Hiding in plain sight

If you’ve got a message that’s so scary that you don’t really want too many people to notice — in case they might, you know, get scared by it — and yet you want to be in the position of being able to say ‘well, I told you so’ after the event, one way to do this is to embed it right in the middle of a long document, at the point where most readers will most likely have gone into zombie reading mode by the information overload.

To further increase the chance that the message is likely to be skipped over, and not taken in and fully appreciated, it’s a good idea to:

  • make it short
  • use big words
  • split the sentence across a page boundary
  • embed an infographic in the page separating the two parts of the message as a further distraction.

The intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) released the Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX) report on 28 March 2012.

The Summary for Policymakers (SPM) was actually released on 18 November 2011. It contains the following message:

Low-probability, high-impact changes associated with the crossing of poorly understood climate thresholds cannot be excluded

Image of pages 9-11 of the 20-page IPCC SREX SPM, showing how one important sentence is split

Hiding in plain sight

… and that admission, Dear Reader, is the only mention that the ‘Summary for Policymakers’ makes that humanity’s wilful disregard of its responsibilities as stewards of Planet Earth might be far more dire than most people are willing to think about.

Another way to hide such a message is to use far less obscure language, but to put it near the end of a long book that very few people are likely to read:

I’ve come to conclude that if we burn all reserves of oil, gas, and coal, there is a substantial chance that we will initiate the runaway greenhouse. If we also burn the tar sands and tar shale, I believe the Venus syndrome is a dead certainty.

Dr James Hansen (2009) Storms of My Grandchildren p236

Drill, baby, drill.


About pendantry

Phlyarologist (part-time) and pendant. Campaigner for action against anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and injustice in all its forms. Humanist, atheist, notoftenpist. Wannabe poet, writer and astronaut.
This entry was posted in ... wait, what?, Environment, GCD: Global climate disruption, News and politics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Hiding in plain sight

  1. This situation scares and horrifies me. I don’t know how anyone can justify the possibility of killing the planet to support our way of life. Sadly, I can’t figure out how to completely get away from using gas or electricity. I suppose my own personal changes really don’t make any difference anyway. The system itself needs to change, not some of the individuals. I’m glad I’m not the only one that sees these things. I’ve decided to put all my spare time into an effort to support or help those working on changing the system. This situation has gone too far for me to keep standing by hoping someone else will do it. I appreciate your blog, it has made a difference to me.

    • pendantry says:

      The justification for killing the planet to support our way of life is written into law: corporations are legally obliged to make a profit, over and above all other considerations. Until that changes, I don’t see any real systemic change happening. Yes, it’s essential that individuals — you, and me, and others — become more aware of what’s happening, because without that understanding, the larger changes in direction simply won’t happen. So, like you, I’m glad it’s not just me.

      Thank you for your encouraging words, DD: it does help to know that my wibbling is not the complete and utter waste of time that it (all too often) feels like.

      PS I visited your own blog and wanted to leave a message to say I’d never think of rattlesnakes the same way ever again, but Blogger’s ‘word verification’ hurdle seems to be badly broken (it keeps telling me I’ve got it wrong, over and over again — blerdy machines!)

    • jpgreenword says:

      Although I agree that “the system itself need to change”, I think it is important that people like yourself not downplay the importance of the personal changes that they make to their lives. A small change in energy consumption multiplied by a million people is very significant.

      • pendantry says:

        I agree, to some extent: however, though I do appreciate that such ‘small changes’ also have a knock-on effect on the main culprit — industry — I do feel quite strongly that unless and until we can persuade Those In Charge that the way we do things must change (they must come to terms with the reality that growth is not the answer), the efforts of individuals in this regard are counter-productive in that by pulling his or her weight, The Person In The Street is lulled into a false sense of security. The feeling that ‘I’m doing as much as I can’ simply is not enough. Everyone has to be singing from the same hymn sheet; and the lyrics of the song we must sing have to include ‘We Must Do More!’

        • witsendnj says:

          You have to be realistic too, and the fact is, that by having even one child, you multiply your own carbon footprint exponentially considering that child will likely reproduce eventually. In other words, you can live the simplest lifestyle but you will more than wipe out any savings you make and then some by having children. It’s too late for me – I already did. But despite my ambition to be a grandmother, I have told my children it’s a bad idea. Elizabeth Kolbert has an interesting article about this – although she doesn’t quite go far enough, in my opinion.

          • pendantry says:

            From your link:

            The decision to have a child, or one more child, or yet another child may seem to be a personal one—a choice about how many diapers you want to change in the short term versus how many Mother’s Day cards you hope to receive later on. But to see it in these terms alone is to be, as Caplan points out on the cover of his book, selfish.

            I agree with this completely (but then, being childless myself, this is easy for me to do, and I accept that it’s far from easy to accept if — like, for instance, my mother — one has children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren…). Me, I’m a proud member of VHEMT 🙂

            I recently posted on Climatesight on this very topic, and was not surprised to find that my attempt to demonstrate that our current attitudes to human procreation are going to have to undergo some serious rethinking were jumped upon in short order by one who believes he has researched the matter — but who has not done a lot of the necessary critical thinking.

            The numbers say we’re currently on target to double our numbers again (to 14 billion) in just seventy years (and double again another human lifetime later… and so on). The ‘research’ claims that population will top out at 10 billion. If the latter is true, something’s gonna hafta give — and one of the somethings is going to be our attitudes towards child rearing.

            The sooner we implement discouragements (societal and monetary) to having our own kids, and encouragements to foster orphans and/or ‘sponsor’ those human younglings who have already arrived on this planet, the better.

            Of course, this means you should rethink your own stated ambition….

          • jpgreenword says:

            My wife and I are in our early thirties and we do not have children. We decided a while ago that if we ever have children, we will adopt. There are a few reasons for this position, including a rare and serious disease in the family. Also, we realize that our planet has more than enough people as is. And although I would never discourage someone who wants children from doing so, I am not shy of talking to people (including my oldest students) about the idea of not having children, or adopting one instead of having your own.

        • jpgreenword says:

          I always try to look for the main cause of problem. In this case, would it be legal purpose of a corporation: to increase profits for share holders?

          • pendantry says:

            Tricky. I believe ‘main cause of problem’ == ‘humanity too big for boots’.

            There are many threads; certainly a major one relates to the inordinate amount of power wielded by soulless corporations (power that stems largely from their — bizarre — success in having themselves considered as ‘persons’). Another is tied to Professor Bartlett’s ‘greatest shortcoming of human race‘ (upon which hinges many similar elements relating to resource scarcity in a finite environment, which includes overpopulation).

            There are no easy answers; my main beef is that there can be no answers at all until we (humans) recognise that big changes are not only necessary, they are imminent, on a timescale shorter than we are accustomed to dealing with. We choose our future, or it will be chosen for us. Are we collectively smart enough to opt for the former? I would say that current evidence suggests not.

          • jpgreenword says:

            I had to go back and watch that video again. Blows my mind every time.

            We have painted ourselves into a terrible corner, but we are too busy making the situation worse to actually recognize that we are in trouble.

            Like you said: “Are we collectively smart enough to opt for the former? I would say that current evidence suggests not.”

            I try to stay hopeful, but I agree with your statement.

  2. Gail says:

    Not a waste of time!

    I cannot express my thoughts any better than a comment to Andy Revkin’s post about the conference, so here it is:


    Could you please give us a summary of the significance of all this in your own words?

    Because I’m having a hard time seeing what’s new here. It feels like reading about one of those groundbreaking, million dollar, multi-year studies that confirms common knowledge — “you can get hurt if you fall off a ladder.”

    2,500 people gathered in London to confirm that the planet is in peril. Or, scientists now officially agree that the planet is in peril.
    —Well, yeah.

    A lot of the planet’s problems such as climate change, biodiversity loss, overpopulation and resource depletion are interconnected.
    —No.? Really?

    Humans are more interconnected than ever, and that can be bad because we might steal each other’s resources.
    —Yes, we call that globalization here in the U.S.

    But interconnectedness can be a good thing because it gives us an opportunity for synergetic brainstorming that might solve problems.
    —OK, but did all those people have to fly to London to figure that out? What about the internet?

    We’ll probably kick the environmental can down the road because our generation can’t get its act together.

    This is a defining moment in history because if we don’t get our act together, Mother Nature might give us the boot.

    I’m not trying to be contrary, but “C’mon.” Anybody who has been paying attention has known all this stuff for decades. Other than making it “official,” what did the conference accomplish?”

    Philip S. Wenz

    • pendantry says:

      Thanks, Gail. Yep, we’ve ‘known’ this for decades. But Those In Charge seem hell-bent on wilful ignorance. What can we do about it? Not a lot, bar continuing to shout, it seems.

      • owlbug says:

        Sorry I can’t continue reading on, I’m hanging with my lil one. Your blog made me laugh, very clever.

        I think it is obvious that large corporations hold little more care for people than slave-owners held for their slaves. Maybe a little more because they still have to worry about public perception – slave owners had it easy that way.

        If you want to make a change I think you have to find a way to do it within the system and with as much diversity as you can stomach. It sounds like many here are probably of the Democratic persuasion, but I’m an Independent converted Republican because of one of my heroes, Ron Paul. He is the only major label presidential candidate (including Obama) challenging the adulterous relationship between government and big business. He is winning converts and doing better than the media is giving him credit for (working behind the scenes winning delegates in case we have a brokered convention), but more importantly, he is affecting a change within the republican party winning influence at levels below Presidential (as in US Senate and down). So it only took one man 30 years to make real changes despite barely being given the time of day by the establishment.

        *END ADVERTISEMENT* So Ron Paul is working within the system, and he’s found some principled Democrats that share some of his visions. It isn’t easy, but it is possible. I guess it is a matter of how much you want to sacrifice and how many are willing to sacrifice. Ron Paul spoke at UCLA the other night at a stadium that holds 7000 people, and there was an overflow crowd with people that cared enough to climb in trees to see him. He’s had crowds of 1000s across the nation. So with the right message it is possible to get people behind you (and even make significant sacrifices themselves).

        It might be better to broaden the scope of your argument with the impact on nature one of the supporting arguments.

        • pendantry says:

          Thanks for the visit, and the comment, owlbug. I’m glad I made you laugh (my work is done :)).

          I like your thinking regarding slaves and their owners. Have you seen The Corporation?

          I think you may be making the mistake of assuming that all here belong to the same fine nation* as yours. The innerwebz connects us all. Yes, we have to make change from within the system (not least because all systems fight change imposed from outside). Without commenting on the worthiness of your hero (I have heard the name but that’s as far as my understanding goes), I think it’s dangerous to think in terms of ‘right messages’. The persuasive arguments of, for instance, the Koch brothers have bought them a great many followers (and now we’re paying the price).

          As for arguing from the point of the impact on nature, I invite you to browse my blog a little further. I’ve been ranting for a while now, and I think you’ll find that the environment is a major theme (see for instance my post on Earth Overshoot Day 2011).

          * All nations are fine, though they’d be better still if they could cooperate; global problems require global solutions.

          • witsendnj says:

            Speaking of one who IS a citizen of the US, I’m sorry to say that Ron Paul is not the answer. I understand some of his appeal – bring the military home is high on my list. But aside from the fact that it’s simply immoral not to understand that government has an essential role in providing a safety net to the disadvantaged, the man thinks the world is 6,000 years old and he doesn’t believe in climate change.
            Having a complete ignoramous who doesn’t understand the MOST BASIC of scientific theories – evolution? plate tectonics? the greenhouse effect? – simply DISQUALIFIES him as leader of the country. And that’s without even accusing him of the racism that has too often been on display.

            Back to the drawing board. If you still think we have a democracy and want to participate in the charade of voting (I don’t and won’t) I recommend Jill Stein, who is the Green Party nominee. She is really really smart and decent. But of course she doesn’t have a chance. If she did they would shoot her.

  3. Martin Lack says:

    Thanks for alerting me to this, Colin. I must admit that I was aware of the SPM having been published; and have even referred protagonists to it.

    I think it is unfortunate that this sentence (that you have unhelpfully truncated) breaks across a page (etc) but even I (with all my misgivings about the way the IPCC review process neuters their reports) would find it a bit of a stretch to suggest this was a deliberate piece of obfuscation.

    Hansen, on the other hand, has since been much more concise and explicit (i.e. TED talk last month). However, I agree with you, his 200 time limit for ice and 500-year tie limit for water really does come like a bolt out of the blue at the end of his book. So much so that I was left feeling he had not justified his pessimism.

    It is only after thinking it over for a while that you realise… it is the non-linear nature of all the rates of changes now occurring (e.g. doubling times reducing and, in some cases even being halved, etc.) that drives him to this conclusion.

    The only question left now is just how many wolves will be inside the castle by the time the people feasting in the great hall realise the guard on the ramparts was not joking?

    • pendantry says:

      OK, so the full quote is:

      Low-probability, high-impact changes associated with the crossing of poorly understood climate thresholds cannot be excluded, given the transient and complex nature of the climate system.

      It’s true that I did deliberately truncate the sentence, but only because I didn’t see how the final clause added anything. In retrospect, I realise that the important words are ‘cannot be excluded‘ — the inclusion of the clause takes the emphasis off them!

      I do agree that it is hard to believe that the positioning of this — arguably rather important — message is deliberate. But, even so, I think you have to admit that it is peculiar; if one did intend to attempt to hide it, I can think of no better position in that document than where it currently sits.

      You’ll note that I linked Hansen’s quote to the Wikipedia entry on ‘runaway greenhouse effect’; I find the way that entry begins (currently) to be interesting:

      A runaway greenhouse effect is not a clearly defined term…

      The term as a whole may not be ‘clearly defined’, but the meaning is, nevertheless, very clear. ‘Greenhouse effect‘ most definitely is a ‘clearly defined term’: the word ‘runaway’ can only be interpreted as in ‘runaway train’: no brakes, and heading for disaster. That this Wikipedia entry begins in such a way suggests to me that it is crafted by those who wish to avoid any sense of that untouchable: alarmism. If I didn’t think my edit would be reversed, I’d pop in there and cut out that beginning on the grounds that it’s wholly irrelevant. Wikipedia also has an entry on ‘runaway climate change‘ — that one is somewhat less equivocal.

      Yes, it’s the non-linear rate of change that is the most worrying aspect of these issues. As so often these days, I’m reminded of Professor Albert Bartlett’s assertion:

      The greatest shortcoming of the human race is the inability to understand the exponential function.

      • Martin Lack says:

        Thanks Colin. My only problem with the truncation of the sentence is that it begged the question “…excluded from what?”. As it happens, the rest of the actual sentence does not answer this question and, therefore, I agree with you that it adds very little.

        I had not registered the fact that the Wikipedia article is so badly worded. Thanks for alerting me to this (I will pursue it). The only sense in which runaway is poorly defined (in the minds of many) is that they think we cannot be sure how fast the train is going; how quickly it is accelerating; and what its top speed will be. However, I think that – combining ongoing observations with the palaeoclimatology of the last 1 million years – we have a clear minimum values for the first two a maximum value for the latter – Hence Hansen’s warnings.

        • pendantry says:

          I see what you mean. I had read it as ‘excluded from consideration’. My point is, of course, that they have effectively excluded these ‘low probability, high-impact changes’ from consideration — by policymakers — by hiding the very statement claiming that they cannot be excluded….

        • Martin Lack says:

          Very neatly summarised. However, given all the temperature records broken last month and out-of-season tornados (etc), I would like to think that policy makers cannot exclude a possibility that looks more like reality to me with every day that passes.

      • Gail says:

        Runaway greenhouse effect can’t be clearly defined because nobody has any idea exactly how it will occur. The essence of it is, that once certain tipping point are passed (and that would occur if we perversely and stubbornly insist on burning every last lump of coal – “game over” according to Hansen) heating is unstoppable and ultimately results in the situation on Venus – a planet that is so hot no life can exist, and it can never (certainly in timeframes that matter to us) be reversed. This represents not climate change as it has swung through the ages but a new, unprecedented condition for the Earth and one that is quite depressing, because there obviously won’t be a shred of all the cumulative creations of humanity remaining, not to mention all the glorious species and ecosystems that took millions of years to evolve.

  4. Jeannie says:

    It isn’t the scary words of truth my friend that we don’t believe. It’s knowing the change isn’t going to happen fast enough or thoroughly enough because of the bottom line and who will be affected–money and the money-makers. One example: until they quit making cars for people to use, they’re going to drive them and buy gas to put in them.

    And I will add, good post!

  5. Pingback: Wishful thinking in lala land | Wibble

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