Thursday, 18 January 2018

Why Are There No Good Movies About Climate Change?

Nexus Media - Jeremy Deaton

“You have to invent a compelling story. It’s all about story.”
A shot from Geostorm. Source: Warner Bros.
It’s Oscar season, and Hollywood is abuzz with chatter about the year’s best flicks, which include films about poverty, racism and war. Not mentioned by prognosticators is 2017's one big movie about climate change, Geostorm, a sci-fi thriller so thin on story, drama and spectacle, it earned a rating of just 13 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
It’s hard to make a good movie, but it seems especially hard to make a good movie about climate change. There are plenty of great documentaries about the carbon crisis — Chasing Coral, The Age of Consequences, An Inconvenient Sequel, to name three released in just the last year— but Hollywood has yet to produce a top-rate drama that is explicitly about global warming. That’s at least partly because climate change doesn’t fit into the blockbuster mold. To understand why, take a look at Star Wars.

A scene from Star Wars. Source: Giphy
For all its dazzling special effects, the first Star Wars movie was as much a triumph of storytelling as a groundbreaking feat of technical wizardry. Roger Ebert wrote in his 1977 review of the film, the story “is only dramatized by the special effects; the movie’s heart is in its endearingly human (and non-human) people.”
George Lucas famously was inspired by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which argues the many stories humans tell are each a variation on a single tale, the Hero’s Journey. In it, the hero goes on a adventure, finds a mentor, faces challenges, overcomes evil, and returns transformed. After Star Wars broke box office records, the Hero’s Journey became the template for the modern blockbuster.

The Hero’s Journey laid out in detail. Source: Iskander Krayenbosch

As cultural commentator John Higgs explained in his book Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century: “Studio script-readers used it to analyze submitted scripts and determine whether or not they should be rejected. Screenwriting theorists and professionals internalized it, until they were unable to produce stories that differed from its basic structure. Readers and writers alike all knew at exactly which point in the script the hero needed their inciting incident, their reversal into their darkest hour and their third-act resolution.”
The Hero’s Journey is the basis for a number of popular films, from Toy Story to The Matrix to The Lion King to The Lord of the Rings. Not every movie using this structure has been your typical summer blockbuster. Some films cast in this mold have tackled difficult issues like poverty (The Pursuit of Happyness), corporate greed (Erin Brockovich) or slavery (Django Unchained).

A scene from Django Unchained. Source: Giphy

In Django Unchained, the hero (a formerly enslaved man played by Jamie Foxx) goes on a journey with his mentor (a bounty hunter played by Christophe Waltz), overcomes evil (slaying a cruel plantation owner to rescue his wife from slavery), and returns transformed (having a newfound sense of power and freedom). Like Star Wars, The Matrix and other films that deploy this formula, Django Unchained is morally unambiguous, which is part of what makes it so satisfying.
Unfortunately, not every issue translates so well to this template. Climate change, while arguably the most urgent issue of our time, makes for a poor villain. It is impersonal. There is no masked villain lurking behind the rise in temperature — we are all, to varying degrees, part of the problem.
Climate change is also slow, driving up the temperature by a couple of tenths of a degree each decade. There is no Death Star waiting to vaporize our planet at the push of a button. Lastly, while climate change is a profoundly moral issue, it does not stir moral outrage like a legion of space Nazis bent on galactic domination.

A scene from The Empire Strikes Back. Source: Giphy
Fictional movies about climate change deal with this problem by tweaking the issue. Climate change unfolds rapidly (The Day After Tomorrow), perhaps at the behest of an irredeemable villain (Geostorm). This neither produces a good film nor gives the audience any real insight into the issue. Some movies succeed but only allude to the issue.
In Interstellar and Mad Max, climate change lingers in the background, but it has little bearing on the direction of either story. Movies like Children of Men and Mother! work as allegories for environmental catastrophe, but neither deals with climate change head on.
“The reality is that this is a vexing, complicated and difficult challenge,” said Max Boykoff, director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
“It is critically important to reach beyond mere ‘news’ reporting on climate change,” he said, adding, “I do think there are many compelling ways to portray climate change in film and it can be used to drive a story for sure. More of a challenge is to do so while accurately representing the science of climate change.”
Drought, as depicted in stock photos. Source: Pixabay
Perhaps it is possible to make a compelling, scientifically accurate film about climate change, but no one has yet managed to do so. Richard Walter, chair of UCLA’s screenwriting program, thinks no subject is too ponderous or slow to make into a great movie.
“How slow is the notion of a stutterer working with a speech therapist in order to delver a public address? That sounds lame, but it won the Oscar for best picture and best screenplay only a few years ago,” Walter said, referring to The King’s Speech. “You have to invent a compelling story. It’s all about story,” he said. “No worthy cause was ever helped by a boring movie.”
Asked what he would do if a student told him she wanted to write a film about climate change, Walter said, “I would say, ‘Don’t do it!’ Make a movie about somebody, a person, a woman or a man who is affected by climate change one way or another.”
He added, “If you sit down to write a movie about an issue, you will fall on your face. It’s doomed from the get-go. You’re being intellectual. You’re working out of your head. You’re trying to make a point rather than tell a story.” Walter believes that climate change could inform the setting or inspire the conflict.
Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter filming The King’s Speech in Lancashire, England. Source: Lancashire County Council
For a sense of what that might look like, Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes and NASA historian Erik M. Conway wrote The Collapse of Western Civilization. The story takes place in the year 2923. In it, a Chinese scholar offers an account of how unchecked climate change brought about the end of Western civilization.
As the book makes clear, climate change lies at the root of many future conflicts, each of which could be fertile ground for a Hero’s Journey. Rising seas will slowly swallow coastlines, leading to a mass exodus from seaside cities. Imagine 10 million New Yorkers relocating to the Midwest, an inversion of the Dust Bowl migration depicted in The Grapes of Wrath.
Lasting drought will trigger crop failures, hunger and war. Imagine neighboring countries fighting for control of a freshwater stream, the setting for a war film like Platoon or Deer Hunter. But, as Walter noted, any film about climate would, first and foremost, have to be about people.
A clip from the trailer for the The Grapes of Wrath starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. Source: A Darryl F. Zanuck Production
“You can have climate change in a movie, but it has got to be about human beings involved in the struggle of being human trying to identify themselves,” Walter said. Asked about films that explicitly tackle social issues, like Get Out, he said the successful ones are primarily about characters. “I think Get Out is the best picture I saw last year. It’s just brilliant,” he said. “Second of all, it’s about racism, but first of all, it’s about identity.”
One approach to finding great, character-driven stories would be to portray events already covered in the news. In 2015, for example, it was revealed that ExxonMobil continued to fund efforts to sow doubt about climate change despite internal research showing that carbon pollution was cooking the planet.
Walter said the scandal could make for a decent movie, but he cautioned against turning Exxon into a cartoon villain. “I don’t think really good narratives need clear villains,” he said. “It’s much better if the villain is actually humane and somehow connects with the audience.”

ExxonMobil knew about the risks of burning fossil fuels decades ago. Source: Yale Climate Connections

Whatever approach filmmakers take, the time to tell these stories is now. As David Wallace-Wells wrote in his bracing piece on the future of climate change, “Over the past decades, our culture has gone apocalyptic with zombie movies and Mad Max dystopias, perhaps the collective result of displaced climate anxiety, and yet when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination.”Put simply, we desperately need storytellers to tell stories about climate change.
The fact is that Americans don’t talk about the issue nearly enough. Climate change is what social scientists call a “quiet crisis.” While the steady rise in temperature drives history-making heat waves, storms and wildfires, news outlets consistently fail to connect those events to climate change.As a result, the issue insufficiently penetrates the public consciousness.That needs to change.

Source: Yale/George Mason University

The problem isn’t that it is politicized, or that it isn’t a priority,” David Karpf, professor of communications at George Washington University, told Nexus Media. “If there were some set of events that acted as a drumbeat and pushed us to either pay attention to climate change or actively ignore it, then I think we’d see a lot more public conversation about climate.”
Phillip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass, once said, “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” A climate hawk might go one step further. If we want to continue to have nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are more necessary than ever.


Study Narrows Range Of Earth's Warming Response As Greenhouse Gases Rise

Fairfax - Peter Hannam

New research has sharply narrowed the likely estimate of how much the Earth will warm with a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, potentially honing estimates that have stood for a quarter century.
The long-standing estimate for the so-called equilibrium climate sensitivity used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had been that surface temperatures would rise between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees for each doubling of CO2 or equivalent greenhouse gases.
Estimating how much the planet will warm as we lift greenhouse gas levels has been an active area of research. Photo: NASA
The new study by UK scientists, published today in Nature journal, used year-on-year global mean temperature fluctuations rather than trends to discount the extreme ends of that range.
"Our study all but rules out very low or very high climate sensitivities, so we now know much better what we need to [do]," said Peter Cox, a professor of climate system dynamics from the University of Exeter, and the lead author of the paper.
"Climate sensitivity is high enough to demand action, but not so high that it is too late to avoid dangerous global climate change".
The researchers calculated the range to be between 2.2 and 3.4 degrees with each CO2 doubling, including a central estimate of 2.8 degrees. The IPCC's mid-range estimate was similar at 3 degrees.
Current atmospheric CO2 levels are about 410 parts per million, or about 50 per cent higher than pre-industrial times. Global temperatures have risen slightly more than a degree over the period.
Major US agencies such as NASA are set to declare 2017 as among the three warmest years on record - with 2016 and 2015 the other two.
Last year was the hottest without an El Nino, a Pacific event that tends to give a boost to global temperatures by slowing or reversing the uptake of heat by the ocean.
Steven Sherwood, an atmospheric scientist at the University of NSW's Climate Change Research Centre, said the paper was "another piece of evidence refuting the idea that maybe we'll be really lucky, or that we've got it wrong and it's a low sensitivity".
Professor Sherwood said the researchers had taken an approach using many climate models, which many scientists had previously considered but deemed difficult to pull off.
Challenges in assessing sensitivity include accounting for time lags, natural fluctuations and measurement issues.
"Does it really fundamentally work, or does it just look like it works?" he said. "That's something we still need to work out."
According to the paper, the implied risk of a greater than 4-degree warming with C02 doubling was less than a one-in-40 chance. That finding "renew[s] hope that we may yet be able to avoid global warming exceeding two degrees" as agreed in the Paris climate accord, it said.
Professor Sherwood said the findings were "not reassuring", but "it's the outcome that says we can avoid disaster but we have to get active" in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.


Global Warming Predictions May Now Be A Lot Less Uncertain

Wired - Matt Simon

The new numbers paint a not altogether terrifying picture of humanity’s response to a climate crisis. Hell, you might even call it vaguely optimistic.
NASA Earth Observatory/Getty Images
If one is the loneliest number, two is the most terrifying. Humanity must not pass a rise of 2 degrees Celsius in global temperature from pre-industrial levels, so says the Paris climate agreement. Cross that line and the global effects of climate change start looking less like a grave situation and more like a catastrophe.
The frustrating bit about studying climate change is the inherent uncertainty of it all. Predicting where it's going is a matter of mashing up thousands of variables in massive, confounding systems. But today in the journal Nature, researchers claim they’ve reduced the uncertainty in a key metric of climate change by 60 percent, narrowing a range of potential warming from 3°C to 1.2°C. And that could have implications for how the international community arrives at climate goals like it did in Paris. Bonus: The new numbers paint a not altogether terrifying picture of humanity’s response to a climate crisis. Hell, you might even call it vaguely optimistic.
The metric is called equilibrium climate sensitivity, but don’t let the name scare you. “It's essentially the amount of global warming we would predict if we just doubled the atmospheric carbon dioxide and let the atmosphere and climate come to equilibrium with the carbon dioxide,” says lead author Peter Cox, who studies climate system dynamics at the University of Exeter.
For the past 25 years, the generally accepted range for this potential warming has stood between 1.5 and 4.5°C. Which is a big range when you consider what a one-degree bump can do. Think 5 to 10 percent less rainfall during the dry season in the Mediterranean, southwest North America, and southern Africa. Reach 3°C of warming and Earth will lose 100,000 square miles of wetlands and drylands.
We’re talking about an insanely complex system here with a whole galaxy of variables. Accordingly, climate scientists have been working to narrow that ECS—or constrain it, in their parlance. “The consequence of it being so large,” says Cox , “is you can have certain camps argue that it could be on the low side, so why do we worry, and other camps worry it's on the high side, which means there's a catastrophe coming and there's nothing we can do about it.”
Now, you can try to constrain ECS by looking at historical warming events. But what Cox and his colleagues did was actually ignore the warming trend to date. “You might imagine the most obvious thing to do to get an idea of future climate change is to look at climate change to date,” says Cox. “But it turns out that's a really poor constraint on the equilibrium climate sensitivity, and it's basically because we don't really know how much extra heat we've put in the system.”
Sure, scientists know plenty about the classic greenhouse drivers of climate change, CO2 and methane. But humanity has also been pumping particulates into the system, and these tend to cool things down. Power plants that burn fossil fuels, for instance, release sulfur dioxide, which can lead to the formation of particles in the atmosphere that bounce the sun’s energy back into space. (Which, as it happens, may be a way to geoengineer the planet to counteract climate change. Not by burning more fossil fuels, of course, but by adding particulates in the atmosphere.)
The researchers’ approach to this study was to combine models, and more models, and then some more—16 total—not with warming trends, but how temperature fluctuated from 1880 to 2016. “Essentially, the models tell us the relationship between temperature variations and climate sensitivity, and the observations tell us the temperature variations in the world," says Cox. "Together they allow us to get better estimates of climate sensitivity for our planet.”
So, the numbers. What the researchers landed on was an ECS range of 2.2 to 3.4°C, compared to the commonly accepted range of 1.5 and 4.5°C. Admittedly, 2.2 on the low end isn’t ideal for the future of our planet. (For each degree of warming, for example, you might expect up to a 400 percent increase in area burned by wildfires in parts of the western US. Very not ideal.) And the researchers say this means the probability of the ECS being less than 1.5°C—the Paris Climate Agreement’s super optimistic goal beyond the 2°C goal—is less than 3 percent. The upside, though, is they say this new estimate means the probability of the ECS passing 4.5°C is less than 1 percent.
But hold up, says Swiss Federal Institute of Technology climate scientist Reto Knutti, who wasn’t involved in the research. “What's the chance of something fundamentally being wrong in our models?” he asks. “Is that really less than 1 percent? I would argue there's more than a one in a hundred chance that something has been forgotten in all of the models, just because our understanding is incomplete.”
Not that what these researchers have done is bad science. It’s just that global climate change is an exceedingly complex problem. There’s no way any scientist can dig down into all the granular details—changes in vegetation, small-scale hydrology, every single weather event like a hurricane or tornado. So what scientists do is find simplified descriptions of these small-scale events. “For clouds, for instance, you say, 'OK, the more humidity the more likely it is to rain, and if you have more than 95 percent saturation, then you rain,'” says Knutti. “It's an ad hoc way of describing rain without properly describing the process of rain formation, because you can't.”

How Climate Change Is Already Affecting Earth
Though the planet has only warmed by one-degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution, climate change's effect on earth has been anything but subtle. Here are some of the most astonishing developments over the past few years.

Matters grow all the more uncertain when the solid observational data you have may not be so solid. Take ocean surface temperature readings. Historically, different ships have used different methods, perhaps dropping a thermometer in a bucket of water, or taking the temperature of engine intake in the engine room. You can correct for the discrepancies here—the bucket method is off because the evaporating water is cooling ever so slightly, and the intake method of course heats the water—but there’s always a chance something is amiss.
So scientists work with what they’ve got, and with each new study of rapidly changing climate, their understanding grows. “It's never done,” says Knutti. “We're getting better and better and better, but it's never entirely done. The chance of something being really wrong systematically, we can't exclude it.”
Optimism, though: While a study last summer found that humanity had pretty much zero chance of making the 2°C goal, this new constraint could change that outlook. “Paris is more feasible than I thought before I started out on this,” Cox says. “It's feasible now to avoid 2 degrees, whereas I would have said before that it was pretty much unlikely that you were going to do that.”
Which is useful information, scientifically speaking. But also politically. “I think in some ways the non-scientific message from this is that climate change, or climate sensitivity, is large enough to need action, but not so large that it's too late to do anything,” Cox says.
So from a few numbers comes a bit of hope. Now, about that action...


Can Poetry Turn The Tide On Climate Change?

Adelaide ReviewJohn Dexter

Poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner
Poetry seems an unlikely avenue for forcing action on climate change, but Marshallese poet and activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner has become a figure of hope for a nation under threat of rising sea levels.
It was her address at the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit that brought wider attention to Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner as a poet and activist, as well as the peril faced by the Marshall Islands and other pacific nations. Speaking as a Civil Society Representative, Jetnil-Kijiner described the dangers faced by oceanic nations in eloquent terms and implored world leaders to act quickly on climate change.
She subsequently performed her poem Dear Matafele Peinem, written as a promise to her daughter that the world would take action on climate change. The stirring call to arms and promise to future generations received a standing ovation on the UN floor.
Jetnil-Kijiner will appear at WOMADelaide this year in a Planet Talk titled Climate Justice and the Human Face of Climate Change with Ursula Rakova, Julian Burnside, Tim Costello and Ben Doherty.

Statement by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, Civil Society Representative from the Marshall Islands at the opening of the United Nations Climate Summit 2014.

Speaking to The Adelaide Review, Jetnil Kijiner describes the effects of climate change already underway on the Marshall Islands. The devastating consequences of rising sea levels already in train include crops and homes being damaged by king tides, but even more distressingly, cemeteries being washed out.
“The thing that people need to understand is that the Marshall Islands is only two metres above sea level,” says Jetnil-Kijiner of her island home. “Because of the rising sea level, we’re getting floods that are destroying homes and destroying crops. It’s happening more frequently but also threatening the very existence of our islands. It’s been happening in the past five years more frequently than we’ve ever seen before. It’s happening right now. With the loss of the land comes the loss of cultural identity and our home and basically who we are as a people.”
Rising sea levels don’t just threaten vulnerable land masses, but the cultures so intimately tied to them, Jetnil-Kijiner says. This is especially true in the case of Pacific nations like the Marshall Islands, who have continually inhabited the atoll for thousands of years.
“Our culture is thousands of years old and something we love about it is that we can point to a piece of land, say a reef, and it has a story and a chant behind it,” Jetnil-Kijiner says. “So much of who we are as a people is rooted in the land. If that land is gone, who we are as a people disappears as well.”
There is hope, though, in the younger generations and their capacity to make and advocate for change. Helping to run Jo-Jikum, a Marshallese not-for-profit organisation, Jetnil-Kijiner helps to educate the youth on the causes and consequences of environmental problems, and empower them to make change.
“What I’ve noticed is that there is a growing number of young people that are really concerned about climate change,” she says. “They all know about it, and it’s their generation that’s growing up with that as a reality. They’re seeing it and want to be a part of the fight. Jo-Jikum is really about giving young people that platform and treating them with respect and helping them be a part of the solution.”

While the world’s richest countries talk about climate change, many of the poorest nations are experiencing its devastating effects right now. Climate justice activists, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner (Marshall Islands, pictured) and Ursula Rakova (Carteret Islands) and  are the human face of climate change. Their homelands are the first nations of people being forcibly displaced due to manmade global warming. Ursula Rakova and Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner are joined by Julian Burnside and Tim Costello to explore our responsibilities and the human face of climate change.

On top of that, Jetnil-Kijiner continues to share her own stories and poems to awaken the international community to this rising plight. The power of poetry, according to Jetnil-Kijiner, is that it humanises an enormously complex issue, and makes it easier to understand and relate to.
“I see spoken word as a medium for sharing these stories and tackling the issue of climate change from different perspectives,” she says. “I’ve always felt that poetry allows me to put a human face to it. When I perform poetry, it’s not just about climate change but about my own personal experiences, people who I know, stories.
“It’s not just things like science and facts, which can distance people from the issue. I’m trying to get people to understand that we are real and it is happening, and it’s scary.”

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner will speak as part of WOMADelaide’s Planet Talks on Sunday, March 11


Coal Fails: Solar Power Thrives In Summer, But Coal And Gas Plants Can’t Take The Heat

Australia Institute

Solar is thriving in the Australian summer even as soaring temperatures cause traditional coal and gas plants to fail.
The Australia Institute’s (AI) Twitter feed records each time a coal or gas facility trips and goes offline in extreme heat events.
Multiple breakdowns are noted in January 2018 alone, as many facilities both old and new feel the heat.
These gas and coal fails mean renewables are becoming more important to maintain base load.
Unlike solar, coal and gas plants are not equipped to deal with the increasingly punishing heat of Australian summers. An AI report from December 2017 even recommends “heat safe’”firming power to back up national coal and gas plants with renewables.
It suggests dispatchable solar thermal with battery storage to provide evening support. Additional PV would reduce peak demand on hot days.
Solar power reaches peak capacity during heatwaves, providing 24/7 dispatchable energy with backup from solar batteries.

Why solar thrives as coal fails
According to AI, solar power is proven to prevent far worse disruption and load-shedding during extreme heat events.
Coal fails: Solar thrives as the nation’s coal and gas plants, old and new, struggle in summer heat. Image: Pixabay
Gas and coal-fired power stations, however, tend to overheat and trip as temperatures rise.
That’s because thermal electricity generation, including coal and combined cycle gas, needs cooling to function. Cooling is more difficult during a heatwave, with many power stations struggling to reach full capacity or even stay online.
The record-breaking heatwave of February 2017 saw major outages in South Australia as the grid failed to cope with peak demand.
The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) issued a heatwave warning early in January 2018, urging electricity providers to call on backup plans.
Meanwhile, Tesla’s big battery proved its worth in South Australia in December, delivery 100 MW into the national grid in record time.
It took just 140 milliseconds for the world’s biggest lithium-ion battery to respond when a major coal-fired power plant failed.

Twitter record of coal and gas plant breakdown
The ‘Gas and Coal Watch’ on the AI’s Twitter feed monitors breakdowns at the nation’s fossil fuel plants.
These breakdowns can mean hundreds of megawatts of power dropped from the grid in minutes. Recent failures include:
  • The Eraring coal-fired power station in Penrith tripped on January 7, dropping around 275 megawatts in 10 minutes.
  • Victoria’s Loy Yang A coal-fired power station has already tripped eight times this month (January 2018).
  • Kogan Creek, Australia’s second-newest coal power plant, has broken down twice this month.
  • Victoria’s Loy Yang Unit 2 plus Yallourn Units 1 and 3 were offline at the same time this month.
  • NSW’s new Tallawarra gas plant has failed twice this month.

What Kind Of Emoji Do You Need To Talk About Climate Change?

The Verge - Alessandra Potenza

Desperate times call for desperate emoji

Emoji have become a language of their own, but until recently, the language made it hard to talk about climate change: There are no emoji about pollution, wildfires, or rising sea levels. So artists Marina Zurkow and Viniyata Pany launched a set of mobile stickers specifically about climate change, called Climoji.
The icons depict melting sea ice, starving polar bears, dead trees, and flooded people. They’re intended to raise awareness about some of the most important issues of our time: global warming and environmental destruction. Need an emoji to express your frustration with plastic pollution? Thanks to Zurkow and Pany, now you have a whale with a plastic bottle in its stomach, or a plastic bottle with a fish skeleton inside.
Image: Climoji
Climate change is already affecting the world, from rising temperatures to rising sea levels. Hurricanes and wildfires made 2017 the most expensive year on record for natural disasters — and scientists say that these catastrophic events will become the new normal as the world continues to warm up. This isn’t an issue for the future, Zurkow tells The Verge. So it seems imperative to make ways for people to talk about it.
“Why are some of our primary communication tools avoiding this issue? Why isn’t there even a hurricane icon in the official emoji set?” says Zurkow.
Climoji was launched as an art project, thanks to New York University’s Green Grants, but Zurkow plans to make it big. In the spring, she wants to approach Facebook, and see if the social media giant will add the stickers to its own library. And eventually, she’d like the Unicode Consortium — the Silicon Valley-based group of computer and internet companies that approve new emoji — to adopt the climate change icons. But before that happens, more people need to use the emoji. Right now, about 400 people have downloaded the set, Zurkow says.
Image: Climoji
The Verge spoke to Zurkow about Climoji, what she hopes the project will accomplish, and what role art can play in discussions about climate change. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How do you hope that people will use these emoji?
The first thing is, I think [emoji have] become great shorthand for people who are influencers. Anybody who wants to do a campaign, anybody who wants to get somebody’s attention, icons are really good at this kind of condensed non-linear, non-sentence-based messaging. So I’m hoping that people will be able to use these as a kind of invitation to a conversation. The second is a lot more sketchy, and this is where as an academic and an artist I move into more of a hypothetical realm. There’s a lot of studies done on how metaphor enters into language. All emoji are metaphors: lips are a metaphor for love, for kissing someone. So, can these things as visual metaphors amplify and naturalize the conversation around climate change?
... there needs to be a sense of being moved by how grim things are.
The most obvious example would be the drowning arm sticking out of the whirlpool: if that becomes an icon for personal despair, does that steer us away from the conversation of climate change or do we think of flooding and drowning as an everyday enough occurrence to become a metaphor? Emoji are often about personal expression; they’re not that often about fact-based things. Sometimes they are: I had a glass of wine or, I’m taking a car. And I think that’s probably where these will be used most but also, there will possibly have some emotional weight.

The emoji are pretty bleak, and some people in the climate community say that promoting a totally doom-and-gloom scenario won’t help people act on climate change. What do you think?
The answer is not simple. We plan to do a set of icons that will address mitigation and adaptation and a kind of philosophical alternative to the models that we live on at the moment. Those might include embracing ecological diversity, ecological justice, and environmental justice. But it’s also solar, organic farming and composting, wind turbines, less meat consumption, having less children, driving less cars, and riding bikes. It’s all that: these are mitigation and adaptation towards resilience. But part of that has to be a mental shift. And I think in order to make that mental shift, there needs to be a sense of being moved by how grim things are.
Image: Climoji
For us, it really is chapter one: chapter one is, be awake and be okay with experiencing with how discomfiting this is, without letting your guilt consume you. I don’t think the way out is to pretend there’s a solution, and if I do one thing, I can go back to exactly what I was doing. I think we need to be participating in a much larger change. I feel guilty that I’ve created such a depressing set of icons. And yet I feel really committed to holding that space for discomfort.

If you went back, would you add more positive emoji in this set?
No. I feel guilty when people confront me about how bleak it is, but I wouldn’t change it. I would make another set that are really about resiliency. I want to move forward, out of things that imply fixity, that imply resolution, that are not systemic answers, systemic responses. And I realize how unpopular this is. When I say I don’t want to provide a solution, people become disappointed.
Image: Climoji
What’s your favorite emoji?
The saddest one, the one that breaks my heart, is the whale with the plastic bottle in its stomach. I’ve been doing a lot work on the North Atlantic right whale population, which is on the border of extinction. I’ve been working with the Center for Coastal Studies and a group of artists who’s been engaged in the Cape Cod seashore. It’s really depressing.

As Earther points out, the Climoji characters that are drowning are brown, while the one on the lifeboat is white. Why?
We didn’t make, as Unicode does, six shades of skin color for people to identify with personally. So, in lieu of that, some decision had to be made. The unfortunate truth is that people who are predominantly brown are going to suffer. It is a demographic problem, right? People who are white or symbolically white are going to do better in the face of climate change. They’re going have more escape hatches, like lifeboats. They’re going to literally have more lifeboats to get out. That’s a fact. That’s happening already.
Image: Climoji
What role can art have in communicating the risks of climate change?
All issues that require change and compromise and a new point of view require an emotional component. There’s very little logic that makes for large-scale change and I think that climate change is example A in this. The two things I think are going to change the way that we think about the climate and the way that we think about our participation as citizens and as individuals and as consumers, those are going to be an emotional shift, like a shift of mind, an understanding of kinship beyond our immediate tribe and immediate interests. And art can do that. Art can shift those things in a way that all the metrics in the world, all the logic, all the empirical information just won’t. The other way is, of course, more grassroots efforts. But that’s not my business. My business is, with some humor and some fairness and some invitation, to try to nudge paradigms a tiny bit to the side.


Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Climate politics in 2018: another guide for the perplexed

The Conversation - 

If Jay Weatherill is returned as the premier of South Australia in 2018, he promises to once again butt heads with Malcolm Turnbull over energy policy. Morgan Sette/AAP
As I predicted a year ago, 2017 was another vicious and bloody-minded year in Australian climate politics. Yet the political bickering belied the fact that it was actually a great year for green energy.
Nowhere was that more in evidence than in South Australia, which got its big battery inside 100-day deadline, with the world’s biggest solar thermal plant set to begin construction this year. Elsewhere, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull talked up the prospects of the Snowy 2.0 hydro storage project.

Climate change drove decline of Aussie tigers and rise of devils
A new study led by The Australian National University has found a strong link between a rapidly cooling climate and the decline of Australia's marsupial tigers, triggering the rise of the Tasmanian Devil and its relatives.

Yet the politics remain as rancorous as ever. The federal government unveiled its National Energy Guarantee in November, after Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s Clean Energy Target proved too rich for some in the Coalition. Just before Christmas, the long-awaited climate policy review was released, and immediately branded as weak.
Both issues are unresolved, and are set to loom large on the landscape this year. But what else is on the horizon?

Domestic bliss
We should always expect the unexpected. But perhaps the most predictable “unexpected” event would be a heatwave, prompting one or more of our creaking coal-fired power stations to have a meltdown. Maybe the “Big Banana” (as Elon Musk’s battery has been branded) will step in again, as it already has.
If fossil fuel power stations fail again, expect to see the culture war heat up again, with coal’s defenders using ever more twisting logic to defend their dear dinosaur technology.
Barring the apocalypse, on March 17 South Australians will go to the polls. Will Premier Jay Weatherill be returned to power, to continue his long-running stoush with federal energy minister Josh Frydenberg? Will heatwaves and power outages help or hinder him? At the moment, polls have former senator Nick Xenophon as putative premier. My crystal ball is hazy on what this would mean for energy policy.
In April there will be a meeting of the COAG Energy Council at which the NEG proposal will come under scrutiny. Expect it to be bloody. State governments have demanded more modelling, so they can compare the NEG to Finkel’s Clean Energy Target that Finkel suggested, and an emissions intensity scheme.
Illustration: Andrew Dyson 
Current SA treasurer Tom Koutsantonis has raised several concerns with the NEG, arguing that it doesn’t give a big enough boost to renewables, and would do nothing to break up the power of the big “gentailers”, who generate and sell electricity.
“To proceed, the NEG would require unanimous support at COAG, so this policy is either years away, or won’t happen at all,” Koutsantonis said. Expect a long-running pitched battle if Weatherill and Koutsantonis are still about, and perhaps even if they’re not.

Funding issues
In the May budget the Turnbull government is going to have to decide what to do about the Emissions Reduction Fund, the centrepiece of former prime minister Tony Abbott’s Direct Action policy, which replaced his predecessor Julia Gillard’s carbon price.
The fund, which lets companies bid for public money to implement emissions-reduction projects, started at A$2.55bn, and there is about A$260 million left.
Connected to these decisions are questions over whether and how the fund’s “safeguard mechanism”, which is supposed to stop the system being gamed, will be modified.
Among the many criticisms levelled at the government’s 2017 climate policy review, released with little fanfare the week before Christmas, was the proposal to make the already flexible mechanism even more flexible, so as to “reduce the administrative and auditing costs” for businesses.
The government’s climate review also says that in 2018 it will start the process of developing a long-term emissions-reduction strategy, to be finalised by 2020. It has promised to “consult widely” with businesses, the community, states and territories, and other G20 nations. Time will tell exactly how wide this consultation turns out to be, although anything would be better than the Trump Adminstration’s systematic removal of the term “climate change” from federal websites.

Overseas business
The climate review suggests that the Turnbull government will push for more international carbon trading. An unlikely alliance has formed against the idea, consisting of those who view carbon credits as buck-passing, as well as Tony Abbott, who thinks Australian money “shouldn’t be going offshore into dodgy carbon farms in Equatorial Guinea and Kazakhstan”.
His stance has already been branded as nonsensical by the business lobby – who, it must be said, stand to benefit significantly from carbon trading.
On the diplomatic front, the United Nations will hold a “2018 Talanoa dialogue” process, featuring a series of meetings in which major economies will come under pressure to upgrade their climate commitments to meet the Paris target.
As Giles Parkinson notes, Australia had probably thought that they could get away with no climate target upgrades until around 2025.
In October the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release a report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5℃ – the more ambitious of the Paris Agreement’s twin goals – and the emissions pathways we would need to follow to get there. Expect climate deniers to get their retaliation in first.
The next UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (number 24 in a never-ending series) will be held in December in Katowice, in Poland’s coal heartland.

Others’ predictions and my own
So, prediction is very difficult, but most of us like to indulge. Reneweconomy asked Frydenberg, his opposite number Mark Butler, and the Greens’ climate spokesperson Adam Bandt what they thought was coming up.
Frydenberg talked up “innovative projects” like this summer’s demand response trial and Snowy 2.0.
Butler gloomily forecasted more policy chaos and renewables-blaming, while Bandt was sunnier, predicting that 2018 will be “the year of energy storage” as the economics for commercial and household batteries begin to stack up.
Bandt also thinks the public debate will heat up as extreme weather hits, and the national security implications become (more) obvious.
Well, it will be fun to watch whether the Minerals Council pulls its horns in under the threat of BHP pulling out. Early signs would suggest not.
Will other mining companies defect?
Will battery storage get a grip on the grid?
Will Adani pull the plug on Carmichael under continuing pressure from campaigners?
Well, here are some safe predictions.
Donald Trump will continue being Donald Trump. Liberal and National backbenchers will put pressure on Turnbull to do what John Howard did when George W. Bush was in the Oval Office – namely, get into the United States’ slipstream and take advantage of the lowered ambition.
There will be further stunning developments in energy storage, and the prices of solar and wind will continue to plummet.
Meanwhile, Australia’s emissions will continue to rise, as will the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide concentrations.


Lethal Heating is a citizens' initiative