Monday, February 6, 2017

Checkmated on the "Climate Pause". The Mistakes Scientists Make


David Rose popularized the concept of the "pause" in global warming in a 2012 article on the Daily Mail. There never was such a thing, but it became a highly successful meme (*), still widely cited today as proof that global warming doesn't exist or it is nothing to be worried about. By now, the rapid rising temperatures of the past few years should have been consigned the "pause" to the oblivion it fully deserves. But a group of scientists offered to Rose the occasion to double down and to accuse them of manipulating the data. 


Years ago, I used to play chess, even though I always remained, at best, at a low-medium skill level. Once, I found myself playing with a local high-level player and I was thoroughly trashed, quickly checkmated. I offered my congratulations to him and he answered to me with something like, "Ugo, it is not that I am especially good. It is you who made mistakes with your moves. Make no mistakes, and nobody will ever checkmate you."

I think that was good advice that I still try to remember after many years. If you are defeated, it may be that your opponent is especially good, but it is also likely that he or she simply exploited your mistakes. Avoid making mistakes, and your life will be easier. But you need to recognize the mistakes you made and admit them.

This seems to be the problem with the present debate on climate science. Facing aggressive criticism, scientists keep making the most elementary communication mistakes. The latest disaster for science is the recent article by David Rose in which scientists are accused to be manipulating the data. Rose, you may remember, is the journalist who first diffused in the media the idea that there had been a "pause" in global warming. His 2012 article in the Daily Mail was a milestone in the meme war; with the "pause" (or "hiatus") still widely known and repeated as "proof" that global warming doesn't exist or that, at least, climate models don't work (*).

Obviously, the "pause" never was anything more than a perfectly normal oscillation - amplified by carefully choosing a specific interval of temperatures. The recent temperature increases broke all the warming records and that should have buried forever the "pause", together with other legends such as the claimed arrival of the planet Nibiru in 2012. But, no. Now David Rose doubles down with a new article in which he, this time, accuses scientists of having manipulated the data in order to make the pause disappear.

I don't think I need to tell you that Rose's latest article is a textbook example of logical inconsistency. First, he claimed the existence of the "pause" on the basis of temperature data that, evidently, he trusted. Now, he says that the data shouldn't be trusted because they don't show a pause. If there ever was an example of motivated reasoning, this is it.

Yet, communication is not just a question of formal logic. Take a tour of the Web and you'll see how many people are gleefully commenting on Rose's latest broadside against science. It is a landslide; the dam has given way: it is a true disaster for science. Maybe Rose is an evil genius in communication, but I think he is not. He is just exploiting the mistakes made by climate scientists.

This story is all about an article published in 2015 by a group of NOAA scientists who claimed that there is no evidence of a slowdown in the world's temperature increase. The article was perfectly good in scientific terms, but it was a terrible mistake in terms of communication. Why? Because it ignored a simple fact of life: in the mass media debate, mentioning a concept, even if for debunking it, has the effect of reinforcing the public perception that the concept is real.

This is a well known concept. On this issue, you may read a good article by Chris Mooney describing the "backfire effect" or, sometimes, the "boomerang effect". Among the many cases, it was found that having Barack Obama explicitly stating that he is not a Muslim tends to reinforce some people's belief that he is. And you surely remember the story of the "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq. There never was any proof for their existence (and, indeed, they never existed). But the more the subject was debated, the more people became convinced that they existed.

In the end, it is simple: debunking doesn't work; on the contrary, it often reinforces the perception that the belief being debunked is true. So, it should have been obvious that a paper that attempted to demonstrate that there never was a "pause" would generate a backlash, one day or another. And it did.

Let me repeat: For what I can say, there is nothing wrong in scientific terms in the work by Karl et al. But place yourself in the shoes of a person who is not a scientist, won't you get the impression that the scientists are fiddling with the data? That's the point that the critics of science are making over and over and this message seems to be going through.

Maybe it was unavoidable that a review of the temperature data would lead to this result, but was it appropriate to publish a minor correction of a data set in a high-visibility journal? If it was in order to affect climate policies, it was a perfectly legitimate target, but only if based on rock-solid data. Didn't the people involved in this work realize that their corrections are debatable, to say the least? And how is it that no one in NOAA thought that in some quarters the corrections would be understood and described as politically motivated data manipulation? Do scientists always have to be so naive? 

Now, many scientists are trying to debunk Rose's article (**), but the problem remains the same: the more you mention the "pause", the more it becomes real for the public. And that's a victory for the enemies of science. It seems that, as scientists, we are falling over and over into the same traps. As long as we do that, we'll keep being checkmated by people who exploit our mistakes.





(*) About the power of the "pause" as a meme, note that even a Nobel prize in physics, Carlo Rubbia, became convinced that it was something real. You can hear him (in Italian) here saying that on minute 2.40 

(**) Note that climate scientists are debunking Rose who was debunking NOAA that was debunking Rose who was debunking climate scientists. Quite a trophic chain of debunking and counter-debunking. A true "metadebunking" that only confuses people and plays in the hand of the enemies of science.





29 comments:

  1. What you write is terrible, if true: that the belief system of a person (and believing in the honesty of scientists is also part of a belief system, in the end) is not only immune to, but will even be reinforced by counterarguments. Unfortunately it has been proven, that exactly this is happening.
    IMO there is no way than to sideline certain people by , yes, debunking, but of the sort: has been shown five times there and there and now let's not waste more time on this and do somethin. Generate our own incessant constant stream of not only information, but call to action.

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    1. It is the way things are: it is not the message that counts, it is the messenger.

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  2. In the 1980's, while Harold Washington was Mayor, he stated, "I am not a wumpf-wumpf!" Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, normally a supporter of Washington, could not control himself and wrote that altho he had no idea what a wumpf-wumpf might be, we could be sure Mayor Washington was one, like when former President Nixon said, "I am not a crook" we all knew he was one indeed.

    No accusations of wumpf-wumpfery came to Dog the subsequent career of Mayor Washington. Not knowing what it might be was obviously helpful. But "pause" is a concept we are all familiar with, whether on Dogs or in an event(s) stream.

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    1. Yes, that's also famous: Nixon states "I am not a crook" and everyone starts believing he is. The way things are

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  3. FYI,Republicans in Congress also attacked the paper:
    https://science.house.gov/news/press-releases/former-noaa-scientist-confirms-colleagues-manipulated-climate-records

    and a rebuttal:
    https://www.carbonbrief.org/factcheck-mail-sundays-astonishing-evidence-global-temperature-rise

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  4. The more we concentrate on the problem the bigger the problem gets. The more we concentrate on the solution the bigger the solution gets. The world climate will degrade just as our resources shrink and our population explodes. Having a pissing contest in the news sells newspapers (showing my age. I still think people read newspapers) but does little to help. I wish we paid as much attention to people working on solutions as we do on "troublemakers".

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  5. Doesn't "pause" signal that it is (or was) temporary?

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    1. exactly so. its the weakest argument, even if it was true. sort of grasping at straws. using the world pause is a tacit admission there will be an inevitable continuance of the previous pattern set. pause is also a bit foreboding in a situation where pressure is building year on year, because it hints there is something sticking in the system ready to be unleashed explosively, like a stretched rubber band.

      i personally dont think the scientists were particularly naive in countering the garbage by rose in the daily fail. its pretty much a no win situation whatever they do. if they don't debunk it, the denialists will claim to have won too, and the readership will be just as happy with that because it suits them.

      people who love cars and to fly around the world are simply too immoral to care what science says. they will always find an excuse to continue their bad behaviour. education is not the answer. only punishment will work.

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  6. The Daily Mail is on a roll: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4196314/Uber-hires-Nasa-engineer-lead-flying-taxi-project.html

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  7. There is another aspect that is often forgotten by climate scientists. Most (I would say all, but I'm not a specialist) climate data changes with a first derivative that is continuous, which means that there are no jumps in the data. This is something that doesn't match anymore our daily experiences. When I turn off a machine or open a breaker, there is a jump in the electrical current value; when stock markets crash, there is a jump in market value; when a product becomes obsolete, there is a jump in the sales data... so our perception of the world somehow doesn't match anymore what happens with climate. I believe that this is an issue when climate models are discussed with non specialist people.

    Etienne

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    1. Hello,

      Little mistake on my post above. I meant "no jump in the trend of the data". Data are always continuous, but if first derivative is continuous, trends should always cross (didn't check myself, but seems logical).

      Etienne

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  8. Dear Dr. Bardi
    I just happen to have been looking at one of Prof. Jordan Peterson's dozens of You Tube videos...I can't find the particular one again. Peterson said that humans are not designed to practice science as their first instinct. What the mind immediately intuits is Meaning...not scientific structure.

    In some cases, the Meaning is pretty obvious...It's a tiger, run or freeze or hide....someone is flirting with me, so I have an opportunity....and so forth.

    A few people have the gift (or curse) of being able to act like scientists, at least some of the time. That is, they can pursue 'truth' which has no meaning...it just is what it is.

    One wonders about Einstein's reluctance to embrace Quantum Physics, even when he was one of the founding fathers, when he discovered that it implied that reality was, at bottom, probabilistic. Did he turn away from something which had no meaning?

    At any rate, let's consider climate change and the public. The public was asked to buy into the story that we could stop using fossil fuels and easily replace them with 'green energy'. Sometimes the public was told that 'you will have to practice austerity, but it will be consistent with your deepest human values'. So two meanings were presented to the public:
    *Life will go on and the trajectory is upward (as in the Stern reports)
    *Life will change but it will still be a good life

    I think the public has figured out by now that the first meaning is a lie. Relative to the second meaning, they see very few of the people who are delivering that message actually practicing what they preach. Consequently, they now perceive that they have a choice between:
    *Doing what we need to do to avoid climate change is perhaps impossible and at least very painful
    *The people who should know are continuing to do what humans do who have lots of fossil fuels.

    I offer this as a way of understanding why a significant segment of the public does not vote for politicians who are actually willing to do the things which are necessary to avoid, or reverse, climate change.

    Don Stewart

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  9. Ugo:

    Even scientists have confirmation biases. After years of working in sci/tech, I have come to the conclusion that a common trend across all disciplines is "If the data does not fit the theory, the data must be discarded". Followed only by "well....lets get a statistician to look at this!"

    Scientific lives and careers are driven by theories and hypotheses. The dirty work of going out and dredging up the data is left to lower sorts (read here: Technicians).

    I still remember the PI of a project coming by my lowly HPLC in the dark past. There was a long ribbon of chart paper with about twenty-five runs rolled up. We unrolled it and looked at the peaks and eyeballed the results. His comment was "well, that isn't what we need, what did you do wrong?"

    After this joyous interlude, the other folks in the lab dragged over a (Clean) garbage can and dropped the chart paper in the can and took a picture of the chart paper coming out of the chart recorder straight into the garbage can.

    I still have that picture.

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    1. Ugo: You might want to spend a little time over t John-Michael Greer's "Archdruid Report" for todays post.

      I think that this passage has quite a bit of relavence to this discussion.

      "That’s why Kant included the “thing in itself” in his account: there really does seem to be something out there that gives rise to the data we assemble into our representations. It’s just that the window we’re looking through might as well be a funhouse mirror: it imposes so much of itself on the data that trickles through it that it’s almost impossible to draw firm conclusions about what’s “out there” from our representations. The most we can do, most of the time, is to see what representations do the best job of allowing us to predict what the next series of fragmentary sensory images will include. That’s what science does, when its practitioners are honest with themselves about its limitations—and it’s possible to do perfectly good science on that basis, by the way."

      http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2017/02/the-world-as-representation.html

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    2. Was reading Greer yesterday. Excellent as usual. The problem is that even a philosopher steeped in Kantian philosophy will quickly step out of the way if he sees a rogue bus rolling down in his direction. Of course, he might consider that the bus is just a creation of his own mind, so that it is an illusion, and an illusion cannot harm him.....

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  10. I recall when my son was 4 or 5 he said he was scared about the monsters under his bed. I told him there was no such thing as monsters. He said, why is there a word for them? We have "ideas" about a lot of things that are not true. We would prefer to live in the world of our own imagination and call it hope.

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  11. The more you mention “debunking” and make tacit or explicit parallels to two adversaries in a chess game as representing a kind of “epic struggle” between “scientists” (the good guys) and the “enemies of science” (the bad guys) the more you fall into the very logical inconsistency you described. People (and your readers) will get the correct idea that there is a controversy going on and that “the science” is “not settled” which it seems to me is precisely what you wish people NOT to conclude. Could it be that THERE IS IN FACT a controversy and that it exists for some valid reasons beyond the nefarious influences of the Koch brothers, Exxon Mobil, “right wing think tanks” and etc. etc.? (the list is very long) The “enemies of science” may not be only “natural stubborn contrarians”, "conspiracy theorists", ignoramuses, non-scientists who think they know more than scientists and all the other ad hominem arguments categories that the religion of anthropogenically caused climate change (it has more the characteristics and dynamics of a religion than it does of a masterminded scientific hoax) (though there are parallels between the two) has ably but obviously still ineffectually created and continues to put forward These people may just happen to be instead both non-AGW real scientists and also non-scientists who simply think “the science” is not settled and that other scientific explanations for what seems to be going on should continue to be considered and actively studied. (and funded) Going the next step and then putting them in the “merchants of doubt” category is yet another logical inconsistency and circular reasoning and also simple name calling. The problem of “the science” (a pretty big kettle of all sorts of fish anyway with possibly invalid data all of the time or variably at various times, being only one of the fish) being unsettled I don’t think is going to go away until it actually “really” is. And then “wistfully and wisely” going down that other road of “the problems of epistemology” as this blog also has tried to do previously also won’t help. Suggestions: Start by respecting other people who may disagree with you partially or totally more and better, and question more some of your own ideas and conclusions and –as importantly- your own personality and “authoritativeness” and what may be driving it; and secondly work more on real solutions that actually are needed and that actually and realistically can and will work. Based on how I have seen you respond before, I am certain that this brief comment will not do any good and will either be ignored or cleverly dismissed through some of the usual gimmickry. Nor would it do any good if it were ten times as long and more detailed and specific. But recently the AGW crowd for some reason or another seems to have taken a major hit with the Trump election. I don’t like Trump and I don’t think his appearance on the scene is going to solve very many problems either of the U.S. or the world. In fact he may make many of them worse. But I have to admit that I enjoyed watching certain categories of people get mud in their face. And so far they seem to have learned no lessons and so are likely to continue to get even more. In good measure it is their attitudes and beliefs and behaviors that have caused the rise of someone like Trump.

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  12. I have been puzzled by at least two senior scientific friends with high qualifications who were 'climate change sceptics'. I was not proselytising, and they raised the subject. I was not impressed with the quality of their arguments. Neither had the maths for, nor any experience of the numerical models they criticised. They seemed to rely on opinion they had gleaned from some colleagues higher up in the organisation. They did not appear to understand the role of non-condensing 'greenhouse' gases in regulating climate, nor had much of an idea about past climates.

    Have you read our host's neat lesson of basic chemistry of global climate rgulation through deep time? http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/great-chemical-reaction-life-and-death.html Some useful comments about admitted complexity to read as well.

    Back in 2012 at Ugo's instigation I made my own review of the data relating to the carbon cycle and the part played by methane as one of the non-condensing GHGs. As a 'layperson', but with a science background, I had my own personal insights along the way, which felt very striking. I can only encourage people with some science to make a similar quest and to form an opinion based on a lot of solid evidence.

    Yes, there is much still to do. I don’t think it's clever to call a halt now, which seems to be happening.

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    1. I took me a long time to understand why these things happen: and, in the end, I had the right flash. It is not the message, it is the messenger. Pharaphrasing NRA, people don't believe in facts, people believe in people.

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    2. @ Phil Harris: Yes, there is much still to do. (but what, more precisely?) The links you provide above can provide ONE side of the scientific argument. There is at least one other side that also has little to do with greenhouse gases. And huge amounts of studies and information for both. I don't think these arguments (or discussions) or the need for further scientific work of various kinds can be resolved on a blog. Most blogs tend to be partisan anyway and advocate for certain views or positions and not others. And regrettably some scientists also have claimed to speak for the entire "scientific community" as though it were a unified monolithic block that of course agrees with them; (it isn't; e.g. the "97% consensus" story) (perhaps one of the reasons why people seem to be listening less and less to "science" instead of more and more) (which is a sad byproduct of certain strategies) Nor in the current world will such discussions ever be completely free of the politics and political and propaganda strategies of various actors which have been in evidence and practiced with various degrees of skill for quite some time. We'll just have to wait and see what happens. Both to the climate and to the various attempts to understand it much better than at present. As well to communication and dissemination and propaganda strategies. Prophets and precautionary principle types please be patient.

      @ Ugo Bardi: Yes but messengers are viewed also on the basis of the messages and "facts" they have delivered over time (in fact both are different types of evidence that help form beliefs) and how this has been done. Judgements are formed both of people and of facts...and of course also of narratives. But of course this is nothing new.

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    3. Dear anonymous, allow me to say that you are making the same mistakes that scientists are making: they line up "facts" and they search for consensus. You are doing the same, although you emphasize the lack of consensus. But when you see what looks like a truck running toward you at full speed, you don't check for facts and search for consensus or debate it. You jump out of the way as fast as you can. Sure, maybe it wasn't a truck, maybe it wasn't running at full speed, maybe it would have missed you. But.....

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    4. Thank you for the reply Dear Dr. Bardi and of course you (and others) are allowed (or should be allowed) to say anything they think if they are speaking or writing in good faith. No one is forced to agree. But I don't think so (and not all scientists are making those mistakes anyway) and I am certainly not looking for consensus. I am not emphasizing the lack of consensus either. I am simply saying that the consensus that some wish to proclaim does not exist. And it doesn't exist not only as to whether there is truck heading our way or not but more importantly as to what is causing the phenomenon of climate change to occur and whether it will continue in the same way or not....and in that regard the analogy with a truck certainly is misleading...but I suppose both serve to inspire fear and once people are afraid....well the rest is relatively easy....but not necessarily right or useful or optimal.

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    5. Ugo,
      Your insight about people filter what is an acceptable version of reality through a socially constructed belief system is indeed an important one.

      Logic and rationality have little to do with acceptance of beliefs. If it did, how can we explain the persistence and near universality of religions over the centuries in diverse societies when there is absolutely no logical or factual support for them? Even when beliefs are repeatedly contradicted by direct personal experience, the most frequent response is to construct an even more delusional explanation rather than to develop a new word view and mode of action.

      So that is the way most humans think. Faith based beliefs are normative for the human species, and those who actually think like scientists are aberrations. Even when they sit on university faculties and wear white lab coats.

      If we understand this view of human consciousness, then the prediction that best fits human psychology is that humans will never acquire the wisdom to collectively adjust to living as true citizens of the planet. The physics of the geosphere don't follow human delusional notions, and their laws will determine the fate of the planet and of the human apes that have acquired the ability to destroy it.

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    6. Anonymous, don't you think that we should all take a step back and try to find a common ground? I agree that the scientsts made lots of mistakes, that they managed to appear nasty, pompous, silly, self-conscious, greedy, politicized, and worse than that. But if the messenger was bad, it doesn't mean that the message is bad, too. You say that the analogy with the truck running against you is misleading. Fine, but do you really want to wait to "wait and see"? Are you sure?

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    7. Horizonstar, it is not really my insight. It is something that psychologists have been known for a long time, but it took time for this knowledge to filter to the people involved in the debate. But also the people working in PR know this very well. You can't hope that messages will diffuse all by themselves. If you want a message to pass, you must commit yourself to it. You must be willing to make sacrifices, even big ones for it. Instead, scientists work on the idea that they know the "facts". They present their facts, then someone will do something about the problem. It doesn't work that way

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    8. As a further comment to the anonymous comment, above, note how the story of the "97% consensus" backfired against scientists. If you don't trust science, then not only you won't care about consensus, but you won't even believe that the consensus exists. It is recursive: you need consensus to believe in consensus!

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    9. It was not scientists (e.g. chemists, biologists , physicists or even "climate scientists" ) who put out the story of the 97 percent consensus among "scientists" It backfired against the propagandists who put it out based on very sloppy research which they had wanted to come to certain conclusions, and then those scientists (and others) (e.g. media /"communications" people and politicians) who subscribed to it. Whether there is a 97 percent consensus or much less or maybe even more is also not a matter of belief (though some reduce it to that) it is a matter of fact provided all parameters are properly defined and understood. I.e. what exactly is meant by "consensus", how can agreement or disagreement and precisely about what to be measured and etc.

      As far as messengers and messages here too some are bad and some are good and each also can vary by context. And they don't necessarily correlate. Poor messengers sometimes carry good or useful messages and sometimes good messengers carry poor , useless or sub-optimal or outright harmful messages. Again it's best to define one's terms and be reasonably specific otherwise almost any conclusions can be drawn. I think we should find common ground if there is common ground. If instead there is lots of uncommon ground or disagreement or controversy it's best to understand that and why it exists and be clear about what. For instance what exactly are "denialists" or "skeptics" denying or being skeptical about? And what are they NOT denying or being skeptical about? And what are those who think the AGW thesis is correct perhaps denying or being overly skeptical about.. or not? Some people are sometimes also referred to as being "anti science". Maybe some "scientists" also seem to be "anti -science" ? Again my own view is to try to be more clear and specific about all such.

      But I was wrong about one thing, my comment was not disregarded or dismissed though I think there was an attempt to invalidate it. I hope my suggestions will be heeded.

      Finally it's not that I "want" to wait. It is more that time will tell. (About the three things I mentioned) But it sounds like we at least agree that the analogy about the truck is misleading. So why put it out there? I also happen to be an atheist. Naturally I may end up burning in hell because of it. Should I change my entire world view and maybe even become "anti science" to reduce my likelihood of going to hell? But that in fact might take me to hell immediately. But I appreciate the implicit warning though I also could give one back. You may be proven wrong within your lifetime. Naturally there is always plenty of wiggle room to be found to somehow save face. And the planet may or may not go to hell for other reasons or because of those other things we did not focus on enough.

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  13. Dear Scientists
    Here is a way of thinking and some advice you may not have heard before. Jordan Peterson, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, is responding to a question about the future of humanity and the larger world. This is not real long, but it isn't sound bites either. So you have to make some investment of time.

    Agenda Plus: Jordan Peterson on How to Think About the Future
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZuW3EYOrWoc

    Jordan challenges his students to take one thing that they can actually influence and make it beautiful. I suggest that you read this research on suburban soil carbon emissions, add what you know or can find with a little research about soil microbes and carbon sequestration, and make your own little plot of crabgrass beautiful.

    Urban Soils Release Surprising Amounts of Carbon Dioxide
    https://www.bu.edu/news/2016/02/23/urban-soils-release-surprising-amounts-of-carbon-dioxide/

    Don Stewart


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  14. Ugo:

    I was reminded of this last night.

    I really think that there is some merit to this being the official video for the ongoing climate debate. Though sometimes it is difficult for me to decide which character is portraying which side.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQFKtI6gn9Y

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)