Handle with care

Who is to temper the message of climate science to fit the psychology of those who receive it?

According to a report in Science Daily a forthcoming study will show that people may discount the evidence for global warming if it threatens their fundamental tendency to see the world as safe, stable and fair. On the other hand they may get past their scepticism if the findings of climate science are not presented apocalyptically and solutions to the problem are offered. Robb Willer, UC Berkeley social psychologist and doctoral student Matthew Feinberg have co-authored the study which will appear in the January issue of the journal Psychological Science.


I won’t report the details of their experiments, which are outlined in the Science Daily report for any who would like further information. The claim that people don’t respond to doomsday themes is common enough, though the study’s investigation of how this is related to their view of the world as just and fair may well be illuminating. What I found myself thinking as I was reading the report of the study was not so much whether it is revealing as what it is supposed to imply for those who practise climate science.

I can’t really see that it carries any implication at all for the scientists. Their work is to report what they detect is happening and will happen in the future if we continue to overload the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. There’s no way in which what they discover can be communicated as anything other than serious in its consequences.  I wrote some months ago about the unedifying spectacle of Bjorn Lomborg attempting to downplay the seriousness by talking about “balanced information” and moving away from end-of-the-world stories. He was on a climate change panel at a PEN conference and his address immediately followed James Hansen’s. Hansen had said that if we burn all of the fossil fuels we are guaranteed to pass tipping points, the most imminent major one being disintegration of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. Lomborg didn’t address the science at all, but simply said that “apocalyptic information” turns people off and is part of the reason why we’ve seen a decline in public concern about global warming. The sombre warnings of the scientist were simply swept away by the economist. Easy. But not an option for the scientist who can hardly moderate the message because it might turn people off. In fact the possible public response cannot be allowed any influence on the studies climate scientists are conducting.

However there are solutions which come hand in hand with the serious findings of the science, and there’s nothing to say we can’t embrace the solutions without dwelling on the consequences of what will happen if we don’t. I notice that Arnold Schwarzenegger in his planned new role of environmental activist is likely to avoid mention of the words climate change or greenhouse gas emissions, which he thinks are a turn-off for some people. “You’ve got to make it hip. You’ve got to make it sexy to be part of this movement.” I hope he meets with success. Nevertheless he is launching on his role because he is aware of how great a threat climate change poses to the human future. It’s there as background reference for him.

I wonder how the experiments described by the psychologists would turn out if they were administered to the population of a Pacific island threatened by sea level rise. Or to Peruvian or Bolivian farmers hit by glacier retreat. Their sense of stability and safety has already been eroded and is hardly likely to interfere with their estimation of the evidence for climate change. They’re not turned off by information that the effects of climate change are potentially catastrophic. They can see that. It’s seemingly the wealthy and protected societies which require communication so delicate that it won’t arouse any sense of fear.

Any approach that will result in drastically lowered emissions and green energy is to be welcomed. But the science is implacable. There’s no way of making it unthreatening.

[Traveling Wilburys]

62 thoughts on “Handle with care”

  1. I think Arnie’s got it right. If politicians can’t do the job, the next best shot is the business community. Besides, he’s great for the image of environmentalism.

  2. “…they may get past their scepticism if the findings of climate science are not presented apocalyptically…”
    According to the Hindustan Times “former president” Al Gore hasn’t got the memo:
    ““There was severe drought in Russia and extreme flooding in Pakistan. What more evidence is required for action,” he said.
    Ah, Al, scepticism’s best friend.

  3. Andrew Revkin has a more informative post on this topic at Dot Earth, with a link to the paper and comments from other researchers working in the field.

    Bryan’s claim that scientific predictions about the Earth’s future climate are implacable is just as extreme and indefensible as the claims of those he seeks to oppose.

    Lord May offers a clearer view of the role that fuzzy and uncertain science has to play in the debate:

    How seriously should we take climate change, and how much inconvenience would we be willing to put up with to avoid – what I regard as virtually certain – much greater inconvenience in the not too distant future. We’re asked to do things for which we and our institutions have no evolutionary experience, acting on behalf of a seemingly distant future.
    What are the guiding principles?

    I believe, in broad outline, what one wants is the science, with all its uncertainties fully exposed, to frame a debate and constrain a debate, so that the democratic debate that ensues does not have Cloud Cuckoo Land as one of the options. But then the debate we have is one in which science itself, having framed the stage, and constrained the stage, and emphasized the fuzziness of the stage, has no special voice – although scientists themselves can and should play a role as citizen-scientists.

    1. I think Bryan’s main point is conveyed in part 2 – there’s no way of making it unthreatening. And that’s the rub. If you don’t want people to become alarmed you’re not getting them to fully understand the extent of the problem.

      I’m sure we’re hardly astonished that people – particularly comfortably off ones – don’t want to be told unpleasant things.

      And I think Lord May’s opinions show a rather limited understanding of politics and social-dynamics generally – are naive, in fact.

      The other side of this argument will be delighted if we’re having to tie ourselves in knots trying to avert a potential disaster without ever mentioning a potential disaster. (Witness Steve’s asinine comment above.) And then having to qualify every utterance so as not to startle the horses.

      To whit: ‘We can have a happy world with less CO2 – not that we need get too over-wrought about the potentially some-might-say less desirable things that might happen in a world with more CO2, mind you, and, of course, there’s at least some chance they might not.’

      Not many Churchillian speeches in the offing there. Has any human grouping ever been motivated to achieve any substantial change by the cautious and wishy-washy?

      I also think that if it does all go pear-shaped – perennial droughts, floods, swollen ocean, famine, huge floating populations of refugees etc. – the same people now vehemently opposing any action will cheerfully switch to saying it was ‘all the disaster-monger’s fault’ because they didn’t nuance their message properly! In fact, I guarantee this will happen.

      But really, it’s most likely very little will change because most people would rather remain as relatively affluent consumers, despite the risks, which they will ignore, repress and the later claim weren’t made sufficiently clear to them. ( ‘After all Lord May said there was some doubt!’)

      They might be persuaded to change when the evidence is literally overhwhelming, and a fat lot of good that will do. This isn’t our fault. It’s a Cassandra thing. No need to don hair-shirts with the rest of our troubles.

      And the sad reality of the world is that it’s simply ahistoric to assume things ‘have to’ turn out for the best!

    2. Le Chat Noir, perhaps implacable means something different to you than it did to me as I used it. As Bill divines it was my way of saying that there’s no gainsaying its seriousness. It doesn’t mean there’s no uncertainty involved in the science. I would have thought I acknowledge uncertainty often enough in my posts here for that to be apparent. I regard the word implacable as neither extreme nor indefensible, but I could equally well have written obdurate or inexorable.

      1. obdurate adjective

        • DISAPPROVING extremely determined to act in a particular way and not to change despite what anyone else says
        The President remains obdurate on the question of tax cuts.

        • describes a person who refuses to change their mind, or someone or something that is difficult to deal with or change
        The union remains obdurate that any redundancies must be voluntary.

        Several obdurate facts/differences remain, preventing a compromise solution.

        (Definition of obdurate adjective from the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary)

  4. Solutions to ocean acidification? = one, drastically reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

    There. Sorted. Can we now make a start before it’s too late altogether?.

      1. Le Chat Noir – If we want democratic policy-making to be backed by the best available science, we need a theory of risk communication that takes full account of the effects of culture on our decision-making.

        Which means what exactly?.

        1. It means that you might believe in “personal responsibility” and I might believe in “regulation” so you might ridicule my proposal to regulate the flow rate of shower heads as “nanny statism.”
          The phrasing of your question suggests that you think Dan Kahan’s ideas are pseudo scientific gobbledygook. Don’t you think that psychologists and sociologists and anthropologists have a contribution to make to this debate? I provided a link to the source so you could look there or you could dip into the ideas of Mary Douglas et al. Here’s a starter for 10.

          1. The phrasing of your question suggests that you think Dan Kahan’s ideas are pseudo scientific gobbledygook.

            No need for projection, I can tell you exactly what I think. The previous portion I highlighted is just waffle. How do you account for all the different cultural views prevalent in society, when commenting on climate science?. A bit more detail on how to accomplish that would be useful.

            To me, comments like those of Kahan’s seem a bit odd. I don’t disagree that people will tend to disbelieve science which implies a negative outcome for them personally. But what if there are no solutions to some of the negative consequences of global warming (see my ocean acidification comment), or the solution (such as aggressive CO2 emission reductions) are unpalatable?.

            Let’s be clear, I agree such approaches should be employed. Where I disagree, is the suggestion that such approaches will make an appreciable difference in public opinion, like some universal remedy. It won’t – I just base that on my experience of human behavior. Reality crashing in is what will change opinions. I’d like to be wrong, but don’t think I will be.

            1. Fortunately the realms of social science extend beyond your personal experience of other people just as the realms of climate science extend beyond you personal experience of today’s weather.

            2. Fortunately the realms of social science extend beyond your personal experience of other people

              So you don’t know what was meant by the segment I highlighted either?. Some examples of how to go about it would be nice.

          2. Nanny statism? We already have rules about dual flush toilets. And water tanks plumbed into the house have been compulsory in all new buildings and most renovations for several years.

            I don’t see the problem.

      2. You mean neutralisation

        No. Concerns about ocean acidification aren’t just about the decline in pH (rising concentration of hydrogen ions in the world’s oceans), but a decline in carbonate ion availability. Both combine to negatively impact shell-building marine organisms.

        As humans add more CO2 to the atmosphere, more of it dissolves into the oceans (Henry’s Law) leading to a drop in pH and changes in the proportion of inorganic carbon, one of which is a decline in carbonate ions.

        The Earth’s oceans have had lower pH in the distant past (many millions of years ago, for example) however there is a natural carbonate buffering effect. Weathering leads to more carbonates being washed into the oceans (which negates some of the impact of lowered pH), but the timescale for this is in the order of tens of thousands of years.

        The effect of even slow (by today’s standard) changes in pH are evident in the geological record, ocean acidification appears to play a hand in all of the 5 major extinction events. During the end Ordovician, Permian & End Triassic coral reefs were extinguished, and new coral forms did not evolve for millions of years.

        Then or course there are the effects of ocean stratification, and ocean anoxia which will increase under global warming. Already being recorded I’m afraid.

        So, no there is no way to neutralize ocean acidification on timescales useful to humans, and marine critters. The only viable remedy is to drastically cut CO2 emissions.

        1. ” there is no way to neutralize ocean acidification on timescales useful to humans”
          Neutralise acid acidification? I’m afraid you’re making less sense than a sack full of hammers.
          The alkaline ocean must be neutralised before it could possibly be acidified. And even if every scrap of FF was burnt the 1.3 billion cubic kilometers of our oceans wouldn’t drop below pH 7.

          1. SW – You mean neutralisation

            SW – Neutralise acid acidification?

            SW – less sense than a sack full of hammers.

            I agree. All silly phrases introduced by you.

            1. The alkaline ocean must be neutralised before…

              The oceans were still alkaline during the major extinction events, but it didn’t stop much of life in the ocean being killed off. Which kind of puts things into context eh?.

              No more silly word games, save that for your mates at Massey University.

            1. Carol. He knows this, it’s been pointed out before. It’s a denialist meme designed to fool uninformed passersby.

      3. What’s your point Steve?

        Acidification (n).
        The action or process of making something (more) acidic; conversion into an acid; addition of acid.
        2006 New Scientist 5 Aug. 30/1 Most scientists think it is correct to describe any process that lowers pH as acidification.

        Are you a chemist Steve? No? I am. (And my research group has been measuring ocean pH for over 15 years). The appropriate term is acidification.

          1. If the ammonia has a pH of 11.6 and the bleach has a pH of 12.6 then the resulting solution is more acidic than the original bleach. Therefore…

            Like either of these substances, arguments that are really mere definitional pedantry masquerading as a substantive point in the hope of baffling onlookers are extremely irritating!

            1. Yes. But if I had a substance with a pH of 12.6 in my swiming pool I wouldn’t be worried about ‘acidification’ because it is moving towards 11.6

            2. Yes. But if I had a substance with a pH of 12.6 in my swiming pool I wouldn’t be worried about ‘acidification’

              How many calcifying organisms at the base of the world’s marine food web live in your swimming pool?????.

            3. I had an aunt who used to let her ducks live in her swimming pool. After several months there were a few organisms in there, I can tell you! I don’t think you’d want to base a food chain on them, though…

          2. Ammonia is a gas, NH3. “Bleach” can mean several things but to a non –chemist some common ‘bleaches’ include aqueous solutions of H2O2 and NaClO. What precisely are you asking about? Do you mean bubbling ammonia gas into a water solution of H2O2?

  5. “Lomborg didn’t address the science at all, but simply said that “apocalyptic information” turns people off and is part of the reason why we’ve seen a decline in public concern about global warming”

    I would like to correct Bjorn on this point. Apocalyptic information turns people off when the forecast is for events beyond their own life times. Why spoil the party when its just our grandchildren who will be most seriously affected? Unfortunately modern medicine still has no cure for chronic narcissism and short-sightedness.

    1. Tony,

      Apocalyptic information turns people off when the forecast events never eventuate. The latest story designed to simply cover ones arse is that severe northern winters that have been quite common in recent years support and not diminish AGW theory.

      So people are told it will get hotter etc but now they are told it will get colder WTF!!!! This is the problem Tony.

  6. So what action has been taken since the failure of Copenhagen last year on the Climate change front?

    Is there any hope for movement at Cancun? Isn’t this meeting mere weeks away now?

    I remember people stating some big things were in the pipeline but I have yet to see anything major other than that 20:20 campaign in early October.

  7. There’s a full rundown on the details of the study over at Climate Progress.

    The most important detail. Both groups were given pretty dire projections of bad consequences of continued warming. Group1 was then told we had the technology, etc to get to solve the problem. Group 2 was told it was hopeless – there was nothing we could do.

    Amazingly enough, group 2 was not too thrilled at the end of the process.

    1. Joe Romm certainly does an excellent job of denouncing the study by Feinberg and Willer and maybe they deserve it. The fact remains that achieving social change on the scale required will not be easy. Machiavelli, writing way back in 1513, warned about the difficulties faced by those wishing to create a new world order :

      There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on the side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.

      Dan Kahan from the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale wrote a piece called Fixing the Communications Failure in which he said:

      The prevailing approach is still simply to flood the public with as much sound data as possible on the assumption that the truth is bound, eventually, to drown out its competitors. If, however, the truth carries implications that threaten people’s cultural values, then holding their heads underwater is likely to harden their resistance and increase their willingness to support alternative arguments, no matter how lacking in evidence.

      I think his conclusion is spot on:

      We need to learn more about how to present information in forms that are agreeable to culturally diverse groups, and how to structure debate so that it avoids cultural polarization. If we want democratic policy-making to be backed by the best available science, we need a theory of risk communication that takes full account of the effects of culture on our decision-making.

      1. We don’t need a new world order. There are lots of lessons to be learned from the advertising industry. It took less than a decade for deodorants to move to complete acceptance throughout the Western world. (OK, just forget all the people who say we wouldn’t need them at all if we didn’t already buy the products the advertising industry sells us that change skin chemistry ……. and make deodorants more necessary.)

        And what one world government decreed that bottled water was such a wonderful idea? We already had water, and bottles.

        And all Australian capital cities have implemented domestic water restrictions with only a few recalcitrants violating the rules. Many other cities around the world have done the same with little opposition or rule-breaking.

        Policy plus publicity can do wonders.

        1. I’ll tell you what would be a good test case of your theory.

          I recently learned that many, (if not most), Americans don’t use Clothes lines to dry their washing. They use Clothes dryers instead. In fact in some places in California they have local regulations FORBIDDING houses from hanging clothes from lines.

          This seems to be a no brainer to me for the Climate campaigners to target getting Americans to change their behaviour to save energy and reduce Greenhouse gas emissions.

          Does anybody know if there is such a campaign at the moment.

      2. If you think mitigation proposals as they are on the table are disruptive, or even amount to ‘a new order of things’, just wait until you see how not doing these things will work out. Trust me, mitigation is the conservative option.

        …and in my old years I find myself more and more sympathizing with Macchiavelli’s opponents of change… there is way too much crazy newfangled change going on in society already 🙁

  8. “So what action has been taken since the failure of Copenhagen last year on the Climate change front?”

    At a political level little has been achieved, but at a grassroots level the public response has been to increase emissions.


    This suggests that the message regarding the threat of climate change is not filtering down to emitters. I wonder if this is because they are wilfully ignoring the issue, or whether they have evidence we are not privy to, that no harm can come from emitting as much GHG as we like into the atmosphere.

    1. I don’t think its right to conclude an increase in emissions means the message isn’t getting through. Individuals aren’t the solution. We’d never have phased out CFCs if we just relied on individuals buying CFC free refrigerators. Regulation is always necessary in these situations, that’s fundamentally why we have governments. If we just relied on everyone acting rationally with the full facts and doing what was best for the common good, we’d have no need for governments.

  9. I’m constantly amazed at the naiivity shown by campaigners in trying to combat AGW.

    The issue is that you just can’t rely on a minority of people to achieve changes in behaviour in society overall.

    You need to get a consensus for change. This is best achieved by making change attractive to as many people as possible.

    It is NOT achieved by painting apocolyptic visions of the future and claiming that there is no alternatives to some quasi-socialist approach to avoid it.

      1. They can be both market based and socialist Gareth.

        If a market based measure is designed to limit greenhouse gases the Government could sell credits. This would raise revenue for the government. The government could then redistribute this revenue to society – ie socialist.

        Increased socialism could be avoided if measures are designed to be fiscally neutral as the NZ ETS has been. Or they could be offset with reduction in taxes elsewhere in the economy as per Norhaus’s recommendations.

        1. Strange definition of socialism… The NZ ETS effectively amounts to a massive taxpayer subsidy to polluting industries (because the liability will be met from Govt general revenues, while polluters will be shielded from the costs). That’s a redistribution from the people to the corporate world.

          1. More Corporate Statism rather than Socialism but you do have a point in terms of if you are introducing something like an ETS then there is the risk that one sector of society effectively subsidises another.

            I’d argue given the unique nature of the ETS in terms of how it is a political construct of a market for something that previously noone really wanted to buy or sell there has to be a measured approach taken with it’s introduction. We don’t really know how it is going to work or it’s impact so taking it slowly is not a bad idea in my view.

          2. “The government could then redistribute this revenue to society – ie socialist.” R2D2
            “Strange definition of socialism” Gareth

            What, the redistribution of private wealth to wider society?? How is that strange?

            Of course socialism is neither good or bad. There is an optimal level, and any two people likely disagree on what this level is.

            That is why when introducing an ETS it is important that it does not result in greater redistribution. Our society has already arrived at an agreed level of socialism. An ETS should reduce emissions, not increase socialism. If increased socialism is desired it should be done separately.

            How you can then define a policy that adds new costs to businesses (and private citizens) as corporate welfare is beyond me. Any claim that NZ businesses are subsidised is laughable.

            1. the new zealand government is obliged to meet it’s emission reduction commitments by buying credits with taxpayer money. Emission producing industries are being given free credits so which is the redistribution going?

        2. Redistributing revenue is socialist but reducing taxes ‘elsewhere in the economy’ isn’t?

          What, pray, is the difference between direct payments and tax concessions? It’s all money out of government coffers.

          1. Taxes are a non-market intervention. You might argue they are justified for whatever reason but that won’t detract from the fact that, left to itself, the market won’t allocate resources in the way that you might want. This means that any reduction in taxes removes the market distortion.

            Whether you think this is a good or bad thing is dependent on any number of variables but you can’t argue that a direct payment is the same as a tax concession.

          2. I don’t think you understood me correctly.

            If govt revenue is 10 galactic dollars before the ETS,

            ETS raises 1 galactic dollar,

            Then new government revenue is 11 gd.

            Government could reduce taxes by 1 gd else where in the economy. This would ensure that the ETS did not result in an increase in the size of government. This is the recomendation of the economist William Nordhaus. He argues most taxes are on ‘goods’ like labour (wages). It is well understood that taxing a ‘bad’ is an efficient way to raise government revenue. He explains that the tax is even more welfare enhancing if it leads to less taxation of ‘goods’.

    1. Consensus? Desirable but not obligatory.

      Nobody went around a hundred plus years ago asking for “consensus” about installing hygienic sewage disposal systems. Governments were simply convinced that this was the best thing to do and went ahead anyway. Same thing for getting abattoirs and tanneries and other dangerous activities out of city and suburban environments where people were adversely impacted. (Though they probably would have got pretty rapid agreement on the odoriferous tanneries and the noisy, smelly aggregations of animals penned up before slaughter.)

      Consensus is very nice. So is leadership.

  10. I would add that trusted leaders taking big steps to reduce personal emissions make a hell of a difference.

    Take Wellington’s new mayor Celia Wade-Brown. She cycled to the airport at 6am to meet Hillary Clinton. That takes enormous personal guts and people are still talking about it. You might think she is admirable or crazy – but that discussion is crucial to begin to move the debate.

    So, where are the rest of the politicians on this? And can we have a university, religious institution, board of directors, etc announce they are cutting their personal emissions to 1 tonne per person per annum and keeping a blog and putting out press releases on how they do it.

    1. Take Wellington’s new mayor Celia Wade-Brown. She cycled to the airport at 6am to meet Hillary Clinton

      Oh that is too funny for words.

      Does she have a bullet-proof bike?

    1. That’s all very well, but it’s another example of individual actions being only half or less of the desired action.

      Without safe bicycle paths, increasing numbers of dead or injured cyclists “sharing” the roads with faster, heavier vehicles will be a negative.

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