Warming Trends: The ‘Cranky Uncle’ Game, Good News About Bowheads and Steps to a Speedier Energy Transition

A column highlighting climate-related studies, innovations, books, cultural events and other developments from the global warming frontier.

A new phone app called "Cranky Uncle" uses a science-denying uncle cartoon character to illustrate different methods of disinformation on science topics like climate change. Credit: Autonomy/John Cook

A new phone app called "Cranky Uncle" uses a science-denying uncle cartoon character to illustrate different methods of disinformation on science topics like climate change. Credit: Autonomy/John Cook

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Warming Trends
Culture

How to Talk to Your ‘Cranky Uncle’ About Climate Change

What do you say to someone who says, “It’s cold. Global warming doesn’t exist”?

In “Cranky Uncle,” a free phone app game, cartoonist-turned-scientist John Cook offers ways to identify and combat misinformation on climate change and other topics.

Cook, a researcher at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, combined his expertise in climate denialism with the artistic skills he gained in his previous career as a cartoonist to create the game.

Players are guided by a science-denying Cranky Uncle cartoon character through five disinformation techniques often used by people who doubt the science of topics like climate change, evolution, vaccines or Covid-19.

“Games are a really powerful way to get people practicing critical thinking,” Cook said. “So given that I’ve done cartooning in the past, I could see that cartoons were a really powerful way to make games engaging and funny.”

The players in Cranky Uncle learn to spot fallacies and practice confronting denialist arguments with logic and analogies. Cook said he has tested how cartoons that use analogies compare to more serious infographics as communication techniques. Both were effective, but people spent more time looking at the cartoons and were more likely to share them with others. 

The humor draws people deeper and deeper into the game, Cook said. And “The deeper they get in the game, the more inoculated they become against disinformation.”

Cook also used the approach in a book published in February, “Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change: How to understand and respond to climate science deniers.” 

The Cranky Uncle game is currently available only to iPhone users, but it will soon be available on Android. Cook also wants to add more denial techniques, including those used in conspiracy theories, and a social element to the game, where players can add their own questions and compete against others.

Science

Not All the News Is Bad: The Return of the Bowhead

Despite another disastrous year for the Arctic, a rare morsel of good news has emerged from the region: Bowhead whale populations living north of Alaska and Canada have rebounded to pre-commercial whaling numbers.

Bowheads living in the East Canada-West Greenland Sea and in the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas “have nearly fully recovered” since commercial whaling almost wiped out the species by the early 1900s, according to an update to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic Report Card, which tracks the species.

Referred to by biologists as the “ice whale,” bowheads have evolved to live in frigid conditions—over a foot and a half of blubber keeps their bodies warm and a pronounced bump on their head helps them break through ice. So biologists were surprised to find that not only was the species doing well, but some populations were thriving as annual Arctic sea ice continues to deplete at record rates due to global warming.

The population living in the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas now sits at around 16,800, up from just thousands at the turn of the 20th century, according to the NOAA report.

“Most of us thought about the bowhead as an ice dependent mammal,” said Craig George, the lead author of NOAA’s recent update and a retired biologist with the North Slope borough department of wildlife management. “All of this was a little counterintuitive.”

But as the ice melts, it brings in nutrients from the Bering Sea, which in turn increased the abundance of krill and other plankton that the whales eat, George said. That led to fatter whales and higher birth rates, he said.

That doesn’t mean the bowheads are out of danger. “As the Arctic opens up, shipping has increased dramatically. One of my big concerns is commercial fishing moving into the bowhead feeding areas,” he said. “It’s clear worldwide that the biggest threat to all whales is entanglement by fishing gear.”

Solutions

A Roadmap for Speeding Up the Energy Transition

As the United States tackles the daunting task of rapidly driving down carbon emissions, a group of researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder has released a roadmap for the country to follow, as it tries to reclaim its position as a global leader on climate.

The report, “Accelerating the U.S. Clean Energy Transformation: Challenges and Solutions,” outlines specific actions across various sectors that could make dramatic cuts to emissions.

The takeaway: The United States needs urgent, comprehensive action if it’s going to get where it needs to go.

“Committing to this clean energy transformation yields many benefits beyond addressing climate change,” said lead author Charles Kutscher. “We can eliminate the high healthcare costs associated with air pollution, create millions of good-paying jobs, and address systemic social justice issues all at the same time.” 

A sample of the report’s policy recommendations:

Buildings

  • Maximize energy efficiency.
  • Electrify all buildings and use modern heat pumps to replace natural gas/
  • Cut back on carbon emissions in building materials.

Transportation

  • By 2025, transition all government light-duty vehicles to electric. Pass legislation to prohibit the sales and production of gas-powered cars by 2030.
  • Adopt a cash buy-back policy, especially focused on low-income consumers.
  • Promote a shift to mass transportation, telecommuting and walking.

Electricity

  • Set aggressive federal and state targets for clean electricity generation. A carbon tax can be considered along with these targets, but is not an adequate substitute for a clean energy mandate.
  • Green stimulus in the power sector, especially for things like grid modernization, electric vehicle charging, cybersecurity and advanced transmission interconnections.
  • Expand federal funding for increased research, development and deployment and administration action on projects that can expand renewable power generation.
Culture

Climate Conscious? There’s an App for That, Too.

Games aren’t the only climate-related apps making their way onto your smartphones. A growing number of apps, most of them aimed at helping consumers reduce their personal carbon footprints, have hit the market in recent years.

Worried about plastic waste and the carbon-intensive process it takes to create the bottles? An app called Refill can help you find water fountains on the go. And just how climate-friendly are your dietary habits? A 2018 study in the journal Science found that cutting meat and dairy from your diet can reduce your personal carbon footprint by as much as 73 percent. The app Happycow shows users where to find the nearest vegetarian- or vegan-friendly restaurants.

There’s even an app called Think Dirty that helps people find more eco-friendly beauty products and cosmetics.

More recently released apps, such as Sustaio and Kilma, take a more holistic approach to reducing personal carbon footprints. They offer platforms where users can track their personal carbon emissions from a wide range of activities, including eating, shopping and traveling. Users can then set goals and receive tips on how to further shrink their footprint.

The apps could help put a dent in the carbon emissions from industries like retail, shipping and food, as well as encourage a faster transition to a greener economy. But individual lifestyle changes aren’t enough to adequately curb the climate crisis and systemic shifts need to happen, said Michael Mann, a prominent climate scientist and the director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University.

“It’s not that personal action should be disdained, but at this point, it’s impossible to make the climate math work one Prius at a time,” Mann said. “For individuals, the most important choice is to be a little less of an individual and join with others in the movements that can reshape our political and economic systems.”

Science

More Good News From the Animal Kingdom

Scientists have determined that a Swinhoe softshell turtle captured in Vietnam in October is a female. The turtle is a member of the most endangered turtle species on earth. There’s only one other Swinhoe softshell turtle in captivity—and it happens to be a male.

“In a year full of bad news and sadness across the globe, the discovery of this female can offer all some hope that this species will be given another chance to survive,” said Hoang Bich Thuy, the Vietnam director of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which is collaborating with The Ha Noi Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Asian Turtle Program of Indo-Myanmar Conservation on the effort to save the species.

The Swinhoe softshell turtle, AKA the Yangtze giant, AKA Hoan Kiem, may be the largest freshwater turtle in the world, clocking in at roughly three feet long and up to 220 pounds. Thanks to overhunting and habitat destruction, the turtle’s numbers have dwindled to practically none, resulting in it being listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.

In 2019, the only known female Swinhoe died following an artificial insemination procedure in Suzhou, China. Now, scientists have another shot at bringing the species back from the brink.