Climate change and biodiversity

The power of narrative and how data failed us

Some thoughts on climate change controversies and a few other random items.

We start this week’s letter with the famous "hockey stick" graph published in the journal Nature in 1998 by Michael Mann, Raymond Bradley and Malcolm Hughes. This graph got a lot of attention when it was first published — a version of the graph was featured prominently in the 2001 IPCC report. But very soon, the image and paper were under attack. The debates were picked up by big media outlets and Micheal Mann was labelled as a proxy for “bad science”:

The “scientific” attacks on Mann focused on his use of proxies and statistical methods in his mean temperature reconstruction. Mann, like paleoclimatologists before him, drew from many different types of proxies for temperature—tree ring measurements, ice cores, ice melts, human records, etc.—that are unevenly sampled both temporally and spatially. In particular, there is an overwhelming plethora of tree ring data, which represents “only a restricted region of the globe, the midlatitude continents.” The other key regions—the poles, oceans and tropics—are represented by less abundant proxies: data drawn from corals, ice cores, and lake sediments. If all proxies are treated equally, “the sheer amount of tree ring data [would] overwhelm the less abundant information from other proxy records … [and thus] weight our results toward the midlatitude continents.” On Patterns and Proxies by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun

You can read about the controversy and scientific debates online (the Wikipedia page is a good start). Micheal Mann himself wrote about this most recently in Sept 2021. He also has a new book out.

Scientific data plays a huge role in how we understand and address climate change. However, what is striking is how the controversy and confusion around climate change took shape — the hockey stick graph is one case in point. Lack of data sometimes is not the problem. I believe the problem is the context and how and who interprets the data. Sometimes our data driven mentality is also a problem. Add media, politicians, lobbyists, social media bots in the mix, then we are dealing with more than just “objective” data. We cannot even guarantee the quality and the veracity of the data!

A Washington Post report that just came out (Nov 7, 2021) stated that most countries underreported green house emission numbers:

An examination of 196 country reports reveals a giant gap between what nations declare their emissions to be versus the greenhouse gases they are sending into the atmosphere. The gap ranges from at least 8.5 billion to as high as 13.3 billion tons a year of underreported emissions — big enough to move the needle on how much the Earth will warm.
The plan to save the world from the worst of climate change is built on data. But the data the world is relying on is inaccurate.

“If we don’t know the state of emissions today, we don’t know whether we’re cutting emissions meaningfully and substantially,” said Rob Jackson, a professor at Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project, a collaboration of hundreds of researchers. “The atmosphere ultimately is the truth. The atmosphere is what we care about. The concentration of methane and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is what’s affecting climate.” …

..

The gap comprises vast amounts of missing carbon dioxide and methane emissions as well as smaller amounts of powerful synthetic gases. It is the result of questionably drawn rules, incomplete reporting in some countries and apparently willful mistakes in others — and the fact that in some cases, humanity’s full impacts on the planet are not even required to be reported.

The Post’s analysis is based on a data set it built from emissions figures countries reported to the United Nations in a variety of formats. To overcome the problem of missing years of data, reporters used a statistical model to estimate the emissions each country would have reported in 2019, then compared that total to other scientific data sets measuring global greenhouse gases.

This is just bonkers…but interestingly we don’t see these kinds of heated debate with the “biodiversity crisis”. It is all about framing and media coverage. This 2018 article shows this discrepancy:

Number of newspaper articles published per month on biodiversity (green) or climate change (brown) issues in US, Canada, and UK. Source: Legagneux, P., Casajus, N., Cazelles, K., Chevallier, C., Chevrinais, M., Guéry, L., Jacquet, C., Jaffré, M., Naud, M.J., Noisette, F. and Ropars, P., 2018. Our house is burning: discrepancy in climate change vs. biodiversity coverage in the media as compared to scientific literature. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 5, p.175. https://doi.org/10.3389/fevo.2017.00175

Are climate change and biodiversity not related? You would think that the scientists and policy makers see the connections between climate change and biodiversity more clearly? The data, algorithm and tools are all there, right? Well, not so fast!

Even though the research on the relationship between climate change and biodiversity loss are not recent, since the COVID-19 pandemic more and more research, agency reports, and news item are making this connection explicit. See this report from Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and this one (in pdf) from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

A recent special issue of the Biological Conservation journal also deal with this. Here’s an excerpt from Thomas Lovejoy's (known as the “Godfather of biodiversity”) Sept 2021 article entitled, Nature, COVID-19, disease prevention, and climate change:

Climate change looms large over all of this and is generally not understood as being inherently biological in origin – and in solution. Not only is all the carbon generated by burning fossil fuels ancient photosynthesis trapped geologically and now being released in an ecological instant, but there is a staggering amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from razed terrestrial ecosystems (Erb et al., 2018). Setting the target limit for the amount of climate change has mostly not considered the biology of the planet so fundamental for humans and other forms of life. Even the Paris agreement revision indicating the importance of a 1.5 degree target was mostly based on physical science based sea level rise considerations of small island nations (of course very valid in itself) (Lovejoy, 2019).

Nonetheless, I believe what we have been seeing emerging in climate change biology is a sense that ecosystems, not just species, are quite sensitive to climate change. Paleontologists are clear that ecosystems do not move as units with all the component biodiverse parts, but rather the species move individually according to their own idiosyncratic rates and directions (Hewitt and Nichols, 2005; Lovejoy, 2019).

The point Lovejoy is trying to make is to make us see the connections and complexity of the ecosystem — thinking about the local and global at the same time. Terms like “climate” and “environment” are easy to boil down to big facts and data instead of a relational concept. This argument was feature in a piece by Sarah Praskievicz - How the environment became global:

As Environment is a relational concept (existing in the interactions between humans and biophysical systems), the globalization of human impacts on biophysical systems has resulted not only in a quantitative magnification of those impacts, but in a qualitative shift in the conceptualization and experience of the environment. Contrary to its historical perception, specifically, people now view the environment predominantly as a global rather than a local phenomenon.

[…]

The environment is not simply the set of biophysical systems; it is how human societies relate to these systems. The period of the Great Acceleration resulted in a fundamental transformation of humanity’s relationship with the natural world. Before this time, the environment was local in terms of both human impacts and people’s ability to understand them. Over the course of the Great Acceleration, people’s ability to understand global Earth systems developed alongside their ability to change them. Essentially, an observer effect is evident, in which the environment became global only when the technology became available to take the global view, by which time technology had also fundamentally altered the humans’ perception.

I think our data, policy, and technology ecosystem failed us to show our climates relationship to the rest of the world (even though scholars are working on this sort of issues for decades).

On the other side, big investments are happening with so called “Climate Tech”. The following is from a Mckinsey report:

And, again, the need for climate technology is vast—which creates large potential markets and investment opportunities. Our estimates suggest that next-generation technologies could attract $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion of capital investment per year by 2025. To enter these markets and navigate them successfully, established companies, start-ups, and investors will need a nuanced and ever-evolving understanding of technical advances, customer demands and commitments, and policy environments. In this article, we lay out five areas with considerable promise, along with potential obstacles along the path to scale (exhibit):

  • electrifying transportation, buildings, and industry

  • launching the next green revolution in agriculture

  • remaking the power grid to supply clean electricity.

  • delivering on the promise of hydrogen

  • expanding carbon capture, use, and storage

$1.5 trillion to $2 trillion!! This is huge!! Where is biodiversity in this? Where is the relationship with the global and local? Are we going towards a market driven solution as science, data and policy failing us?

Then you have the Woolly mammoth! Recently a US start up called Colossal secured $15 million seed fund … to do what? Revive the Woolly mammoth!! To put this in the context of public research based funding, most European and U.S grants provide around $1-$2 million. Also see this commentary (“Fund natural-history museums, not de-extinction”) in Nature that highlights the absurdity of such efforts on reviving extinct species:

The only way to study extinct species is by leveraging the irreplaceable collections of natural-history museums. It is unfortunate, then, that instead of supporting these often imperilled institutions, private investors are spending millions on attempts to resurrect species. For example, the US start-up firm Colossal Laboratories and Biosciences, co-founded by synthetic biologist George Church, is exploring such feats.

Besides the failure of data and policy and absurdity of venture capitalist culture, we often ignore “narratives”. Billionaires and big tech algorithms are writing the narratives for us now. These technologies might provide some value but ultimately serves the interests of the few. “Data-driven” should be replaced with “narrative driven” to slow us down and look at the gaps and the connections. There are also groundbreaking researches happening that are looking into the success of climate change denial and scepticism narratives compared to policy and data based initiatives. If we do not try to understand these narratives and learn from them another hockey stick fiasco is waiting to happen. Data is not going to save us!