The Water Will Come: Tackling Willful Blindness on Climate Change

cover of Goodell book and blog title is there willful blindness on sea level rise

Jeff Goodell’s book, The Water Will Come, was recently released as another addition to the sea level rise bookshelf. But the question the book really raises is one of willful blindness and whether we can overcome that willful blindness on sea level rise in particular, and on climate change in general.

In this post, I’ll begin to tackle those questions. If you wish, the Climate Web can help you further explore willful blindness and how to overcome it.

The Water Will Come is certainly not the first popular telling of the story of sea level rise. There are dozens of technical and fictional books about sea level rise, and literally hundreds of reports. But more than many others, this book documents the problem of sea level rise willful blindness.

Willful blindness is a great metaphor for climate change, and Margaret Heffernan’s 2011 book, Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, provides a sobering look at challenges in dealing with difficult problems — most of which are easier to deal with than climate change. It is an eye-opening read. With specific respect to climate change Heffernan notes:

“in failing to confront the greatest challenge of our age, climate change, all the forces of willful ignorance come together like synchronized swimmers in a spectacular water ballet.”

You can explore the key messages of Heffernan’s book in the Climate Web, as well as access the larger literature on the barriers to rational decision-making. We’ve got popular books on climate change as well as books that are not directly related to climate change but which can help you understand the challenges posed by a wicked problem like climate change.

Goodell’s book, The Water Will Come, covers a number of topics:

  • How high could water rise?
  • Who is at risk?
  • Does anyone “own” the risk?
  • Is coastal fortification the answer?
  • What about climate gentrification?
  • Why are we so willfully blind?
  • Is geoengineering an answer?

You can investigate any of these topics in depth, too, in the Climate Web.

A key topic in The Water Will Come is, of course, how far and how fast will that water come. How accurately can we answer those questions? One of the reasons willful blindness is so pervasive is that the answer is “not very accurately.” Rather, we face considerable uncertainty in answering these two questions.

We know how much the seas will rise if all the ice on Earth melts — about 250 feet. But we also know that would take a long time to happen even with global warming. It’s when we start asking about how much SLR will happen by 2050, or by 2100, that uncertainty rears its head. All we can do is talk about the probability of certain levels of SLR by a certain date.

chart sea level rise total ice melt

But even that is challenging. Can we even be confident in the probability of something happening that humans have never seen happen before? This is a big question. As geologist Richard Alley notes in The Water Will Come:

“We just don’t know what the upper boundary is for how fast this can happen. We are dealing with an event that no human has ever witnessed before. We have no analogue for this.”

Scientists have been reluctant to assign probabilities to sea level rise given that there’s so much we don’t know about what exactly is happening to the ice in Greenland and Antarctica. In 2017, NOAA came out with its first sea level rise probability estimate (the report is in the Climate Web, of course!).

NOAA chart of potential sea level rise

You can see that even though the media is full of reports about more than 6 feet of sea level rise by 2100, the NOAA report does not predict a six foot increase as a likely outcome.

But does the fact that NOAA suggests there is less than a 1% chance of 6 feet of sea level rise make that outcome less worthy of our attention? It’s all a matter of how we perceive risk. A less than 1% chance of 6 feet of sea level rise may seem like a small number. But think about air travel. Would you get on a plane if you thought there was a 1% chance of a crash? A 0.1% chance? A .01% chance? Think about it — even a 0.01% chance of a crash would mean 3 plane crashes in the US every day, so the risk is actually far lower. But when it comes to big risks, small numbers matter. And in that context 1% is anything but a small number.

A big problem here is that we’re just not very good at interpreting probabilities. It’s one reason we’re susceptible to willful blindness on the potential crisis of sea level rise. Is that changing? See this text from John Englander’s 2012 book, High Tide on Main Street:

“Currently there is still no sign that anyone in Florida is discounting the price of coastal real estate based on the slowly growing awareness that the shoreline will move significantly inland. At least for now, coastal property values continue to move with the larger real estate market.”

Five years and tons of scientific work later, has the situation changed at all? Goodell suggests that today there may be less “simple ignorance” about the risks of sea level rise, but it seems that willful blindness is taking up the slack. Goodell reports on his conversations with real estate professionals, including one exchange in which a major developer notes that “We don’t think about it on a daily basis,” and (even more disturbing):

“I believe that in twenty or thirty years, someone is  …. By that time, I’ll be dead, so what does it matter?”

This is, perhaps, the starkest example of willful blindness in the book, but certainly not the only one.

That said, it will get harder and harder to plead simple ignorance or willful blindness as time goes on. For $149, for example, the organization Coastal Risk Consulting will provide you with a report that details the frequency with which your house is likely to flood during the 30-year life of a mortgage, based on advanced sea level rise estimates in combination with the estimated likelihood of storms and storm surges.

Willful blindness to the crisis isn’t our only challenge. Another is the ability of key players to pass the risk to someone else — often homeowners. A real estate developer building a house in a vulnerable area faces little risk; the risk will be borne by whoever buys the house. But aren’t homeowners the least prepared to internalize and manage such risks? That’s why things like zoning and risk disclosure mandates are important to breaking through the willful blindness of sea level rise. Goodell argues that while everyone is beginning to recognize they are betting on what happens to property values as a result of sea level rise, people assume that they can win the bet by anticipating how others will bet, and beating them to the punch. That’s a risky strategy, since there’s no way everyone will beat everyone else to the punch.

What might trigger a sudden change in flood-prone property values? What if Hurricane Irma had slammed into Miami, as originally forecast, just a month before Goodell’s book came out? Would that have been a trigger for widespread property devaluation? One symptom of willful blindness is that when “it” happens, everyone will act shocked and surprised! Everyone will say they couldn’t have known — but they already do!

An interesting factoid:The Water Will Come describes how many people plan to use seawalls as a defense against rising seas. Is that itself a willful blindness of its own? Take a look at this interesting chart estimating how much cement and sand it would take simply to protect the world’s ports from foecasted sea level rise.  It’s the equivalent of 60-300 years of current production for those commodities. Where will the cement and sand come from to allow millions of homeowners to fortify their houses against sea level rise? Chances are, it won’t.

chart showing cement sand and gravel availability

Willful blindness is clearly a huge issue when it comes to sea level rise and the reaction of individuals, companies, and policymakers. Goodell’s objective is to overcome that blindness. Unfortunately, overcoming willful blindness is a huge psychological and communications challenge, whether for sea level rise or for climate change generally.  Can we actually help people facing the risks of sea level rise to get past their willful blindness?

It should be possible. But it’s not just a matter of presenting them with the facts about the likelihood of sea level rise or the potential impacts, no matter how alarming. It’s also a matter of helping people see the topic through their own “lenses.” For some, for example, fiction can help. One example we recommend is James Powell’s 2084: An Oral History of the Great Warming (99 cents on Amazon for the Kindle book!). Spoiler alert: you’ll find out the exact year that Rotterdam dies, and when New York City and Florida have to be abandoned! Another good example is Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl, which is a superb fictional account of a post-sea level rise world that can really get you thinking.

You can explore all of this in more depth (no pun intended) in the Climate Web. The Climate Web’s Sea Level Rise Deep Dive encompasses thousands of news reports, books, websites, videos, and more — almost anything you might want to find. But the Climate Web goes further, including the broader question of how to communicate climate change, how to communicate uncertainty generally, and how to communicate about climate change with specific audiences. There is a lot of excellent work going on in each of these areas, which needs to be better internalized into climate change conversations. It’s key to attacking the problem of willful blindness.

Watch our video of this blog post. If you are further interested in these issues, consider taking our course, Sea Level Rise and Real Estate: How Big a Risk?


Find Climate Web Founder, Dr. Mark Trexler, on The Costa Report

Listen to Rebecca Costa’s interview with The Climate Web’s director and founder, Dr. Mark C. Trexler, on her nationally syndicated radio show, The Costa Report. Costa is the author of the new On the Verge, an exploration of futures, foresight, and predictions, and the 2010 The Watchman’s  Rattle, a book that explores the difficulties in solving complex problems. In the radio interview, Dr. Trexler talks with Rebecca about the wicked problem of climate change, what’s stopping us from addressing it effectively, and how the Climate Web can help us make progress.



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Actionable Knowledge for Climate Progress

head sculpture with open top and a brain being plugged in

This is Part 3 of this blog series. In Part 1, I asked, “do we really intend to do something about climate change?” Part 2 asked “if so, does information matter?” Part 3 asks, “can I find the information I need?”

The idea of actionable climate knowledge reflects the reality that an individual making a climate-relevant decision is doing so on the basis of her ability to answer the two questions that govern all human decision-making: “is it worth it,” and “can I do it?” Each of us uses different information to answer the two questions, and it has to be extracted from the information deluge that crashes over us every day.

Here’s a great (non-climate) example of information that has been organized into actionable knowledge (thanks to Patrick McKercher):

“Andrea, an accounts manager at an investment firm, wakes up to learn from CNN that an Asian banking scandal is strangling venture capital flows and causing loans to be called in prematurely.

Andrea accesses her company’s TheBrain™-based proprietary Knowledge Web to scan her company’s Asian partners and holdings. Clicking on the link to the Royal Bank of Hong Kong (RBHK), the hardest hit bank according to CNN, she is relieved to find that relatively few of her own clients are linked to RBHK, and that her company’s overall exposure to the crisis is modest.

She clicks through the Knowledge Web to show all clients with loans from the Royal Bank of Hong Kong that missed their financial targets in last 36 months, revealing just one client, Tsingtao Telecommunications. Pulling up her company’s current Asia strategy from the Knowledge Web she sees that Tsingtao is an important part of that strategy, and that Tsingtao is linked to other clients in Sweden, Indonesia, and South Africa.

Andrea then sets about using the Knowledge Web to help solve her client’s problem. She can see that Tsingtao switched its banking to RBHK from Cathay Bank four years ago. From her “people network” within the Knowledge Web she discovers that Alejandro (who graduated from the Haas Business School at UCB a few years after she did) now works at Cathay Bank. She calls Alejandro and finds out that after getting poor returns in real estate, Cathay wants to diversify and is interested in reclaiming lost customers. Cathay soon offers Tsingtao a bridge loan at very favorable rates, and Andrea receives a generous bonus at her next review.”

Most of us are likely envious of the Knowledge Web Andrea was able to draw upon, and in fact knowledge management is big business. Andrea’s TheBrain™ software is actually in use by many Fortune 100 companies, and by agencies like the Department of Defense and the CIA. Most of us, however, create elaborate electronic file folder systems full of reports, news stories, and websites that we’re sure we’ll need in the future. A good substitute? Not even close, and when we do need information we’re often left searching the internet for “that great piece” we vaguely remember seeing six months before. Unfortunately, when it comes to a topic like climate change, almost any climate-related search term will generate millions of hits. That’s the antithesis of individual-specific actionable knowledge.

The actionable knowledge we need is almost certainly out there. Woodrow Wilson supposedly said that “there is no idea in our heads that has not been worn shiny by someone else’s brain.” It’s a great quote, whoever said it. There’s almost no question that the internet holds what you need, already “worn shiny by someone else’s brain.” The problem is finding it! As reflected in knowledge management expert Carla O’Dell musing: “If only we knew what we know.”

Those simple seven words go a long ways toward explaining why we’re headed for between 3.5 and 6.0 degrees C of climate change, a level of change that will wreak havoc on the natural and managed systems upon which human societies depend.  It’s not that the information and actionable knowledge we need to make better decisions about climate change doesn’t exist – we’re deluged with climate-relevant information. The problem is that the relevant decision-makers either never encounter “their” actionable knowledge, or have forgotten it by the time they need it.

Let me give you a personal example. I saw a news story today that referred to the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition’s recent Report on the High-Level Commission on Carbon Prices. Since carbon pricing is an area of personal expertise, I figured I should track it down. The report sounded familiar, and when I found the document I even recognized its cover. But I had no recollection of whether I’d read the report.

But like Andrea and the CIA, I have a Knowledge Web built with TheBrain™ software. The Climate Web links together more than 1,000 books, 2,000 videos, 15,000 reports and articles, 25,000 news stories, 3,000 websites, 2,000 topical experts, as well as 10’s of thousands of individually extracted ideas and graphics. 1,500 index entries instantly take me to potentially actionable knowledge on any climate topic, basically putting the entire topic of climate change into my short-term memory.  Calling up the Report of the High-Level Commission on Carbon Prices, it turns out I had read it and linked 30 key ideas and graphics into the Climate Web’s Carbon Pricing Deep Dive. Replicate that thousands of times and you’ll have a sense of how the Climate Web beats Google on actionable knowledge.

For a visual introduction to what I’m talking about, this video explores how the Center for Climate and Security’s recent report, “Epicenters of Climate and Security: The New Geostrategic Landscape of the Anthropocene,” is integrated into the Climate and Security Deep Dive of the Climate Web.



In Part 1 of this blog series I used the metaphor of a 1,000,000 piece jigsaw puzzle to represent the climate change challenge, and urged people really wanting to make a difference on climate change to go to “jigsaw puzzle school.” The Climate Web IS jigsaw puzzle school, and we’ve kept it public access to facilitate faster completion of the puzzle. The web-based version of TheBrain™ software through which you can access the Climate Web, however, is less powerful than the desktop software. To accomplish the actionable knowledge miracles that Andrea was able to, or that we’re able to with the Climate Web, you’d want to develop your own Knowledge Web “fitted” to your own brain.

If you’re working on climate change, however, we can greatly simplify the process. We can use topical modules from the Climate Web to help you construct your own Knowledge Web, saving you hundreds or even thousands of hours. After that you’re free to take your Knowledge Web in any direction that makes sense for you.

Helping you build your own Knowledge Web is just one of many ways the Climate Web can help advance your climate-relevant goals. Whether you’re an individual, a business leader, a researcher, a philanthropist, or a consultant/lawyer, the Climate Web is an unparalleled actionable knowledge resource for climate issues, climate risks, and climate solutions. If you’re involved in any way with the 1,000,000 piece climate change jigsaw puzzle, you should take advantage of the Climate Web.


This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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Does Information Matter for Completing the 1,000,000 Piece Climate Jigsaw Puzzle?

men discussing 1,000,000 piece puzzle to solve climate change

This is part 2 of a 3-part blog. The first part is here, where I explored some of the reasons we’re doing so poorly at completing the 1,000,000 piece climate jigsaw puzzle envisioned by Australian cartoonist Neil Matterson in 2008, a cartoon that remains as relevant today as it was nine years ago.

I concluded Part 1 suggesting that people who want to influence climate change outcomes should attend Climate Puzzle School to learn more about the unique challenges of completing a 1,000,000 piece puzzle, and how they can help beyond the individual puzzle piece they may already be working on.

My “The Great Wall” cartoon zeroes in on one of the most important topics for Puzzle School to cover, namely how to help climate change decision-makers get the  “is it worth it?” and “can I do it?” information  that underlies all human decision-making (see Grenny and Paterson’s 2013 book, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything). Answers to those two critical questions need to find their way from the “growing mountain of climate change information” through, over, or under “The Great Wall” to individuals making climate-relevant decisions.

The challenge doesn’t stem from an information shortage — rather, it’s the opposite. Individuals working on the 1,000,000 piece climate jigsaw puzzle are a veritable information generating machine, using thousands of venues to generate and distribute a virtual infinity of climate-relevant information. From books to reports to videos, blogs, and news stories, any decision-maker with any interest in the topic will likely find herself deluged with information.

The “Great Wall” in my cartoon is obviously metaphorical, but it might as well be as real. Enormous quantities of information do spill over the wall, one symptom of which is that decision-makers turn up millions of hits in connection with any online search. Regardless of whether that decision-maker is an individual purchasing a car, a business executive interested in assessing climate risks, or a policy-maker considering a legislative proposal, the likelihood that he or she will ever see the best available answers to their own “is it worth it, can I do it?” questions is vanishingly small. This in turn dramatically  biases decision-making outcomes against being as climate-friendly” as they could be.

Information overload is certainly important in explaining our relative lack of action on climate change as suggested by Neil Matterson’s 1,000,000 piece jigsaw puzzle cartoon. But the communications challenge goes deeper. Most communication of climate information is premised on the idea of “rational dialogue” in which anyone can be “brought around” on climate change if supplied with enough factual information. Perhaps not surprisingly, most climate communication therefore focuses on constituencies who have not embraced an aggressive response to climate change. Yet we know from two decades of behavioral economics research that this “rational dialogue” assumption couldn’t be more wrong. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman (often referred to as the father of behavioral economics) characterizes human responses to information inputs as falling into one of two categories: System 1 or System 2. Most human decision-making is reactive and automatic System 1 thinking. Only a small fraction of information inputs get sent up the cognitive chain for System 2 consideration and processing.

Most climate communications assume a System 2 response, which is why we assume that more factual information will eventually get almost anyone to “see the light.” But no one is ever the bad guy in their own mind; everyone believes they have already “seen the light.” Everyone’s System 1 brains filter most of the climate-relevant information they receive to fit their mental models and world view; it rarely moves on to System 2.

In other words, incentivizing better climate change decision-making isn’t about generating and delivering enough information to turn “bad decision-makers” into “good decision-makers.” It’s about getting information in front of decision-makers that goes to their “is it worth it, can I do it?” questions, and that triggers their System 2 decision-making process. Access to “actionable knowledge” might result in a different decision-making behavioral outcome. But recognizing the importance of “actionable knowledge” also illustrates the real communications challenge. Almost infinite information exists, but how do individual decision-makers find the specific actionable knowledge they would use to make more climate friendly decisions?

The “more is better” model that drives most climate communications today has become counter-productive. If we want to move the 1,000,000 piece climate jigsaw puzzle closer to completion — i.e., closer to real environmental benefits and action on climate change — we need to recognize the importance of facilitating access to “actionable knowledge.” Importantly, the need for improved actionable knowledge access applies just as much to individuals already working on the 1,000,000 piece climate change jigsaw puzzle as it does to individuals skeptical of climate change and climate action.

As I argued in Part 1 of this blog, individuals working on the puzzle are as much a part of the problem Pogo described in 1971 (“we have met the enemy, and he is us”) as almost anyone else. Yet it should be easier to get individuals already working on the puzzle to become more effective in contributing to puzzle progress, than to try and use information to change the worldview of individuals skeptical of climate change and climate action.

If the goal is actionable knowledge, perhaps knowledge management approaches and tools are part of the solution? I explore this question in this short video that shows how thinking of climate information flows as a system can illustrate the relationship of climate information to climate progress or the lack thereof.

The video suggests that without a knowledge management function, information overload takes over and sabotages progress on climate change. Inserting a new node into the system representing knowledge management fundamentally changes how the system works. (FYI, the “Loopy” software I used to design the climate information systems in the video was recently developed by Nicky Case. You can see and play with the original systems diagrams: here (for the without knowledge management case) and here (for the with knowledge management case). Feel free to improve my depiction of the climate information system and send it back to me. The idea of the Loopy software is to encourage conversations about systems using easy to build systems diagrams. A great idea!)

I’m certainly not arguing that knowledge management is the “silver bullet” for completing the 1,000,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. But knowledge management training IS likely to be a critical component of any Climate Puzzle School. What’s the status of knowledge management for supporting climate change decision-making? I’ll explore that in Part 3 of this blog.

Do We Really Intend to Avoid Dangerous Climate Change?

To be clear, I’m not asking “do we care about climate change?,” or “are we worried about climate change?,” or “would we like to see something done about climate change?” The answer to all of these questions is obvious from dozens of opinion polls documenting public concern over climate change.

But we care about lots of wicked problems. We care about global peace, while the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Doomsday Clock gets ever closer to midnight. We care about global inequality, while it gets worse. We care about the international wildlife trade, yet the illegal trade continues decade after decade. We’ve cared about climate change for 30 years now, and yet we remain on track for dangerous climate change.

So what I’m asking isn’t “do we care?” It’s “do we intend to do anything about it?” That’s a much harder question to answer. To explore the question further, I’ll use Neil Matterson’s 2008 vision of the 1,000,000 piece climate change jigsaw puzzle.

men discussing 1,000,000 piece puzzle to solve climate change
Source: Neil Matterson, Sunday Mail Brisbane, 11/2/2008. Image courtesy National Museum of Australia

After working on many aspects of climate change for more than two decades, I’m fascinated by the fact that so few of the 1,000,000 pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place despite the efforts of millions of individuals, thousands of organizations, and dozens of countries. Why haven’t we made more progress?

I’ve spent the last four years focused on understanding the 1,000,000 climate change jigsaw puzzle. What might the puzzle actually look like if it could be completed? What are the pieces, where do they stand, which could be assembled quickly and which not, who is working to assemble the puzzle and who is trying to slow it down? To this end I’ve read dozens of books, hundreds of reports and journal articles, thousands of news stories, visited thousands of websites, and watched hundreds of videos. With the help of knowledge management tools I “remember” almost all of it, so I can honestly claim to have as in-depth an understanding of the jigsaw puzzle as anyone else.

It’s pretty much inevitable that we’ll decarbonize our energy systems eventually. But why will we wait to finish that transition until we’ve committed to levels of climate change (probably between 2 and 6 degrees C) that will range from disruptive to catastrophic for billions of people on the planet? We have most of the tools we need, and in the larger scheme of things it wouldn’t cost very much. So why is progress on the climate jigsaw puzzle so slow in the face of certain risk and almost inevitable disruption? That’s the really challenging question.

I know that climate change is a wicked problem, perhaps the ultimate Gordian knot for human and societal decision-making. I can list dozens of factors that impede progress on avoiding dangerous climate change, some of which are summarized in this cartoon.

The bottom line is that based on best available information any rational risk-averse society would prioritize completing the 1,000,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. The tools to complete most or all of the puzzle already exist. The money exists. But the 1,000,000 piece puzzle hasn’t progressed much beyond what Neil Matterson drew in 2008.

Recognizing that reality, I don’t see convincing skeptics of climate action of the error of their ways as the place to focus if we intend to do something about climate change and ultimately complete the puzzle. Pogo stated on Earth Day 1971, “Yep, son, we have met the enemy and he is us.” I would argue that the when it comes to the 1,000,000 climate change jigsaw puzzle, an important enemy still is the “us” working on the puzzle; we could be doing a much better job. For example:

  • Are there very different views of what the completed puzzle should look like, based on our disciplinary tool sets, political world-views, and financial self-interests? Yes.
  • Are we more committed to completing the puzzle “our way” than to the larger goal of getting the puzzle put together? Yes.
  • Do we only “see” those parts of the puzzle we want to see or are most comfortable seeing? Yes.
  • Are we incentivized to generate ever more information about the puzzle, as opposed to figuring out how to assemble it? Yes.
  • Are we happy to “reinvent the wheel” for individual puzzle pieces if it advances our personal (e.g. need to publish) or organizational (e.g. need to raise funding) interests, no matter how much of a diversion? It seems that way, yes.
  • Do we tend to convince ourselves that “our” puzzle piece is by far the most important, that climate change would be easy to solve if everyone else would just come around to our way of thinking, thus justifying our relative lack of interest in other puzzle pieces? Yes.
  • Do we denigrate the importance of the “other” puzzle pieces (think about the renewables vs. nuclear debate to name just one)? Yes.

The bottom line is that in addition to the many other reasons climate change is such a wicked problem, those of us working on the 1,000,000 piece jigsaw puzzle are part of Pogo’s “we have met the enemy and he is us” problem statement. Our incentive structures lead us to focus much more on “our” piece of the jigsaw puzzle than on the goal of completing puzzle. We seem to assume that Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand will take care of that part of the process.

If we really want to do something about dangerous climate change we should go to Puzzle School to learn how we could most contribute to completing the 1,000,000 climate change jigsaw puzzle. Unfortunately, Puzzle School doesn’t exist. What does that say about whether we actually intend to do anything about dangerous climate change?