Wednesday, February 13, 2008

mental models

i'm excited to look at this book. i just finished writing a book review on a volume that looks at how to communicate climate change effectively to (what boils down to) a lay audience with the specific goal of engendering support for mitigation policies. i argued that it was useful for a transportation and planning audience that usually gets (understandably) frustrated when their policies don't find traction. a key lesson is that individuals carry around mental models, groups of understandings that they use when living a life in the world. but they're not necessarily necessary for them to function. one example is a mental model of home thermostats. people need this to interact with their thermostat on a day-to-day basis. their mental model (either the valve or feedback, in this case) informs their understanding, and although one is technically incorrect, at the end of the day, they're warm.

in the case of the climate, we've got a bigger problem. people hold mental models about the climate system that are incorrect, and this can affect their support for climate policy. if my mental model says that (and this is common) the ozone hole is responsible for climate change (it's related, but only marginally), then my solution for climate change is to buy roll-on deodorant as opposed to an aerosol spray. a higher gas tax, a carbon tax, cap-and-trade, etc., all policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through pricing will not find a warm reception.

now, i'm not suggesting that everyone needs to understand the ins and outs of climate science in order to support policy. but they must not hold mental models that are grossly incorrect or misleading. it is not possible to simply swap mental models one for one. so one solution is to direct communication at groups with similar beliefs and values--groups who likely hold similar mental models. you can't simply barrage them with information, either. mental models are tenacious, and when faced with conflicting views the existing ones are made stronger. one option is to present long, sustained information (over periods of decades). this has sort of worked for anti-smoking ads and literature. we can't afford something similar with the climate.

one approach that seems promising is the match the messenger to the target population. if they are someone that the audience respects and can relate to, they'll be more willing to internalize the knowledge. that knowledge should be simple, too, and possibly tied to short term cost savings (if gas prices continue to increase, the lifetime costs of hybrid electric vehicles will be less than conventional internal combustion ones), better insulation, better windows (maybe) can save a ton on heating costs. these measures have short paybacks.

while in the long term society will have to incur costs, in terms of foregone consumption, short term cost savings are fine to get people on board and to begin helping their mental models evolve. (thicker walls means less heat can go through them. the heat comes from natural gas which, when burned, releases gases that act as a heat-trapping blanket in the atmosphere.) simple analogies to complex systems can work wonders.

back to the book mentioned at the top of the post. it got me thinking about the difficulties of being an interdisciplinary researcher. i often feel as though i'm jack of all trades but master of none. i hope this is due mostly to my relative academic youth, and that it will improve with time and hard work. i feel as though i shouldn't read that book because it's not directly related to any of my current projects, but that its knowledge is essential for me to progress. i'll continue to work through these issues as i progress, no doubt.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

good day for transport economists

london to hit car drivers with $50-a-day fee

at first glance, this seems great. but is it the best (or even a reasonable) policy to enact to cut greenhouse gas emissions?

[more to come]

Monday, February 11, 2008

jack of all trades...

so i'm trying to figure out how to bring together the many disparate areas i've been working on. how to get them to really cohere into a (quick) thesis, so i can decide whether to stay on for a phd or to go elsewhere. all else equal, (including some very real personal considerations) the real cons are establishing myself in a new school and a new place while the pros would include attending a school with better name recognition. when i arrived at my current location, i passed over one such school, and haven't really felt bad about it. i generally feel good where i am, but in about 50 percent of my classes i get the impression that the professor really doesn't give a shit. this makes it hard to put forth a strong effort, and tends to bring me down in other areas of life. i need constant positive feedback.

i've been working on time management, i think somewhat successfully. my hPDA has fallen by the wayside, though. i think this is because i really have about three solid projects that i'm working on which take up all of my time. day-to-day i just shuffle my time between them. i have one weekly meeting with an advisor, so that's easy enough to program in repeat on google calendar.

apologies: this is only marginally academic, and not really a polemic.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

party on

a couple weeks ago, the chairperson of the california air resources board (carb), mary nichols, gave a talk here on campus. for those that are not familiar, carb is the highest air quality regulatory agency in california. they set regulations and policies to achieve emissions standards set by the legislature.

the implementation of the global warming solutions act of 2006 (also known by its legislative code AB32) has also fallen on their shoulders. the emissions target is set at 1990 levels by 2020 (approximately a 25 percent reduction from business as usual), and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. this is a substantial reduction. mary threw out some numbers. my recollections are in the ballpark, but i'm thankfully now familiar with the orders of magnitude so they won't be that far off.

current california per capita greenhouse gas equivalent emissions:
13 tons/year

current usa per capita greenhouse gas equivalent emissions:
23 tons/year

2050 goal, california per capita greenhouse gas equivalent emissions:
1.5 tons/year

ok, that's an order of magnitude of reductions that are required to meet the california target. i'm not sure if mary's numbers included expected population growth in california (they likely did, california is expected to grow substantially over the coming decades--to ignore population growth would be an egregious error.) ignoring the fact that these targets are political (as opposed to scientific) in nature, can we expect technology to get us there in 42 years?

this is a reasonable question that reasonable people should be asking. the carb chair did not ask it. i must say that i was impressed since she at least gave the impression that technology could only take us so far. this is in stark contrast to her boss, who seems to think that as long as all of our vehicles are running on distilled plant matter that we've somehow solved the problem.

who is doing the analysis on this stuff? pacala and socolow, in a well-cited science article claim that the technology we've got now can be deployed sufficiently to "solve the climate problem for the next 50 years." the absolute best part is that we can do it without changing any of our behaviors--renewable energy, nuclear fission, carbon capture and sequestration, and new vehicle technologies can combine and grow in effectiveness to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a safe level. ok, ok, fine, let's see it done. let's do more rigorous analyses and get the policies put into place.

that said, i'm fundamentally biased against tech fixes. i think (and this is supported by evidence, see vanderburg's outstanding work) that technology which sets out to solve problems often creates more in its wake. these may not be explicit. our current primary transportation mode, for example, destroys urban forms, kills many tens of thousands of people per year directly (and possibly hundreds of thousands indirectly), contributes to climate change, regional air quality concerns, etc. had we considered these unintended effects when initially supporting the automobile, the primary modes we use today might have looked different. as would our cities, families, personal relationships, etc. the bottom line is that technology doesn't usually work the way we think it's going to.

i view climate change mitigation as an avenue for possibly addressing things that i view as fundamentally flawed within society. this includes, for example, our primary transportation mode, and all of its externalities. the mitigation of climate change through behavior change and by extension a large social change, i believe, presents some of the most positive prospects for the human race. the admission of this fact possibly makes me unfit to work on climate change mitigation policy. nevertheless, that's where i devote a lot of my time.

tying this back to the beginning of the post...i think that mary nichols needs to come clean, to outline exactly what we can do with technology, and exactly what we can't. we need to start envisioning alternative futures, envisioning the types of behavior changes that we will need to enact if we want to achieve the 1.5 tons/year that we're aiming for. the other option of course, is business as usual, in which case we should just party on. after all, the most severe impacts from climate change probably won't be felt in my lifetime, on.