Monthly Archives: September 2014

Two “Global Experiments” about Climate Change

In an earlier post on this blog I wrote about the need to increase our knowledge of how people think about climate change and then apply that knowledge to expedite policy changes. Subsequently I discovered that there is an active community of psychologists, experts in communications and other researchers who conduct valuable inquiries in this field.

Some of their findings are sobering, such as data from April 2014 showing that only one in three Americans discusses global warming with family and friends even occasionally. One of the many reasons this is true is that for more than five years, with little variation from year to year, only about one in three Americans have believed people in the U.S. are being harmed “right now” by global warming—despite Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, extreme drought in the West and other once-rare climate events. One does not wish for more droughts, extreme heat waves, superstorms or wildfires; however, those are the kinds of events that may, slowly, change opinions about climate change.

People who realize how threatening climate change is believe that we are conducting a risky “experiment” with the sensitivity of Earth systems to increasing levels of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases. For example, we still don’t understand climate “tipping points” well; however, our global experiment is already teaching us about tipping points, like it or not.

Professor Richard Somerville of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego—who was Coordinating Lead Author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fourth assessment report (2007)—wrote, in his 2006 paper called “Medical metaphors for climate change,”

“What is still not obvious to many is that all of us are now engaged in a second global experiment [emphasis added], this time an educational and geopolitical one. We are going to find out whether humanity is going to take climate science seriously enough to act meaningfully, rather than just procrastinating until nature ultimately proves that our climate predictions were right.”

This educational experiment—where education is broadly defined and includes more than what is taught in schools—could hardly be more important. It will take a concerted effort, over many years, by formal and informal institutions, political leaders and organizations, TV stations, museums, churches and others, to increase knowledge and a sense of urgency among policymakers and the public. The Concord Consortium’s High Adventure Science (HAS) project is one element in this long-term effort.

The Next Generation Science Standards include climate change as an important topic for instruction, which is significant because more people need some understanding of the science behind climate change. But the “educational experiment” the world is conducting requires policymakers and the public to learn far more than science. Better understanding the economics, political, regulatory, governance, diplomatic and technology issues needed to address climate change will be vital, as will an emphasis on ethics and values. It would be interesting to know how, and how often, climate change is a topic of study in other subjects taught in schools, colleges and universities (including social science classes, like Psychology), or whether it is addressed almost exclusively in “hard science” courses.

Visualizing the "thermal breathing" of a house in 24-hour cycle with Energy3D

The behavior of a house losing or gaining thermal energy from the outside in a 24-hour cycle, when visualized using Energy3D's heat flux view, resembles breathing, especially in the transition between seasons in which the midday can be hot and the midnight can be cold. We call this phenomenon the "thermal breathing" of a house. This embedded YouTube video in this blog post illustrates this effect. For the house shown in the video, the date was set to be May 1st and the location is set to Santa Fe, New Mexico.


This video only shows the daily thermal breathing of a house. Considering the seasonal change of temperature, we may also definite a concept "annual thermal breathing," which describes this behavior on an annual basis.

This breathing metaphor may help students build a more vivid mental picture of the dynamic heat exchange between a house and the environment. Interestingly, it was only after I realized this thermal visualization feature in Energy3D that this metaphor came to my mind. This experience reflects the importance of doing in science and engineering: Ideas often do not emerge until we get something concrete done. This process of externalization of thinking is critically important to the eventual internalization of ideas or concepts.