Climate change is one of the most difficult political — let alone natural — challenges we face. It’s a relatively far-off calamity that requires action now among the entire developed and developing world, with uncertain costs associated. So how do we motivate people to act?
One option is to scare them with the worst-case scenarios. David Wallace-Wells tried this approach recently with a widely circulated New York Magazine cover story describing the absolute worst-case scenarios for climate change, starting with this intro:
It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.
Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.
Lots of climate advocates and scientists pushed back on this approach though, arguing essentially that “despair is never helpful.”
But David Roberts at Vox.com celebrated this kind of journalism, pointing out that we need to hear more of this alarming, worst-case potential to motivate action:
It may be that there are social dynamics that require some fear and paralysis before a collective breakthrough. At the very least, it seems excessive to draw a pat “fear never works” conclusion from these sorts of data.
Second, even if it’s true that fear only “works” when it is joined with a sense of agency and efficacy, that doesn’t mean that every single instance of fear has to be accompanied by a serving of hope. Not every article has to be about everything. In fact, if you ask me, the “[two paragraphs of fear], BUT [12 paragraphs of happy news]” format has gotten to be a predictable snooze. Some pieces can just be about the terrible risks we face. That’s okay.
Finally, fear+hope requires fear.
Julie Beck at The Atlantic meanwhile reports on the counter-productive tactic of simply making people anxious, particularly via social media. While the thought may be that anxiety leads to action, it can often instead just immobilize and distract people:
Just as social media allowed fake news to spread untrammeled through ideological communities that already largely agreed with each other, it also creates containers for anxiety to swirl in on itself, like a whirlpool in a bottle.
“If you look at the right-hand side of the aisle, and the left, they’re each talking about the things they fear the most,” says Morrow Cater, the president of the bipartisan consulting firm Cater Communications. “The anxiety that you’re talking about—be vigilant!—it comes when you’re fearful.”
But the article also notes that fear-based messaging can work:
Though several people I spoke to said that fear-based appeals to action don’t work, and may even backfire, there’s actually evidence that they do work. Dolores Albarracin, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, did a meta-analysis in 2015 of all available research on fear-based appeals and found that overall, inducing fear does change people’s attitudes, intentions, and behaviors. She and her team did not find a backfire effect.
But the fear appeals that Albarracin studied came with recommended actions. “If the message is not actionable, then you’re not going to get effects overall,” she says.
For my part, I think the public should think about the absolute worst-case effects of climate change. While the worst-case scenario may not come to pass, we need to be prepared for the full range of impacts. Second, we’ve seen fear lead to some of the biggest mass mobilization efforts in history: namely, wars. And climate change will require a similar level of mobilization and urgency.
But I agree that fear-based messages should be paired with actions. Those steps should range from the individual (eat less red meat, install LED light bulbs, buy an electric vehicle if you need one, install solar panels, etc.) to the political (support candidates and policies that address the problem, such as carbon pricing, renewable energy and energy efficiency mandates, and transit-oriented housing).
Otherwise, anxiety without hope or a achievable remedy will be self-defeating.
The coal industry is hoping that the Trump administration will revive its sagging fortunes. I’ll be on AirTalk on KPCC radio (89.3 FM) in Los Angeles today at 11:20am PT to discuss the industry’s future. As the AirTalk page describes:
It’s no secret that environmentalists and the coal mining industry have long been at odds. But more fuel has been added to the fire, so to speak, as the Trump Administration’s Interior Department has moved to lift a moratorium on coal leases in public lands. The temporary ban was enacted under the Obama Administration, which quickly drew opposition from major mining companies.
As reported by the New York Times, about 85 percent of coal is mined from federal lands in the West, from the Powder River Basin. The basin, which includes lands in Wyoming and Montana, produces a small amount of exported coal. Trump has accused the Obama Administration of trying to stifle exports, a market which has become increasingly competitive in sales to power plants in Asia, particularly China. In the West, Vancouver has the most accessible export terminal, but more capacity is needed to stay competitive in the growing global market. And environmentalists have blocked any new developments for a terminal in the U.S.
Joining me on the panel will be:
- Mark Mills, physicist and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute where his focus includes energy and energy technology, and a faculty fellow at Northwestern’s Engineering School; he tweets @MarkPMills
- Daniel Schrag, geochemist and professor of geology, environmental science and engineering; he is also the director at Harvard University Center for the Environment and served on President Obama’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology (2009 to 2016)
For those out of the area, you can stream it live.
Just ahead of last Sunday night’s season premiere of HBO’s epic Game of Thrones, Vanity Fair published an article linking the plot of the show to climate change. It’s a subject I happened to have mused on before, as the threat of the white walkers to Westeros really does mirror the collective threat of climate change to our civilization.
But going even further, the article attempts to determine which characters in the show correspond with real-life leaders in the climate change debate. They interview some of my UCLA Law colleagues on the subjects, with many comparisons I support. Here’s the Yara Greyjoy-Hillary Clinton one:
Neither of these women has done much about either the White Walkers or climate change. Still, Reich’s idea is too fun to ignore: “The feminist ass-kicker from the Iron Islands is definitely Hillary Clinton. There was that whole scene where [Yara] is going to become the king, and then this random dude shows up out of nowhere and everyone is like, ‘Yeah, this guy! He’s totally unqualified!’ ” When Yara’s uncle won, she disappeared. Clinton did the same—though not for good.
It’s actually an effective way to make climate change and its “cast of characters” accessible and interesting to the public, so I’m glad Vanity Fair ran this piece.
Of course, nothing beats the video of the show’s theme song sung by goats.
Bret Stephens, the New York Times’ new columnist, got the climate change world into an outrage with his first column last week, which compared climate science to Hillary Clinton’s pre-election polling and argued for restraint from climate advocates.
In his follow up column today, he took a more measured tone, noting that he believes the Earth is warming but that we’re not being careful on the solutions:
“The British government provided financial incentives to encourage a shift to diesel engines because laboratory tests suggested that would cut harmful emissions and combat climate change. Yet, it turned out that diesel cars emit on average five times as much emissions in real-world driving conditions as in the tests, according to a British Department for Transport study.”
In other words, to say we want to take out insurance for climate change is perfectly sensible. But whether we know we’re buying the right insurance, at the right price, is less clear, and it behooves us to look closely at the fine print before we sign on.
As someone who works day in and day out on climate mitigation policies, I can tell you that Stephens is cherry-picking from a handful of bad examples.
Take his reference to the ethanol subsidies, which resulted from the federal renewable fuel standard, established during the second Bush administration. Yes, the standard did spur more Midwestern corn production to be used for biofuel.
But the policy was never really a climate mitigation measure. It was primarily meant to boost domestic fuel sources, with greenhouse gas reduction as an added selling point but no strict carbon screen on the fuels. If there was a strong carbon screen on the kind of fuel that could qualify, very little of that high-carbon Midwestern corn-based ethanol would have qualified (hence the opposition to the standard even from some environmentalists).
For a better climate policy model on biofuels, just look to California. The state’s low carbon fuel standard (which encourages biofuel production like the renewable fuel standard but with a strong low-carbon requirement) disfavors land-intensive corn for true low-carbon biofuel, like in-state used cooking oil (surprisingly a growing percentage of the state’s biofuel).
Stephens’ reference to the British diesel problem is also unfortunate. Most climate policy experts will tell you that the best way to reduce emissions from transportation is through battery electric vehicles, as long as the electricity doesn’t come exclusively from coal-fired power plants (in which case hybrid vehicles yield better carbon reductions). Other fuels that can work include low-carbon biofuels and possibly hydrogen, depending on the energy source used to produce it. Diesel isn’t on the list, at least in places like California, unless it’s biodiesel.
On that subject, biodiesel does emit conventional pollutants, an issue we’re grappling with in California, as evidenced by the POET lawsuit against the California Air Resources Board’s low carbon fuel standard. Biodiesel is great at reducing carbon emissions but also emits nitrogen oxide (NOx) — a subject we covered in Berkeley/UCLA Law’s 2015 Planting Fuels report.
Resolving this conflict among pollutants will take a policy balancing act, but it ultimately shouldn’t obscure the huge economic and environmental benefits from switching transportation fuels from petroleum to electricity and low-carbon biofuels. Stephens simply ignores this tried-and-true approach, which is resulting in swift advancements in electric vehicle adoption in places like California, Europe, and even China.
To be sure, care is needed when it comes to developing climate policies, and I’d agree with Stephens on that front. But the main concern is around managing the economic impacts of transitioning the grid and transportation fuels to cleaner sources. We have to go slow to avoid price shocks and bring the costs of these new technologies down.
California is doing just that, with a measured, careful plan to bring down the emissions curve steeply over the coming decades. Our economy is now less carbon intensive than it was in the 1990s and has been growing rapidly, too — which is at least an indication that climate policies aren’t getting in the way, if not actually serving as a boost.
There’s no reason that the country as a whole can’t follow suit, except that we have national writers like Stephens who cherrypick their way into sounding like reasonable skeptics — when they’re really just misleading people.
People who deny the overwhelming science on climate change may seem stubborn, obstinate and close minded. But not all of them. In fact, there are recovering deniers among us, and they may offer interesting lessons for how to reach others stuck in their former state of mind.
A question on Reddit about what changed climate deniers’ minds yielded some interesting answers. Yale Climate Connections then analyzed the 66 responses. The biggest reason was a slow acceptance of clear scientific evidence:
As the news site Quartz explained:
Seeing graphs of atmospheric carbon dioxde and overwhelming data supporting the conclusion that humans are rapidly, catastrophically warming the planet was convincing for many. “It’s just difficult for me to deny it with the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence that supports it,” wrote one. The desire to safeguard the Earth, evidence of extreme weather, and dubious sources among climate change deniers sealed the deal for most of the rest.
Yet at the same time, past studies have revealed that showing climate deniers more facts and charts just gets them more dug into their position. So what’s the response?
Perhaps the most important approach is to start with one that disarms a climate denier. Frame climate solutions in less threatening terms, such as starting with solutions like geoengineering and nuclear power that can get deniers thinking productively about the challenge. Other research suggests that talking about what might be lost with climate change or what the impacts of following the denial logic might be could be persuasive to deniers.
Otherwise, these responses on Reddit indicate that continuous hammering of the overwhelming scientific consensus may actually bear fruit over the long run.
If there’s one area where Trump is likely to have legislative success, it’s probably the budget and taxes. A partisan majority of Republicans in Congress will go along with any tax and spending cuts, leaving Trump in a good position to get his way. And his current budget proposal is nothing less than a full-scale assault on environmental protections and public health.
It’s a bad combination of Trump’s seemingly genuine antipathy to government regulations and his party being captured by big polluters in the oil and gas industry.
My UC Berkeley Law colleague Dan Farber runs through the numbers on Legal Planet, but they basically include massive cuts to environmental enforcement, restoration and monitoring, including on climate data, as well as eliminating research in clean energy.
The last part on clean energy cuts is particularly frustrating. I’ve blogged before about the success of ARPA-E, the most important governmental agency you’ve never heard of. It’s the “moonshot” agency that is funding breakthrough technologies in batteries, solar power and other vital technology. Since 2009, it has provided $1.3 billion in funding to more than 475 projects, of which 45 have then raised $1.25 billion in private sector funds.
So of course Trump and his allies want to eliminate the agency completely.
But all is not yet lost. The budget will go through a lot of sausage-making in Congress, and even many Republicans are invested in some of these programs, given the benefits they provide their districts.
But environmental and public health advocates will be starting from a tough position, and this is one area where Trump is likely to get a lot of what he wants.
Want to know which counties in the U.S. accept climate science at the highest rates and which don’t? Which ones believe climate change is happening or that we should regulate carbon as a pollutant?
If that’s the case, then Yale has the interactive map for you. The school’s Program on Climate Change Communication just released its “Yale Climate Opinion Maps – U.S. 2016,” which breaks public opinion surveys down to the county level across the U.S.
It’s an easy-to-use map. While it doesn’t contain a huge amount of surprises (New England and the West Coast, particularly California, are pro-science accepters), it does reveal that climate science acceptance is actually fairly prevalent in red states. Standouts include southern and northern Arizona and much of South Texas. Montana, Idaho and South Dakota also have pretty striking pockets of science acceptance, as well as parts of Mississippi along the river to the northwest.
But there’s otherwise hard-core climate denial going on from the heart of Texas north through Nebraska, and throughout coal-country Appalachia (Kentucky and West Virginia).
The website is definitely an interesting way to spend a few minutes clicking around. Congratulations to Yale for putting it together.
I’ve spent some time thinking about how reframing arguments around climate change might make inroads with science-denying conservatives. If facts don’t matter, maybe forcing deniers to think through the impacts of their ideas might work? Or maybe try labeling all extreme weather as “climate change”? Or talk about climate past and what we’ve lost?
But David Roberts over at Vox disparages the idea that better language can make a difference, citing recent research:
To sum up, the frames that reach people and actually make a difference are a) resonant with their existing dispositions and affiliations, b) delivered by a trusted source, and c) repeated often enough to penetrate the pervasive information buzz.
Ultimately, Roberts reasons, traditional arguments may still be the best ones, given the current political climate and way the human mind works:
This isn’t to say that other frames can’t work for particular audiences at particular times. Entrepreneurs could be (and have been) taken by the notion that climate is an enormous business innovation opportunity. Conservatives could be (and have been) taken by the notion that renewable energy offers energy independence. Disadvantaged or polluted communities could be (and have been) taken by the notion that climate mitigation also mitigates asthma-causing pollutants.
And so on. “Know your audience and speak to them in a way that resonates” is a fairly old bit of counsel, around long before cognitive linguistics, and it’s as true as ever.
I agree it’s not worth a huge effort to try to convince deniers on the science. But if simple fixes to language and rhetoric might disarm a critic and get them to think differently, there’s also no harm in trying.
Elizabeth Kolbert at the New Yorker explains why facts don’t matter to people, when it comes to persuasion, belief and arguments. Ultimately, research shows that most people’s views are more about securing tribal-type cooperation among their social groups than dispassionate, reasoned analysis.
That’s all fine and good when it comes to organizing a group hunt or — in the modern day — relying on other people’s expertise to run basic infrastructure or business transactions. But that group thinking has major pitfalls when it comes to achieving positive policy outcomes, particularly on climate change.
Kolbert’s piece offers a number of examples of how people are terrible at reasoning:
Sloman and Fernbach cite a survey conducted in 2014, not long after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Respondents were asked how they thought the U.S. should react, and also whether they could identify Ukraine on a map. The farther off base they were about the geography, the more likely they were to favor military intervention. (Respondents were so unsure of Ukraine’s location that the median guess was wrong by eighteen hundred miles, roughly the distance from Kiev to Madrid.)
But there may be a glimmer of hope to force more careful thought and opinion:
In a study conducted in 2012, they asked people for their stance on questions like: Should there be a single-payer health-care system? Or merit-based pay for teachers? Participants were asked to rate their positions depending on how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the proposals. Next, they were instructed to explain, in as much detail as they could, the impacts of implementing each one. Most people at this point ran into trouble. Asked once again to rate their views, they ratcheted down the intensity, so that they either agreed or disagreed less vehemently.
Sloman and Fernbach see in this result a little candle for a dark world. If we—or our friends or the pundits on CNN—spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views. This, they write, “may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.”
Following this logic, perhaps one way to open up some daylight among closed minds on climate science is to ask people to explain the impacts of their opposition to climate change efforts. What if they’re wrong on the science? What if countries like China take the lead on manufacturing clean technologies like solar panels? Why not work to reduce pollution from the electricity and transportation sectors?
With some focused questions like these challenging pre-determined beliefs, perhaps we could make some headway opening minds.
A month ago, I blogged about a study that showed that conservatives might be open to climate science if the information is phrased in terms of what has been lost. The study was based on the following logic:
Their idea is that conservatives tend to take a brighter view of the past than other groups; thus, they might be receptive to arguments regarding global warming couched in more pro-past oriented ways, e.g., “Times were better when you could count on snow for Christmas in northern towns,” or “We planted bulbs in the garden on the same spring day every year.”
But David Roberts at Vox throws cold water on the study — and the larger idea that climate scientists can make inroads among grassroots conservatives. Instead, he argues that phrasing makes no difference when only “tribal” affiliations really determine our political beliefs:
The vast bulk of our knowledge, we take on faith. Or to put it more charitably, we take on trust. We absorb what we know from trusted peers and authorities. Our trust in them is a kind of heuristic that allows us to navigate a wildly complex and uncertain reality, of which we will directly experience only a tiny fraction.
Having an understanding of the world and your place in it — an understanding shared by your tribe — feels like safety. It feels like control. Questions that unsettle that understanding are instinctively treated with skepticism or outright hostility.
This is the great insight of the work done on “motivated reasoning” by Dan Kahan and his colleagues at Yale. (I’ve written about that work before, here, and Ezra Klein has written about it here.) For most people, most of the time, social bonds matter far more than any particular bit of knowledge, any fact or belief.
Roberts observes that only institutions can supersede this “tribal” dynamic. Yet conservatives and their business allies have been systematically undermining the legitimacy of scientific institutions for years, arguing that they are corrupted, ideologically biased, and often wrong. The efforts seem to have paid off among the conservative masses.
Instead of focusing on grassroots communication, Roberts thinks that only conservative elites have the power to change popular opinion among their tribal followers:
Conservatives will accept the scientific facts of climate change when conservative elites signal that that’s what conservatives do — when they demonstrate trust in the institutions of climate science. When that happens, there will be no particular grassroots resistance, because there’s no particular commitment to climate denialism outside its role in the culture war. Once it is not constitutive of conservative identity, it will be easily shed.
And that change, Roberts suggests, will only happen when the profit motive to combat climate change increases.
It’s a bit of a depressing take on the future of climate science mass communications, but one that does seem based on some solid research. It’s worth contemplating as advocates try to improve the messaging. It also points to the need to improve the business case for many of the industries we’ll need to tackle the problem, from renewables to electric vehicles to energy efficiency.
Because if Roberts is right, the profit motive will be much more powerful than the actual data in reaching climate deniers.