When It Comes to Climate, Here’s the Problem

06/16/2017 02:24 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2017

People Trust Social Media Friends and Don’t Confirm the Data

2014 Global CO2 Emissions from Fossil Fuel Combustion and Some Industrial Processes.
USEPA
2014 Global CO2 Emissions from Fossil Fuel Combustion and Some Industrial Processes.

A recent post by a Facebook friend shared a post from another friend. The comments that resulted illustrate perfectly why there is confusion about climate change. Friends share incomplete and inaccurate information on social media, trust what they read, and end up to reacting to that incorrect information. My Facebook friend’s post began like this:

Subject: What is the Paris Climate Agreement & why we are out? Everyone should read this. Even if you are not political.

The ensuing paragraphs said countries look good by signing (insinuating that’s why they did it even if they don’t intend to comply), rich nations each pay $100 billion each year to help developing nations develop renewable energy, and the big polluters are the developed nations. The post also said President Trump pulled out of the Paris Accord because we have to revive our economy and infrastructure first. Then text was added from a reasonably well-done story from The Daily Telegraph, a national British daily newspaper.

The comments that followed were the most telling parts of the post. They were heartfelt responses from good folks who cared about the issue, but the summary information at the top of the post created emotional reactions. Here are some samples, paraphrased to minimize the emotional content:

COMMENT: Why must we pay for other countries’ pollution when we are so far advanced in cleaning our air?
COMMENT: It was good that Trump withdrew from the Paris Accord since we have some of the best air quality per-capita in the world. After China, India, Russia and others have caught up with us we could rejoin if we could contribute in a fair way financially.

FACTS: According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “in 2014 the top carbon dioxide (CO2) emitters, in order, were China, the United States, the European Union, India, the Russian Federation, and Japan.” According to the World Bank, the U.S. was the eleventh worst emitter per capita in 2013, emitting far more person than the other top emitters listed above. Even the Telegraph story pasted into the post noted in paragraph two that “The US is the second biggest polluter behind China.”

COMMENT: OMG - sending $100 billion a year to an international fund. I have a problem with that.

FACTS: The goal of the Green Climate Fund is for “the world’s advanced economies to jointly mobilize $100 billion per year by 2020, from a variety of sources, to address the pressing mitigation and adaptation needs of developing countries.” Those sources are intended to be both public and private, not just from federal government sources. The U.S. has pledged and paid $3 billion of the $10 billion raised so far.

The challenge is how to successfully and simply put forth the facts about this or any other issue, not tinged by opinion or politics. The posts made it clear that the commenters confused improved U.S. air quality with the type of pollution created by carbon emissions. One imagines the commenters comparing pictures of the air in Beijing and those of the U.S. and confusing emissions of visible pollutants (some of which contribute to climate change) with the invisible pollution of CO2.

Are these folks offended that the U.S. might have some of the highest emissions of greenhouse gases after all the work that has been done to clean up our air in past decades? Or did they just not know the difference between greenhouse gases (GHGs) and other pollutants?

Not understanding the pollution issue also seemed to feed into the funding issue. Commenters did not have any sense of an ethical imperative that the U.S. should help globally as the historically largest contributor of greenhouse gases, surpassed now only by China. In other words, the U.S. and other developed nations are the primary cause of climate change, while the smaller developing nations have contributed little to the problem.

Developing nations are likely to be affected the most by climate change

However, those developing nations are likely to be the ones most affected by drought, famine, sea level rise, extreme heat, severe storms, and the dislocation and civil unrest caused by climate change. The cost of the U.S. military response to climate-related civil unrest (think riots and wars) is likely to be far larger than the support to help developing nations adapt to a changing climate and minimize their GHG emissions. Think about the current conflict in Syria and Iraq which was, in part, exacerbated by drought.

In addition, helping developing countries to address climate change helps the overall global effort required. Much of the wealth in the U.S. has come from the burning of cheap fossil fuels over the last 100 years or so and the emissions of carbon that resulted. From an ethical perspective, some of the wealth from developed nations can and should now be used to help developing countries from making the same mistakes we unknowingly made (i.e. burning fossil fuels without initially understanding the consequences) and to minimize their suffering from the results of those mistakes.

Carbon is a different kind of pollutant that the U.S. is a long way from fully addressing

If the nations of the world are to successfully limit global contributions of GHGs into the atmosphere, the U.S. must play a large role in reducing its emissions, too. We do have strong air quality rules and much cleaner air to breathe than some other countries, but carbon is a different kind of pollutant that the U.S. is a long way from fully addressing.

How to convey the simple facts about climate change and greenhouse gases to a broad range of the public is a challenge. In 2017, we often trust our friends and posts in social media to convey and share information instead of solid and substantiated reports from news media (or the actual sources themselves). This makes the problem all that more difficult.

In the social media example that is the basis for this story, the basic facts were published in The Daily Telegraph article, but commenters seemed to have only read the personal comments at the top of the post.

Who can be relied upon to correct incomplete or inaccurate information in any social media post that will lead to a common understanding of what is true and what is not? Most of the time, the answer is nobody. People read posts from online friends and trust them. They often distrust the media. As a result, inaccurate or incomplete information permeates our culture, making important environmental and economic decisions all that more difficult.

About the Author

Carl Nettleton is an acclaimed writer, speaker, facilitator, and analyst. He heads Nettleton Strategies, an environmental policy firm specializing in oceans, water, energy, climate, and U.S. Mexico border issues. Carl also founded OpenOceans Global, an NGO linking people to the world's oceans. Carl also serves on the national and California advisory councils for Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), a national, nonpartisan group of business owners, investors and others who advocate for policies that are good for the economy and good for the environment. He is also active with the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Energy and Water Committee, the international Eye on Earth initiative, and other business and environmental organizations.

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