on the day we reach 1.5 degrees C (or 2 degrees C). There will not even be „a single 1.5 degree C world“, as the IPCC authors stress in their special report 15 (SR15), as well as „there is no single answer to the question of whether it is feasible to limit warming to 1.5°C and adapt to the consequences“.
What openness and transparency mean
It should be part of honest and open reporting to tell people, that the 1.5°C level may be passed already in 2025 according to the model calculations in IPCC SR15, but likely some time between 2030 and 2055. This means, that the earth will not perish in 2040.
In my opinion it is misleading to tell people that climate change cost „the planetary economy an estimated $54 trillion“.
It is perverse, but true: every war, every catastrophe increases the GDP at least of a richer country, creates jobs, and lets the economy roll. Just look at hurricane Katrina 2005 which helped considerably that the construction businesses in Louisiana flourish.
On the other hand, villas and mansions of wealthy families on beaches, luxury office sky scrapers, or inadequately secured construction sites in the rich countries add disproportionally to the price tag. Whereas the death toll paid by the poor is not included. Economic costs contribute nothing to stories about climate issues. They are only important for insurances.
Do not connect things where there is no connection
Another thing: Many of my fellow journalists irresponsibly connect climate change in their stories with the wild fires in the California, Europe and Russia this year. Why did no one explain people that the global area burned appears to have overall declined over past decades, and that there is increasing evidence that there is less fire in the global landscape today than centuries ago! Misleading stories tend to foster availability cascades, leading to false decisions in the end.
You mention the US and Brazilian climate deniers. Well, there are many more of such figures in governments and administrations around the world. But it worries me much more that climate polluters occupy positions as directors in environmental organisations like Erik Solheim of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). You did not mention him, and Margaret Sullivan, who’s article you linked in your piece[ref]Margaret Sullivan (2018-10-08): The planet is on a fast path to destruction. The media must cover this like it’s the only story that matters. The Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com[/ref], even quotes him uncritically. He spent nearly half a million USD within 3 years just for travelling – usually by plane. Fortunately he left his job now.
Do not mourn: Our civilisation is not compatible with nature
You mention Margaret Sullivan’s piece in the Washington Post as: she „explains quite eloquently that our civilisation may be at stake“. Although I cannot interpret her column the same way, it may be true that our civilisation is at stake.
But what does that mean? Scientifically seen, it means that our civilisation is not compatible with nature. In the past we thought that nature is not compatible with our civilisation and we did everything to make nature compatible – with the results we experience today and will experience in the near future. So we need not to mourn our civilisation, better say good bye to it and find a new one.
Admittedly our civilisation has been quite successful in solving human and societal problems. Between 1990 and 2015 the number of people living in extreme poverty has declined by more than half, the proportion of undernourished people in the developing regions has fallen by almost half, the working middle class has almost tripled, child mortality rate has declined by more than half, more than 90 per cent of the global population can use an improved drinking water source today, terrestrial and marine protected areas in many regions have increased substantially (in Latin America and the Caribbean it rose from 8.8 per cent to 23.4 per cent).[ref]UN Millennium Developing Goals 2015[/ref]
However, the poorest and most vulnerable people are still left behind and millions of poor people still live in poverty and hunger, without access to basic services.
Successes for humanity and societies built on CO2
But it is important to tell openly, that the past successes for humanity and societies are built on ever increasing carbon dioxide emissions, which are incompatible with nature.
Thus we cannot avoid that our civilisation will be gone one day making room for a new civilisation. I fear that just changing our existing civilisation will not be enough. The question is: Can we do it now, as long as we have the freedom of choices (democracy), or do we wait until we have no choice at all when nature (and thus physical law) overtakes?
As journalists we have to tell people the full truth, including the options we have, and the options we do not have. Physics will leave us no options. Mathematical models deliver projections, but no predictions or forecasts. That is a very important difference to be considered in all our reporting and stories, but it is too often neglected!
Telling about options within physical boundaries
Therefore we should put more focus on the variables and the uncertainties which climate models produce in order to force our governments to take the right decisions.
For example, just switching from dirty to clean energy in our home country (in my case Germany) is by far not enough. We have to take the carbon footprints into consideration, which our consumer products create in other countries (e.g. China). The increased production of solar and wind power units added considerably to the carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere, and finite resources have been deleted, like Cobalt, Neodym, Indium, Gallium, Tellur, Selen, and others (many from DR Congo!), but also Silver, Aluminium and Copper. Probably it is time to switch off the lights, to scrap our cars (even the electric ones), to ban blockchains (Bitcoin and the like).
For stories about our options for adaption and mitigation such information are of course parts of openness and transparency.
However, it is increasingly possible to attribute weather disasters to climate physics. This research gives us increasingly better tools to convince courts in order to doom governments and administrations. Why do we widely ignore such attempts in our journalism? Such tools are able to empower people and organisations!
Gain more knowledge
My impression after more than 30 years in science journalism is that the knowledge base in physics and mathematics especially within environmental and climate journalism is eroding and replaced by advocacy communication. Having knowledge in biology, ecology is not enough. Even when reporting about climate court rulings, a solid understanding of physics, chemistry and mathematics is inevitable because they are also foundational in lawsuits.
It does not help to grumble and paint doomsday pictures which journalists falsely repeat over and over again. Instead it should be part of an open, comprising, transparent and critical journalism to show the physical options and the borders of our earth system on one side, and the societal actions on the other side in order to help our audiences to find the right tracks and balances, avoiding biases.
Flying by plane to the coming Climate Conference: Shame on you
Finally: I wonder how many journalists and delegates from Europe will take the train or the bus when going to the Climate Conference in Katowice in Poland, which starts in a few days. Katowice is quite in the centre of Europe and very easy to reach by train mostly in less than a day.
Probably many delegates from Sweden will prefer public sea-ground transport, as is becoming a fashion in Sweden, not to fly. Swedes nowadays feel ashamed when they have to admit that they took an airplane (#flygskam). There are even ministers who take the train to Brussels, about 1,500 kilometres away. From my own experience I can say that it is quite comfortable to work on the train. But how did such awareness rose among the citizens in a country? Interesting question…
All the best
Should We Beware of Wellness Apps?
Health and lifestyle apps: Enhencing quality of life, improving medical research. On the downside: shaky and unsafe programming, aiming at controlling lifes, fostering trade of private data, supported by lawmaker’s games. Feeling gloomy about the self-determined future.
Great future for sick people, indeed. Medical apps used for prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases are admittedly utmost beneficial. Especially for patients with chronic diseases and also for collecting data for medical research in order to improve treatment and health care.
However, there is much more out there today. Health claims are covering also apps relevant to lifestyle, fitness and well-being, the „non-medical“ apps. People use them in order not to become ill, as a kind of prevention. However, the borders between medical and non-medical health apps are fluent.
Sensors become ever smaller and more efficient, devices become tinier. As the internet is available everywhere, the digital giants – Google, Apple, Microsoft or IBM – as well as a wealth of startup companies and programmers see great opportunities to earn money. It’s basically the data they are after, gained by the apps which they make freely availabe in the app stores. Around 400.000 apps around health, fitness or wellbeeing can be found in the depositories.
In order to keep pace with the stream of ever increasing big healt and wellness data and to get the most out of them, the digital giants even started to hire well known leaders from distinguished research institutions.
You all know that apps and computer programmes are still put together quite sloppy, customers misused as beta-testers. Virtually every day an update naggs you.
So the questions are allowed: How technically secure and trustworthy are the apps? How technically secure are the cloud storages holding the data from the apps, considering the careless routines of most programmers?
Numorous hackadons showed us how easy it is to hack many of the software functions of which the vendors want us to trust and on which a broad number of communitiy services are dependent.
Even apps developed for serious medical purposes fail to reach basic security recommendations. The company Esecurity tested 140 of such medical apps developed by clinicians and medical researchers. In 80 percent of them the experts could read out the login data. In 75 percent they could even manipulate the data, for example blood suger values.
But much more dramatic are the findings of a German study in the realm of mobile consumer wellness apps. The experts found that quality apps, which can indeed deliver valid information and which work reliable, are very seldom. Even worse: Many of the applications can confuse the users, give them wrong information or convey a totally wrong sense of security.
As a consequence a new ailment has been named: »Cyberchondria«, which is seem to be of growing concern among many healthcare practitioners. It is the obsessive tracking of ones health conditions which increases bodily anxieties.
Privatisation of Data
In a comment, which appeared on 21th July 2016 ago in »Nature«, John T. Wilbanks and Eric J. Topol, warned that the move of the high-tech giants into health may widen social inequalities and harm research unless people can access and share their health data voluntarily. Topol is professor of genomics at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla. Wilbanks is chief commons officer at Sage Bionetworks in Seattle, a non-profit organization that promotes open science and patient engagement in research. – Besides: Wilbank’s former boss is one of those leaders who left for the digital giant Apple.
The privatisation of data by the internet companies is the biggest concern for the autors. Ending up in the cloud stores of the big companies, the infomation is closed for research. They mention Google, which partnered last year with the Mayo Clinic to curate health-related facts. This knowledge was plugged into the search engine’s smart search algorithm in order of deliver users more relevant and supposedly more accurate information whenever symptoms or conditions are hacked into the search engine. This service, the authors write, will only enhance Google’s — and only Google’s — ability to conduct an unprecedented level of information retrieval for health – which for many ailments may replace visits to the doctor.
But patients can only be empowered if they are able to easily send the information to their own health provider or any analyst they want. When allowing privatisation of health data, there is always the danger that companies are able to trade people’s disease profiles, even unbeknown to the patients.
But also health insurances are queuing up for data. They say, unhealthy living people are a great financial burdon for society. The argument encounter the open ears of politicians. But to be honest, no group is more expensive to society than the healthy and slim non-smokers. They live many years after they retire, becoming also an economic burden to society.
In the European general health insurances systems healthy people are charged according to their income, whether they are fit or chronically ill. But in fact, the insurers start to offer apps aiming at controlling their clients lifes. The more walking, the more bonus points can be earned, easily summing up to a couple of 100 euros per year. This is a true discrimination of people refusing to share their health or disease data. However, politiciens have a different logic. For them a bonus system is not discriminating and not contradictory to the principle of solidarity.
To be honest, the European Union already installed directives to protect people’s digital information from becoming exploited for commercial or other purposes. And also a mechanism called RRI is evolving, Responsible Research and Innovation.
Politics and Lawmaking
It is good to have regulations. But regulations and laws can easily be changed. Although we are said to live in democratic societies in Europe, we are all very aware that our politicians like to negotiate new rules in the dark without involvement of citizens and without transparency – which is in total contradiciton to what they publicly claim and ask for.
So the question is allowed and may be discussed elsewhere: Can we really trust the legislators that they are willing to keep personal health data secured over a long time?
We have already a number of examples where personal health data have been shared with the industry unknowingly of the patients. They were relly surprised, when pharmachetical companies contacted them in order to ask them to participate in medical tests. As a recent example from Danmark show, even the doctors did not know that some administrations used the data of their patients.
The European Commission touts a lot for citizens participations in Horizon 2020 projects. But can we really the politicians? Jean-Claude Juncker, Presiden of the European Commission was honestly open on that: „When it becomes serious you have to lie“, and „I am for secret, dark debates“.
Or consider the number of criminally convicted politicians. Of the 4000 candiates standing for the Swedish parliamentary election last September, 200 were were criminally convicted – that are 5 percent. I guess this is not different in other countries.
But there is a fourth level that want to mention: The paradigm change due to digital health and wellness.
Here I may refer to Carl Cederström, Associate Professor in organisation theory at the Stockholm Business School, and his latest book „The Wellness Syndrome“ with André Spicer.
He is of the opinion that health nowadays is not any more a question of personal well being or personal wishes. It is more a request of employeers and the society. It turned into a moral category: Healthy people are good, unhealthy are bad.
Think of all the smoking scientists like Albert Einstein, chain smoker J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edwin Hubble, Sigmund Freud, and the intelectuals Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Hannah Arendt. Formally they were probably critizised because of their habit, but their characters are still admired.
Due to the Quantified Self community and the wellness movement, not habits are condemned any more, but the personalities with certain habits. That is the pradigm change.
The essence of my thoughts: The citizens in solidarity with trusted and truely independent researchers have to gain back control over their health data – and thus the control over their body, life and thinking.
However, the move has to come from bottom up. As I said, political decisions, adminstrative rules, as well as legislation, technology and business models move so fast that it is probably a danger to leave the responsibility for our data to them.
Our brain not made for saving the climate
The fight for saving climate and environment is above all a fight against the neoliberal global economic system. Why climate actions proceed so awfully slow may be revealed by a closer look into the biological structure and psychological function of the human brain.
Many intellectuals are able to understand the interaction between the modern conscious and the older unconscious brain parts. But neither politicians nor delegates seem to belong to this group, and proposals of intellectuals are usually not considered. This is proofed by the fact that delegates and heads of states want to fly to summits. They want to see each other, because people are most interested in people. But this is an emotional thing, and thus the first bias. When just exchanging letters or hold screen conferences things would immediately become more rational.
To go deeper into this subject it may be helpful to read academic biological, psychological and brain science literature. A good and comprehensive summary give the works of Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, which I really recommend[ref]Daniel Kahneman in Wikipedia_ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thinking,_Fast_and_Slow (2015-01-02)[/ref].
Short term thinking
Thus I am not very optimistic that humankind can reach an effective climate agreement in order to stop climate change within the next 500 years or so. Humans are not made to, and used to think in time frames of 500, 1000 or more years.
For example: Solar panels and wind mills are high on the agenda to save carbon dioxide emissions. However, for the production of such toys enormous amounts of carbon dioxide are emitted in a short time, while carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is degrading on a time scale of 100 to 150 years, as long as the oceans can provide a buffer. But solar panels and wind mills will only be good for 20 or 30 years. A simple mathematical calculation reveals that it will not work to save the climate this way in the long run. Besides, both technologies need enormous amounts of precious metals and rare earths, which are often exploited under inhumane conditions and which will soon be exhausted. Another simple mathematical calculation reveals that we cannot use windmills and solar panels forever. The only solution is not to use energy at all. But that would be a catastrophe for the world’s economic system, and probably even more for the poor.
Dilemma of solutions
All solutions to save the environment and the climate are on the table. But they are not used. The basic and biggest obstacle for a change is our globalised, capitalistic, economic logic and the financial system, which are indeed more a religion than rational structures. As long as humankind will not overcome this systems, I see no solutions for saving environment and climate.
So we have to fight on two levels: Against the stupidity of politicians, heads of states and public servants as climate summit delegates, and the neoliberal and colonial economy. With the latter we are in dilemma: Millions of people will suffer after the capitalistic system has brought them a little bit out of poverty.
Nature will find its own solution
However, nature will find its own solution, even if millions of people will cease or suffer: Whatever comes first, the breakdown of economy, or increasing natural disasters as results of the climate change. Nature had always solutions for overexploitation of ecological systems. Old species become extinct or move to other places, making place for new species. Why should it be different for humans with a brain of which they can only make limited use of?
What we can do now is to save the narration of the coming disasters as a memory for future generations in 500 or 1000 years. Then maybe a tenth of the current world population may live around the south and north poles because the rest of the earth may be unliveable for humans. And hopefully these rests of humankind may have learned from our narratives.
This is developed in more detail in the findings and thoughts of Erik Assadourian in „State of the World 2013“ by the Worldwatch-Institute[ref] Assadourian, Eric (2013): Building an Enduring Environmental Movement: http://www.worldwatch.org/building-enduring-environmental-movement[/ref].
Majority of environmental groups lack holistic approach
A statistics which I recently read in an issue of Technology Review revealed, referring to a survey by the online version of the German magazine »Der Spiegel«[ref]Spiegel-Online (2014): Grünen-Wähler halten Rekord bei Flugreisen: http://www.spiegel.de/wirtschaft/unternehmen/gruenen-waehler-halten-rekord-bei-flugreisen-a-1002376.html (2015-01-02, German only)[/ref]: Most flights are performed by people usually aware of ecological and climate damages and even very engaged in saving the earth, such as voters of green parties or environmental advocators. There are many examples for the ignorance for cultural and environmental values of environmentalists. Like the Greenpeace gang in Peru which invaded the Nasca lines and possibly destroyed small parts of them while demonstrating for saving the climate. Or a recent email advertisement in the EJNet mailing list from a Nepalese journalist coordinating the Seven Summits Women Team with the slogan „Together We Reach Higher“ with a focus on Education, Empowerment and Environment. In my opinion such actions have more to do with destroying the environment and the climate than saving it. While business people seem to be more rational than environmentalists because they are able to make their deals and contracts without seeing each other in person.
History of idle
Well, these are my thoughts on climate policies. I am an old science journalist who studied oceanography in the 1970s. Already then it was very clear for us scientists that something dangerous was happening with the oceans and the atmosphere. I measured these changes in the North Atlantic during my research cruises and colleagues used already computer models developed in the 1960s in order to simulate the future climate. In 1972 these changes where documented in the »Limits to Growth«[ref]Club of Rome (1972): Linits to Growth: http://www.donellameadows.org/wp-content/userfiles/Limits-to-Growth-digital-scan-version.pdf (2015-01-02)[/ref] of the Club of Rome. Nothing happened. Another 10 years later — the number of scientific publications about climate change had already doubled –, scientists warned more and more strongly leading to the foundation of the IPCC in 1988. Its reports since then always require immediate action.
And today? Nearly 27 years after the IPCC, 33 years after the Limits of Growth and 50 years after US-President’s Science Advisory board’s warning in the report »Restoring the Quality of Our Environment«[ref]Science Advisory Board to the US-President (1965): Restoring the Quality of Our Environment: http://dge.stanford.edu/labs/caldeiralab/Caldeira%20downloads/PSAC,%201965,%20Restoring%20the%20Quality%20of%20Our%20Environment.pdf (2015-01-02)[/ref] essentially nothing has happened. On the contrary: We emit more greenhouse gases than ever, still increasing from year to year. From these facts I derive my pessimism: Within 50 years of increasing knowledge about the climate development humankind was not able to change its way of living and of its economy, and it is still not willing to change.
Easy to see, impossible to act
I remember two sentences from my mother which she said in the 1950s, very long before climate change was a scientific and public issue. My mother was a simple woman. Referring to the second world war she said: „Maybe ever now and then a big war is needed to kill millions of people in order to keep humankind on a level which is sustainable for nature.“ She did not mean it in a sarcastic way since all my family except my grandmother, mother and sister died during the war. Looking in winter at the smoking chimneys of our city, she said: „All these gases from the smoke will fill the atmosphere. It will be the end for humankind when the atmosphere is full.“
One needs not to be a scientist to see what is happening. But you need to be a politician and a climate summit delegate to ignore what is happening and to ignore the urgency to act. But as long as people are not able or not trained to use their brain avoiding integrated biases, and as long as a religious economy governs policy, I have no hope for humankind. But on the other side: Maybe it is better for the earth if humans disappear at all. It makes me happy indeed to live with the idea that nature is able emancipate itself from humans.
This article is the outcome of an e-mail interview with Ruth Aine, a journalist and blogger from Uganda who writes for »Foresight for Development«. The article appeared on her Foresight blog[ref]Ruth Aine: Our minds not made for saving the climate: http://www.foresightfordevelopment.org/ffd-blog/ruth-aine/our-minds-not-made-for-saving-the-climate (2015-01-02)[/ref].
Journalism or PR?
When proposing science debates as tools, opportunities and even tasks for science journalists, a colleague came up and said scoffingly: »It’s still only PR.«
He was not wrong – considering the currently fashionable science debates. (mehr …)
Debate-Driven Science Journalism
Science and research arouse desire. Politicians for example hope for solutions for problem which overstrain them, companies look for ever new innovations for their discontinued models in order to increase profits, and lobby groups want to exert influence because knowledge is power.
But what about the scientists themselves and the citizens?
Rethinking Science Debates
It looks like science debates have been discovered as another public relation tool for science and technology. Governments, institutes, even research projects contrive debates – basically to gain acceptance from citizens in order to continue undisturbed.
The German Science Debate: Innovation with democratic participation
Science and technology are always intertwined with the economic and political system. Therefore it needs to be submitted to fundamental democratic procedures. The bodies of the civil society need to be included, according to the publicly funded civil society platform for a change in research (Zivilgesellschaftliche Plattform Forschungswende), which, on 31st May 21013, dedicates an entire day to an in-depth expert discussion at the renowned Berlin Brandenburg Academy of Science.
EurosScientist, May 2013
What will power Europe’s future?
The catastrophic failure of the Japanese power plant in Fukushima has divided Europe over the future use of nuclear energy. In almost every country, there have been calls to reassess the risks and benefits of nuclear power and to slow down the construction of new power plants.
The European debate raises some critical, and difficult, questions. Thus Hanns-J. Neubert organised a workshop on 2012-07-15 during the EuroScience Open Forum ESOF2012 that explored the societal, cultural and journalistic concerns. It looked at science journalism coverage of the tensions between science/technology, economical constraints and political purposes using the example of nuclear power and energy in general.