Dr Yoram Bauman: Tackling climate change with humour and cartoons

Dr Yoram Bauman
Dr Yoram Bauman

Dr Yoram Bauman has a unique approach to spreading the climate change and carbon mitigation message. He’s a stand-up economist – quite probably the world’s only one – and has even had gigs entertaining oil and gas industry executives where he manages to slip some facts on climate change into the routine. He also recently released an illustrated book on the topic – The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change.

“Generally, what I find is if people laugh for 45 minutes, they will listen to four to five minutes of what I really want to talk about, which is climate change,” Dr Bauman says.

As an economist, his approach to the issues is all around the business case, and as he tells The Fifth Estate during a phone interview, humour can be a useful lever to defuse the political polarisation that has become attached to the whole concept of reducing our collective carbon footprint, and help to open up dialogue on how to become more sustainable.

Offstage, Dr Bauman is also part of a group working on developing a revenue-neutral carbon tax policy for Washington State. It is something he says the state’s Governor is seriously considering, along with other models such as California’s recently introduced cap-and-trade system.

Unlike the backroom discussions that led to Australia’s previous carbon tax, the Washington group is offering the community a “try before you buy-in” approach. Dr Bauman and his colleagues have built an online carbon tax calculator, using the public to beta test the concept and allowing them to provide feedback.

The basic proposal is to reduce the existing sales tax, fund a working families rebate for 400,000 low-income families, eliminate a specific category of business taxes [the “B&O” tax], and tax carbon at the rate of $25 a tonne on fossil fuels used in the state of Washington.

“The way we’re putting it to people is: how about you pay less tax on the things you want, and pay more tax on the things we don’t want anyway, like pollution,” Dr Bauman says.

“It’s honestly been really fun. It’s a blast to work on.”

The policy will be put to a public vote on the ballot papers for a general election, most likely in November 2016, which Dr Bauman says being a presidential election year will see a high voter turnout.

Reaching people with the economic message and the hard facts of the science is important, he says, as the polarisation of the debate as “left-green versus right-fossils” is clouding proper action.

Cartoons and climate change

He recently released a book with illustrator Grady Klein, The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change, which sets out the scientific and business realities of how reliance on fossil fuels is affecting the planet, and maps out the pathways to deep decarbonisation. These include a focus on renewable energy, changing consumer behaviour, green building and systems to tax carbon pollution.

cartoon-intro-climate-change“We had done two cartoon economics books together already, and climate change is my passion,” Dr Bauman says.

“Cartoon books are accessible, which makes it easier to reach out to some audiences. I have had good feedback from schools, libraries and members of the general public from both ends of the political spectrum.

“I have enough of an academic background to avoid the politics. I wanted it to be factually correct and not vulnerable.”

Why exactly the climate change issue has become associated with the left is, he says, perhaps part of the broader change that sees the environment movement generally perceived as leftist, while the right is anti-regulatory.

“Environment issues are also associated with the young,” he says. “I think there are generational shifts in values [occurring].”

This can be seen in the shift from a political culture that prioritised cutting down forests, enabled over-fishing and was not protective, to one that seems to be softening and moving towards embracing sustainability.

“Part of it might also be that young people have had less exposure to the financial crisis, as they were in school then. The whole ‘jobs versus environment’ argument resonates more with older people.”

Another aspect of why some leaders are so slow to move on carbon is, he says, because the “running out of non-renewable resources” argument has been “oversold” in the past. In the 1970s, peak oil was a hot topic in the US, and in some ways Dr Bauman thinks this created a “boy who cried wolf” phenomenon.

“People see, ‘these are the jobs we have now’, and it is hard to get people to see that new jobs are being created and more new jobs will be created,” he says.

“For example, in US fisheries there is often an argument against regulations to prevent overfishing that they are quote-unquote ‘taking away people’s jobs’.

“It’s a tricky issue to address. People like easy answers; they don’t like difficult choices.”

The other complication is the political cycle also encourages policymakers to present easy stories, and also has an underlying culture of “short-termism” when it comes to the business case for policies.

“Part of [the solution] is about finding a credible messenger from the business community,” Dr Bauman says.

“I spend a lot of time working on carbon taxing. As an economist, I work on climate change from the point of view of tax review.”

As far as the power some of the more vocal anti-environment elements go, he says that it’s important to keep in mind the reality that “in politics, you don’t need to convince everybody, you just need to convince a majority”.

“I talk to a lot of people, and the majority of people know that climate change is a risk and want to do something.

“I think there are folks on the right [wing] side of politics who care, and they are good messengers. You need to forget about the rabid people on either side [of politics] and think about the middle.”

Dr Bauman also believes the messages need to be around benefits and opportunities.

“It’s better to have a more optimistic message. Until we actually have a really serious climate policy in the US, this is the angle I’m taking.”

The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change is certainly upbeat. It steps through the history of the globe’s climate, and the science of how it works. It also explains some of the finer details of how exactly carbon dioxide, methane and other gases act as greenhouse gases, and the various feedback loops that affect weather, the polar ice caps, how the earth absorbs energy in different forms from the sun, how the carbon cycle works, the role of the oceans and the impact of living things generally, including humans.

As well, it sets out the scientific method – how it works, and how it has been used to gather data about the climate and monitor human impacts.

One of the chapters is about the tragedy of the commons, a key economic concept that dates back to Aristotle, illustrated by examples of dog poo, littering, overfishing and the failure of many nations to either sign or live up to international agreements on climate change.

The book goes on to point out that the tragedy of the commons is not inevitable, as examples like the Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depleting Substances show.

The economics behind the fossil-driven economy are also explained, and the way fossil fuel costs do not include the externalities like health impacts, global warming and ocean acidification.

There’s a quite fabulous illustration of some of the wacky techno-fixes that have been proposed as an alternative to simply controlling emissions and shifting to renewable energy and a less wasteful way of life. These geoengineering ideas have included fertilising the oceans with iron to stimulate faster plankton growth, pumping the atmosphere full of sulphur dioxide so it can reflect back incoming sunlight, spraying salt water into the sky to create more clouds, and engineering genetically modified carbon-eating trees.

For all the seriousness of the subject and the factual nature of the information, it’s a very bright and bouncy presentation. The humour slips in regularly to keep it light, with a cast of illustrated characters and a nice combination of wit and slapstick, some of which really cuts through the static of climate change discussions like: “Human emissions are a small fraction of the natural [carbon] cycle, but over time it adds up. Inhale more than you exhale… and pretty soon your lungs will explode.”

It’s a message pretty much anyone can understand.

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