It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Very Slow News

I've been casting about, recently, for how to express what I mean about the three kinds of non-delusional climate blogs, and what the difference between them might be, in such a way as not to make unnecessary enemies, but also to promote this kind of one, which in the long run I assert is much more important than the other two kinds.

OK, on the one hand we have old-line journalism, which seeks something it calls "fairness". It's a very American concept and it's based on a vanished and perhaps somewhat mythical past when America had two vaguely stodgy, more or less responsible, and from a distance not easily distinguishable political parties, called "Coke" and "Pepsi". Sorry, called "McDonald's" and "Wendy's". So the journalist would be called upon to parse the smallish difference between the two, everyone would color between the lines, and all was well in Happy Valley. (No grumblers or malcontents, you understand.) These guys are playing a game which no longer makes much sense, not only as a business model but also as a social model, now that one of the two parties is ideological, stubborn, and reluctant to face reality, while the other is certifiably insane.

This odd neutrality is an American model of journalism. You won't find much of the sort coming from elsewhere. Clearly in this class are Keith Kloor, Andy Revkin, and my favorite of this ilk, John Fleck.

On the other hand, we have advocacy journalism. After dismissing the people who are totally wrong on the facts, we find ourselves dominated by Joe Romm's Climate Progress. There's also David Roberts, Brad Johnson, and that sort. Often worth reading, but not of my tribe.

What they are trying to do doesn't seem like what I'm trying to do, or what Eli is trying to do, never mind what the purists like Tamino and Maribo and Grumbino are trying to do. So what is the difference? All of us are in favor of rapid, dramatic, effective and permanent changes in public behavior. But what we write about and how we write about it is different.

Then there's the question as to why Climate Progress and Grist get so much more traffic (at least according to Technorati). Now, there's some question as to how to measure that. Alexa puts me "not in the top 100,000" with Climate Progress at about 12,000th while Technorati has me at a respectable #2598 with Climate Progress at #264. Finally, I have 172 subscribers in Google Reader, while Joe has 1363. So in general, it seems he has about 8 to 10 times the traffic I do.

Well, he started out better known, I guess. Though I've been a presence on the net forever, net pioneers don't automatically get that much momentum from it. I think the issue is this: what Romm produces is newsy.

All of this is pretty much a reprise of the previous article. So what's new? A couple of things.

First is the recent coverage of pushback to Waxman-Markey. Like many people, I've always been suspicious of the climate bill passing through Congress, not because it's "too weak", but because it's too messy. It seemed put together in a hurry and intended to buy people off, to incur huge unnecessary costs and likely to create huge unproductive hard-to-stop cash flows of exactly the sort that cause people to be suspicious of government. But I was urged by fans of the bill to keep my mouth shut on the grounds that I didn't know whereof I was speaking. Except that sure enough, now people who know whereof they speak say, well, that it was put together in a hurry and intended to buy people off, it incurs huge unnecessary costs and it will create huge hard-to-stop cash flows of exactly the sort that cause people to be suspicious of government.

But still, we are urged to keep our traps shut, on the grounds that "the incumbent party always loses midterm elections", it will be many years before "we" have similar supermajorities in the house, and therefore "this is the best we can do".

And I think we finally divide ourselves newsies and non-newsies, into people who believe this makes a whit of sense and those who don't. Non-newsies prefer a public in touch with reality, and are willing to take the time needed to get there. We don't think a "bad bill is better than nothing" because we are not interested in a bill, we are interested in a public which understands the problem and therefore supports the necessary actions. We are interested in a public which would not elect James Inhofe senator from Oklahoma. A tall order, yes, but the fact is that nothing less will work. And if passing a lousy reputation-tarnishing mess reduces CO2 by a few points for a few years until it's torn down in a flourish by a resurgent and still delusional opposition, it won't be worth it in the long run.

Which brings us to today's articles on the concept of slow news, which I suppose is another idea that I won't get credit for, though in this case I was going to steal it from my wife. (I alluded to it briefly here.) Slow news (via the first link in this paragraph), apparently

comes down to this: The faster the news accelerates, the slower I’m inclined to believe anything I hear — and the harder I look for the coverage that pulls together the most facts with the most clarity about what’s known and what’s speculation.

Call it slow news. Call it critical thinking. Call it anything you want. Give some thought to adopting it for at least some of your media consumption, and creation.

I think that's not enough. Slow news means putting your brain in gear for things that take longer than a news cycle to change, even though the changes are enormous, and rapid on their own terms. Melting glaciers. Plummeting aquifers. Accumulating plastic crap in the ocean. None of these things noticeably worse this week than last, but all dramatically worse than fifty years ago, and all struggling for attention.

The question, then, is not whether Inhofe will be re-elected. It is how the people of Oklahoma came to be superstitious, paranoid, and generally misused by the people they trust, and what we can do about it. It's a tall order, but it comes with a side of sustainability.

Now I know that in a sense this is dreaming. The majority of the people in the world cannot read a graph. I don't know if that is inevitable (I think it isn't) but it is inevitable that not everybody is a scientist, and that not even a scientist can be familiar with all of science.

But we do need social networks that trust the right people. Barring that we're in very bad shape. And tricking people into a 20% carbon reduction along with raiding the treasury was a bad bargain even back when there actually was a treasury. What we need is leadership, not legislation. The legislation will follow if the leadership actually happens.

Maybe, in the end, there are inside-the-beltway blogs and outside-the-beltway blogs. I wish the insiders all the fun and games they desire. But in the long run, we'd better figure out how to get the basic ideas across to the public.

In the short run, I think we're already hosed. The tortoise never starts out ahead.
The image, by the looks of it out of copyright, was lifted from


thingsbreak said...

I was urged by fans of the bill to keep my mouth shut

Just out of curiosity, is this meant to suggest people actually did explicitly that, or people offered rebutting perspectives on why one might be inclined to support cap and trade? It's a nontrivial distinction. There have been enough claims and counterclaims of censorship/stifled dialog/McCarthyism surrounding the subject to last us several lifetimes to go down that route again unnecessarily.

Pangolin said...

Ever since you wrote that bit about "My Little World" I've been a fan of your writing. You do a great job of communicating the problem without running off on tangential rants as Roberts and Romm are prone to do or sinking into the despair of Paul Chefurka or Jay Hansen. There is a small problem.

In your average city the number of people willing to do something tangible about climate change wouldn't be enough to form a bowling league. Kim Stanley Robinson came to talk at the local Uni and we couldn't get 300 people in the room including students assigned the lecture as extra credit. The usual number for a climate themed event is about twenty, mostly grey, heads.

Until we can solve the problem of communicating long-term risks to lay people we're treading water. The majority don't get that the scale of the problem will overwhelm pretty much everything else in a few short years.

Thank you for your efforts. We can educate, demonstrate, share best practices and prepare for the eventual mass disaster that will wake people up. Now you know how Noah felt; minus the reassurance of God's presence.

Michael Tobis said...

To be clear on TB's question, nobody with any authority over or control over my fate me has ever told me to shut up or speak up way on the bill.

Thanks for asking for this clarification.

Michael Tobis said...

To be slightly clearer on TB's question, nobody with any authority over me or control over my fate has ever told me to shut up or speak up either way on the bill.

David B. Benson said...

Well then, does The Nation print slow news? It has been around for a long time as a source of thoughtful opion about politics and the arts.

Not much about climate, tho'.

Rich Puchalsky said...

I work as, essentially, a sort of librarian, and therefore at the distribution of information. As such I have to have a high regard for the accuracy, back-trail, and so on of the information I distribute. That's part of what I do -- but I have no illusions that accurate information is going to make any difference politically.

There are a number of stock phrases about truth: "the truth will set you free", "speaking truth to power", and so on. They seem to me to be comfortable propaganda. "Speaking truth to power" is a meaningless activity; power will let you say whatever you want, as long as you do what it tells you to. That's the central fact of American politics since at least the 1980s.

So, as ever, I remain skeptical about your focus. News, slow or otherwise, is immaterial. Anyone who actually wants to know the basics about global climate change can find them out pretty easily. What's needed is political organization. Not necessarily political organization within a party, but the organization of people who already know that something needs to be done into a form that is capable of taking on the sources of power within society that want nothing to be done.

The role of providing scientific news in this crisis, slow or otherwise, is an honorable one, but not really of critical importance. I can see why people who skill sets are there want to do it -- just as I keep doing what I'm good at -- but should providers and readers of news both improve as much as you'd like, little would change.

Michael Tobis said...

Rich, I am not arguing that better understanding among the public is sufficient, only that it is necessary.

skanky said...

"Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock." - Ben Hecht

Rich Puchalsky said...

To follow up, I don't think that it is even necessary. Anyone who is interested in understanding has already understood. The remaining opposition is funded by large industries, using an ideological minority that will never change its beliefs. There is no purchase there for information to do anything.

I suppose that it's possible that news could convert people who understand, but who aren't motivated to do anything, into active people. But that's what you call advocacy journalism.

You were pretty hard on the localism people, in part for what seems like good reason. (I haven't looked into what those particular people believe.) But I agree that people need to do what's needed to avert catastrophe, not what they'd like to do or what comforts them in some way. You certainly seem to be trying your best to avert catastrophe. But I really don't see any basis for your belief that the kind of projects that you'd like to do are what's needed.

And -- to continue another long-running bit -- I don't really like the positioning of what you're trying to do. It's always something with straight science at one end, the advocacy journalists at the other, and what you'd like to do somewhere in the middle. That plays directly into the tired, straight-from-the-GOP trope that advocacy is icky, impure, something that partisans who can't be trusted do -- an activity for the DFHs.

I suppose that I think you'd be more useful if you just signed up with an environmental group and got dirty already. Maybe one of them is hiring.

Michael Tobis said...

Plenty of people are motivated to act. Very few are motivated to act sensibly. This is demonstrated by the way even the cooperative politicians act.

Realistic understanding of the tradeoffs and triages, the time scales, the prospects and the risks is missing from all major political camps. There's a lot more learning to be done besides getting across that "it's a problem".

Hank Roberts said...

Well, there's outreach to young people.

And there's this:

Want to help their program?

Send Tax-deductible donations to “Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisers — Breakthrough Institute Fund — BT Gen.”

It's what it sounds like, a cornucopian/cargo cult/profit-proves-blessings approach to changing the world by making everyone rich, starting at the top.

Brian said...

I'd disagree that current legislation is mostly put together in a hurry. Parts certainly are, but there are two-plus years of preceding bills that they've drawn on, not to mention the European experience.

Here's a thought experiment - would we in the US be better off or worse off right now if we had been in the European cap-and-trade program? That program has many flaws that congressional legislation is designed to prevent, yet I think it's still had an effect, is now gearing up to be even stronger, and has helped move Europe in the right direction. If we would've been better of joining, then we're certainly better off passing the current legislation.

Ric said...

A fine piece, one of many reasons I read this blog. Generally my sensibility is far closer to yours than to, say, Joe Romm's.

And yet. The weakest part of this post, imho, is all the grumbling about those (Joe? T.C. MITS?) who have a greater tolerance for the famously messy parts of legislation, indeed of the human condition. Notice all the scare quotes around the things "they" are telling us. Even if some of "them" actually said whatever it was that offended, and we take care to give a link to it (not always done in this post), it's still a judgment call how seriously to take each statement, and what it means for the conscience of each of us as we consider what to say and do next. Readership counts tell you only so much. I read Joe and you and others, and none of you always speaks for me. Your judgment may paraphrase and distort what "they" said, and the worse that gets, the closer your arguments come to straw men. (Umm, straw persons??)

The only proper rebuttal to "this is the best we can do" is "we can do better, and here's how". But that gets you immediately into very deep waters, because everything involving human thought, let alone cooperation among billions of humans, is buried in layers of radically circular causality on unknown bases, best discussed in the deepest humility.

There's no angel's gonna descend to reveal whether it's really better to go with the bill we have this session or hold out for a better one. Either path is defensible. Romm certainly is all for continuing improvement after the hoped-for passing of this one. I don't think that you and he are actually all that far apart on how messy and inefficient the provisions are. Have humans ever done anything truly big in a cleaner fashion? Maybe one like Joe, conspicuously lacking in deepest humility, really is the best advocate for his unique position. (A logical contradiction to my last paragraph? I give up.)

Anyway, there's no contradiction between either position on the bill and efforts toward public education and better social networks of trust. I trust you to write brighter lucubrations about the networks, but I'm not all fired up about muzzling Joe, either.

Michael Tobis said...

Ric, hmm, my opinion, though tentative, is colored by two facts. 1) Williams and Zabel explicitly claimed what I originally suspected in more substance and detail than I could have come up with and (possibly not entirely independently) 2) To my nose, Williams and Zabel's presentation lacked the odor of horseshit that so persistently accompanies most of what partisans of either stripe say about this matter.

I suppose you could call it confirmation bias, but I could also call it confirmation.

Michael Tobis said...

PS - I am not about muzzling Romm or Revkin and their cohorts. I'd just like to our cohort to be competitive with them.

In the end I think what we do is more lasting and important.

William T said...

I think that you sort of answered your own question (about why Joe Romm's blog is more popular than yours) by this very post. There is a vast number of places where news and stories about climate issues are presented. Most people don't have time to follow all of them. Some sites are much more focussed than others, so offer a clear point of difference. Realclimate and ClimateProgress for instance. Always something interesting and/or stimulating to read about climate issues. Others are more meandering and really only appeal if one connects with the author or the comment-group. Your's is in that category.

Michael Tobis said...

William T may have a point. Romm is never off message. I guess that appeals to people who already know what message they want to hear.

OK, that was too easy. I don't entirely mean it...

Seriously, this blog was never particularly intended for a broad audience. This is about introspection. It's not the public outreach but the reflection on what we might do better. So really comparing my audience with Romm's is beside the point.

I am interested, eventually, in doing more of a pure pop science outreach effort (maybe something like Bob Grumbine's) someday. Maybe soon. Stay tuned.

On the other hand, maybe I'll worry about more about boring people when my numbers actually stop going up. I've had a gratifying increase over the last couple of weeks.

To people who find me only sporadically interesting, I suggest you use a feed reader. Then you can follow up on entries you find interesting and skip the rest.

Ric said...

The previous comment by "Ric" is mine. I prefer to give my first and last names (and prefer it when others do as well, though I'll give Tamino a pass on account of his many sterling contributions).

Comment submission is a tad confusing on this score. I give the info for my Google Account, which is attached to me just because I'm on gmail. I don't pay much attention to my profile there, but it does have my full name. Yet the full name doesn't show in the comment, and there's no box dedicated to supplying it while posting a comment.

-- Ric Merritt

Jim Bouldin said...

Good post, made me think, thanks. I think I'm also more than a bit tired of trying to drink from the fire hose--good way to drown. I've always approached science as a branch of philosophy, not news or entertainment.

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

Fleck's problem, methinks, is that he thinks all he needs to do is to expose the shills who are obviously working for oil/coal/energy-intensive interests (e.g. the American Petroleum Institute), while keeping quiet on the more general right-wing/free-market fundamentalist 'think-tanks' (like the Heartland Institute).

-- bi

Tom said...

Even though we're on different sides of the fence most of the time, I enjoy what you write and how you write it. I've been blogging since 1999, and your point about being 'newsy' is close to the mark. The only tips I ever give newcomers is, try and post more than once a day, and interact with your commenters.

Did you ever investigate doing your thing on I get a couple of hundred bucks a month out of it, which is about one fifty more than I'd get out of serving ads up on a blog.