April 9, 2014

Getting Motivated

One would presume that in principle the best way of motivating people to do something about climate change is to frighten them with portraits of a coming apocalyptic world. Not so, say Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute, in an op-ed at the New York Times. These two chaps have conducted a long running argument regarding the utility of non-stop-disaster messaging from the environmental movement; they are also big advocates of nuclear power and natural gas displacing coal.

They begin by pointing to Showtime's  new nine part series "Years of Living Dangerously" (the first episode of which is available without subscription.) The first episode is pretty good. It shows Harrison Ford getting educated, amid very sophisticated equipment and astonishing maps, about the basics of climate change. Ford travels to Indonesia, where we learn of the role that deforestation (to make way for palm oil plantations) is playing in exacerbating climate change. Deforestation and burning contributes about 20% of total greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to the contribution made by the transportation sector.

The first episode also features Don Cheadle visiting drought stricken Texas. The heroine is a woman who teaches at Texas Tech, Katharine Hayhoe, who is that most unusual of creatures: an evangelical Christian and a climate change crusader. The local opinion leans heavily toward the idea that God is behind Texas's brutal drought (for which there is abundant evidence), but Professor Hayhoe says that God created human beings so that we could figure this stuff out by ourselves.

The Showtime series, thus far, doesn't really correspond to Nordhaus and Schellenberger's depiction. In fact, I was impressed by the degree to which Showtime intimated that it is impossible to do much of anything--even have a discussion about climate change--without lots of planes, trains, and automobiles hovering in the background.

Still, this question of how to do "messaging" is really interesting. Ultimately, I would prefer it if the advocates on either side didn't screen their advice with a filter that says: "Don't necessarily tell the truth as you see it, but shape the message so that readers and viewers will react appropriately." Most scientists would object to such a filter, but in their attempts to convince the public they have been dazed and confused by the seeming inability of the public to get it. If they want to do something about climate change, many have realized, they have no choice but to enter the arena and play by the somewhat underhanded rules that make for political success.

The producers of the Showtime series (including Joe Romm as one of the two chief science advsiors) are certainly themselves keenly aware of the importance of proper messaging. I haven't looked, but I imagine that Romm has already blasted away at Nordhaus and Schellenberger over at Climate Progress. We'll check in later with that; for now, here is how Shellenberger and Nordhaus present their counter-intuitive case.

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[T]here is every reason to believe that efforts to raise public concern about climate change by linking it to natural disasters will backfire. More than a decade’s worth of research suggests that fear-based appeals about climate change inspire denial, fatalism and polarization.

For instance, Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” popularized the idea that today’s natural disasters are increasing in severity and frequency because of human-caused global warming. It also contributed to public backlash and division. Since 2006, the number of Americans telling Gallup that the media was exaggerating global warming grew to 42 percent today from about 34 percent. Meanwhile, the gap between Democrats and Republicans on whether global warming is caused by humans rose to 42 percent last year from 26 percent in 2006, according to the Pew Research Center.

Other factors contributed. Some conservatives and fossil-fuel interests questioned the link between carbon emissions and global warming. And beginning in 2007, as the country was falling into recession, public support for environmental protection declined.

Still, environmental groups have known since 2000 that efforts to link climate change to natural disasters could backfire, after researchers at the Frameworks Institute studied public attitudes for its report “How to Talk About Global Warming.” Messages focused on extreme weather events, they found, made many Americans more likely to view climate change as an act of God — something to be weathered, not prevented.

Some people, the report noted, “are likely to buy an SUV to help them through the erratic weather to come” for example, rather than support fuel-efficiency standards.

Since then, evidence that a fear-based approach backfires has grown stronger. A frequently cited 2009 study in the journal Science Communication summed up the scholarly consensus. “Although shocking, catastrophic, and large-scale representations of the impacts of climate change may well act as an initial hook for people’s attention and concern,” the researchers wrote, “they clearly do not motivate a sense of personal engagement with the issue and indeed may act to trigger barriers to engagement such as denial.” In a controlled laboratory experiment published in Psychological Science in 2010, researchers were able to use “dire messages” about global warming to increase skepticism about the problem.

Many climate advocates ignore these findings, arguing that they have an obligation to convey the alarming facts.

But claims linking the latest blizzard, drought or hurricane to global warming simply can’t be supported by the science. Our warming world is, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, increasing heat waves and intense precipitation in some places, and is likely to bring more extreme weather in the future. But the panel also said there is little evidence that this warming is increasing the loss of life or the economic costs of natural disasters. “Economic growth, including greater concentrations of people and wealth in periled areas and rising insurance penetration,” the climate panel noted, “is the most important driver of increasing losses.”

Claims that current disasters are connected to climate change do seem to motivate many liberals to support action. But they alienate conservatives in roughly equal measure.

What works, say environmental pollsters and researchers, is focusing on popular solutions. Climate advocates often do this, arguing that solar and wind can reduce emissions while strengthening the economy. But when renewable energy technologies are offered as solutions to the exclusion of other low-carbon alternatives, they polarize rather than unite.

One recent study, published by Yale Law School’s Cultural Cognition Project, found that conservatives become less skeptical about global warming if they first read articles suggesting nuclear energy or geoengineering as solutions. Another study, in the journal Nature Climate Change in 2012, concluded that “communication should focus on how mitigation efforts can promote a better society” rather than “on the reality of climate change and averting its risks.”

Nonetheless, virtually every major national environmental organization continues to reject nuclear energy, even after four leading climate scientists wrote them an open letter last fall, imploring them to embrace the technology as a key climate solution. Together with catastrophic rhetoric, the rejection of technologies like nuclear and natural gas by environmental groups is most likely feeding the perception among many that climate change is being exaggerated. After all, if climate change is a planetary emergency, why take nuclear and natural gas off the table?

While the urgency that motivates exaggerated claims is understandable, turning down the rhetoric and embracing solutions like nuclear energy will better serve efforts to slow global warming.

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Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, “Global Warming Scare Tactics,” New York Times, April 8, 2014

As expected, Joe Romm lit into the authors' argument here: "The Brutally Dishonest Attacks on Showtime's Landmark Series on Climate Change," Climate Progress, April 9, 2014. 

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