Editor’s Note: Taking the context of Maryland’s forests, the following piece analyses how the mainstream environmental movement and pro-industry management actors have used deliberately misinterpreting to outright creation of information to justify commercial activities at the expense of forests. Industrial deforestation is harmful for the forests and the planet. The fact that this obvious piece of information should even be stated to educated adults affirms the successful (and deceitful) framing of biomass as an environmentally friendly way out of climate crisis. The same goes for deep sea mining.
Most would agree that we live in an age of multiple compounding catastrophes, planetary in scale. There is controversy, however, regarding their interrelationships as well as their causes. That controversy is largely manufactured. In the following pages I will describe the state of “forestry” in the state of Maryland, USA, and connect that to regional, national, and international stirrings of which we should all be aware. I will continue to examine connections between international conservation organizations, the co-optation of the environmental movement, the youth climate movement, and the financialization of nature. Full disclosure. I am writing this to human beings on behalf of all the non-human beings and those yet unborn who are recognized as objects to be converted to capital or otherwise used by the dominant culture. I am not a capitalist. I am a human being. I occupy unceded land of unrecognized peoples which is characterized by poisoned air, water and soil, devastated forest ecosystems, decapitated mountains, and collapsing biodiversity. I am of this earth. It is to the land, water and all of life that I direct my affection and gratitude as well as my loyalty.
Last winter, amid deep concerns about the present mass extinction and an unshakeable feeling of helplessness, I began to search for answers and ecological allies. I compiled a running list of local, regional, national, and international organizations that seemed to have at least some interest in the environment. The list quickly swelled to hundreds of entries. I attempted to assess the organizations based upon their mission, values, goals, publications and other such things. I hoped that the best of the best of these groups could be brought together around ecological restoration and the long-term benefits of clean air, water, healthy soil supporting vigorous growth of food and medicine, and rebounding biodiversity throughout our Appalachian homeland. Progress was and continues to be slow. Along the way, I encountered an open stakeholder consultation (survey) regarding a risk assessment of Maryland’s forests. As an ethnobotanist with special interests in forest ecology and stewardship, Indigenous societies and their traditional ecological knowledge, symbiotic relationships, and intergenerational sustainability, I realize that my unique perspectives could be helpful to the team conducting the assessment. I proceeded to submit thought provoking responses to each question. Because the consultation period was exceedingly brief and outreach to stakeholders was weak at best, and because the wording of the questions felt out of alignment with the purported purpose of the survey, I sensed that something was awry. So I saved my answers and resolved to stay abreast of developments.
Summer came around, I became busy, and the risk assessment survey faded from my mind until a friend recently emailed me a draft of the document along with notice of a second stakeholder consultation and the question: should we respond? This friend happens to own land registered in the Maryland Tree Farm Program. The selective outreach to forest landowners with large acreage was an indication as to who is and who is not considered a “stakeholder” by the committee.
After reviewing the Consultation Draft: A Sustainability Risk Assessment of Maryland’s Forests I felt sick. Low to Negligible was the risk assignment for every single criteria. I re-read the document – section by section – noting the ambiguity, legalese and industry jargon, lack of definitions, contradictory statements, false claims, poorly referenced and questionable sources, and more. Have you heard of greenwashing? Every tactic was represented in the 82 page document. Naturally, then, I tracked down and reviewed many of the referenced materials and I then investigated the contributors and funders of the report.
To understand the Sustainability Risk Assessment of Maryland’s Forests, one must also review the <a href=”https://ago-item-storage.s3.us-east-1.amazonaws.com/90fbcb6e1acd4f019ad608f77ac2f19c/Final_Forestry_EAS_FullReport_10-2021.pdfMaryland Forestry Economic Adjustment Strategy, part one and two of Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest Action Plan, and Seneca Creek Associates, LLC’s Assessment of Lawful Sourcing and Sustainability: US Hardwood Exports, and of course American Forests Foundation’s Final Report to the Dutch Biomass Certification Foundation (DBC) for Implementation of the AFF’s 2018 DBC Stimulation Program in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, and Louisiana. Additionally, it is helpful to note that the project development lead and essential supporters each operate independent consultancies that: offer “technical and strategic support in navigating complex forest sustainability and climate issues,” “provide(s) services in natural resource economics and international trade,” and “produced a comprehensive data research study for the Dutch Biomass Certification Foundation on the North American forest sector,” according to their websites.
Noting, furthemore, that on the Advisory Committee sits a member of the Maryland Forests Association (MFA). On their website they state: “We are proud to represent forest product businesses, forest landowners, loggers and anyone with an interest in Maryland’s forests…” They also state: “Currently, Maryland’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard uses a limiting definition of qualifying biomass that makes it difficult for wood to compete against other forms of renewable energy,” oh yes, and this extraordinarily deceptive bit from a recent publication, There’s More to our Forests than Trees:
When the tree dies, it decays and releases carbon dioxide and methane back into the atmosphere. However, we can postpone this process and extend the duration of carbon storage. If we harvest the tree and build a house or even make a chair with the wood, the carbon remains stored in these products for far longer than the life of the tree itself! This has tremendous implications for addressing the growing levels of carbon dioxide, which lead to increased warming of the earth’s atmosphere. It means harvesting trees for long-term uses helps mitigate climate change. We can even take advantage of the fact that trees sequester carbon at different rates throughout their lifespan to maximize the carbon storage potential. Trees are more active in sequestering carbon when they are younger. As forests age, growth slows down and so does their ability to store carbon. At some point, a stand of trees reaches an equilibrium where the growth and carbon-storing ability equals the trees that die and release carbon each year. Thus, a younger, more vigorous stand of trees stores carbon at a much higher rate than an older one.
Just in case you were convinced by that last bit, my studies in botany and forest ecology support the following finding:
“In 2014, a study published in Nature by an international team of researchers led by Nathan Stephenson, a forest ecologist with the United States Geographical Survey, found that a typical tree’s growth continues to accelerate (emphasis mine) throughout its lifetime, which in the coastal temperate rainforest can be 800 years or more.
Stephenson and his team compiled growth measurements of 673,046 trees belonging to 403 tree species from tropical, subtropical and temperate regions across six continents. They found that the growth rate for most species “increased continuously” as they aged.
“This finding contradicts the usual assumption that tree growth eventually declines as trees get older and bigger,” Stephenson says. “It also means that big, old trees are better at absorbing carbon from the atmosphere than has been commonly assumed.” (Tall and old or dense and young: Which kind of forest is better for the climate?).
Al Goertzl, president of Seneca Creek (a shadowy corporation with a benign name that has no website and pumps out reports justifying the exploitation of forests) who is featured in MFA’s Faces of Forestry, wouldn’t know the difference, he identifies as a forest economist. In another publication marketing North American Forests he is credited with the statements: “There exists a low risk that U.S. hardwoods are produced from controversial sources as defined in the Chain of Custody standard of the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).” and “The U.S. hardwood-producing region can be considered low risk for illegal and non-sustainable hardwood sourcing as a result of public and private regulatory and non-regulatory programs.” The report then closes with this shocker: “SUSTAINABILITY MEANS USING NORTH AMERICAN HARDWOODS.”
Why are forest-pimps conducting the risk assessment upon which future decisions critical to the long-term survival of our native ecosystem will be based? What is really going on here?
A noteworthy find from Forest2Market helps to clarify things:
“Europe’s largest single source of renewable energy is sustainable biomass, which is a cornerstone of the EU’s low-carbon energy transition […] For the last decade, forest resources in the US South have helped to meet these goals—as they will in the future. This heavily forested region exported over <7 million metric tons of sustainable wood pellets in 2021 – primarily to the EU and UK – and is on pace to exceed that number in 2022 (emphasis mine) due to the ongoing war in Ukraine, which has pinched trade flows of industrial wood pellets from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.”
Sustainability means using North American hardwoods.
If it has not yet become clear, the stakeholder consultation for the forest sustainability risk assessment document which inspired this piece was but a small, local, component of an elaborate sham enabling the world to burn and otherwise consume the forests of entire continents – in comfort and with the guilt-neutralizing reassurance that: carbon is captured, rivers are purified, forests are healthy and expanding, biodiversity is thriving and protected, and “the rights of Indigenous and Traditional Peoples are upheld” as a result of our consumption. (FSC-NRA-USA, p71) That is the first phase of the plan – manufacturing / feigning consent. Next the regulatory hurdles must be eliminated or circumvented. Cue the Landscape Management Plan (LMP).
“Taken together, the actions taken by AFF [American Forest Foundation] over the implementation period have effectively set the stage for the implementation of a future DBC project to promote and expand SDE+ qualifying certification systems for family landowners in the Southeast US and North America, generally.”
“As outlined in our proposal, research by AFF and others has demonstrated that the chief barrier for most landowners to participating in forest certification is the requirement to have a forest management plan. To address this significant challenge, AFF has developed an innovative tool, the Landscape Management Plan (LMP). An LMP is a document produced through a multi-stakeholder process that identifies, based on an analysis of geospatial data and existing regional conservation plans, forest conservation priorities at a landscape scale and management actions that can be applied at a parcel scale. This approach also utilizes publicly available datasets on a range of forest resources, including forest types, soils, threatened and endangered species, cultural resources and others, as well as social data regarding landowner motivations and practices. As a document, it meets all of the requirements for ATFS certification and is fully supported by PEFC and could be used in support of other programs such as other certification systems, alongside ATFS. Once an LMP has been developed for a region, and once foresters are trained in its use, the LMP allows landowners to use the landscape plan and derive a customized set of conservation practices to implement on their properties. This eliminates the need for a forester to write a complete individualized plan, saving the forester time and the landowner money. The forester is able to devote the time he or she would have spent writing the plan interacting with the landowner and making specific management recommendations, and / or visiting additional landowners.
With DBC support, AFF sought to leverage two existing LMPs in Alabama and Florida and successfully expanded certification in those states. In addition, AFF combined DBC funds with pre-existing commitments to contract with forestry consultants to design new LMPs in Arkansas and Louisiana. DBC grant funds were used to cover LMP activities between July 1, 2018 and December 31, 2018 for these states, namely stakeholder engagement, two stakeholder workshops (one in each state Arkansas and Louisiana) and staffing.” (American Forest Foundation, 2, 7).
It is clear that global interests / morally bankrupt humans have been busy ignoring the advice of scientists, altering definitions, removing barriers to standardization / certification, and manufacturing consent; thus enabling the widespread burning of wood / biomass (read: earth’s remaining forests) to be recognized as renewable, clean, green-energy. Imagine: mining forests as the solution to deforestation, biodiversity loss, pollution, climate change, and economic stagnation. Meanwhile, mountains are scalped, rivers are poisoned, forests are gutted, biological diversity is annihilated, and the future of all life on earth is sold under the guise of sustainability.
Sustainability means USING North American hardwoods!
The perpetual mining of forests is merely one “natural climate solution” promising diminishing returns for Life on earth. While the rush is on to secure the necessary public consent (but not of the free, prior, and informed variety) to convert the forests of the world into clean energy (sawdust pellets) and novel materials, halfway around the planet and 5 kilometers below the surface of the Pacific another “nature based solution” that will utterly devastate marine ecosystems and further endanger life on earth – deep sea mining (DSM) – is employing the same strategy. Like the numerous other institutions that are formally entrusted with the protection of forests, water, air, biodiversity, and human rights, deep sea mining is overseen by an institution which has contradictory directives – to protect and to exploit. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) has already issued 17 exploration contracts and will begin issuing 30-year exploitation contracts across the 1.7 million square mile Clarion-Clipperton zone by 2024 – despite widespread calls for a ban / moratorium and fears of apocalyptic planetary repercussions. After decades of environmental protection measures enacted by thousands of agencies and institutions throwing countless billions at the “problems,” every indicator of planetary health that I am aware of has declined. It follows, then, that these institutions are incapable of exercising caution, acting ethically, protecting ecosystems, biodiversity or indigenous peoples, holding thieves, murderers and polluters accountable, or even respecting their own regulatory processes. Haeckel sums up industry regulation nicely in a recent nature article regarding the nascent DSM industry:
“…Amid this dearth of data, the ISA is pushing to finish its regulations next year. Its council met this month in Kingston, Jamaica, to work through a draft of the mining code, which covers all aspects — environmental, administrative and financial — of how the industry will operate. The ISA says that it is listening to scientists and incorporating their advice as it develops the regulations. “This is the most preparation that we’ve ever done for any industrial activity,” says Michael Lodge, the ISA’s secretary-general, who sees the mining code as giving general guidance, with room to develop more progressive standards over time.
And many scientists agree. “This is much better than we have acted in the past on oil and gas production, deforestation or disposal of nuclear waste,” says Matthias Haeckel, a biogeochemist at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel in Germany.” (Seabed Mining Is Coming — Bringing Mineral Riches and Fears of Epic Extinctions).
Of course, this “New Deal for Nature” requires “decarbonization” while producing billions of new electric cars, solar panels, wind mills, and hydroelectric dams. The metals for all the new batteries and techno-solutions have to come from somewhere, right? According to Global Sea Mineral Resources:
“Sustainable development, the growth of urban infrastructure and clean energy transition are combining to put enormous pressure on metal supplies.
Over the next 30 years the global population is set to expand by two billion people. That’s double the current populations of North, Central and South America combined. By 2050, 66 percent of us will live in cities. To support this swelling urban population, a city the size of Dubai will need to be built every month until the end of the century. This is a staggering statistic. At the same time, there is the urgent need to decarbonise the planet’s energy and transport systems. To achieve this, the world needs millions more wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicle batteries.
Urban infrastructure and clean energy technologies are extremely metal intensive and extracting metal from our planet comes at a cost. Often rainforests have to be cleared, mountains flattened, communities displaced and huge amounts of waste – much of it toxic – generated.
That is why we are looking at the deep sea as a potential alternative source of metals.”
Did you notice how there is scarcely room to imagine other possibilities (such as reducing our material and energy consumption, reorganizing our societies within the context of our ecosystems, voluntarily decreasing our reproductive rate, and sharing resources) within that narrative?
Do you still wonder why the processes of approving seabed mining in international waters and certifying an entire continent’s forests industry to be sustainable seem so similar? They are elements of the same scheme: a strategy to accumulate record profits through the valuation and exploitation of nature – aided and abetted by the non-profit industrial complex.
“The non-profit industrial complex (or the NPIC) is a system of relationships between: the State (or local and federal governments), the owning classes, foundations, and non-profit/NGO social service & social justice organizations that results in the surveillance, control, derailment, and everyday management of political movements.
The state uses non-profits to: monitor and control social justice movements; divert public monies into private hands through foundations; manage and control dissent in order to make the world safe for capitalism; redirect activist energies into career-based modes of organizing instead of mass-based organizing capable of actually transforming society; allow corporations to mask their exploitative and colonial work practices through “philanthropic” work; and encourage social movements to model themselves after capitalist structures rather than to challenge them.” (Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex | INCITE!).
The emergence of the NPIC has profoundly influenced the trajectory of global capitalism largely by inventing new conservation and the youth climate movement –
The “movement” that evades all systemic drivers of climate change and ecological devastation (militarism, capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, patriarchy, etc.). […] The very same NGOs which set the Natural Capital agenda and protocols (via the Natural Capital Coalition, which has absorbed TEEB) – with the Nature Conservancy and We Mean Business at the helm, are also the architects of the term “natural climate solutions”. (THE MANUFACTURING OF GRETA THUNBERG – FOR CONSENT: NATURAL CLIMATE MANIPULATIONS [VOLUME II, ACT VI]).
In the words of artist Hiroyuki Hamada:
“What’s infuriating about manipulations by the Non Profit Industrial Complex is that they harvest the goodwill of the people, especially young people. They target those who were not given the skills and knowledge to truly think for themselves by institutions which are designed to serve the ruling class. Capitalism operates systematically and structurally like a cage to raise domesticated animals. Those organizations and their projects which operate under false slogans of humanity in order to prop up the hierarchy of money and violence are fast becoming some of the most crucial elements of the invisible cage of corporatism, colonialism and militarism.” (THE MANUFACTURING OF GRETA THUNBERG – FOR CONSENT: THE GREEN NEW DEAL IS THE TROJAN HORSE FOR THE FINANCIALIZATION OF NATURE [ACT V]).
We must understand that the false solutions proposed by these institutions will suck the remaining life out of this planet before you can say fourth industrial revolution.
“That is, the privatization, commodification, and objectification of nature, global in scale. That is, emerging markets and land acquisitions. That is, “payments for ecosystem services”. That is the financialization of nature, the corporate coup d’état of the commons that has finally come to wait on our doorstep.” (THE MANUFACTURING OF GRETA THUNBERG – FOR CONSENT: NATURAL CLIMATE MANIPULATIONS [VOLUME II, ACT VI].
An important point must never get lost amongst the swirling jargon, human-supremacy and unbridled greed: If we do not drastically reduce our material and energy consumption – rapidly – then We (that is, all living beings on the planet including humans) have no future.
In summary, decades of social engineering have set the stage for the blitzkrieg underway against our life-giving and sustaining mother planet in the name of sustainability industrial civilization. The success of the present assault requires the systematic division, distraction, discouragement, detention, and demonization (reinforced by powerful disinformation) and ultimately the destruction of all those who would resist. Remember also: capital, religion, race, gender, class, ideology, occupation, private property, and so forth, these are weapons of oppression wielded against us by the dominant patriarchal, colonizing, ecocidal, empire. That is not who We are. Our causes, our struggles, and our futures are one. Unless we refuse to play by their rules and coordinate our efforts, We will soon lose all that can be lost.
Learn more about deep sea mining (here); sign the Blue Planet Society petition (here) and the Pacific Blue Line statement (here). Tell the forest products industry that they do not have our consent and that you and hundreds of scientists see through their lies (here); divest from all extractive industry, and invest in its resistance instead (here). Inform yourself, talk to your loved-ones and community members and ask yourselves: what can we do to stop the destruction?
All flourishing is mutual. The inverse is also true.
“…future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than currently believed. The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms—including humanity—is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts […] this dire situation places an extraordinary responsibility on scientists to speak out candidly and accurately when engaging with government, business, and the public.” – Top Scientists: We Face “A Ghastly Future”
—Austin is an ecocentric Appalachian ethnobotanist, gardener, forager, and seed saver. He acknowledges kinship with and responsibility to protect all life, land, water, and future generations—
Banner photo by Rachel Wente-Chaney on Creative Commons
Editor’s note: Climate change predictions have repeatedly demonstrated to be estimating disasters much later than they arrive. In spite of that, climate scientists still continue to make similar predictions. In this piece, the author – a psychologist – explores the technical and psychological reasons behind this.
By Jackson Damian / Medium
One of the clichés of climate change reporting is climate scientists claiming to be ‘surprised’, ‘shocked’ or ‘baffled’ by extreme events happening so much faster than predicted by their models and research studies.
These consistent underestimations are often explained by their ‘cautious’ approach which sounds reasonable, until you realise this has led the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — whose role is to advise humanity on the seriousness of the climate crisis — to get their advice consistently wrong.
COP27 reinforced this problem when, as ever, the IPCC based their warnings exclusively on a synthesis of climate scientist’s reports that, they knew, underdetermined both what’s already happening and the speed of catastrophic future change.
This means most people, including those in power and in the media, genuinely don’t know how desperate things already are. Even many directly engaged with the subject, in NGOs and protest groups, don’t realise concepts like limiting warming to a ‘safe’ 1.5C global average are now meaningless — because scientists won’t tell them.
People know it’s bad but not how bad. This gap in understanding remains wide enough for denialists and minimisers to legitimise inadequate action under the camouflage of empty eco-jargon and false optimism. This gap allows nations, corporations and individuals to remain distracted by short-term crises, which, however serious, pale into insignificance compared with the unprecedented threat of climate change.
Alongside those vested interests who minimise climate change assessments, underestimates by scientists have potentially devastating consequences for humanity’s efforts to react to this threat to our survival. You don’t need to be a scientist to know that misjudging the seriousness of a situation compromises any response.
This article explains why traditional climate science methods cannot keep up with rapid change. It provides an analysis of the psychological defences that prevent most climate scientists from admitting this in public when, unofficially, they all do and say they are afraid. In conclusion, we consider how scientists can overcome this irrational position, for the good of us all
How wrong are climate scientists?
The list of new climate phenomena and related extreme events that ‘surprise’ climate scientists is endless, because it literally grows by the day.
This statement of fact is not ‘doomist’ or disputed by anyone serious, including scientists themselves. Roger Harrabin, the BBC’s environment and energy correspondent, recently confessed he is ‘scared’ — because he has listened for years to scientists telling him things were far worse than they could say officially and this is evident in today’s climate extremes.
The unprecedented 40C-plus temperatures of 2022’s UK and French heatwaves that provoked Harrabin’s disclosure, were forecast in 2019 to occur sometime after 2050 by the modelling of their national meteorological organisations. Multiple UK locations then saw 40C in 2022, while elsewhere in Europe they got closer to 50C. This led Professor Hannah Cloke of the University of Reading to admit, “Even as a climate scientist… this is scary.”
More, unusually public, panicked-sounding comments from scientists followed because these unprecedented extremes in Europe, undoubtedly caused they knew by humanity’s impact on the climate, were also experienced across the entire Northern Hemisphere, not least China which suffered ‘the worst drought in human history’ and vast areas of western USA.
These, plus epic and terrible related events like extremes of drought in the Horn of Africa, floods in Pakistan (covering an area the size of the UK), Australia and Niger, heatwaves in India and Argentina, and many others — were not anticipated anything like this soon by climate science models.
Worse, this was nothing new, recent history records an accelerating number of similar phenomena including:
· The 2021 ‘heatdomes’ in British Columbia and elsewhere — predicted to occur only every 10 years after average global temperature increased by 2C i.e. again, sometime after 2050. These led Michael E. Mann, a ‘go-to’ climate scientist/commentator, to state the climate models were wrong.
· The mega Australian wildfires of 2019 — predicted to occur by 2050 by only one climate scientist who, when he said so in 2007, was ridiculed by his peers for being alarmist.
So, the answer to the question, ‘how wrong are climate scientists?’ is — disastrously. The fact is, no mainstream research paper or climate model predicted where we are now.
Why don’t the methods work?
These ‘peer-reviewed’ methods cannot keep up in a time of rapid climate change because they…
1. take years from proposal to publication — so are always out-of-date
2. must limit themselves to the consideration of fragments of the climate system, to satisfy the high statistical standards of ‘certainty’ required
3. don’t include known variables, such as methane, when measurement is problematic — these are allocated zero values which works for the maths but not for real-life
4. cannot make provision for variables they know must be significant but cannot say so ‘scientifically’ yet, including many ‘feedback loops’
5. cannot co-ordinate well with other, equally-limited studies
6. cannot consider the whole planetary system or, usually, even major system components
7. were designed for the study of nature’s usual, long-term (thousands/millions of years) pace of climate change, not the unprecedented speed of anthropogenic change.
The IPCC rely exclusively on data they ‘synthesise’ from scientific papers and models complying with these methods to tell humanity what is happening, though they know these are flawed for this purpose.
They will not consider better data until a scientist has referred to this using the same process.
In addition, they use a ‘consensus’ filter — this disregards ‘outlier’ results, so those few studies that sound more realistic alarms are discounted.
All this is compounded by the IPCC’s mind-bogglingly complicated 7-year review and reporting structure. Though designed to be thorough, this has no chance of keeping up.
This modus operandi was established at their inception in 1988 but, as Naomi Oreskes, the Harvard science historian says, the IPCC ‘set the bar of proof too high’ for their vital advisory role.
For clarity, this is the bar set by the IPCC for their synthesis of scientific evidence, not for their summaries issued to policymakers. These summaries are built on the foundation of this understated evidence but are further watered-down, under external pressures, by dubious factors such as the estimated impact of unproven technologies.
The Arctic Circle
This is where these methods get it most wrong.
Significant, unambiguous new observational evidence emerged in the summer of 2022, from Svalbard and the Barents Sea, to reveal an increase of 10C there in the past 30 years alone. Accounts of Alaskan and Northern Russian land masses recording even higher temperature anomalies have been routine for decades; in this context the Siberian wildfires of 2020 surpassed in area the rest of the world’s fires put together.
We now know the temperature across the entire Arctic Circle has increased by between 4C and 10C in four decades i.e. way above the current ‘global average’ of 1.2C, and the now-unachievable ‘safe’ limit of 1.5C. The drastic climatic consequences of these astonishingly fast increases include already altering the path and speed of the jet streams, 50–100 years faster than expected.
These increases were not built into climate models prior to 2022, one of the major reasons all bar one of the IPCC’s current ‘trajectories’ for future change have already been surpassed. Additional incorrect assumptions are regularly highlighted — a December 2022 study indicates the rate of melt of Greenland’s glacier fronts has been significantly underestimated in the models due to erroneous comparisons with events in Antartica.
The effect on leaders’ and the public’s (mis)understanding is significant. At the time of writing, on the back of the summer temperature extremes of 2022, 2/3 of the landmass of the USA is in the grip of a vast winter storm, while much of Europe experiences an unprecedented winter heatwave. Any climate scientist, informally, will say these events must be related to climate change caused by human activity. But they won’t say so publicly, because their methods cannot show this yet, so the media report the cause is subject to ‘scientific debate’ — creating a false impression of uncertainty and reducing warranted alarm.
We see similar misguided misreporting in relation to changes in other major climate elements including ocean temperatures, deep ocean currents, Antarctica, glacier retreat and biodiversity loss.
Another cliché of climate reporting is the surprise expressed at so many extreme events happening at ‘only’ 1.2C but given what’s actually happened in the Arctic Circle and elsewhere — as opposed to what the models predicted — it’s no surprise at all.
They do know – So why can’t climate scientists tell us?
This is where psychology comes into it. Climate scientists are extremely clever people but they are as human, and as vulnerable to sub-conscious needs and fears, as the rest of us.
They do know
It is worth reiterating that these highly-educated professionals do know everything outlined above to be true — they know EVERY new live observation and better-quality study or model shows this.
And it isn’t only Roger Harrabin, with his significant sample size, who says so.
The problem is also well-illustrated by the fiasco of the 1.5C average ‘limit’ which at COP27, using their methodology, the IPCC still declared realistic in spite of the fact that in 2022:
· the UN’s own Environment Program declared there was no credible path to limiting warming to 1.5C
· the journal Nature broadly surveyed climate scientists and ecologists on the average global temperature rise by 2100; 96% said it would be higher than 1.5C and 60% said it would be 3C or more
· an event at the University of East Anglia asked 60 climate scientists whether 1.5C was ‘still alive’? — 100% said no.
But, because most climate scientists will not say so in public, they enable COP27, virtually all media outlets and influential figures like Sir David Attenborough to keep misrepresenting reality.
All while, everyone agrees, every fraction of a degree beyond 1.5C of warming represents exponentially-worse consequences for humanity — and more than 3C could be unsurvivable.
The psychological reasons
Scientists nonetheless repress the fact all this points to an urgent need to change their behaviours to allow them to report ‘live’ – what they know is actually happening.
This repression process is automatic — it is a sub-conscious, psychological defence mechanism activated in response to the perceived threat that changing their ways of working represents.
The superficial element of this threat is to their basic needs; climate scientists in general are not motivated by material gain but they still need to eat. All of them, from the most junior to those contributing work to the IPCC, simply cannot vary from these prescribed ‘scientific’ methods in their activities — if they do, their work will not be accepted.
More significant for climate scientists, however, is the profound psychological importance to them of their professional standing, this is fundamental to their sense of themselves — we might say their egos ‘identify’ with this. The threat to this status that the possibility of abandoning these methods represents is experienced as a kind of mortal danger, a killing of themselves.
This ego-identification of scientists with their special status is not a new concept; it’s widely accepted as a kind of anodyne, hard-earned, superiority complex that’s generally beneficial in its consequences for society. Historically this was often seen in popular culture as an inferiority complex, producing the malevolent ‘mad scientist’, but in the era of advanced technology the isolated ‘nerd’ archetype has emerged from this shadow to enjoy elevated status and influence. The tendency towards social awkwardness of many in this group is also affectionately portrayed in shows like ‘The Big Bang Theory’.
But most scientists still feel psychologically different. They grew up apart because they were more intellectually capable than those around them. Even if surrounded by good-intentions, childhood inevitably featured isolation, in the absence of many who could connect with them at their level. Worse, a significant subset of this population experience bullying for their exceptional abilities.
Academia provides a psychological refuge among a social group of their peers, but they also discover here a competitive environment with rigid and complex rules of behaviour. These rules, to which these research methods are fundamental, are reinforced over years. They are the code they must abide by to confirm and retain their membership of the group.
It follows that any threat to this membership, as breaking these rules represents, is deeply psychologically painful. The defences and complexes activated, linked to early maturational experiences, are the most difficult to shift. They provoke sub-conscious, primitive fears. Rational argument, normally the goal of scientists, becomes difficult to engage.
These fears are reinforced by the absence of an alternative group to join if they leave — outcast, back in the ‘real’ world they would find no safe community.
Thus, ongoing repression and ‘business as usual’; thousands of limited studies and inaccurate models still flow from academia, and on to the IPCC — in spite of the desperate, wider consequences.
This is an example of collective cognitive dissonance, a behaviour which denies reality, often seen in human groups where individuals place high value on their membership.
Another crucial barrier to these scientists changing their behaviours is the near absence of any external pressure to do so — indeed the opposite is the case. Efforts to dilute climate warnings continue but even those who acknowledge the problem, enmeshed in their own obligations and related defences, don’t want to hear things are worse than scientists are already saying.
The psychology of the IPCC
The continued insistence of the IPCC on basing their advice on evidence produced by methods they know under-estimate the problem, is an extension of this collective cognitive dissonance.
Their behaviour makes no sense in the context of humanity’s failure to respond to catastrophic threat. IPCC lead scientists are not pathologically-inclined to cause harm — but they too feel unable to abandon the constraints of methods within which they are psychologically secure.
It is also likely the IPCC reinforces their emphasis on these flawed in-group methods, as a primitive defence against those non-scientific vested interests who challenge and ‘bully’ them, including in the production of their summaries for policymakers.
There is, nonetheless, one psychological factor that could shift these ‘ego-identified’ complexes and that is peer pressure, especially if this comes from senior leaders across the climate science community.
The truth is ‘unscientific’
Roger Harrabin reports scientists saying they can’t tell the truth because to do so would be ‘unscientific’. This apparent insanity, given the consequences, can be understood psychologically.
But scientists are not the only ones who need urgent analysis in this incredible context. Prioritising survival in their roles at the expense of rational behaviour is accepted, even expected, among corporate leaders and politicians, both as individuals and the collective.
It’s notable all these people come from a similar demographic— mostly white, male, middle-aged, privileged — or, if not, they are obliged to conform with the culture and social norms established by this group. It may be easier for scientists though, given the importance to them of objectivity, to break through their defences and change their behaviours.
The same but different – Divergence among climate scientists
The climate science community, like the science itself, is many-faceted and includes specialists in atmospheric sciences, fluid dynamics, meteorology, geo-science and others, as well as climatologists. More than one hundred thousand work in research, corporations, environment/habitat management, public administration, NGOs etc. Most have no direct connection to the IPCC or the media.
Only their leaders have these connections and it is no surprise, in this extreme situation, that this instinctively-conservative community is fragmenting. They currently fall into 5 main groups.
1. More of the same
In classic defence-mechanism style many scientists double-down on their existing flawed methods in response to their fears. Disappearing down the rabbit-hole of another 5-year study or designing another complex model is psychologically comfortable. Most research papers still end with the recommendation ‘more study is required…’, which rationalises this defensive behaviour but diminishes the impact of conclusions and plays into the hands of minimisers.
Ineffectual attempts have been made to change things up like, ‘attribution studies’. These calculate (using a questionable comparison to an imaginary world where human influence had not occurred) the probability of anthropogenic causation as opposed to ‘weather’ variations. Their findings are published faster than standard studies but still cause delays of many months and even then are not conclusive. Thus the summer 2022 droughts were reported in January 2023 to have been ‘calculated’ by the UK Met Office as ‘160 times more likely’ to have been caused by climate change, when any scientist would have said, informally, when they were happening, there was no chance it was anything else. Others produce ludicrous individual event estimates like ‘1000 times more…’
Anything to avoid a declaration of certainty at the time of the event, because this is not allowed by scientific method. Such convoluted compromises only make sense within the climate science community where adherence to the rules is sacrosanct — even though they know these will still cause delay in communication and misunderstanding elsewhere.
2. More of the same — but magically better
Senior climate scientist and Oxford Professor Tim Palmer told Roger Harrabin: “It’s impossible to say how much of an emergency we are in because we don’t have the tools to answer the question.’’
Former Met Office chief scientist Professor Dame Julia Slingo told BBC News in 2021: “We should be alarmed because the IPCC (climate computer) models are just not good enough.’’ She went on, “(We need) an international centre… like that at Cern… with expensive new mega-computers — to deliver the quantum leap to climate models that capture the fundamental physics that drive extremes”. Such computers — everyone knows — would take years to develop, time humanity does not have, and could anyway never be ‘mega’ enough to keep up.
It is difficult to imagine clearer cases of bad workmen blaming their tools, not least as they design the tools themselves — but it’s not that a Professor Dame and an Oxford Professor can’t see the wood for the trees, it is that they are the trees.
Most climate scientists still live deep in this area of a forest of their own creation. Their irrational obsession with improving ‘scientific’ methods as a response to this problem, clearly links to their subconsciously-driven resistance to saying anything in public without reference to these; they are looking for justification (within the rules of their community) to speak out, as they know they should. Off the record, Tim and Julia and the rest will say it is 100% certain humanity caused this unprecedented climate mayhem and — using their powerful brains instead of their limited models — can give accurate ideas of what’s coming next.
3. Ongoing denial
A small group of hardliners still refuse to look beyond conclusions derived within the limited parameters of individual studies and models. They disregard the fact these, and the big picture the IPCC obtains by considering them together, cannot tell us what’s actually going on. For them if something can’t be ‘proved’ yet by their methods — it’s not happening.
Thus many refused to accept jet streams had (inevitably) shifted because of the relative speed of Arctic warming — because their models could not yet demonstrate this. Their peer-reviewed work was published in credible journals, even when other scientists like Jennifer Francis pointed out obvious flaws, such as their inability to include the impact of the warming of land masses across the Arctic Circle. This purist group were quietened by the observations and events of 2022 but they remain influential.
Crucially, the IPCC itself belongs here — as they continue to reference only data from studies and models which they know cannot reflect reality.
4. Underestimation to ‘avoid panic’
Some scientists attempt to rationalise underestimation by claiming this avoids the paralysis the resultant panic would provoke. This, psychologically-speaking, is nonsense; history tells us the mass ‘freeze response’ they allude to will not be provoked by credible experts telling the truth. Not telling people, however, does risk confusion, paralysis and no meaningful action — which is what has played out.
These scientists collude with the ‘stubborn optimists’ in public life, people like the UN’s Cristiana Figueres who advocate maintaining a belief in things getting better, even when they look bleak — which sounds okay but, has led to magical thinking such as faith in non-viable techno-solutions and the untenable insistence on ‘keeping 1.5C alive’.
This group includes public-facing scientists like Katherine Hayhoe and Michael E Mann, popular because they say what people want to hear. Mann now acknowledges there has been no meaningful action. He still insists ‘progress’ made on ‘policy’ is ‘hopeful’, however, which is like praising the driver of a runaway train for jamming down the accelerator, before going back to talk with passengers about slowing down. So, he hasn’t found his way out of this group yet.
5. Going public
Some scientists are breaking ranks to tell it much more like it is. They include some whose reputations are established, like Sir David King, or are retired/emeritus professors like Peter Wadhams, or they are the more confident and the boldest, people like James Hansen, Makifo Sato, Jennifer Francis, Ye Tao, Bill McGuire, Peter Carter, Kevin Anderson, Tim Lenton, Jason Box, David Spratt, James Dyke and Peter Kalmus. They are not rooted so deeply within the forest and have in common the psychological trait that the existential fear in them provoked by this situation, has become stronger than any psychological threat.
Some are organising in groups such as Scientist Rebellion, The Climate Crisis Advisory Group, Scientists Warning, and Scholars Warning. Some of the youngest are breathing fire — Capstick et al in 2022 in the journal Nature Climate Change, argue that all climate scientists must get involved in civil disobedience to provoke action. Others focus on practical suggestions — but do so in silos which receive minimal attention, such as the Centre for Climate Repair.
Other academics are also realistically engaged including Jem Bendell, professor of Sustainable Leadership and Rupert Read, Associate Professor of Philosophy.
Though in touch with reality themselves, and connecting with probably several million others now across the globe, none of these or others like them have had a meaningful impact on the behaviour of governments, corporations and most individuals, nor on humanity’s omnicidal trajectory.
Scientists, collectively, telling the unvarnished truth about the desperate seriousness of the situation, right now, is something that could have this impact.
How can climate scientists allow themselves to tell the truth?
1. Admit the problem
Climate scientists must admit they are still the only ones who know the extent of the climate iceberg below the surface.
They must accept, in the face of this unprecedented threat, their primary professional responsibility now is to provide up-to-date information to humanity — about what’s really happening to our climate and to our essential habitat. This is the single most important task any group of scientists has ever faced.
They have to admit that rigid adherence to their academic methods, in this astonishingly rapid context, leads directly to their failure to communicate the truth.
They have to acknowledge the confusion this failure has provoked facilitates inadequate action, empty pledges, fantasy techno-solutions, and false-optimism.
Scientists must concede humanity urgently needs them to find new ways to communicate what they already know, not only what their methods, or some future super-computer, will allow.
2. Unite and co-ordinate
Pointing to accelerating climate-extreme events happening ahead of their predictions — and the failure of humanity to respond linked, in part, to these underestimations — senior scientists must build a new ‘permanent-emergency’ coalition of IPCC and climate science leaders from all disciplines.
This strong new coalition must overcome their psychological resistances to agree an urgent new direction for the climate science community, finding a way through the politics to co-ordinate this.
The attraction of civil disobedience as a potential catalyst is understandable — and the climate science community should support members who get involved.
Accurate information communicated effectively, however, has the best chance of provoking meaningful action, in the form of impulses to radically change originating from within governments and corporations, including fossil fuel companies.
The new coalition must collectively acknowledge it is climate scientists themselves who need to lead in these communications and ensure they are effective. To do this they will need to engage with psychological and comms experts to break through the defences of leaders in all spheres of human activity, as well as the wider population.
3. Plan and Act
This coalition must initiate a plan of action that could look something like this.
1. Announce the permanent-emergency
Getting ahead of the likely unprecedented new extremes of the 2023/2024 El Niño, issue statement to all media platforms (simultaneously from all national agencies, IPCC, NASA, NOAA, NSDIC, UK Met Office and equivalents, all university Climate Change departments, Institutes etc), declaring:
· A new state of climate ‘permanent-emergency’ is here. Comparisons with the past are now irrelevant — our climate has irrevocably changed, at a speed unprecedented in this planet’s history and will change ever faster, with devastating impacts much faster than expected.
· Traditional climate science methods could not predict this and cannot keep up — ‘live’ observation, interpretation and communication of this new climate reality will now be the priority of scientists.
· Humanity has to react without further delay. 1.5C is gone. Paris 2015 goals, COP pledges, carbon budgets etc are obsolete — radical new policies are needed.
· These must promote urgent, meaningful action in all areas of human activity, based on new ‘live’ information.
2. Initiate new Permanent-Emergency Climate Science Code of Practice
· All institutions and individual climate scientists required to adopt
· Requires all activity (teaching, funding, research, modelling, other activity) prioritises live observations, analysis and reporting.
· Requires senior climate scientists behave congruently in their professional actions — eg 40% of time allocated to external facing comms/education and personally ensuring colleagues adopt this code.
3. Co-ordinate global climate scientific resources as a permanent-emergency response
· Create new 24/7 network of climate hubs, based in existing institutions, with the primary purpose of live analysis of weather/climate events, probable future events and related parameters — all individuals and institutions to prioritise their work for these hubs.
· Ensure hubs are co-ordinated to cover and connect planet-wide climate activity.
· Task hubs with improving quality of live observations including in remote locations. Advance computer capabilities — without delaying communication of live information.
· Set up central ‘planet hub’ at the IPCC — the coalition base — operates 24/7 to co-ordinate/ integrate/synthesise work of individual hubs.
· Using psychological approaches, engage with resistance from within the climate science community and related disciplines.
· Promote emergency-first mobilisation of all academic disciplines.
· All in co-ordination with government, corporate, NGO, health, education, social care and arts etc sectors — includes delivery of rolling information programs.
4. Set up 24/7 primary communication centre at IPCC ‘Planet Hub’
· Provides rolling analysis in planet-wide report, continuously synthesises and translates technical work of individual hubs into accessible language — replaces 7-yearly reporting cycle.
· Pro-actively engages with psychological resistance in leaders and the wider public to ensure effective communications.
· Supervises parallel/reciprocal communication functions in all climate hubs.
· Engages and trains media-friendly scientists.
· Targets rolling comms/education programs at all media platforms — eradicates misconceptions, replaces with accurate narrative.
Conclusion and questions for scientists
This article is aimed primarily at climate scientists, related professions and the media, written by a psychotherapist/friend. Someone with enough post-graduate education to understand the scientific papers and the climate models, and their shortcomings, but without the professional authority to do more than hold a psychological mirror up to this group.
The aim is to encourage scientists to overcome their resistances to communicating what they know. Because if they don’t — then we all face the prospect of the end of civilised society, including academia, also much faster than expected.
It is beyond the scope of this article to argue how bad the situation is or what appropriate responses should look like. The truth is no-one knows if we have 5 years or 50 before societal collapse sets in — but there is no doubt, whatever the timeframe, the situation is desperate and there is still no sign this is properly understood.
The climate science community could have a crucial influence in closing this gap in understanding — no-one else in this arena gets close to their hard-earned authority.
From this point the author only has questions because, as we say in psychotherapy, ‘insight is half the battle’. Changing behaviours is the difficult other half. It is for scientists themselves to answer the following:
· Can climate scientists overcome the subconsciously-driven defences that prevent most of them from telling the truth in public?
· Can they re-organise themselves to take responsibility for the effective communication of the true severity of this unprecedented ‘permanent-emergency’?
· Can they lower their self-imposed ‘bar of proof’ to a rational level that allows them to competently perform, at last, this vital role — so minimisers can be negated and meaningful actions initiated?
· Can they engage with parallel psychological resistances in leaders, the media and the public to receiving this information?
· Can they play the unique part, only their expertise allows them to play, in reducing harm to billions of human beings and other species?
If they can’t, our options will be limited…
Featured image: COP15 UNFCCC Climate Change
Editor’s Note: Saplings cannot replace mature forests, with their hundreds of years of biodiversity and carbon sequestration. The biomass industry is destroying mature forests with a promise of planting saplings. Even if it had come from “waste wood,” huge amounts of energy is still involved in cutting, chipping, transporting and manufacturing of biomass pellets. Adding to that is the emissions involved in the actual burning. Biomass manufacturing is not green, clean or renewable. The sooner we stop doing it, the better.
By Justin Catanoso / Mongabay
- On December 5, 2022, Mongabay featured a story by journalist Justin Catanoso in which the first ever biomass industry insider came forward as a whistleblower and discredited the green sustainability claims made by Enviva — the world’s largest maker of wood pellets for energy.
- On December 15, citing that article and recent scientific evidence that Enviva contributes to deforestation in the U.S. Southeast, The Netherlands decided it will stop paying subsidies to any biomass company found to be untruthful in its wood pellet production methods. The Netherlands currently offers sizable subsidies to Enviva.
- Precisely how The Netherlands decision will impact biomass subsidies in the long run is unclear. Nor is it known how this decision may impact the EU’s Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP) certification process, which critics say is inherently weak and unreliable.
- Also in December, Australia became the first major nation to reverse its designation of forest biomass as a renewable energy source, raising questions about how parties to the UN Paris agreement can support opposing renewable energy policies, especially regarding biomass — a problem for COP28 negotiators to resolve in 2023.
Prompted by exclusive reporting from Mongabay, the House of Representatives in The Netherlands’s Parliament has approved a motion that compels its government to stop paying subsidies to wood-pellet manufacturers found to be untruthful in their wood-harvesting practices.
On December 14, the Dutch House, by a 150-114 vote, approved a motion introduced by Rep. Lammert van Raan of Amsterdam, a member of the progressive Party for the Animals. In his motion, van Raan noted that up to €9.5 billion ($10 billion) have been reserved by the government through 2032 to subsidize the purchase of domestic and foreign-produced wood pellets for energy and heat generation.
“The risk of fraud with sustainability certification of biomass is significant,” van Raan wrote. Then, in reference to a Mongabay story published December 5, he added: “A whistleblower who worked at Enviva, the biggest maker of wood pellets, has reported that all of Enviva’s green claims are incorrect [and] according to an important recent scientific study… Enviva contributes to deforestation in the southeastern U.S.”
Van Raan concluded his motion by writing that the House “calls on the government to ensure that all subsidies do not end up at parties that cheat with sustainability certification.”
The approved motion requires the Dutch government to seek a higher level of proof under the third-party Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP) certification process. Enviva already participates in the SBP, but critics note that the certification process is inherently weak and unreliable, especially regarding the climate and biodiversity impacts of tree harvesting.
Van Raan’s motion seeks to address such problems as the SBP standards used by the European Union are not seen as adequately holding pellet manufacturers accountable for their harvest practices. NGOs and journalists have shown, for example, that clear cutting of native, biodiverse forests are common industry practices, yet such harvests are still certified as sustainable. The Netherlands’ challenge is to make the SBP process more rigorous and transparent. And if those higher standards aren’t met, pellet makers like Enviva could lose millions in subsidies.
Whistleblower speaks out
The Mongabay story that precipitated the Dutch motion featured the first employee from within the multibillion-dollar global wood pellet manufacturing industry to ever speak out publicly. The whistleblower, a high-ranking Enviva plant official who declined to be named, told Mongabay that Enviva’s claims of using mostly treetops, limbs and wood waste to produce pellets were false, as were other sustainable policy claims.
“We take giant, whole trees. We don’t care where they come from,” said the whistleblower, who no longer works for Enviva. “The notion of sustainably managed forests is nonsense. We can’t get wood into the mills fast enough.”
Mongabay confirmed many of the whistleblower’s allegations in November when this reporter observed firsthand a forest clearcut in eastern North Carolina where nearly half the trees from a 52-acre industrial site were chipped and transported to an Enviva pellet-making plant. Also, a recent study by the Southern Environmental Law Center illustrated how Enviva’s tree harvesting since opening its first plant in 2011 in North Carolina is contributing to net deforestation in coastal North Carolina and southern Virginia.
In response, Enviva told Mongabay it stood by its public assertions regarding the sustainability of its wood-harvesting practices. The company also said it believed the whistleblower was not credible in his allegations.
Global doubts over biomass as a renewable energy source
In April, The Netherlands voted to stop subsidizing wood pellets for about 50 new heat-generating, wood-burning plants. But existing plants (200 for heat, and four for energy that co-fire with wood pellets and coal) still receive subsidies of nearly €600 million annually ($635 million). In 2021, The Netherlands imported 1.2 million metric tons of wood pellets from the southeastern U.S., much of that coming from Enviva.
The move by the Dutch to hold pellet makers accountable for their sustainable harvest claims — a first in the European Union — comes at the same time the biomass industry suffered its first global setback. On December 15, Australia amended its renewable energy policy to exclude woody biomass from native forests as a renewable energy source. That decision essentially blocks the biomass industry, which has no presence in Australia, from getting started there.
More trouble may lie ahead for Enviva. A Seattle-based law firm, Hagens Berman, is seeking plaintiffs in a possible class-action lawsuit against the Maryland-based public company.
The law firm is recruiting Enviva investors who believe they have been harmed financially by what the attorneys call greenwashing — appealing to investors because of Enviva’s ESG (Environment Social Governance) credentials, when in fact the company is allegedly harming the environment and contributing to climate change.
Enviva denies these allegations as well. Hagens Berman has set a January 3, 2023 deadline for plaintiffs to come forward.
The growing unease of governments toward biomass as a subsidized renewable energy source comes after years of pressure from scientists and forest advocates who have presented evidence and argued that burning forests to make energy is dirtier than coal, while also harming ecosystems and reducing forest carbon storage capacity — even as the climate and biodiversity crises intensify.
Mongabay has reported on biomass since 2014 with more than 60 articles, while other media outlets have increasingly brought attention to the topic.
Activists have pressed hard for years to put a biomass discussion on the agenda at annual UN climate summits, to no avail, but are encouraged by events in The Netherlands and Australia. They say they remain hopeful that actions by policymakers will soon match growing public opposition to using forest wood for energy in a climate crisis.
Justin Catanoso is a regular contributor to Mongabay and a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in the United States.
Featured image Ameresco Biomass Cogeneration Facility at SRS by Savannah River Site is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Editor’s note: Less than five years ago in Ireland, a woman getting an abortion could get a longer sentence than her rapist. That changed with a referendum in 2018, where the people of Ireland voted for abortion rights. The following article is written by one of the organizers of the Yes campaign: a campaign that reached out to people leading up to the referendum to get them to vote Yes for abortion rights. IN this piece, Clodagh Schofield describes her experiences with using powerful conversations as a tactic in the campaign.
As social beings, we tend to be reluctant to voice our opinions if we believe that those around us would get uncomfortable because of it. It might be because we think others don’t agree with us, or simply because the topic is an awkward one (like abortion). Voicing our opinions in such situations can be a small, yet powerful, way to start a discussion on a topic. It can lead to an exchange of ideas and people beginning to understand each other’s perspectives. Sometimes, it can also be part of a wider strategy to influence public opinion.
While DGR does not believe that changing public opinion in itself can lead to a cultural shift required to save the world, we do believe it is an important part of our movement. It is also a tactic that you can use with the people around you which requires relatively less time and energy and a higher amount of courage. Let us know if you have started uncomfortable conversations around you, and the effects you observed.
By Clodagh Schofield/Commons Library
Overturning the abortion ban in Ireland meant equipping people to share their stories and spark conversations with their friends and family.
In Ireland on May 25, 2018, the Yes campaign to repeal the nation’s 8th Amendment abortion ban won after receiving nearly two-thirds of the over 2.1 million votes cast.
The victory resulted in part from people across the country having hard conversations about abortion. Let’s take a look at how the campaign helped start and support the tough talks needed to shift perceptions about deeply held values.
In Ireland’s landslide win for abortion rights, a long-silent majority appeared to vote Yes. The Yes vote also won decisively in rural counties thought to be the heartland of the No campaign. Why?
After the vote, 39% of people polled about what changed their minds to Yes cited a conversation with family or friends. Thousands of people with traumatic abortion experiences broke their silence and inspired others to speak up.
But it wasn’t by accident that people across Ireland had these difficult conversations over tea, at sporting events on the weekend, in the car, after school and online. In fact, when polled in January, four and a half months before the vote, over half of voters said they would be too uncomfortable to talk about abortion with people in their lives.
The Yes campaign helped people start and maintain conversations, modeled positive values-based talk that didn’t play into the opposition’s messaging frame and ran a grassroots effort that gave people agency over their conversations.
The campaign also recognised the value of each person. In Ireland, where abortion has been banned since the 8th Amendment was passed in 1983, everyone has a story about abortion. When it comes time to vote, a person needs just one story to change or affirm how they mark the ballot.
I worked on the Yes campaign and see valuable lessons in sparking difficult conversations for campaigners working elsewhere in the world on issues that, like the Ireland abortion referendum, are steeped in centuries-old mixes of institutions, politics and values.
Help people start conversations in diverse ways
It’s not easy to talk about abortion on a personal level. Different people need different prompts and various levels of support.
Groups used a variety of approaches to help people start conversations. Amnesty International partnered with the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, and asked members to pledge to have conversations with those around them on itstime.ie (unfortunately the site is now retired). Local groups of the official Yes campaign held some amazing conversation cafes. My favourite tactic was so simple: the Abortion Rights Campaign produced badges for supporters which read “Talk to me about Repeal.”
At Uplift, we ran a number of different campaigns to encourage people to start conversations. We also equipped people to have effective and meaningful conversations.
Early in the campaign, we ran an online conversations training on Crowdcast. We focused on using stories and values based communication to approach undecided voters. We followed up conversations with a microsite, letstalkrepeal.ie [Link not working 27 April, 2022]. Engagement with these resources was strong. Feedback was also good. The program provided an accessible low bar ask for people who supported Yes and wanted to step up but not into leadership roles.
We launched Mobilisr [link not found 29 April 2022], a peer-to-peer messaging program, in the run up to the vote. People used it to get in touch with their Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Telegram contacts to either start a conversation about abortion care, or ask them to get out and vote. People were slow to start using Mobilisr but activity picked up once users had used the tool at least once.
By 25 May, the app converted extremely well – especially as users could select as many people in their contacts as they chose to send a prefilled but customisable message. Lightweight and adaptable, this tool shows huge promise for starting conversations with users outside of a campaign’s existing reach.
We segmented lists into people who were a Yes vote, people voting No, and undecided voters. Strong pro-choice members were recruited to have conversations with undecided voters. One volunteer trained and supported a team of “e-Repealers” who offered undecided people the opportunity to have a conversation via email using Freshdesk. Though at times a little rough and ready, this program was entirely volunteer run. The program fostered earnest and often complicated discussions between very different people.
Focus on your values and vision, not the opposition’s framing
Campaigning was organised locally but most Yes groups used messaging focused on care, compassion and change.
At Uplift we worked with Anat Shenker-Osorio to develop messaging. We talked about abortion as a part of healthcare and shared stories of individuals instead of speaking of women collectively. We also shared a vision of the society where everyone has the freedom to decide whether and when to become a parent.
The tone of the Yes campaign paved the way for powerful conversations between people on an issue that’s historically untouchable. Even the No campaign acknowledged that Yes campaign messaging grounded the debate and prevented it from becoming as toxic as it could have been.
Empower people with campaign ownership
The Abortion Rights Campaign, one of three partners in the official Yes campaign, is an unashamedly radical organisation with no paid staff and a flat structure. Local groups have a strong sense of campaign ownership built through years of distributed community organising and grassroots fundraising.
But a campaign with few paid staff still needs leaders. The referendum campaign facilitated opportunities for people to step in, learn and take on campaign roles. The challenge was in finding lightweight, scalable and impactful ways to connect and resource them.
A voter only needs one story in mind to vote Yes
In the end, the aim of the Yes campaign was to make space for brave people to talk about their abortion care experiences in a country that banned abortion. We also created a situation in which those stories would have power.
Together4Yes and campaigning NGOs like Uplift and Amnesty International targeted personal story video ads on social media. We gave particular weight to stories of “hard cases.” These included people who were pregnant as a result of incest or sexual assault and cases of fatal foetal abnormality. These stories were so powerful with undecided voters that the No campaign tried to do a double-take in the final week and argue for a compromise that would enable abortion in those cases.
In Her Shoes, a volunteer-run Facebook page, is a great example of how people created a way for others to share personal stories. The format was simple. People sent in their story with a picture of their shoes. Posted anonymously, these stories went viral again and again. It became possible for people to feel surrounded by anonymous women, wearing Vans, sandals, runners and heels, who’ve kept their struggle secret from those around them for years.
By far the most powerful story of the referendum campaign was that of the late Savita Halappanavar. Savita’s parents shared their daughter’s story in one of the most watched videos of the campaign. In it, they called on the people of Ireland to remember their daughter and vote Yes.
Halappanavar had a septic miscarriage and was denied a requested abortion in a hospital when it was determined that her life was not sufficiently threatened. She died shortly thereafter. Eight percent of Yes voters polled by Irish national broadcaster RTE said they voted yes because of Savita.
In the same poll, 43% of Yes voters said people’s personal stories in the media convinced them. 34% cited experiences of people they knew. Creating safe and respectful platforms with reach for these stories was crucial to the success of the Yes campaign, and gave people the tools they needed to talk to those around them.
A people-powered catharsis
As a woman living in Ireland, knowing that this fight was won by the people around me makes me feel that broken trust is now mending. Reflecting on the campaign, many have said that the country is changed forever: stories have come to light that will never be hidden again. In listening, and acting compassionately, we’ve gone through a catharsis.
As an organiser, this campaign taught me that it’s valuable to pick moments when people are passionate and ready to act. As important is providing tools for people to follow through on that passion by connecting with people around them: family, friends and social networks.
People power, properly organised and resourced, can beat a huge budget and Cambridge Analytica style dark ads. More on that later.
The online conversation training by Uplift can be replayed in Crowdcast.
Featured image: A mural outside the Bernard Shaw Pub in Portobello, Dublin depicting Savita Halappanavar by Zcbeaton via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)