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Americans Still Think the Environment Is Worth Saving

If you listen to the national media, especially the conservative media, you might think that interest in environmental protection has gone the way of the dinosaur, swept away by a national consensus to focus on economic growth at all costs.

Nonsense.

Figure 1. Source: Gallup Inc.

Gallup Inc. is a global analytics and analysis organization that conducts what we all know as Gallup Polls. One of the questions they regularly include in their polls is “With which one of these statements do you most agree – protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth (or) economic growth should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent?” The results are shown in Figure 1. It is a chart from Gallup showing the percent of respondents choosing the environment over the economy, and vice-versa. To it I have added a line showing republican and democratic presidencies (red and blue, respectively).

In 1990, people chose environmental protection over economic growth 71% to 19%. That is a huge majority! Support for the environment weakened starting in 2000. By 2010, respondents chose the economy over the environment 53% to 38%. Since then, support for the environment has rebounded, with the most recent figures showing respondents picking the environment over the economy by 57% to 35%. (The percentages don’t sum to 100% because some people answer that they don’t have a preference, or they decline to answer the question.)

Even 57% to 35% is a large majority – a difference of 32%: for every 10 people who chose the economy, 17 chose the environment. No American president has ever been elected by such a margin. Warren Harding comes closest (!), with a margin of 26%. Some recent “landslides” involved margins of 23% (Nixon over McGovern, 1972, and Johnson over Goldwater, 1964). Even the famous Reagan “landslide” of 1984 (Reagan over Mondale) was only 18%. The current Tweeter-in-Chief, due to a quirk in the electoral college system, was elected with a minority of the vote (-3%).

Figure 2. Source: Gallup, Inc.

Since 1998, Gallup has also asked respondents “Is the seriousness of global warming generally exaggerated, generally correct, or is it generally underestimated?” Figure 2 shows the results. The dark green line shows the number of people who think the seriousness of global warming is exaggerated. The dark black line shows the number of people who think its seriousness is generally correctly portrayed. The gray line shows the percent of people who think it is underestimated.

A minority of people think that the seriousness of global warming is correctly represented – that is constant across the whole time period. For much of the period, more people thought its seriousness was exaggerated than thought it was underestimated. In recent years, that has shifted, and now more people think it is underestimated (41%) than think it is exaggerated (33%).

Where would I fit on that last question? I think I would refuse to answer it. I feel that global warming is one of the most significant challenges facing humanity. But I feel that it is a slow-motion catastrophe. Just as a simple example: if you go to Miami Beach or Lower Manhattan in 100 years, you are likely to find they are very different places, struggling to cope with flooding, sometimes more severe, sometimes milder. However, that is a change that will unfold over the entire coming century, giving people lots of time to adapt and adjust. Thus, those who say the danger is fabricated are underestimating it. On the other hand, those who say an existential catastrophe is imminent are exaggerating.

What is true is that the carbon that goes into the atmosphere stays there for nearly a century. Thus, if we don’t act quickly, we most likely doom ourselves to a change that will unfold over decades, and which we will be impotent to prevent.

As the two figures above illustrate, environmental concerns have NOT been swept away our current president. Rather, he is acting to prevent Americans from addressing problems that they feel are important, even if it involves some economic sacrifice.

Source:

Gallup Inc. 2018. In Depth: Topics A to Z: Environment. Downloaded 3/27/2019 from https://news.gallup.com/poll/1615/environment.aspx.

The Election of 2016

I’m unable to write new posts for a couple of weeks. This is a rerun of one I published on 11/11/16, just after the election.


I expect Donald Trump to be a poor president. But it isn’t the end of the world, at least not yet.

It is time I addressed the elections of 2016 in this blog. Politics is far outside my focus here, yet the election has been a momentous event, and I don’t think I should ignore it completely.

I did not support Mr. Trump, nor did I support the slate of Republicans who ran the table in Missouri’s statewide elections. The environment is not a high priority for them, and some are overtly hostile to environmental concerns. I fear that their election is a mistake, and we will pay for it for many decades. Yet, the future is not set in stone, and we don’t yet know whether their actions in office will match their terrible rhetoric.

With that said, do not forget that this country has weathered many storms. The situation is not yet as dire as it was in 1812, when a foreign power invaded and burned our capital. Nor is it as dire as in 1860, when the South seceded from The Union. It is not as dire as it was in 1933, when unemployment was about 25%. It is not as dire as it was in the 1940s, when World War II broke out. “Keep calm and carry on.” It was good advice then, and it is good advice now.

We need to accept that Mr. Trump will be our next president, then we need to start moving into the future. There are a couple of things we need to do. We need to make our voices heard, and we need to be loud and clear about what is acceptable and what is not.

  • Racism and bigotry are not okay, NEVER, EVER.
  • Attacks on free speech are not okay, NEVER, EVER.
  • Attacks on facts and science as the basis of knowledge are not okay, NEVER, EVER.
  • Bullying and abuse are not okay, NEVER, EVER.
  • Ignoring or being hostile to the environment is not okay, NEVER, EVER.
  • (Today I would add that attacking the rule of law and the institutions that uphold it is not okay, NEVER, EVER.)

At the same time, the election results suggest that the status quo is not working for many people. When I was young, it was a fine thing to be liberal and progressive. But today in Missouri, the word “liberal” has become an epithet, and political adds hurl the word at opponents like mud. Did liberals earn that scorn? How? I don’t see much future in liberal policies until we are willing to look at what we have done that has offended so many.

I don’t have much hope that Mr. Trump is going to be a good president, but perhaps he will surprise us. Some who were supposed to become great presidents didn’t (Herbert Hoover), and some who were supposed to be lousy presidents became great (Abraham Lincoln). We’ll have to wait and see. Until then, here in St. Louis the sun is shining and it is a spectacular fall day. The world hasn’t failed yet. Keep calm and carry on.


Since publishing the above post, Mr. Trump has, in my opinion, proved himself to be one of the worst presidents in American history. He has had some policy successes, but in the process he has done huge damage to our country, both at home and abroad. It appears to me that he is intentionally trying to destroy the Environmental Protection Agency, or to make it a puppet of the corporations it is supposed to regulate. Worst of all, he has attacked and deliberately weakened the institutions that uphold the rule of law in America. This is damage that will be hard to repair, and we will pay for it for decades to come.

The Opiate of Public Opinion

I’m unable to write new posts for a couple of weeks. This is a rerun of one I published 11/6/2016.

Opinion

On 11/2/2016, the New York Times published an article by Farhad Manjoo on How the Internet Is Loosening Our Grip on the Truth. Manjoo wrote that the Internet, instead of delivering us into a “marketplace of ideas,” has led us into echo chambers dominated by preconceptions and biases. In those echo chambers, we hear only our preexisting beliefs endlessly repeated. Facts get evaluated through the lens of belief, and if they disagree with belief, they get ignored or denied. While not a new problem, he believes that the Internet is magnifying it. If he is right, it represents a serious problem for our democracy, which relies on the judgement of an informed public.

Psychologists and sociologist have known for a long time that we tend to see the world in ways that confirm preexisting beliefs, and they call it “confirmation bias.” There are many theories about why. One of my favorite explanations comes from a study that was done by Drew Westen and his colleagues during the 2004 presidential election. He took equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats and showed them self-contradictory statements by both Bush and Kerry. It took the subjects a moment to process what they had seen, but to nobody’s surprise, the Republicans explained away Bush’s contradiction and criticized Kerry for his. The Democrats did the inverse: they explained away Kerry’s contradiction, but criticized Bush for his. Thus, the subjects seemed to twist what they had seen, almost as if in a kaleidoscope, until it matched their preexisting beliefs.

So far, nothing new, just one of many demonstrations of confirmation bias. However, Westen added a wrinkle: while all this was going on, he had his subjects’ heads in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI). An fMRI measures the uptake of glucose by regions of the brain. Regions of the brain increase their uptake of glucose when they are being used. Thus, an fMRI provides a picture of which regions of the brain are active. The regions “light up” with color on the fMRI display.

Westen expected that while his subjects were busy processing, brain regions associated with thinking would light up. And when they achieved a resolution and spoke their opinion, then the brain would go quiet, at rest. But that is not what he found. He found that while his subjects were thinking, the regions of the brain that lit up were the regions associated with emotional pain. And when they spoke their opinion, the brain didn’t go quiet. Instead, the pleasure centers of the brain lit up. These are the regions of the brain that light up when a person takes a dose of a narcotic.

Thus, Westen’s conclusion was that we experience facts that contradict our preconceived ideas as pain. And when we twist reality to conform to our ideas, the pain goes away, and we get a “hit” of pleasure like taking a narcotic.

No wonder we do it. And those echo chambers that Manjoo mentioned? That’s where we go, like opium dens, to get hit after hit of our favorite narcotic.

That is why Mogreenstats focuses on large-scale studies. I diverge into other stuff from time-to-time, but mostly I focus on statistics about the environment. I see it as an antidote to the propaganda one hears about the environment, whichever echo chamber it comes from. No, these studies aren’t perfect. But I see them as being as close as one can get to actual facts. If we don’t base our public policy on facts, it is not likely to be effective.

Source:

Westen, Drew, Pavel Blagov, Keith Harenski, Clint Kilts, and Stephan Hamann. 2006. “Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning: An fMRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Partisan Political Judgement in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 18(11), p. 1947-1958. Viewed online 11/2/2016 at http://birc.jaredjustus.com/assets/publications/Westen,%20Kilts%202006%20J%20Cognit%20Neurosci.pdf.

Wikipedia. Drew Westen. Viewed online 11/2/2016 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drew_Westen.

The Election of 2016


I expect Donald Trump to be a poor president. But it isn’t the end of the world, at least not yet.


It is time I addressed the election of 2016 in this blog. Politics is far outside my focus here, yet the election has been a momentous event, and I don’t think I should ignore it completely.

I did not support Mr. Trump, nor did I support the slate of Republicans who ran the table in Missouri’s statewide elections. The environment is not a high priority for them, and some are overtly hostile to environmental concerns. I fear that their election is a mistake, and we will pay for it for many decades. Yet, the future is not set in stone, and we don’t yet know whether their actions in office will match their terrible rhetoric.

With that said, do not forget that this country has weathered many storms. The situation is not yet as dire as it was in 1812, when a foreign power invaded and burned our capital. Nor is it as dire as in 1860, when the South seceded from The Union. It is not as dire as it was in 1933, when unemployment was about 25%. It is not as dire as it was in the 1940s, when World War II broke out. “Keep calm and carry on.” It was good advice then, and it is good advice now.

We need to accept that Mr. Trump will be our next president, then we need to start moving into the future. There are a couple of things we need to do. We need to make our voices heard, and we need to be loud and clear about what is acceptable and what is not.

  • Racism and bigotry are not okay, NEVER, EVER.
  • Attacks on free speech are not okay, NEVER, EVER.
  • Attacks on facts and science as the basis of knowledge are not okay, NEVER, EVER.
  • Bullying and abuse are not okay, NEVER, EVER.
  • Ignoring or being hostile to the environment is not okay, NEVER, EVER.

At the same time, the election results suggest that the status quo is not working for many people. When I was young, it was a fine thing to be liberal and progressive. But today in Missouri, the word “liberal” has become an epithet, and political adds hurl the word at opponents like mud. Did liberals earn that scorn? How? I don’t see much future in liberal policies until we are willing to look what we have done that has offended so many.

I don’t have much hope that Mr. Trump is going to be a good president, but perhaps he will surprise us. Some who were supposed to become great presidents didn’t (Herbert Hoover), and some who were supposed to be lousy presidents became great (Abraham Lincoln). We’ll have to wait and see. Until then, here in St. Louis the sun is shining and it is a spectacular fall day. The world hasn’t failed yet. Keep calm and carry on.

The Opiate of Public Opinion

Opinion

On 11/2/2016, the New York Times published an article by Farhad Manjoo on How the Internet Is Loosening Our Grip on the Truth. Manjoo wrote that the Internet, instead of delivering us into a “marketplace of ideas,” has led us into echo chambers dominated by preconceptions and biases. In those echo chambers, we hear only our preexisting beliefs endlessly repeated. Facts get evaluated through the lens of belief, and if they disagree with belief, they get ignored or denied. While not a new problem, he believes that the Internet is magnifying it. If he is right, it represents a serious problem for our democracy, which relies on the judgement of an informed public.

Psychologists and sociologist have known for a long time that we tend to see the world in ways that confirm preexisting beliefs, and they call it “confirmation bias.” There are many theories about why. One of my favorite explanations comes from a study that was done by Drew Westen and his colleagues during the 2004 presidential election. He took equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats and showed them self-contradictory statements by both Bush and Kerry. It took the subjects a moment to process what they had seen, but to nobody’s surprise, the Republicans explained away Bush’s contradiction and criticized Kerry for his. The Democrats did the inverse: they explained away Kerry’s contradiction, but criticized Bush for his. Thus, the subjects seemed to twist what they had seen, almost as if in a kaleidoscope, until it matched their preexisting beliefs.

So far, nothing new, just one of many demonstrations of confirmation bias. However, Westen added a wrinkle: while all this was going on, he had his subjects’ heads in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI). An fMRI measures the uptake of glucose by regions of the brain. Regions of the brain increase their uptake of glucose when they are being used. Thus, an fMRI provides a picture of which regions of the brain are active. The regions “light up” with color on the fMRI display.

Westen expected that while his subjects were busy processing, brain regions associated with thinking would light up. And when they achieved a resolution and spoke their opinion, then the brain would go quiet, at rest. But that is not what he found. He found that while his subjects were thinking, the regions of the brain that lit up were the regions associated with emotional pain. And when they spoke their opinion, the brain didn’t go quiet. Instead, the pleasure centers of the brain lit up. These are the regions of the brain that light up when a person takes a dose of a narcotic.

Thus, Westen’s conclusion was that we experience facts that contradict our preconceived ideas as pain. And when we twist reality to conform to our ideas, the pain goes away, and we get a “hit” of pleasure like taking a narcotic.

No wonder we do it. And those echo chambers that Manjoo mentioned? That’s where we go, like opium dens, to get hit after hit of our favorite narcotic.

That is why Mogreenstats focuses on large-scale studies. I diverge into other stuff from time-to-time, but mostly I focus on statistics about the environment. I see it as an antidote to the propaganda one hears about the environment, whichever echo chamber it comes from. No, these studies aren’t perfect. But I see them as being as close as one can get to actual facts. If we don’t base our public policy on facts, it is not likely to be effective.

Okay, enough opinion. Back to the series on wildfire in the next post.

Source:

Westen, Drew, Pavel Blagov, Keith Harenski, Clint Kilts, and Stephan Hamann. 2006. “Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning: An fMRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Partisan Political Judgement in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 18(11), p. 1947-1958. Viewed online 11/2/2016 at http://birc.jaredjustus.com/assets/publications/Westen,%20Kilts%202006%20J%20Cognit%20Neurosci.pdf.

Wikipedia. Drew Westen. Viewed online 11/2/2016 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drew_Westen.

Opinion: We Could Do It, If Only We Wanted

In the preceding posts, I have done some “back-of-the-envelope” calculations of how much land would be required to generate enough electricity using wind and solar energy to cover total energy consumption in the USA or in Missouri. I found that to cover total United States energy consumption would require wind farms on land equal to the size of South Carolina, or solar farms on land equal to almost the size of Texas. Alternatively, it you put solar panels on rooftops, it would require roughly six time as much roof space as exists in the entire country. To cover Missouri’s energy consumption would require wind farms on land equal to the size of Iron County, or solar farms on land equal to about 7% of the state.

I didn’t consider the need for storage, redundancy, peak demand, additional capacity to cover times when the wind wasn’t blowing or the sun wasn’t shining, or losses during delivery of the electricity to customers. All of this means that my estimates are bare minimums, and the actual land required would be larger. How much more? I don’t know.

The International Panel on Climate Change has estimated that we need to reduce GHG emissions 41-72% by 2050 in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. If the United States were to attempt to meet that goal entirely through converting to renewable energy, then only 41-72% of the land I estimated would be required, plus the extra land required for the reasons cited above. Perhaps the end result would be in the rough vicinity of my estimates.

But the United States doesn’t have to make renewable energy the only possible way of reaching the goal. Other strategies might (and probably should) include reducing how much energy we consume and increasing the efficiency of the energy we do use. These are obvious strategies, they are far and away the most cost-effective ways of reducing GHG emissions, and there are no technological hurdles stopping us from getting started. The only thing stopping us is our refusal to do it. Like smokers with lung cancer who still smoke, we continue to emit GHGs despite their harmful effects.

Two other strategies are also possible, though significantly more controversial: nuclear power and population reduction. Nuclear power is one of the most efficient, most reliable forms of generating electricity that has been invented. It has virtually no GHG emissions. The problem is that, in its brief history, every 20-30 years something somewhere has gone spectacularly wrong, and the consequences have been devastating. Entire regions have been made uninhabitable, the costs have been in the hundreds of billions of dollars, and remediation has been virtually impossible. The Ukraine is still working to seal-off the Chernobyl Generating Station, and that accident was 30 years ago. Nuclear power seems to me something we can’t live without, but something we can’t live with, either.

The other strategy is population reduction. I personally believe that in 100 years human population will be significantly less than it is today. Whether that will come voluntarily or involuntarily, I don’t know. It is seems to be common wisdom these days that Malthus and Paul Ehrlich were completely wrong, and that Malthusian sorts of analyses are all off base. I don’t think so. Malthus and Ehrlich were spectacularly wrong in the specifics of their predictions; the dynamics of population and the world’s capacity to support life were influenced by factors they did not understand. The fundamental logic behind their analyses, however, is that you cannot infinitely increase population in a world with finite limits. Duh! That still seems cogent to me. People use resources and generate waste and pollution. It all puts the earth under stress, and the results show up in hundreds of ways that are plain to see if one only reads the newspapers. We have shown remarkable ingenuity in stringing this along for much longer than Malthus and Ehrlich thought we could. How long we can continue to do so, I don’t know. There are numerous important ecological systems that appear to be nearing tipping points, and unless we take the stress off them, sooner or later they are likely to start collapsing. Or so I believe.

Our population could be reduced through wars, famines, or plagues. These are the historical ways in which human population has been reduced, and these are the methods that nature uses to reduce population among other animals. These would all be terrible disasters, and any sane person would hate to see such a thing happen to the human race.

Planned population reduction has never been tried for an extended period on a global, or even a nation-wide basis. It comes with serious economic and demographic problems that people the world over have been unwilling to face. But they are better than population reduction through war, famine, or plague. I personally believe that if we don’t do this, then nature will do it to us. I don’t look forward to that time, either for myself, or for my child, or for my child’s children.

Climate change is just one of the stresses. Others could be named, such as changes to the ocean, desertification, water scarcity, or the mass extinction of species that is currently occurring. But the last few posts have been on renewable energy, so I’ll end with this:

Reducing GHG emissions through the use of renewable energy would be a big, expensive task. We would have to cover large areas of the country, and we would have to solve a number of thorny technical problems. But in terms of the land available, it is possible. We could do it, especially if we also used the other strategies like reducing consumption and increasing efficiency.

Addendum: This post was written in early August. On October 3, the New York Times published an article saying that  this year the carbon dioxide concentration of the atmosphere at Mauna Loa Observatory was measured at greater than 400 ppm., and is likely to remain above 400 ppm. for the immediate future. While 400 ppm. is not a catastrophic tipping point, it is a milestone. Those who had hoped to limit the effects of climate change had hoped to keep the carbon dioxide level below 400 ppm., or at least delay (by decades) the day it was exceeded. Well, we have blown by the milestone faster than almost anybody anticipated. It is not a tipping point, but it is a sign that the world has yet to take climate change seriously, and has yet to make the changes needed to head off its worst effects.

Source:

Chernobyl Disaster. Wikipedia. Viewed online 8/4/16 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster#Economic_and_political_consequences.

Diamond, Jared. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking.

Ehrich, Paul. 1968. The Population Bomb. Sierra Club/Ballantine Books.

IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Edenhofer, O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, E. Farahani, S. Kadner, K. Seyboth, A. Adler, I. Baum, S. Brunner, P. Eickemeier, B. Kriemann, J. Savolainen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow, T. Zwickel and J.C. Minx (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. Table SPM.1.

Malthus, Thomas. 1789. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Public domain, viewed 8/4/16 at the website of the Electronic Scholarly Publishing Project, http://www.esp.org/books/malthus/population/malthus.pdf.

Americans Believe the Environment Should Be Protected

A poll conducted by the New York Times and CBS News shows that most Americans (58%) believe that the environment should be protected, even at the risk of curbing economic growth. Only 37% believe that economic growth should be given priority if the environment suffers as a result.

For decades there has been a belief that good environmental stewardship must inevitably reduce economic growth. Many contemporary environmentalists challenge that belief, however. Environmental stewardship might reduce economic growth if it is poorly designed, they have said, but it doesn’t have to if it is well designed. In fact, they have argued, environmental degradation itself limits economic growth, and good environmental stewardship might enhance economic growth compared to that.

In either case, the poll suggests that the majority of Americans do not agree with the reckless pursuit of economic growth at the expense of the environment.

Serious ImpactThe poll had some other interesting findings. Global warming, which I tend to call climate change, has been a significant concern of this blog. As the first chart at right shows, the poll shows that 28% of Americans believe that it will have a serious impact in the future, and 46% believe that it is already having a serious impact. Combined, that’s about 3 out of every 4 people. One often hears that there is a scientific consensus about the seriousness of climate change, but that the average American is not so sure. This poll suggests that there may be more of a consensus among Americans than is often portrayed.

(Click on chart for larger view.)

This question has been asked in several polls going back to 2011. Because of the variability from poll to poll, and because polls always contain a confidence interval that is several percentage points wide, it is difficult to read many trends simply by looking at the chart. The one trend I can pick out for certain is that for several years there were some people who denied the existence of global warming entirely. That no longer appears to be a tenable opinion, and has vanished from the chart completely.

Causes chartThe poll also asked people whether they thought global warming was caused mostly by human activities or mostly by natural patterns in the earth’s atmosphere. The data only go back 3 years instead of 13, but the trend over time is clearer, as shown in the second chart at right. The percentage of people who believe it is caused by human activities has increased from 41% in 2011 to 54% in September of 2014.

Oddly, in these polls, 10% of those asked said global warming doesn’t exist, where just a moment ago, nobody was saying that. It just goes to show you how unreliable polls are, and how the way you ask the question seriously impacts the answers you get.

Source:

The poll data were published by the New York Times: Connelly, Marjorie. “Global Warming Concerns Grow.” New York Times. 9/22/14. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/23/science/global-warming-concerns-grow.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar%2C{%221%22%3A%22RI%3A11%22}&_r=0.

The poll results themselves were linked to from the article: “The New York Times/CBS News Poll, Sept. 10-14, 2014.” http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/science/NYTpoll-sept-14-globalwarming.pdf?action=click&contentCollection=Science&module=RelatedCoverage&region=Marginalia&pgtype=article