Climate change and clean energy: The paradox of bias

Here… read this: Your brain on climate change: why the threat produces apathy, not action.

Greg Harman reports that human brains are not wired to react to the non-immediate threat of climate change. This is hardly news, but a fascinating parallel to the way we make decisions about our lives — mostly to satisfy short-term gains and instant gratification. Who could blame us? What with the growing income inequality in Westernized nations and the desire to ease our loneliness by distracting ourselves with incessant smartphone usage. Do the floodwater, fire, unbreathable air, toxic water, food scarcity, overpopulation, and civil unrest problems resulting from human-caused global warming — now, and in the future — elicit an immediate concern from most of the general public? The answer is no. But that sentiment is starting to shift. As it should.

Much has happened since July’s EPA clean power plan hearings: over 400,000 people showed up to the People’s Climate March in New York, the planet had its hottest October ever, a record 35,000 walruses congregated ashore in Alaska because of melting sea ice, the smallest electorate since 1942 elected the worst climate denier (James Inhofe) in national politics to head the Senate Committee on Environment, Obama secretly struck a deal with China to lower carbon emissions, approval for the Keystone XL Pipeline is in serious danger of passing in the House and the Senate, science textbooks are now clarifying climate change is real and caused by humans, and Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship was finally indicted for his role in a horrific coal mine disaster in 2010.

What about that middle thing? The elections. Since the midterms we’ve heard a lot about climate deniers and science skeptics being elected to uphold their so-called mandate (it’s not a mandate if only 32% of voters showed up). Flat-Earther Inhofe may want to cut funding to clean energy programs and continue his crusade against facts, but what we have here is an opportunity (one previously unavailable because of Democratic leadership) for the crazy to be unleashed. Americans will be better exposed to individuals who want to pass legislation that’s completely out of touch with progress. Still, amazingly, it remains up to us — the ones with little financial clout — to vote for the right individuals to affect change. Harman’s report in The Guardian likens voting to religion rather than shopping. But we still have too few choices in politics and too many in commerce. How can humans select to agree with something other than their default biased view, especially when the opposing view is based on scientific facts? That’s a paradox.

In Deborah K. Heikes’ “The Bias Paradox: Why It’s Not Just for Feminists Anymore” (2004), she writes “The bias paradox emerges out of a tension between objectivism and relativism. If one rejects a certain the conception objectivity as absolute impartiality and value-neutrality (i.e., if all views are biased), how, then, can one hold that some epistemic perspectives are better than others?”

…because the internet!! Well, that’s the short of it. The bias paradox has been around since the dawn of human interaction, took hold with the rise of Greek scholars, flourished with the printing press, then the 24-hour cable news cycle, but has now taken on a whole new dimension. In an online arena where everyone has a voice, a validated [in their own mind] opinion, and method to derail someone’s reputation (or self-derail thanks to lack of self control on Twitter or other channels), how can we be trusted to make decisions and come to agreements if we’re all interminably shackled to our biases. Biases that are based on how and where we grew up, our faith — or lack thereof, life’s experiences, knowledge, and — this one’s important — level of intelligence.

There’s also the news sharing economy. With the exception of The New York Times and other respected outlets holding on for dear life, a lot of journalism in the digital sharing sphere measures success by the amount of clicks on its content — and not whether or not the story is 100% factual. When a story breaks, your news feed is littered with top ten lists from dozens of Facebook pages generating inane content to garner clicks and advertising revenue, relying heavily on the way we tailor our news feeds — these choices stemming from our preexisting biases. The endless amount of choices from where we source our news — fan sites, news organizations, friends, family — serves the parade for our bias. How can I be trusted to make a decision if the news feed I’ve customized (which includes the act of hiding updates from right-winged crazies) is completely different from another intelligent, well-informed, and opinionated colleague? My hope is they’ll share some content with me that adheres to my biased specifications!

When Irish band U2 forcefully “gifted” their new albumSongs Of Innocence, to over 500 million iTunes account holders in September, there was a media embellished backlash. Bono was forced to apologize (albeit, in his own way) and reexamine the way the band handles their marketing and public relations efforts in the future. These guys aren’t spring chickens, but they refuse to go out as a wrinkly greatest hits outfit like The Rolling Stones. As a longtime fan passionate about their music and causes — and one who reads and watches interviews over the span of their 38 year existence — I’ve come to memorize the rhetoric Bono uses when representing his band. Some language he used repeatedly to honor their Apple partnership and its marketing blitz is that it was a “punk rock thing to do.” Music journalists mocked him after that statement, but with a little research one will uncover that he used it as far back as 1997 (see: PopMart).

I’m biased because I’m a U2 fan. My reaction to U2’s campaign was never going to be negative. It was a measured, thoughtful analyses of why they did it. The backlash occurred from those who knee-jerk react (as we tend to do a lot of on social media), those who don’t follow dozens of U2 news sources, and those who may be too young to even know what U2 is. I viewed this campaign partially as activism. U2 is active in numerous human rights causes and tries to educate their audience about some of the world’s most unjust atrocities. Most recently, Bono’s efforts with (RED) and ONE got the United States’ most conservative presidential administration in history to give hundreds of millions of dollars to the starving and sick of African nations. Part of the process made antiviral drugs readily available and offered AIDS and birth control education, the latter being pivotal in learning to talk openly about overpopulation — the root cause of global warming. U2’s new album gift to the entire world perhaps informed some unbeknownst iTunes patrons about urgent causes like these.

I refer to the photograph above, taken from the U2 and Greenpeace “Stop Sellafield” campaign in 1992 — when they tried to close Sellafield, a nuclear reprocessing site on the Irish Sea that is both toxic and dangerous to people and the environment. My biased and informed opinion is that I think of U2 as musicians, then activists, but I can’t expect haters to know — or care — about the band’s good intentions when it comes to the rage from having their iTunes collection invaded.

So how do we communicate the emergency of climate change, its relation to fossil fuels, and promote the positive outlook for renewable energy innovation, adoption, and transition? Bono is an activist, but also vibes as a politician where he’s able to mingle with some of the most close-minded individuals in power. But not everyone listens to him, or someone like him. How are living, breathing, intelligent adults — people who stare in the face the effects of climate change, now more than ever — apathetic and inactive when finding solutions (like voting for the right candidates)? How do we communicate this to younger generations who will need to find the solutions?

With education. A small step such as the textbook publisher Pearson now allowing accurate climate science in their books opens the doors to laying the groundwork for not only the recognition of the planet’s woes and the problems global warming poses for people, but also for energy literacy. Better journalism, digital and mobile marketing, public relations, and progressive use of social media channels go a long way in helping to increase the number of purveyors sharing information about the bright promise of a clean energy economy, rapid job growth in the renewable energy industry (solar, wind, hydropower, biomass, etc.), and more nonpartisan, agreeable solutions and resolutions on climate action.

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