I’m no scientist, and I’m no expert at climate change. I’m trying to learn a lot about global warming on the fly so I can be an informed citizen when it comes to what it currently going on with the debate. I kind of hate blogging on it, because I don’t like blogging on things where I’m not fairly certain I know fully what I’m talking about, and there are so many dimensions from climate modeling to political economy that it is kind of overwhelming.
So can I be completely honest? I didn’t realize, until I was halfway through trying to derive the Nordhaus Model, that the units weren’t Fahrenheit. Everyone, including myself, keeps saying “we expect there to be, on average, a 3 degree increase in temperature by 2080″, and I always implicitly mentally mapped that to Fahrenheit and not to Celsius. Be honest – did you? To scientists, and noted Francophiles like Jim Manzi, it is very natural to use the metric system. But to everyday Americans, that’s really an increase of “5.4 degrees (F)” in how we discuss weather.
(Feel free to mock the provincial Midwestern Mike if you want, with his natural discomfort with the metric system. But I’ve just been informed by a coastal elite that “Middle Americans” make the most reckless and passionate lovers, so I’ve got that going for me.)
Here’s an interesting question – should journalists report, and bloggers discuss, this to American audiences in Fahrenheit? Celsius? Both? When I say “It’s going to be 70 out” or “it’s going to be 5 degrees warmer than we expected” to my co-workers or family, it’s very clear what units I’m talking about. It seems trivial, but when a newspaper article says “An average increase of 3 degrees (C) over 80 years” or “An average increase of 5.4 degrees (F) over 80 years” it has a very different cognitive response from me, even though they are the same statement. The 5.4 seems like a bigger deal, and it is in the right units for how I think of weather day in and day out.
I know I’m forever kicked out of the respectable scientist community for suggesting the media discuss this in non-metric units. But I wonder how much “political capital” is being left on the table by phrasing it in polls and the public sphere in units not natural to regular discussion for Americans? Should the environmental blogs should start using (F), or dual-units, when writing and discussing this for proper effect? This might be a minor effect, but F scales faster (1.8x) than C, so a modest increase in C is a bigger increase in F, and the cognitive bias is for those who are used to talking in F to underestimate converting the increase in C. To say “the tail risk in an increase of 7 degrees” leaving the C out, versus “the tail risk is an increase of 12.6 degrees (F)” would probably make a big difference when it comes to “how much would you spend” questionnaires and other related public sphere discussions.