Tag Archives: climate change

Credit: hschmider/pixabay

The Meerut mahayagya

Did some back-of-the-envelope calculations about the Meerut mahayagya, where a bunch of Hindu priests are burning 50 tonnes of mango wood and approx. 10 million tablespoons of ghee in a mega-ritual to “purify the air”, over nine days. Can’t make this stuff up.

So 50 tonnes of hardwood releases 8.25 x 1011 joules and 10 million tablespoons of ghee releases 4.6 x 1012 joules of heat.

The slow and fast pyrolysis of hard wood also releases carbon monoxide/dioxide, methane, aldehydes, ketenes, epoxides and other fatty acids and hydrocarbons.

The priests believe that “holy ghee” produces large quantities of oxygen when it burns. Not sure where this claim originated by we all know this isn’t possible: as a triglyceride, ghee can’t do that when it burns, let alone “10 grams producing one tonne”.

There’s another “yagya” of greater magnitude happening in Delhi, where priests are coming together for seven days for the ritual to enhance “national security”.

There’s been a bit of literature – scientific and journalistic – in the recent past about whether or not climate change may be driving, rather encouraging, human conflicts by endangering quantities of and access to shared resources (chiefly water).

Now, without getting into silly lines of thought like “which religion has the cleanest rituals” (unanswerable for numerous reasons), it might be wise for believers to acknowledge that whatever their religion is, their rituals need to become more conscious of climatic needs.

The wise men and women who instituted rituals eons ago may not have seen the end of the world creep upon us in the form of a warming Earth but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

As someone brought up in an orthodox Hindu household, and someone living in a country whose ruling party wants to transform the whole place into one orthodox Hindu household, I can safely say that the way we acknowledge the pride of place we accord to fire in our worldview needs an overhaul.

I’m sure various other rituals outside of Hinduism will need to be questioned as well.

Burning 50 tonnes of mango wood to “purify the air” is moronic. The wood was cut down and transported to Delhi from some other place. The carbon footprint of such deforestation and transportation takes the damage far beyond the 825 GJ mentioned above, and makes it more multifarious, too.

Public assertions of religious privilege and caste hegemony already sow dark seeds of conflict. But uprooting trees from one place is a form of violence perpetrated against that place; as the world warms further, the brutality of it will only be perceived more strongly.

To take the wood to another place to be burnt… that’s some very distended sense of entitlement.

Featured image credit: hschmider/pixabay.

My photo of the Lexus LS 500h as depicted in an ad in The Hindu, dated February 2, 2018.

Veblen cars and the risk of harbouring a useless concern for the climate

Lexus has an ad on the jacket of today’s The Hindu for its new premium hybrid electric vehicle, the LS 500h. The product description states that the car “extends relentless innovation to environmentally conscious engineering with a performance-centric Multi Stage Hybrid System. Crafted with luxury in mind and engineered with the environment at heart” (emphasis added).


This is first-class poop.

Obviously, as a Veblen good (priced at Rs 1.77 crore), the LS 500h is pandering to the self-indulgence of India’s upper class. The car allows the highfalutin to be able to claim that they’re riding around in a vehicle that’s environmentally friendly. It’s not. The LS 500h measures, in metres, 5.2 × 1.9 × 1.4 (l, b, h). That’s a lot for a carrying capacity of five persons. So the car’s design is quite effectively symptomatic of a belief that pro-environmental engineering is only about rethinking or retooling the car’s central source of power as opposed to redesigning it to take up less space on the roads as well.

As we all know, the public transport system in urban India is far from ideal. Buses are ill-maintained and don’t ply well-optimised routes. Auto-rickshaw fares are regulated but rarely, if ever, enforced. Trains always run at full capacity, are subject to frequent breakdowns and the associated infrastructure (e.g. stations) are unclean and, in many cases, unsafe. Overall, they are always in high demand and the commute experience they provide is often stressful. So those who can afford private transportation exercise the option (esp. in the form of two-wheelers). Ultimately, given that most parts of India’s tier I and II cities are unplanned formations, roads are often overcrowded, jammed and/or unnavigable (apart from being damaged themselves).

So improving this situation needs policymakers and citizens alike to assume an interdisciplinary approach, particularly since transport emissions also have to be mitigated to meet both climatic and health targets. In this multivariate context, one of the variables to be optimised for, among accessibility, affordability, etc., is space. Specifically, it becomes desirable for more people to occupy less space while commuting so that time spent traveling and fuel use efficiency are reduced and increased, resp.

For five people to occupy a ground area of 10 sq. metres in the LS 500h is bordering on the unconscionable in the specific context of Lexus claiming that the car was “engineered with the environment at heart”. Let’s be honest: this is a fancy car that’s like any other fancy car but with some fancy machines (in the form of two engines – electric and V6 – plus a Li-ion battery). It aspires to mitigate its own emissions but does nothing else that’s environmentally friendly; this is cutting-edge innovation as Lexus might like to claim but limited to the subset of thermodynamic consequences of using a car.

Whether this singular contribution will make a difference is also doubtful. For the upper class to be able to claim they’re being ‘green’ requires them to implement those claims at scale – particularly since possessing the car itself would require capital accumulation to the tune of a few tens of crores. Such wealth can be better redistributed to help those who can’t yet afford to live green but aspire to; in the long-term, sustainable living has the potential to be cheaper, but in the short-term, it is bound to be quite costly. Without redistribution, affirmative pro-climate action through the production and utilisation of Veblen goods will remain an oxymoron.

Featured image: My photo of the Lexus LS 500h as depicted in an ad in The Hindu, dated February 2, 2018.

A flood as an opportunity

There’s a piece by Eric Holthaus, on Politico, that’s been doing the rounds on Twitter since yesterday. I’ll grant you it’s a powerful piece of writing, such as is necessary to cast Hurricane Harvey in what many would call the right light: as the face of climate change. One paragraph in particular I thought was particularly effective because it quickly but just as effectively explained how Harvey was a storm that’s been many years in the making, and how the intensity of rains it has brought to bear on Houston has been unusual even after accounting for the fact that the city has been battered by three once-in-500-years floods in the last few years.

Harvey is in a class by itself. By the time the storm leaves the region on Wednesday, an estimated 40 to 60 inches of rain will fall on parts of Houston. So much rain has fallen already that the National Weather Service had to add additional colors to its maps to account for the extreme totals. Harvey is infusing new meaning into meteorologists’ favorite superlatives: There are simply no words to describe what has happened in the past few days. In just the first three days since landfall, Harvey has already doubled Houston’s previous record for the wettest month in city history, set during the previous benchmark flood, Tropical Storm Allison in June 2001. For most of the Houston area, in a stable climate, a rainstorm like Harvey is not expected to happen more than once in a millennium.

In fact, Harvey is likely already the worst rainstorm in U.S. history. An initial analysis by John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist, compared Harvey’s rainfall intensity to the worst storms in the most downpour-prone region of the United States, the Gulf Coast. Harvey ranks at the top of the list, with a total rainwater output equivalent to 3.6 times the flow of the Mississippi River. (And this is likely an underestimate, because there’s still two days of rains left.) That much water – 20 trillion gallons over five days – is about one-sixth the volume of Lake Erie. According to a preliminary and informal estimate by disaster economist Kevin Simmons of Austin College, Harvey’s economic toll “will likely exceed Katrina”—the most expensive disaster in U.S. history. Harvey is now the benchmark disaster of record in the United States.

The pronounced “climate change is real” tone to the entire piece is clearly aimed at the Donald Trump government, which has always denied the ‘A’ of AGW and has pushed dangerous policies that many predict will eventually uninstall the US from the forefront of climate change negotiations as well as action. Holthaus’s piece, in this context, succeeds in painting a scary picture of the future by highlighting how much of an exception Harvey appears to be and why its occurrence isn’t one of chance.

Nonetheless, the piece did still make me wonder if the world paid as much attention to the 2015 Tamil Nadu floods as it is paying to Harvey. Sure, Holthaus is writing against the backdrop of an American president who recently said the world’s largest polluter would not abide by the terms of the Paris Agreement, and against the backdrop of a city receiving about 50 inches of rain in less than a week. In contrast, Narendra Modi has been generally accepting of the fact that climate change is real and will require drastic action (although that hasn’t stopped his government from continuing the UPA’s work to weaken institutional environmental protection safeguards or the NITI Aayog from drafting an energy policy that will ensure India remains dependent on fossil fuels until 2040).

Second: unlike Houston, the parts of Tamil Nadu that were wrecked in November-December 2015 were relatively underdeveloped areas rife with illegal constructions and pavements that effectively resulted in those areas being, to use Holthaus’s term, “flood factories”. Thus, 20 inches of rain is likelier to be deadlier in the cities of Tamil Nadu than in Houston.

But this doesn’t make it harder to distinguish between the effects of AGW-driven storms in, say, Chennai and the effects of poor urban infrastructure. Our preparedness for the effects of climate change is both mitigating global avg. surface temperature rise and better planning public spaces and improving the distribution/accessibility of resources. So if Chennai, or any other place, isn’t prepared to handle 20 inches/day of rain, it’s going to get doubly screwed in a world whose surface is (at least) 2º C hotter on average about eight decades from now.

Anyway, the north Indian mainstream media (more widely consumed by far) was mostly apathetic to the plight of Tamil Nadu’s residents during the 2015 floods – just the way the Western media at large has been relatively more apathetic towards Oriental tragedies. I think this resulted in a big opportunity missed by national-level newsrooms to cast the floods as the face of both urban and rural India’s experience with climate change, perhaps even as the face of climate change itself, and use that to underscore the state’s abject underpreparedness – for which successive state governments would have been to blame – and the Narendra Modi government’s two-faced relationship with the demands of climate change. (E.g. accepting them gleefully in some ways – e.g. by the MNRE – but blatantly ignoring them in others – e.g. by the MoEFCC – and which I’d argue is more insidious than claiming outright that climate change is codswallop.)

Establishing trust across the aisle on issues of climate change

Featured image: An image from a shipborne NASA investigation to study how changing conditions in the Arctic affect the ocean’s chemistry and ecosystems. Credit: gsfc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

I met someone over the weekend who wasn’t sure:

  1. That there is scientific consensus on the magnitude of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), and
  2. What the level of human contribution is to rising temperatures (or, how much natural variations could/couldn’t account for)

I believe that AGW is valid and that, if we don’t do something about the way we’re using Earth’s natural resources, AGW will be extremely damaging to the environment as soon as a century from now (to be even more proper about it: that AGW will force nature to adapt in ways that will no longer preserve characteristics that we have been able to attribute to it for thousands of years). This said: I’m not here to describe how the conversation with my friend went but to highlight two specific sources of information that were in play last night and which I think are worth discussing because of their attempts at coming off as trustworthy.

An ivory tower from the inside

In May 2013, John Cook et al published a paper titled ‘Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature’. It was a literature review of 11,944 papers published in 1,980 journals, all papers dealing with climate change. Using a large team of volunteers, the authors then classified each paper into one of five groups depending on what its abstract said about the paper’s position on climate change. These were the results:


(Obviously the links within the image aren’t clickable, so if you’re looking for the data: the paper’s open access.) At the time of publication, the paper received a lot of play in the media – largely because of the numbers in the first row, columns two and four. According to it, 97.1% of all papers that have a position on AGW endorse AGW and 98.% of all authors that have a position on AGW endorse AGW. However, both the giant numbers don’t correspond to the 11,944 abstracts surveyed but the 3,893 (32.6%) that the authors qualified as having a position on AGW.

Clearly, the way to interpret John Cook et al would’ve been to say it like Der Spiegel did: ‘Von knapp 4000 Studien, die die Ursachen der Klimaerwärmung thematisierten, stützen 97 Prozent die Annahme vom menschgemachten Klimawandel’ (“Of nearly 4,000 studies dealing with the causes of climate warming, 97 percent support the assumption of human-driven climate change”). However, my friend – during the course of his arguments – often lingered on the 66.7% (7,966) of all papers that were uncertain about or refused to take a position on AGW. Specifically, he took the exclusion of these papers from the calculation that arrived at a number like “97.1%” to be misguided. After all, he reasoned, ~8,000 papers out of ~12,000 had seen it fit to not explicitly endorse AGW.

Dana Nuccitelli and John Cook, two of the paper’s authors, tried to explain these numbers thus on the Skeptical Science blog:

We found that about two-thirds of papers didn’t express a position on the subject in the abstract, which confirms that we were conservative in our initial abstract ratings. This result isn’t surprising for two reasons: 1) most journals have strict word limits for their abstracts, and 2) frankly, every scientist doing climate research knows humans are causing global warming. There’s no longer a need to state something so obvious. For example, would you expect every geological paper to note in its abstract that the Earth is a spherical body that orbits the sun?

I don’t buy it. The first sentence – “We found that about two-thirds of papers didn’t express a position on the subject in the abstract, which confirms that we were conservative in our initial abstract ratings” – is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than anything else. The first part of the second sentence requires even more analysis to verify, considering the 11,944 papers they parsed appeared in 1,980 journals, and the fraction of journals that set a word-limit for the abstract might just be non-trivial. The second part is, to me, the display of off-putting arrogance. Doesn’t saying “frankly, every scientist doing climate research knows humans are causing global warming” imply the authors are being dismissive of their own conclusions? And finally, that Earth orbits the Sun is far more obvious than a thesis the defence of which rests on the presumption that the thesis is right – a circularity that renders all facts moot.

While none of this makes me question the validity of AGW, which I still endorse for various reasons, Nuccitelli-Cook’s pseudo-defence doesn’t help me trust them in particular. In fact, their position makes me more suspicious of why they arrived at a number like 32.6% when they were assuming at the outset that it would really be 100%.

An attempt to escape the tower

As it happens, Nuccitelli-Cook don’t appear to be in the minority. To assume that all climate researchers know AGW is valid is also to presume that those who dispute its existence or extent are not really climate researchers (if they’re in the same field) – and this appears to be the case with Judith Curry’s detractors. Until a week ago, Curry was the chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta (she quit on January 1). She shot into the limelight in 2005 after coauthoring a paper that linked a rising incidence of hurricanes with AGW. However, it wasn’t the conclusion of the paper itself but what it led to that put Curry on the climatological map: she began to engage actively with climate skeptics on blogs and other fora in an effort to defend the methods of her paper. And this, for some reason, infuriated her colleagues. A profile of Curry in Nature in 2010 said:

Climate skeptics have seized on Curry’s statements to cast doubt on the basic science of climate change. So it is important to emphasize that nothing she encountered led her to question the science; she still has no doubt that the planet is warming, that human-generated greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, are in large part to blame, or that the plausible worst-case scenario could be catastrophic. She does not believe that the Climategate e-mails are evidence of fraud or that the IPCC is some kind of grand international conspiracy. What she does believe is that the mainstream climate science community has moved beyond the ivory tower into a type of fortress mentality, in which insiders can do no wrong and outsiders are forbidden entry.

But Curry’s position has diverged further since: On April 15, 2015, Curry testified before the US House of Representatives Committee on Space, Science and Technology that she didn’t think scientists knew how much humans influenced the climate, especially since the 1950s. This was discomfiting to discover because now I’m suspecting what qualms Curry had with climate science itself instead of only with the attitudes subsection of it. Ken Rice, a computational astrophysicist at the University of Edinburgh, commented at the time:

Again with all the we don’t knows. Yes, we might not know but we have a pretty good idea of what caused the Little Ice Age (reduced solar insolation and increased volcanic activity) and it was obviously not attributed to humans. Why is that even worth mentioning? Again, we might not know what will happen in the 21st century, but we have a fairly good idea of what will happen if we continue to increase our emissions.

So, if we’re going to move forward by acknowledging that what we’ve been trying so far has failed and that others should have a stronger voice, why would we do so if some of those others don’t appear to know anything? Given this, I’ll expand a little on my thoughts with regards to [Steven] Mosher’s point that with regards to policy, science doesn’t much matter. Yes, in some sense I agree with this; let’s stop arguing about science and just get on with deciding on the optimal policies. However, science does inform policy and I fail to see how we can develop sensible policy if we start with the view that we don’t know anything.

In the same vein: what reason is there to get out of the ivory tower at all if, from within, climate scientists have been able to accomplish so much? The simplest answer would be that Donald Trump is set become the 45th president of the US about eleven days from now, and the millions who voted him to power don’t care that he’s a climate skeptic. Even if outgoing president Barack Obama believes that the American adoption of clean energy is irreversible, what Trump could do is destabilise American leadership of international climate negotiations. AGW-endorsers sitting within their comfort zones of Numbers Don’t Lie could find this a particularly difficult battle to win because the IPCC and its brand of questionable integrity is doing no one any favours either. Even if the body’s on the “right” side of things, its attitude has been damaging to say the least (sort of like GMO and Monsanto).

Keith Kloor, former editor of Audubon, recently wrote on Issues of Science and Technology,

Donald Trump’s improbable march to the White House shocked many, but the tactics that made it possible undoubtedly looked familiar to those of us who have navigated the topsy-turvy landscape of contested science. For Trump’s success was predicated on techniques that are used by advocates across the ideological spectrum to dispute or at least muddy established truths in science. … With the ascension of Trump in 2016, have we graduated from truthiness to what some political observers are now calling the post-truth era? Post-truth is defined by Oxford Dictionary as a state in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion.” But this doesn’t do justice to the bending of reality by Trump en route to the White House. You can’t do that simply with appeals to emotion; you need, as his triumph suggests, a made-for-media narrative, with villains, accomplices, and heroes. You need to do what has already been proven to work in warping public perceptions and discussion of certain fields of science.

Those who believe Curry shouldn’t engage with skeptics because her decision could be interpreted as a prominent academic exiting the pro-AGW camp is difficult to buy into – even if Curry did switch camps. It’s hard to arbitrate because there are two variables: the uncertainties inherent in climate modelling (even if the bigger picture still endorses AGW) and how that proselytised someone of the calibre of Judith Curry. Surely the (former) head of a reputed department at Georgia Tech is not the same as any other skeptic?

I thought it was common sense to engage with people from across the aisle instead of letting them persist with information they think is credible but which you think is incredible – to the point that, over time, you become habituated to disregard them irrespective of the legitimacy of their demands. Moreover, giving room for people to disagree with you, to engage with them by making your methods and data available, and working with them to conduct replication studies that test the robustness of your own methods are all features of research and publishing that are being increasingly adopted to everyone’s benefit, most of all science’s.

It’s not hard from here-now to see that moving the other way – by making people anxious even to ask honest questions, by robbing them of the opportunity to respectfully disagree – isn’t going to do much good. Being nice also helps maintain a non-fragmented community that doesn’t further legitimise the impression that “science doesn’t matter when it comes to policy”.

What's common to #yesallwomen, scripta manent, good journalism and poka-yoke?

Featured image credit: renaissancechambara/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

I’m a big fan of poka-yoke (“po-kuh yo-kay”), a Japanese quality control technique founded on a simple principle: if you don’t want mistakes to happen, don’t allow opportunities for them to happen. It’s evidently dictatorial and not fit for use with most human things, but it is quite useful when performing simple tasks, for setting up routines and, of course, when writing (i.e. “If you don’t want the reader to misinterpret a sentence, don’t give her an opportunity to misinterpret it”). However, I do wish something poka-yoke-ish was done with the concept of good journalism.

The industry of journalism is hinged on handling information and knowledge responsibly. While Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution protects every Indian citizen’s right to free speech (even if multiple amendments since 1951 have affected its conditionality), good journalists can’t – at least ought not to – get away with making dubious or easily falsifiable claims. Journalism, in one sense, is free speech plus a solid dose of poka-yoke that doesn’t allow its practitioners to be stupid or endorse stupidity, at least of the obvious kind. It must not indulge in the dissemination of doltishness irrespective of Article 19(1)(a)’s safeguarding of the expression of it. While John/Jane Doe can say silly things, a journalist must at least qualify them as such while discussing them.

Not doing that would be to fall prey to false balance: to assume that, in the pursuit of objectivity, one is presenting the Other Side of a debate that has, in fact, become outmoded. With that established: On January 5, The Quint published an opinion piece titled ‘Bengaluru Shame: You Can Choose to Be Safe, So Don’t Blame the Mob’. It was with reference to rampant molestation on the streets of Bengaluru of women on the night of December 31 despite the presence of the police. Its author first writes,

Being out on the streets exposes one to anti-social elements, like a mob. A mob is the most insensitive group of people imaginable and breeds unruly behaviour. As responsibilities are distributed within the group, accountability vanishes and inhibitions are shed.

… and then,

When you step out onto the street, you are fraught with an incumbent risk. You may meet with an accident. That’s why there are footpaths and zebra crossings. You may slip on the road if it is wet! Will you then blame the road because it is wet? This is the point I’m making: Precautions and rights are different things. I have a right to be on the roads. And I can also take the precaution to walk sensibly and not run in front of the oncoming traffic.

Because traffic and the mob are the same, yes? The author’s point is that the women who were molested should have known that there was going to be an unruly mob on the streets at some point and that the women – and not the mob or the police – should have taken precautions to, you know, avoid a molestation. The article brings to mind the uncomfortable Rowan Atkinson skit ‘Fatal Beatings’, where the voice of authority is so self-righteous that the humour is almost slapstick.

The article’s publication promptly revived the silly #notallmen trend on Twitter, admirably and effectively panned by many (of the people I follow, at least; if you aren’t yet on the #yesallwomen side, this by Annie Zaidi might change your mind). But my bigger problem was with a caveat that appeared atop the article on The Quint some time later. Here it is:

It has been brought to our attention by readers that the following “endorses” opinions that The Quint should not be carrying. While we understand your sentiments, and wish to reiterate that our own editorial stand is at complete variance with the views in this blog, … we also believe that we have a duty of care towards a full body of readers, some among whom may have very different points of view than ours. Since The Quint is an open, liberal platform, which believes in healthy debate among a rainbow of opinions (which saves us from becoming an echo chamber that is the exact opposite of an open, liberal platform), we do allow individual bloggers to publish their pieces. We would be happy to publish your criticism or opposition to any piece that is published on The Quint. Come and create a lively, intelligent, even confrontational, conversation with us. Even if we do not agree with a contributor’s view, we cannot not defend her right to express it.

(Emphasis added.) Does The Quint want us to celebrate its publishing opinions contrary to its own, or to highlight the possibility that The Quint isn’t really paying attention to the opinions it holds, or to notice that it is irresponsibly publishing opinions that don’t deserve an audience of thousands? It’s baffling.

Look at the language: “Lively” is fine, as is “confrontational” – but the editors may have tripped up in their parsing of the meaning of ‘intelligent’. They are indeed right to invite an intelligent conversation but the intent should have been accompanied by an ability to distinguish between intelligence and whatever else; without this, it’s simply a case of a misleading advertisement. Moreover, I’m also irked by their persistence with the misguided caveat, which, upon rereading, reinforces a wrong message. I’m reminded here of the German existentialist Franz Rosenzweig’s thoughts on the persistence of the written word, excerpted from a biography titled Franz Rosenzweig and Jehuda Halevi: Translating, Translations, and Translators:

Permanence depends more upon whether a word reaches reception or not, and less upon whether it is spoken or written. But the written word, because captured in a visible physicality, does offer a type of permanence that is denied to the spoken word. The written word can be read by those outside the “intimacy” of two speakers, such as letter writers; or of the “one-way intimacy” that arises between one speaker, such as the bookwriter and many readers. The permanence inherent in the written word is framed within boldness and daring on the part of the speaker: translated or not, there is a thereness to the written word, and this thereness is conducive to replay for the hearer through rereading.

TL;DR: Verba volant, scripta manent.

The Quint article was ‘engaged with’ at least 10,300-times at the time this post was written. Every time it was read, there will have been a (darkly) healthy chance of convincing a reader to abdicate from the decidedly anti-patriarchic #yesallwomen camp and move to the dispassionate and insensitive #notallmen camp. A professing of intelligence without continuous practice will every now and then legitimise immature thinking; a good example of one such trip-up is false balance. This post itself was pretty easy to write because it used to happen oh-so-regularly with climate change (and less regularly now): in both cases today, there is an Other Side – but it is not in denying climate change or refuting #yesallwomen but, for example, debating what the best measure could be to mitigate their adverse consequences.

The metaphorical transparency of responsible media

Featured image credit: dryfish/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

I’d written a two-part essay (although they were both quite short; reproduced in full below) on The Wire about what science was like in 2016 and what we can look forward to in 2017. The first part was about how science journalism in India is a battle for relevance, both within journalistic circles and among audiences. The second was about how science journalism needs to be treated like other forms of journalism in 2017, and understood to be afflicted with the same ills that, say, political and business journalism are.

Other pieces on The Wire that had the same mandate, of looking back and looking forward, stuck to being roundups and retrospective analyses. My pieces were retrospective, too, but they – to use the parlance of calculus – addressed the second derivative of science journalism, in effect performing a meta-analysis of the producers and consumers of science writing. This blog post is a quick discussion (or rant) of why I chose to go the “science media” way.

We in India often complain about how the media doesn’t care enough to cover science stories. But when we’re looking back and forward in time, we become blind to the media’s efforts. And looking back is more apparently problematic than is looking forward.

Looking back is problematic because our roundup of the ‘best’ science (the ‘best’ being whatever adjective you want it to be) from the previous year is actually a roundup of the ‘best’ science we were able to discover or access from the previous year. Many of us may have walled ourselves off into digital echo-chambers, sitting within not-so-fragile filter bubbles and ensuring news we don’t want to read about doesn’t reach us at all. Even so, the stories that do reach us don’t make up the sum of all that is available to consume because of two reasons:

  1. We practically can’t consume everything, period.
  2. Unless you’re a journalist or someone who is at the zeroth step of the information dissemination pyramid, your submission to a source of information is simply your submission to another set of filters apart from your own. Without these filters, finding something you are looking for on the web would be a huge problem.

So becoming blind to media efforts at the time of the roundup is to let journalists (who sit higher up on the dissemination pyramid) who should’ve paid more attention to scientific developments off the hook. For example, assuming things were gloomy in 2016 is assuming one thing given another thing (like a partial differential): “while the mood of science news could’ve been anything between good and bad, it was bad” GIVEN “journalists mostly focused on the bad news over the good news”. This is only a simplistic example: more often than not, the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ can be replaced by ‘significant’ and ‘insignificant’. Significance is also a function of media attention. At the time of probing our sentiments on a specific topic, we should probe the information we have as well as how we acquired that information.

Looking forward without paying attention to how the media will likely deal with science is less apparently problematic because of the establishment of the ideal. For example, to look forward is also to hope: I can say an event X will be significant irrespective of whether the media chooses to cover it (i.e., “it should ideally be covered”); when the media doesn’t cover the event, then I can recall X as well as pull up journalists who turned a blind eye. In this sense, ignoring the media is to not hold its hand at the beginning of the period being monitored – and it’s okay. But this is also what I find problematic. Why not help journalists look out for an event when you know it’s going to happen instead of relying on their ‘news sense’, as well as expecting them to have the time and attention to spend at just the right time?

Effectively: pull us up in hindsight – but only if you helped us out in foresight. (The ‘us’ in this case is, of course, #notalljournalists. Be careful with whom you choose to help or you could be wasting your time.)

Part I: Why Independent Media is Essential to Good Science Journalism

What was 2016 like in science? Furious googling will give you the details you need to come to the clinical conclusion that it wasn’t so bad. After all, LIGO found gravitational waves; an Ebola vaccine was readied; ISRO began tests of its reusable launch vehicle; the LHC amassed particle collisions data; the Philae comet-hopping mission ended; New Horizons zipped past Pluto; Juno is zipping around Jupiter; scientists did amazing (but sometimes ethically questionable) things with CRISPR; etc. But if you’ve been reading science articles throughout the year, then please take a step back from everything and think about what your overall mood is like.

Because, just as easily as 2016 was about mega-science projects doing amazing things, it was also about climate-change action taking a step forward but not enough; about scientific communities becoming fragmented; about mainstream scientific wisdom becoming entirely sidelined in some parts of the world; about crucial environmental protections being eroded; about – undeniably – questionable practices receiving protection under the emotional cover of nationalism. As a result, and as always, it is difficult to capture what this year was to science in a single mood, unless that mood in turn captures anger, dismay, elation and bewilderment at various times.

So, to simplify our exercise, let’s do that furious googling – and then perform a meta-analysis to reflect on where each of us sees fit to stand with respect to what the Indian scientific enterprise has been up to this year. (Note: I’m hoping this exercise can also be a referendum on the type of science news The Wire chose to cover this year, and how that can be improved in 2017.) The three broad categories (and sub-categories) of stories that The Wire covered this year are:

Different kinds of ISRO rockets – sometimes with student-built sats onboard – took off Big cats in general, and leopards specifically, had a bad year Indian scientists continued to plagiarise and engage in other forms of research misconduct without consequence
ISRO decided to partially privatise PSLV missions by 2020 The JE/AES scourge struck again, their effects exacerbated by malnutrition The INO got effectively shut down
LIGO-India collaboration received govt. clearance; Indian scientists of the LIGO collaboration received a vote of confidence from the international community PM endorsed BGR-34, an anti-diabetic drug of dubious credentials Antibiotic resistance worsened in India (and other middle-income nations)
We supported ‘The Life of Science’ Govt. conceived misguided culling rules India succumbed to US pressure on curtailing generic drugs
Many new species of birds/animals discovered in India Ken-Betwa river linkup approved at the expense of a tiger sanctuary Important urban and rural waterways were disrupted, often to the detriment of millions
New telescopes were set up, further boosting Indian astronomy; ASTROSAT opened up for international scientists Many conservation efforts were hampered – while some were mooted that sounded like ministers hadn’t thought them through Ministers made dozens of pseudoscientific claims, often derailing important research
Otters returned to their habitats in Kerala and Goa A politician beat a horse to its death Fake-science-news was widely reported in the Indian media
Janaki Lenin continued her ‘Amazing Animals’ series Environmental regulations turned and/or stayed anti-environment Socio-environmental changes resulting from climate change affect many livelihoods around the country
We produced monthly columns on modern microbiology and the history of science We didn’t properly respond to human-wildlife conflicts Low investments in public healthcare, and focus on privatisation, short-changed Indian patients
Indian physicists discovered a new form of superconductivity in bismuth GM tech continues to polarise scientists, social scientists and activists Space, defence-research and nuclear power establishments continued to remain opaque
/ Conversations stuttered on eastern traditions of science /

I leave it to you to weigh each of these types of stories as you see fit. For me – as a journalist – science in the year 2016 was defined by two parallel narratives: first, science coverage in the mainstream media did not improve; second, the mainstream media in many instances remained obediently uncritical of the government’s many dubious claims. As a result, it was heartening on the first count to see ‘alternative’ publications like The Life of Science and The Intersection being set up or sustained (as the case may be).

On the latter count: the media’s submission paralleled, rather directly followed, its capitulation to pro-government interests (although some publications still held out). This is problematic for various reasons, but one that is often overlooked is that the “counterproductive continuity” that right-wing groups stress upon – between traditional wisdom and knowledge derived through modern modes of investigation – receives nothing short of a passive endorsement by uncritical media broadcasts.

From within The Wire, doing a good job of covering science has become a battle for relevance as a result. And this is a many-faceted problem: it’s as big a deal for a science journalist to come upon and then report a significant story as finding the story itself in the first place – and it’s as difficult to get every scientist you meet to trust you as it is to convince every reader who visits The Wire to read an article or two in the science section per visit. Fortunately (though let it not be said that this is simply a case of material fortunes), the ‘Science’ section on The Wire has enjoyed both emotional and financial support. To show for it, we have had the privilege of overseeing the publication of 830 articles, and counting, in 2016 (across science, health, environment, energy, space and tech). And I hope those who have written for this section will continue to write for it, even as those who have been reading this section will continue to read it.

Because it is a battle for relevance – a fight to be noticed and to be read, even when stories have nothing to do with national interests or immediate economic gains – the ideal of ‘speaking truth to power’ that other like-minded sections of the media cherish is preceded for science journalism in India by the ideals of ‘speaking’ first and then ‘speaking truth’ second. This is why an empowered media is as essential to the revival of that constitutionally enshrined scientific temperament as are productive scientists and scientific institutions.

The Wire‘s journalists have spent thousands of hours this year striving to be factually correct. The science writers and editors have also been especially conscientious of receiving feedback at all stages, engaging in conversations with our readers and taking prompt corrective action when necessary – even if that means a retraction. This will continue to be the case in 2017 as well in recognition of the fact that the elevation of Indian science on the global stage, long hailed to be overdue, will directly follow from empowering our readers to ask the right questions and be reasonably critical of all claims at all times, no matter who the maker.

Part II: If You’re Asking ‘What To Expect in Science in 2017’, You Have Missed the Point

While a science reporter at The Hindu, this author conducted an informal poll asking the newspaper’s readers to speak up about what their impressions were of science writing in India. The answers, received via email, Twitter and comments on the site, generally swung between saying there was no point and saying there was a need to fight an uphill battle to ‘bring science to everyone’. After the poll, however, it still wasn’t clear who this ‘everyone’ was, notwithstanding a consensus that it meant everyone who chanced upon a write-up. It still isn’t clear.

Moreover, much has been written about the importance of science, the value of engaging with it in any form without expectation of immediate value and even the usefulness of looking at it ‘from the outside in’ when the opportunity arises. With these theses in mind (which I don’t want to rehash; they’re available in countless articles on The Wire), the question of “What to expect in science in 2017?” immediately evolves into a two-part discussion. Why? Because not all science that happens is covered; not all science that is covered is consumed; and not all science that is consumed is remembered.

The two parts are delineated below.

What science will be covered in 2017?

Answering this question is an exercise in reinterpreting the meaning of ‘newsworthiness’ subject to the forces that will assail journalism in 2017. An immensely simplified way is to address the following factors: the audience, the business, the visible and the hidden.

The first two are closely linked. As print publications are shrinking and digital publications growing, a consideration of distribution channels online can’t ignore the social media – specifically, Twitter and Facebook – as well as Google News. This means that an increasing number of younger readers are available to target, which in turn means covering science in a way that interests this demographic. Qualities like coolness and virality will make an item immediately sellable to marketers whereas news items rich with nuance and depth will take more work.

Another way to address the question is in terms of what kind of science will be apparently visible, and available for journalists to easily chance upon, follow up and write about. The subjects of such writing typically are studies conducted and publicised by large labs or universities, involving scientists working in the global north, and often on topics that lend themselves immediately to bragging rights, short-lived discussions, etc. In being aware of ‘the visible’, we must be sure to remember ‘the invisible’. This can be defined as broadly as in terms of the scientists (say, from Latin America, the Middle East or Southeast Asia) or the studies (e.g., by asking how the results were arrived at, who funded the studies and so forth).

On the other hand, ‘the hidden’ is what will – or ought to – occupy those journalists interested in digging up what Big X (Pharma, Media, Science, etc.) doesn’t want publicised. What exactly is hidden changes continuously but is often centred on the abuse of privilege, the disregard of those we are responsible for and, of course, the money trail. The issues that will ultimately come to define 2017 will all have had dark undersides defined by these aspects and which we must strive to uncover.

For example: with the election of Donald Trump, and his bad-for-science clique of bureaucrats, there is a confused but dawning recognition among liberals of the demands of the American midwest. So to continue to write about climate change targeting an audience composed of left-wingers or east coast or west coast residents won’t work in 2017. We must figure out how to reach across the aisle and disabuse climate deniers of their beliefs using language they understand and using persuasions that motivate them to speak to their leaders about shaping climate policy.

What will be considered good science journalism in 2017?

Scientists are not magical creatures from another world – they’re humans, too. So is their collective enterprise riddled with human decisions and human mistakes. Similarly, despite all the travails unique to itself, science journalism is fundamentally similar to other topical forms of journalism. As a result, the broader social, political and media trends sweeping around the globe will inform novel – or at least evolving – interpretations of what will be good or bad in 2017. But instead of speculating, let’s discuss the new processes through which good and bad can be arrived at.

In this context, it might be useful to draw from a blog post by Jay Rosen, a noted media critic and professor of journalism at New York University. Though the post focuses on what political journalists could do to adapt to the Age of Trump, its implied lessons are applicable in many contexts. More specifically, the core effort is about avoiding those primary sources of information (out of which a story sprouts) the persistence with which has landed us in this mess. A wildly remixed excerpt:

Send interns to the daily briefing when it becomes a newsless mess. Move the experienced people to the rim. Seek and accept offers to speak on the radio in areas of Trump’s greatest support. Make common cause with scholars who have been there. Especially experts in authoritarianism and countries when democratic conditions have been undermined, so you know what to watch for— and report on. (Creeping authoritarianism is a beat: who do you have on it?). Keep an eye on the internationalization of these trends, and find spots to collaborate with journalists across borders. Find coverage patterns that cross [the aisle].

And then this:

[Washington Post reporter David] Fahrenthold explains what he’s doing as he does it. He lets the ultimate readers of his work see how painstakingly it is put together. He lets those who might have knowledge help him. People who follow along can see how much goes into one of his stories, which means they are more likely to trust it. … He’s also human, humble, approachable, and very, very determined. He never goes beyond the facts, but he calls bullshit when he has the facts. So impressive are the results that people tell me all the time that Fahrenthold by himself got them to subscribe.

Transparency is going to matter more than ever in 2017 because of how the people’s trust in the media was eroded in 2016. And there’s no reason science journalism should be an exception to these trends – especially given how science and ideology quickly locked horns in India following the disastrous Science Congress in 2015. More than any other event since the election of the Bharatiya Janata Party to the centre, and much like Trump’s victory caught everyone by surprise, the 2015 congress really spotlighted the extent of rational blight that had seeped into the minds of some of India’s most powerful ideologues. In the two years since, the reluctance of scientists to step forward and call bullshit out has also started to become more apparent, as a result exposing the different kinds of undercurrents that drastic shifts in policies have led to.

So whatever shape good science journalism is going to assume in 2017, it will surely benefit by being more honest and approachable in its construction. As will the science journalist who is willing to engage with her audience about the provenance of information and opinions capable of changing minds. As Jeff Leek, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, quoted (statistician Philip Stark) on his blog: “If I say just trust me and I’m wrong, I’m untrustworthy. If I say here’s my work and it’s wrong, I’m honest, human, and serving scientific progress.”

Here’s to a great 2017! 🙌🏾

We did start the fire

This is one of the dumbest things I’ve seen done in a while:

The Asian News International network tweeted that a group of Indian priests had performed a long yagya in Tokyo for the express purpose of purifying the environment. A yagya (or a yagna, although I’m not sure if they’re the same) typically involves keeping a pyre of wooden logs lubricated with ghee burning for a long time. So a plea to the gods to clear the airs was encoded in many kilograms of carbon dioxide? Clearly these god-fearing gentlemen insist that they will accept only the gods’ solutions to their problems – not anyone else’s, no matter how motivated. I dearly hope that, if nothing else, the event will create an ironic awareness of what’s at stake.

At least the other shit-peddlers back home have had the sense to not force the cow piss down our throats (ignoring the massive public healthcare and R&D funding cuts, of course). If my ire seems disproportionate to the amount of pollutants these yagnas will have released, it’s because I fear someone else will get ideas now, especially those aspiring to get into the record books. (How often have you heard the anchor on Sun TV news croon at the tail-end of the segment at 7 pm everyday, “XYZ கின்னெஸ் சாதனை படைத்தார்” – “XYZ set a Guinness world record”?)

Featured image credit: kabetojamaicafotografia/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Conflicts in the Middle East are bringing down NOx emissions

Two years ago, a study in Science put a detailed analysis behind an idea that had already taken root on a lot of people’s minds: that the unfavourable weather conditions climate change was creating around the world could be related to the world’s growing tendency toward conflicts. The study’s authors weren’t saying that bad weather caused the Second World War but only that it would be legitimate to consider if the changing climate had an adverse impact on human neurophysiology. But setting aside the specifics, the study’s bigger accomplishment was in encouraging a more holistic view of climate change’s impact on humankind.

Now, another study, based on satellite observations and economic data from the World Bank, sets out a karmic inverse of that idea: that conflicts in the Middle East have led to cleaner air over the region.

The satellite data comes from Aura, which NASA launched in 2004 to make qualitative observations of Earth’s atmosphere. One instrument in the apparatus is the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) that measures variations in the ozone layer, and makes precision measurements of gases detrimental to the atmosphere across a 2,600-km field of view, which lets it log global data almost on a daily basis. And since around 2008, it has found that nitrogen dioxide emissions – released by burning fossil fuels – have been dropping over some cities in the Middle East and over Athens, Greece.

Specifically, OMI found that the density of nitrogen dioxide gas over Cairo, Athens, Tehran and Esfahan (Iran), Baghdad, Tikrit and Samarra (Iraq), the Palestinian territories, Beirut and Tripoli (Lebanon), and Damascus and Aleppo (Syria) bespeak a strong correlation with the shifting political climates in the region. The study describing the findings, published in Science Advances on August 21, 2015, is able to exclude natural variations because the trends were uniformly increasing until 2008-2010 – like in almost all places around world – before deviating significantly.

Since the Arab Spring in 2011 saw a popular uprising starting with Cairo and spreading out into the rest of the Middle East, the GDPs of all the involved economies shrank. Now, the OMI data presents the climatic impact of humanitarian crises and armed conflict – one that long-term projections of the impact of climate change haven’t factored in.

For example, the most significant changes are visible over Greece, Egypt, Iraq, Iran and Syria, as well as over Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. However, the latter two are discounted from the authors’ analysis for two reasons: the reversal in nitrogen dioxide emission trends over the two countries started before the region started to become turbulent, and began after 2006 and 2008 when the emirates and the kingdom enacted laws to reduce their carbon footprints.

In Egypt, on the other hand, the GDP rose by about 6% per year in 2005-2010 and then fell to 2% per year in 2011-2014. But OMI couldn’t spot any parallel decline in carbon dioxide, so the decline in nitrogen dioxide is being attributed to the reduction of vehicular emissions thanks to petrol becoming more expensive. In Greece, the economic recession caused nitrogen dioxide emissions to fall by 40% in the six years since 2008. In Iran, Tehran’s and Esfahan’s nitrogen dioxide emissions increased at 10% per year in 2005-2010 – as if the 2006 sanctions didn’t happen – but turned down to -4% per year since 2010, when the GDP also saw a sharp downturn by 2 percentage points before turning negative in 2012.

A and B) Tropospheric NO2 column density changes in 10^15 molecules/cm2 (A) between 2005 and 2010 and (B) between 2010 and 2014. Source: dx.doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1500498

A and B) Tropospheric NO2 column density changes in 10^15 molecules/cm2 (A) between 2005 and 2010 and (B) between 2010 and 2014. Source: dx.doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1500498

In Iraq, similar correlations between declining GDP and falling nitrogen dioxide emissions are observed over Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk, as well as additional declines over the cities of Tikrit and Samarra thanks to incursions by the Islamic State.

As the authors of the Science Advances article write, “such relatively short-term changes cannot be captured by air pollution emission inventories and future projections, including the Representative Concentration Pathways”. The RCPs are a set of projections used by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change based on how much greenhouse gases are enforcing anthropogenic climate change. One of them, RCP4.5, assumes that NOx emissions in the Middle East will be constant from 2005 to 2030, and another, RCP8.5, that they’ll increase at the rate of 2% per year. OMI’s findings suggest these assumptions might be failing reality.

It also reveals how a better estimate of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as country-wise challenges, emerges when ground realities are combined with satellite-logged data. Consider the example of Lebanon, whose carbon dioxide emissions fell by 20% over 2011 and 2012, but whose nitrogen dioxide emissions spiked by 20-30% in 2014. When they probed further, the scientists realised it had to do with the influx of refugees from the Syrian civil war – 1.2 million of them, of which 350,000 fled to Beirut alone.

Featured image credit: magharebia/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

The devil in Obama’s new emissions target for the US lies in base year details

President Barack Obama announced a new climate change target for the United States’ electricity generation sector on August 3. Hailed by many as ambitious, the plan dictates that power plants in the world’s largest economy and second largest polluter reduce their emissions below 32% of their 2005 levels by 2030. The US had already committed to a 25% reduction from 2005 levels by 2025 in a deal with China made in October 2014. The new commitment now requires more than a doubling of the pace of emission cuts.

Such declarations allow economies like the US to assume leadership of the international climate negotiations at a time when declarations from other countries have been tardy. At the same time, the US has also given itself some leeway despite the symbolic headstart, the advantages of which lie in the historic details. Consider this chart, compiled by the World Resources Institute:

Among the five greenhouse gases that countries prioritise cutting down on, two contain carbon: methane and carbon dioxide. The chart above shows the methane emissions of the USA and the five BRICS nations from 1990 to 2011. The US’s methane emissions were at their minimum in 2005 – so any future commitment on methane emissions premised on 2005 levels are likely to represent daunting challenges. The dip happened because at that time the US was maximising its extraction and processing of shale gas, activities that emit little methane. But on the question of carbon dioxide emissions, consider the chart below:

The US’s carbon dioxide emissions peaked in 2005, at 5,828.63 million metric tons. This convenient choice of a base year allows the US a leeway that’s 18.64% higher than its 1990 emissions – 1990 being the year that the Kyoto Protocol uses as a base. The absence of any rules on what can or can’t constitute base years is leveraged by many countries. In Europe, for example, the base year is 1990 because that’s when emissions peaked followed by a steady decline in industrial activity as well as a growing adoption of renewable energy options.

However, the absence of options in choosing a base year – as under the Kyoto Protocol – is problematic for developing nations. Their domestic demands for energy translate to increasing emissions, so the choice of 1990 as a base year restricts such economies to feeble, economically infeasible increments in energy production. This is one reason why India and China feature among the protocol’s second-phase’s non-ratifiers, being opposed to agreements that legally bind them to their targets.

As it happens, the US is also a non-ratifier for the same reason. Based on the WRI data, its rate of emission cuts between 2005 and 2011 was 70.8 million metric tons of CO2 per year. Assuming a simplistic linear rate of cuts until 2030, its power plants will have to knock off 83.53 million metric tons of CO2 emissions per year starting 2015 to meet its target of having 32% less carbon emissions than it did in 2005. But had it gone with 1990 as the base year, it would’ve had to knock off 122.46 million metric tons of CO2 year on year – an averaged annual leeway of 46.6%.

The Wire
August 5, 2015

Twitter isn't impressed with what we're doing about climate change

The Wire
May 26, 2015

English is a happy language. At least the 10,000 most used English words are positively biased, according to a 2012 study conducted by mathematicians from the University of Vermont. To reach their conclusion, they used a tool they’d built called the hedonometer – an evaluator of happiness in natural (English) language.

The hedonometer works by assessing how happy or unhappy a particular corpus of text is based on the words used in the corpus. The happiness score of each word is set before the assessment begins: in the case of the English language, 50 participants drawn from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk marketplace rated each word on a scale of 1 (least happy) to 9 (most happy). Then, the hedonometer tracked how much they were used and in the presence of which other words.

Since its building in 2011, the tool has also been used to identify individual happiness expressed in literary corpora as well as which the happiest cities are.

Now, a part of the Vermont group, together with a researcher from the University of Adelaide, has put the hedonometer together with one other – and far more brazen – gauge of human opinions and sentiments, to understand how the Twitterverse might feel about climate change. Specifically, they collated 1.5 million tweets that mentioned “climate” between September 14, 2008, and July 14, 2014, and adjudged their collective happiness against the happiness of some 100 billion general tweets from the same period.

Although the mathematicians found that not all tweets that mentioned “climate” at least once were about climate change (being about the social climate, for example), they also calculated that their exclusion didn’t change the happiness index of the overall set. However that was in hindsight.

Their results, submitted to the arXiv pre-print server on May 14, 2015, are accompanied by three telling charts.

1. Sadder than happier


The average happiness index of the 100 billion tweets logged in the six years was 5.99, its daily variation indicated by a red dotted line in the chart. And the average happiness index of tweets about the climate was almost always below this line (ending up with an average of 5.84).

Though there were occasional outliers – in the form of spikes – there were also more negative outliers than positive ones. So, people on Twitter aren’t happy about the climate.

The mathematicians note that “the week of October 28, 2012 appears as one of the saddest weeks of climate discussion on Twitter” as this was the week “when Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the east coast of the US”.

2. “Science” v. “denial”


Relative to the set of 100 billion unfiltered tweets, which words made tweets mentioning “climate” happier or sadder? The mathematicians built a so-called word-shift graph, which ranks words by their influence over tweets’ sentiments.

The words on the left contributed to sadness and those on the right, to happiness. Moreover, yellow bars indicate happy words, purple bars indicate sad words, and the up/down arrows indicate if they were used more or less frequently.

So, it’s reassuring to see the increased use of “science” contributed to making climate-related tweets happier. At the same time, the words whose increased use made tweets sadder were “threat”, “pollution”, “denial” and, toward the bottom, “poverty”.

The nature of denial of climate change has focused not on refuting the warming of Earth itself but on the aspect of humans having caused it. Thus, if climate-deniers are persisting on Twitter, it’s not clear how they could’ve contributed to the sadness. On the other hand, “denial” and “denying” featuring on the sad side of things signals that the persistence of denialism is a cause of distress (which you could say is a kind of reassurance).

Aside: the more frequent use of “hell” saddened tweets more than the more frequent use of “heaven” made them happier.

3. Three happiest days


On April 30, 2012, April 9, 2009, and December 28, 2008, the happiness indices were the highest for tweets mentioning “climate”, clocking 6.36, 6.27 and 6.27 respectively. What happened on these dates? From the paper…

  1. April 30, 2012 – “On this date, Twitter users were reaching out to Brazilian Dilma [Rousseff] to save the Amazon rainforest”
  2. April 9, 2009 – “Twitter users were discussing the release of a new book called Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air by David JC MacKay. Also on this date, users were posting about a Climate Prize given to a solar-powered cooker in a contest for green ideas”
  3. December 28, 2008 – “This is due in part to a decrease in the word “no”, and an increase in the words “united”, “play”, and “hopes”. On this day, there were “high hopes” for the US response to climate change”

Similarly, the three saddest days were…


  1. October 9, 2008 (5.29) – “Topics of conversation in tweets containing “climate” include the threat posed by climate change to a tropical species, a British climate bill, and the US economic crisis”
  2. April 4, 2010 (5.37) – “Popular topics of conversation on this date included a California climate law and President Obama’s oil-drilling plan”
  3. August 6, 2011 (5.38) – “A topic of conversation on this date was the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed extension to the current Keystone Pipeline”

Blurry reflections

Even if the averaged outlook seems gloomy, there exists a demonstrable appreciation of positive action – even if the action is small. This is evident especially when Twitter users caused a spike in happiness on April 9, 2009, tweeting about the solar-powered cooker (the Kyoto Box, made from cardboard and able to boil or bake food).

Another example is the Forward on Climate Rally, which brought together nearly 50,000 people in Washington DC on February 17, 2013, to call on President Barack Obama to veto the Keystone pipeline bill. According to the authors, on the day, “the happiness of climate tweets increased slightly above the unfiltered tweets during this event, which only occurs on 8% of days.” The bill was eventually vetoed.

However, the paper isn’t perfect. There are two factors skewing results – both having to do with locations. First: In the six years during which the mathematicians parsed the tweets, the volume ballooned from 1 million tweets/day to 500 million tweets/day. The underlying expansion in the user base will have been accompanied by a shift in the demographics as well, including more people who are less likely to have tweeted about the climate than others. In the absence of user demographics, thus, the more accurate weighted average of the happiness index remains out of reach.

Similarly, the second factor is that results largely concern American sentiments. The mathematicians don’t mention that they’ve drawn tweets put out by users located in the United States, yet the outcomes and the saddest and happiest dates are dependent on American opinions. This makes a weighted average of the happiness index that accounts for country-wise differences all the more meaningful.

Despite these pitfalls, the paper provides a blurry reflection of the popular perceptions of climate change. Given the affinity for positive action, in fact, the conclusions provide ample reason to believe people on Twitter don’t think enough is being done to tackle climate change. The period of 2008 to 2014, when the tweets were tracked, was also the time in which faith in the Kyoto Protocol and its subsequent amendments declined, and the disappointing Copenhagen summit happened in 2009.