When I say ‘climate change’, you say…?

New research suggests that the ‘closed questions’ favoured by survey researchers could be skewing the debate about climate scepticism

In this guest post, Dr Endre Tvinnereim of the Uni Research Rokkan Centre and Dr Kjersti Fløttum of  the University of Bergen, Norway, shed new light on what people instinctively associate with the term ‘climate change’, and ask whether traditional survey questions may be unintentionally framing the debate on climate change.

Public opinion is crucial in determining what can be done to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and adapt to climate change. At the same time, the topic of climate change touches on so many different themes (from the science to the societal implications) that what people associate with the phenomenon is highly variable and at times probably also fairly unsettled.

A research project conducted at the University of Bergen (just published in the journal Nature Climate Change) sought to shed some new light on the question of what people  emphasise when they think about climate change. Using data from the 2013 online ‘Norwegian Citizen Panel’, we used ‘open-ended’ questions to collect the views of the public and use emerging text analysis tools to analyse the texts we receive – one from each respondents.

Open-ended questions are unusual on surveys, which tend to employ items with numerical scales, whereas the data we analysed were people’s written responses to the question ‘what comes to mind when you hear the words ‘climate change?’ This allowed people to identify themselves the aspects of climate change they thought were important, and permitted more nuanced answers than with traditional ‘closed’ questions.

The length of people’s answers ranged from one word to several sentences. People wrote these texts directly into their web browsers at home (pretty much all Norwegians have Internet access, making this kind of study easier and more robust). The topics expressed in the answers are diverse, ranging from melting ice at the poles, via more intense weather to effects on society and the role played by humans in causing climate change.

From the 2,000 answers that were collected, we found four overall themes, presented in order of declining prevalence:

  1. Weather and ice: an emphasis on the physical manifestations of climate change, notably through melting ice, more rain and storms (but not so far heat waves, this being Norway)
  2. Future consequences for humans, including concern for children and grandchildren
  3. Money and consumption, including both the negative effects of consumer society, the need to help poorer countries and hints about economic motives behind climate policies
  4. Attribution. What causes climate change: humans, nature, or a combination

The categories map fairly well onto the three IPCC working groups: physical science (topics 1 and 4); impacts (topic 2) and mitigation (at least some relation to topic 3).  Topic 1 (weather/ice) accounted for almost half the responses; topic 4 (attribution) was the smallest at about 15 percent.

Older respondents had a tendency to emphasise weather and ice, whereas younger respondents were more likely to mention consequences for humans. We speculate that older respondents may have first learned about climate change in the 1980s when physical manifestations (such as melting ice sheets) were emphasised, whereas recent years have seen more discussion about the effects of climate change on human settlements, water availability, and food supply.

The words that were used the most were “extreme weather” (one word in Norwegian), “weather”, “warmer”, “natural catastrophes” and “human-made”.

There are several advantages to open-ended questions in survey research. Firstly, the open format enables the researcher to find out more about what people associate with a given subject, which is particularly useful when the subject is technically complex or multi-faceted. Closed questions may give precise numeric indicators of where people locate themselves on dimensions such as concern about climate change, but it is harder to gauge whether climate change to them is mostly about consequences, or about causes, or something else entirely (polar bears? electric vehicles? taxes?).

Open-ended questions allow us to access such thoughts more directly and to frame our analyses  a different way: thus, the statements ‘climate change is mostly human-made’ and ‘climate change is not human-made’ could belong in the same category on our analysis, as both focus on causes (rather than, say, impacts). The way that researchers frame their analyses can have powerful effects on the wider discourse: could it be that ‘closed-ended’ questions have promoted the idea of a dichotomous split between ‘sceptics’ and ‘believers’ in human-causation of climate change

Second, allowing respondents to use their own words permits more nuances to make it through the survey matrix. notably, we found that among those most strongly wedded to the “attribution” topic, between one-quarter and one-third suggested there might be both human and natural causes of climate change. This held despite the fact that most of these respondents dismissed human causation of climate change in a closed question posed elsewhere in the study. It is thus possible that more varied and less polarised opinions may be uncovered when people are allowed to use their own words in survey research.

(www.uib.no/citizen)

The Pope and partisan polarisation

Catholicism and climate change in the USA: will the Pope’s intervention shift public opinion or further polarise a divided public?

Photo: Michael Swan, Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0
Photo: Michael Swan, Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0

This week, the Head of the Catholic Church did something that legions of green activists routinely struggle to do: focus global media attention on climate change. In a Papal Encyclical stretching to 42,000 words, Pope Francis set out new doctrine on climate change, covering science, politics, economics and morality.

While warmly received by many political figures, and endorsed by eminent climate scientists as technically accurate, it predictably raised the hackles of some US Republicans – many of whom are Catholic themselves.

Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum and others reacted angrily to the searing social and economic analyses contained within the Encyclical. So will the Pope’s intervention shift opinion in the US on climate change, or further polarise a notoriously divided public?

A new report on US public opinion by Anthony Leiserworitz and his team at the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication claims that:

“The Pope’s message on climate change is likely to find receptive ears among Catholic Republicans and even conservative Catholic Republicans.”

However, the their own analyses suggest otherwise. While Catholic Republicans are slightly more likely (than non-Catholic Republicans) to agree that global warming is happening and to express concern about it, the numbers are not exactly compelling. Only 36% think global warming caused by human activities (vs 30% non-Catholic Republicans), and just over a quarter of Catholic Republicans don’t think it’s happening at all (27% vs 37% non-Catholic Republicans).

So, while Catholic Republicans are slightly more inclined towards caring about climate change than non-Catholic conservatives, it is political views that are still playing the dominant role – something which the Yale surveys have themselves endlessly documented.

This suggests that the views of Republican senators warning the Pope to stay out of climate debate and ‘leave the science to the scientists’ are probably shared by a majority of right-leaning Catholics in the US.

A quick glance at the language employed by Pope Francis shows why. This was not simply a turgid retelling of the science of climate change, or a meek meditation on the ‘risks of dangerous climate change’: this was a powerful and prescient call to arms, drawing as much on political passion as it did on scientific studies.

Adopting many of the most emotive tropes of the ‘climate justice’ movement (‘we have a grave social debt towards the poor’), and aiming squarely at economic inequality as both a  driver and consequence of environmental degradation, Pope Francis left no room for interpretation: solving climate change means fixing a broken economic system.

Already hailed as the ‘Pope of the poor’, the climate Encyclical will cement his position as a spokesperson for the global South, rather than a mouthpiece for the corporations and governments of the North. So no surprise it got up the nose of the Republicans, who – on climate change at least – seem to put politics before religion.

If the Encyclical is to have a more universal appeal among US Catholics, then it will need reinterpreting by Conservative Catholics. As COIN’s research in the UK and Europe has shown, there are ways of talking about climate change that are consistent with conservatism – but attacking the free-market is not one of them

The Pope’s intervention is a fantastic opportunity to get Catholics (and people of other faiths) all around the world talking about climate change. But in a deeply divided nation like the US, the story will need  to be owned and told by Catholic leaders and Priests  who represent the range of political opinion.

If it is not, then the same political differences that dictate public opinion on climate change will simply replicate themselves within Catholic communities – because even an intervention by an iconic and prestigious religious leader like the Pope is not immune from the powerful influence of partisan polarisation.

Love in a changing climate

Why we need a Love-In to get beyond ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ in climate change campaigning

This guest post is by Robin Webster, previously of Friends of the Earth and Carbon Brief. Robin asks what the role of ‘love’ in climate change campaigning is, and whether we need to get beyond the ‘goodies vs baddies’ discourse…

I used to have a job as an environmental campaigner for a big NGO. We cared a lot about what we did. And we were often quite angry – shocked, horrified, appalled. We used words like ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘urgent’.  We lived in a blizzard of information about what humans are doing to the world. We took on the perpetrators. The baddies.

The big climate campaign of the moment – the coal divestment movement – follows the same goodies vs baddies pattern. One of its founders, Bill Mckibben, has made the strategy clear, writing that successful change requires movement-building; and movement building “requires enemies”. The fossil fuels industry is in the sights.

I don’t question the logic; or the numbers clearly showing the oil, coal and gas companies are a good target – a scarily good target. But, as others have pointed out, these kind of campaigns are inevitably limited – because climate change is a much more complicated problem. The profligate way we use energy; emissions associated with the food we eat; the part we play in the global energy system. It isn’t just us vs them – we are all implicated, we are all a part of the story.

In his book on the communication of climate change, “Don’t even think about it” George Marshall addresses this question, concluding that as a result:

“…I have become convinced the real battle for climate change will not be won through enemy narratives and that we need to find narratives based on co-operation, mutual interests, and our common humanity”.

That’s what I think we’re missing.

For the love of…what?

The Climate Coalition – a mass grouping of NGOs campaigning on climate – is making an interesting attempt to address this. The coalition’s “for the love of…” campaign focuses on encouraging people to highlight the things they care about that are threatened by climate change – from football pitches to frozen lakes to fry-ups.

An attempt to break climate change out of the “environmentalist” niche, the campaign is based on COIN’s research. The ‘love’ framing was the only messaging that worked across different political affiliations and viewpoints. We all love something; we’re all passionate about something at risk from climate change.

I really like the idea of integrating love into climate campaigning. But again, as critics have pointed out, the ‘for the love of….’ campaign is fairly apolitical – there’s no focus on what we’re being encouraged to do to solve the problem, or who we’re criticising.

Martin Luther King and refusing to hate

So should we be sitting around the table with energy companies gently asking if they could put another one percent or so of their money into renewables, or willingly engaging in endless conversations about whether, maybe, all the world’s climate scientists are wrong and it’s not happening?

Does integrating love into campaigning mean being apolitical?

I don’t think it does. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King – hardly a pushover – was inspired by the idea of “refusing to co-operate with an evil system”. He learnt from the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi and promoted the idea of non-violent protest.

For King, the principles of non-violence include “seeking to win the ‘friendship and understanding’ of the opponent, not humiliate him” and avoiding ‘internal violence of spirit’. King writes: “The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love.”

Love in this context doesn’t mean some “sentimental or affectionate emotion” for someone you’ve never met – it means “understanding, redemptive good will”.

Starting points

King’s work shows that using love in campaigning doesn’t mean ignoring biased power structures, or injustice. It does mean striving to recognise our common humanity – even, or especially, with those that disagree with us.

In the campaigning world, the Common Cause coalition grew out of social science evidence showing that human being all share a common set of values, expressed to a greater or lesser degree. Its evidence demonstrate the importance of grounding messaging in ‘intrinsic’ values like altruism, rather an ‘extrinsic’ ones like power or authority. Moving away from the idea of people as ‘consumers’ or other benefit-seeking automatons, Common Cause shows how important it is to treat people as people, and assume we are all capable of compassion.

Its certainly not straightforward to convert this into climate campaigning.

But it’s clear that, on this one issue if no other, we really are all in this together.

Will geoengineering make people give up cutting their carbon footprint?

Wealthier people are more susceptible to the trap of saying they won’t take action on emissions when they know engineering the planet’s climate is a possibility.

Wealthier people are more susceptible to the trap of saying they won’t take action on emissions when they know engineering the planet’s climate is a possibility.

If you thought there was a machine that could magically remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and bury it underground, would you be less likely to worry about reducing your own carbon footprint?

The question is not entirely hypothetical. Geoengineering is the catch-all term for a suite of technologies that could one day be used to alter the Earth’s climate and combat global warming. Most of them are unlikely to ever see the light of day: they are considered too risky, too unpredictable, or too reckless to be taken seriously by the scientific community.

But the warnings from scientists about the dangers of a warmer world (and the inadequacy of existing climate policies) have become shriller by the year. And as a result, the voices whispering that geoengineering could one day become a reality have grown harder to ignore.

As geoengineering has gradually moved on to the policy agenda, debates about the ethics of meddling with the global thermostat have become more prominent. Central among these is whether geoengineering might undermine fragile public and political support for the more pressing business of reducing carbon emissions.

This is what is known by economists and philosophers as a ‘moral hazard’ argument: the phenomenon whereby people who feel insured against a particular risk are more likely to exhibit risky behaviour. Will the prospect of geoengineering make people feel ‘insured’ against the risks of climate change, and indulge in ‘riskier’ environmental behaviour themselves?

In a paper published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society on Monday, my colleague Nick Pidgeon and I attempted to answer that question. Using a nationally representative online survey, we provided 610 people with a ‘factsheet’ about geoengineering, and then asked them a series of questions.

One striking finding was that some people seem more susceptible to the ‘trap’ of the moral hazard than others.

People who were wealthier, and who identified with self-focused values such as power and status, were more likely to agree with the statement “Knowing geoengineering is a possibility makes me feel less inclined to make changes in my own behaviour to tackle climate change.”

In general, people who are wealthier have bigger carbon footprints. Our findings suggest that people with bigger carbon footprints may treat geoengineering as an excuse to avoid personal behavioural changes. People in the study who held pro-environmental values didn’t see themselves as susceptible to the moral hazard, but feared that other people – and especially politicians – would take their eye off the ball if geoengineering was on the horizon.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, climate change sceptics were not particularly worried that geoengineering would distract attention from other climate policies. After all, if someone doesn’t support policies to tackle climate change in the first place, then the moral hazard of geoengineering is really not a hazard at all.

Previous research has suggested, though, that geoengineering could be more appealing to sceptics than existing climate policies (as it doesn’t involve regulating industries or government intervention in people’s daily lives) or that it could even galvanise support for climate change among this group.

But our findings did not back this. Learning about geoengineering from the information provided in our study didn’t alter levels of concern about climate change among sceptical participants.

This is the first time that any systematic evidence has been produced on how this key aspect of the geoengineering debate will shape the public discourse as it moves into the mainstream. What seems clear is that people with different values (and views on climate change) will respond to the logic of the moral hazard argument in very different ways.

For those deeply worried by society’s inadequate response to climate change, and doubtful of politicians’ commitment to the issue, the moral hazard of geoengineering confirms their worst fears.

But for people with an inconveniently large carbon footprint – or those who had no intention of reducing it in the first place – the prospect of geoengineering could be less a of a moral hazard and more of a ‘moral license’ to continue with business as usual.

This blog first appeared on the Guardian.

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Pictures – it’s a matter of perspective

Why a deeper understanding of how images are produced and consumed is so important for the climate change conversation.

This meme was circulating on Facebook yesterday courtesy of Greenpeace UK. At last check it was running at 8,007 likes and 7,532 shares.

Pitting a wind turbine against a coal-fired power station is a common theme among climate change communicators. Green energy company Ecotricity used it extremely successfully in its viral ‘Collapsing Cooling Towers’ video (which has had almost 3 million views to date).

There’s also this photograph on popular image-sharing site Imgur, with the sarcastic caption “No matter how much we love green energy, we have to admit that wind turbines completely destroy the picturesque landscape.” (Can you spot the wind turbine?)

There are no, doubt, many more examples. And why wouldn’t there be? The wind turbine is an icon for sustainability; clean, elegant and, with its smoothly spinning sails, evocative of both a pleasant past and a progressive future.

But there’s also one significant problem with these images. And the caption that accompanies Greenpeace’s illustration highlights it perfectly: “If you’ve got things in perspective, join the movement to protect our planet”. Begging the question, what do they really mean by perspective? Arguably, someone who has “things in perspective” will also recognise – and perhaps point out – that it would actually require hundreds, probably thousands, of wind turbines to replace the single coal-fired power station depicted. Of course, all these images are designed to be symbolic, powerful illustrations of a point that is not designed to be dissected. But the problem is that these images can and will be dissected by anyone whose ‘perspective’ is not totally aligned with the messenger’s.

As we describe in our updated Talking Climate guide to visually communicating climate change, images are powerful tools for getting a message across. But they can also prove to be a bit of a stumbling block. Wind turbines are a common visual trope in both media and marketing when discussing climate change solutions. But it’s possible that their iconic status could actually be doing them more harm than good, with the line between fact and fiction becoming dangerously blurred.

There is a delicate balance to be struck between making an image powerful and ensuring its message is meaningful. It’s important one is not achieved at the expense of the other. Particularly in the liquid world of the internet, where information moves lightening fast and can cross ideological borders with ease. How quickly one of the visuals shown above could be appropriated and then up-ended to make a powerful point that is completely at odds with its original conception. This is just one of many reasons why continued and specific research into how images are produced and consumed – across all types of media and by a variety of audiences – is vital for a better understanding of the climate conversation.

For the love of…what exactly?

How can the ‘For the Love Of…’ campaign move from being a slogan to a rallying call for the climate change movement?

At the London Climate March last month, there was one message that seemed to dominate all others: the ‘For the Love of…’ campaign, which was out in force with banners, heart-shaped placards, and a wide variety of things that people were passionate about and wanted to protect from climate change.

Climate-march-700x464

COIN carried out the research that informed this campaign, with one of our key recommendations being that the Climate Coalition should focus on making links between the wide variety of things that people love and are passionate about, and the risks that climate change poses to them.

Although we didn’t design the ‘For the Love Of…” slogan, it follows pretty closely from the findings of the research we conducted, with members of the public from a range of backgrounds.

Elena Blackmore at Values & Frames commented on the presence of the campaign at the March, noting that:

It was a genuinely uplifting and inspiring sight, and the atmosphere was palpably positive. It was a real triumph in motivational messaging.”

However, Blackmore also posed the question of whether this positivity and personal connection was enough – in and of itself – to form the basis of a campaign message. Specifically,  she suggested that there was little linking the passion people held to tangible solutions, or meaningful political action.

Blackmore’s analysis rings true: the challenge is to use people’s passion as a springboard for engaging them in a conversation about serious societal change. The value of highlighting the ‘things people love’ that are affected by climate change is that it starts to  break climate change out of its environmentalist niche, showing that a wide range of issues – from flooded football pitches, to the food we eat – are all linked to climate change. It also helps to overcome the ‘psychological distance’ of climate change, by making it more relevant to people’s lives.

But as ever, the devil is in the detail. A flooded football pitch is a reason to start a conversation with someone who might otherwise not have been interested in talking about climate change, but it is not enough of a reason on its own to decarbonise society. Links must be made between the things people love, the things other people love and – most importantly – the kinds of policies that can produce a safe and secure climate for everyone.

Building a bridge between the things people love and the ‘self-transcending’ values that underpin public concern about issues like climate change is the central challenge, ensuring that we don’t unintentionally promote the idea that loving a pair of new shoes or a bigger house is a reason to care about climate change. This kind of ‘self-enhancing’ orientation is likely to lead people to care less about the collective challenge of climate change in the longer term.

The ‘For  the Love of’…campaign feels like a positive step forward, and has been design in line with solid social science evidence.  The challenge now is to breathe life into the campaign so that it doesn’t only exist as a one line slogan but as a social norm and a feeling, because a shared passion for the things we collectively love is a powerful and inclusive rallying call.

A sense of energy

At the Welsh Government Senedd building in Cardiff Bay, 100s of people – from national politicians to school children – have been taking in the ‘A Sense of Energy’ exhibition, put together by Cardiff and Goldsmith’s Universities and featuring invited contributions from several  other UK research teams.

Designed to bring energy use alive, the exhibition features some great interactive stalls, which are best viewed rather than described…so here’s three of the best:

University of Sussex and University of East Anglia brought the ‘building blocks for a community energy project’, little wooden blocks with pledges for  the skills necessary to make a community energy project happen

The building blocks for a community energy initiative

Cardiff University combined the old and the new, with a ‘mangle’ (requiring physical energy to drive it) powering a video screen displaying energy saving messages:

New and old energy

Finally, Oxford Brookes and Oxford University displayed a model of a house leaking energy, complete with hot and cold spots:

Hot and cold spots

The exhibition is a nice way of making the often ‘invisible’ physical and social processes of energy use accessible to people: something that’s easier said than done.

 

Protecting communities from flooding

A new collaboration between COIN and Exeter University will work with a local community in Devon to help build resilience to future flooding events

 Announcing a new collaboration between COIN and Exeter University

After a series of workshops around the UK helping communities affected by the flooding of early 2014 to begin facing the reality of climate change, we know that most people agree on one thing: the need to be more prepared the next time the flood waters rise.

So we’re very pleased to announce that over the next 12 months, COIN is partnering with Dr Stewart Barr and Dr Ewan Woodley (of the University of Exeter), a range of regional stakeholders, and a number of local community members to develop a community resilience plan for Crediton, near Exeter.

The ‘action research’ project (where the research team investigates, but also helps to answer the question of how to increase community resilience to flooding) will ‘co-produce’ valuable new learning about the impacts, causes and management of flood events in the Crediton community.

Using an approach known as ‘competency group’ meetings, the aim is to bring together and provide a voice for people with different perspectives, skills and experience – from scientists who use computer models to predict how river catchments and flood levels will change, to local citizens’ memories of past flood events and local emergency services’ knowledge about how to manage floods in the future.

The research aims to explore the potential for this kind of knowledge co-production to enable other communities to develop their own strategies for becoming more resilient to flood events.

The project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and has been developed in collaboration with Devon County Council who will, as the co-ordinating local authority with responsibility for emergency planning, provide local knowledge and expertise. The project will also include contributions from the Environment Agency and Devon and Somerset Fire Authority.

Do you know what they know about climate change?

Today saw the launch of a new climate change communication initiative – the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU). Staffed by some familiar faces – including ex-BBC Environment Editor Richard Black and George Smeeton, formally of WWF, the Unit has an impressive (and impressively politically diverse) Advisory Board, including some senior Conservatives not typically considered part of the climate change crowd.

The initiative is very welcome, given that its remit is to “support journalists and other communicators with accurate and accessible briefings on key issues, and work with individuals and organisations that have interesting stories to tell, helping them connect to the national conversation (on climate change)”.

The ECIU marked its launch with the results of a survey commissioned to assess a particular type of climate change knowledge – what you could call people’s ‘social inferences’ about climate change. Many of the questions focused not only on what people themselves knew about climate and energy issues, but on what they thought other people (including scientists) knew about climate change (and whether they considered themselves well informed).

So, for example, we learned that 56% of the 2000 people surveyed felt well informed about climate change, and a similar number (54%) thought that ‘almost all’ or ‘a majority’ of scientists believed that climate change is mainly the result of human activities. A hefty 35% perceived scientists to be evenly split – an underestimation of the climate change consensus that mirrors similar findings with Australian and American samples.

It would be interesting to know whether this is the same people in the survey. Do the people who consider themselves well-informed perceive a consensus on climate change?

Only 36% felt well informed about energy bills (and how prices were set), and interestingly most people also tended to underestimate a different type of agreement: the level of social consensus around renewables.

Whereas surveys consistently show a large majority supporting technologies like solar and wind power, only 5% of the ECIU survey thought that public support for renewables was between 75-100%, which the ECIU describes as a ‘large misconception’.  Similarly, most people surveyed (78%) think that up to half the population opposes renewables (when in fact, this number is much lower).

The questions are intriguing because they tell us something about what people think about what other people think. Although there is a slightly mind-melting level of meta-percentages going on here, the findings are striking: although most of us think climate change is happening and caused by humans, we underestimate the scientific consensus. And, while most of support renewables, we think that most other people don’t.

The findings support previous COIN research for the Climate Coalition, where we found that a range of audiences in focus group research rejected the idea that there was a ‘concerned majority’ in the UK on climate change (even though surveys suggest there actually is!) The ‘dissociation’ between our actual beliefs and our inferences about what others believe is potentially hugely important, as it suggests that there is a fog of reticence and ambiguity hanging over public discourse that comes from wonky analyses of what others think, rather than our own personal views.

Perhaps because we so seldom talk about climate change, and it has such a narrow social reality, we can happily go about our business broadly accepting the argument that climate change is happening and renewables are part of the answer, while assuming that no-one else does.

The longer climate change hides in the cultural shadows, the more likely it is this kind of misconception will flourish (which, after all, is not based on a lack of knowledge per se but a lack of social cues and signals telling us what other people think).

 

 

 

 

 

Bring climate change to the front door

Should conversations about climate change start with everyday environmental concerns like littering and anti-social behaviour?

Climate change is easily the most confounding ‘collective action’ problem we have ever faced. We must act – collectively – in the best interests of not only today’s global population, but also the presumed interests of people yet to be born.

It follows that nurturing a sense of shared identity – what is sometimes called social capital, or the elusive but ubiquitous concept of community – should make people more receptive to appeals for collective global action on climate change.

But a new report from the Fabian Society takes this argument one step further. According to the report’s authors, Natan Doron and Ed Wallis, people instinctively think of the environment not in terms of carbon emissions and climate change, but in terms of the place where they live and the people who live there.

For most people, protecting the environment starts at their front door, not with an internationally binding global agreement on dangerous climate change. Anti-social behaviour is the biggest concern, with climate change ranking alongside dog-fouling and littering. People feel that citizenship has declined, and that opportunities for working together are limited.

However, the report argues that if people feel they are able to participate in and improve their local environment, they are more likely to support the global aims of environmental campaigns. If they think they can change things in their own back yard, they are more likely to think they can change the world.

Their findings echo other research which suggests that people’s sense of “place attachment” (which is as much about the local community and social cohesion as it is about physical geography) is a key influence on their views about climate change and other environmental issues. It has also long been recognised that reducing the psychological distance between people and climate change is an important challenge. So long as climate change remains a remote and abstract issue, it is easy to close our eyes and wish it away.

Doron and Wallis make some bold recommendations for overhauling the way in which climate change campaigners operate. They suggest that the quickest way to get support for ambitious action on climate change globally is for campaigners to switch a proportion of their budgets away from lobbying international negotiations and towards supporting community organising to improve local environments.

To build a popular environmentalism, they argue, global issues such as climate change must be brought back to the doorsteps of ordinary people, where tangible, local action on the environment can be seen to be working. They even propose a new bank holiday, to be held in the middle of the working week, which would focus national attention on community action and “provide a focal point for campaigners to highlight local environmental projects on a large scale and generate widespread media attention, as well as an opportunity to reach out beyond the ‘usual suspects’.”

The basic logic of the recommendations – that climate change begins at home – is reflected in the newly launched For the Love Of campaign (which my colleagues and I at COIN worked on). Our research found that people from a range of different backgrounds (including conservatives and trade union members) responded positively to a narrative about climate change that focused on standing up for the “things people love” that are threatened by climate change.

The video for the campaign shows a diverse range of people and the issues they are passionate about, from football, to gardening, to summertime. Flooded football pitches, disrupted growing seasons and increased summer rainstorms provide a direct link between climate change and people’s passion. It’s a powerful demonstration of the principle that global change has local effects.

Clearly there are potential hazards in the “go local” approach. For a start, there is a risk of trivialising world-wide problems like climate change by homing in on individuals’ everyday concerns. Wouldn’t it be better to get people thinking about the big issues – the poverty and malnourishment that climate change will bring – rather than the minutiae of the issue?

But, for better or for worse, these issues are not top of mind for most of us, most of the time. This doesn’t mean that people are oblivious to them, but that a conversation about climate change must build a bridge between concerns about the local environment (or the everyday things that people love) and the global dimensions of environmental change.

The lesson from the Fabian Society report is that building community cohesion, nurturing a sense of collective action around local environmental issues, and supporting micro rather than macro concerns can be a portal through which a more global sense of citizenship can be achieved.

Groups such as the Transition Towns network have been saying this for quite a long time, but have not yet been able to break into the mainstream. Perhaps a new bank holiday to celebrate the virtues of linking local community action to global campaigns would do the trick: confronting climate change, ‘for the love of’ a day off…

Originally published by Guardian Sustainable Business 28.07.14

The language that leaves people behind

For people to care about global warming it needs to be made relevant. The language needs to be simple and uncontroversial, argues guest blogger Jeremy Porter.

This is a guest post by Jeremy Porter, a communications strategist and writer based in New York. He writes regularly at his communications blog where this article first appeared. Jeremy is on Twitter.

In Nebraska, there’s a father thinking about his children’s health and education. In Oregon there’s a mother thinking about the pressures of her job. In Virginia there’s a couple thinking about the bills they will struggle to pay. And when asked if they think global warming or climate change is happening, none of them think it is.

They are not alone. Whether you use “global warming” or “climate change”, 40 percent of Americans don’t think it’s happening. That’s the finding in the recent Yale report that campaigners, scientists, and politicians (let’s call them advocates) should be paying attention to.

Instead, commentators and advocates alike, have focused on one aspect of the report: global warming sounds worse than climate change. What followed was meteorologists, reporters, and campaigners suggesting we stop using ‘climate change’.

It’s as if those two words alone will shift one of the most divisive issues from our time to “job done”. The logic follows that Washington jumps into line and temperatures drop.

If only changing two words would do it. It won’t. Why? Because no matter how you ask the question, the father in Nebraska, the mother in Oregon, and the couple in Virginia do not think it’s happening. “Global warming” is not going to convince an unbeliever in the absence of relevance.

This is something journalist Brentin Mock intuitively understands when he writes on the issue:

I feel an extra responsibility to relay this in ways [the community] understand. This means linking it to things that touch their lives regularly: asthma, transportation, racism, hip hop, religion.

We link these issues through plain language. Words like “pollution”, “health”, “creating jobs”, and “extreme weather” work. They’re relevant. A person does not have to believe in or understand global warming to care about these things.

People understand pollution. They don’t like it, they think there should be less of it, and they understand it’s bad for their health.

Therein lies the key to making global warming relevant to people: using plain, simple language that centers on things that directly affect them.

When we say “emissions” and “greenhouse gases”, and “carbon” we really mean pollution. When we talk about the “impact on the climate” we really mean impact on people. And instead of talking about rising temperatures and sea levels, we should be talking about more floods, wildfires, and hurricanes.

People don’t want a “safe climate” or a “healthy climate”. They want to be safe and healthy.

Ask people on the New Jersey coastline if they are concerned about global warming, or another hurricane.

Ask people in California if they are concerned about the climate, or another massive wildfire.

Ask people living near a coal mine if they are concerned about climate change or pollution. They might say, “I care about my job at the coal mine”. There’s a simple response: creating jobs that don’t destroy their lungs. Relevance.

Advocates should avoid reacting to the Yale research by using global warming as a crutch. It’s not persuasive. When people in 49 states saw snow on the ground and the polar vortex gripped the country, it didn’t feel much like global warming. It won’t feel like global warming if we get a cold snap this summer.

Advocates need to build a narrative based on relevant, simple, and uncontroversial language. Something not just to fight against, but to fight for: clean air and water, better food, new jobs, and less life-threatening weather events.

“Pollution”, “health”, “creating jobs”, and “extreme weather” are words that have been tested by Drew Westen and in various research projects I’ve been involved in. They beat global warming and climate change every time.

People’s scepticism of global warming or climate change is not what’s stopping us fixing this problem. It’s the absence of relevance.

Download: How to talk about the climate — a one-page guide to the language of global warming and climate change.

You say “Global Warming”. I say “Climate Change”- Let’s call the whole thing off!

George Marshall argues that debates over whether ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ is the right label detracts from the bigger divisions that come from values, ideology and the absence of social/cultural meanings

This article originally appeared on the Climate Denial and was excerpted, in part, from George Marshall’s new book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, which will be released by Bloomsbury US in August 2014.

 

A new US survey by the Yale  Project on Climate Change Communication found that the term “global warming” appears to create a stronger sense of threat, greater proximity and greater desire for action than its long time sibling phrase “climate change”. Is this really so- and does it even matter?

The Yale survey is fascinating  (well for those of us who fixate on such things anyway), showing that people regard global warming as more serious than climate change and are more confident that it is happening.

Especially revealing is that global warming has stronger proximity: People are more likely see it as harming them and their family and more likely to say that it is happening now and affecting current weather. Curiously- and I checked- the polling was conducted during a period of colder than average weather which could have been expected to disadvantage the term global warming.

This is just the latest skirmish in a long running debate about which of these two competing terms should dominate that has rolled along ever since the US scientist Wallace Broecker coined both of the core terms in a single 1975 article “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?”

Environmental campaigners hate both terms and seek, intermittently, to introduce new phrases (discussed by Andy Revkin here). Earth scientist James Lovelock for example, complains that global warming sounds like “a nice duvet on a cold winter’s day” and advocates Global Heating. Other proposals have included ‘Global Weirding’, “global climate disruption” and Al Gore has contributed neologisms like Climate Chaos, Climate Crisis or, more recently Dirty Weather. Seth Godin, a communications specialist, wondered whether calling it “Atmosphere Cancer” or “Pollution Death” might not have garnered more concern.  It’s unlikely, since to anyone conservative the terms sound outrageously biased and to anyone else they sound like heavy metal bands.

Having two terms generates confusion and has led to a politicised battle to promote the term that each side assumes will serve its interests.  In the late 1980s, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia lobbied in the world climate negotiations for the language of early resolutions to be changed from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’ on the assumption that this sounded less emotive and, more importantly, had less connection to the burning of fossil fuels.

In a notorious internal memo to Republicans in 2003 communications consultant Frank Luntz argued that the term climate change sounds more moderate and controllable. As evidence he cited one focus group participant saying that climate change “sounds like you’re going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale”.  The Bush administration duly followed his advice, and President Bush adopted the term climate change in all subsequent speeches.  Ironically climate deniers now accuse environmentalists of seeking to suppress the phrase ‘global warming’ because, they claim, temperatures are no longer increasing.

So, even if the overall picture is that people respond more strongly to the term global warming, there are important underlying divisions. Dr. Ashley Anderson at Colorado State University, one of the authors of the Yale research, said last year in an interview with Carbon Brief:

“The differences in interpretations of the two phrases tend to fall on political lines, with Republicans being less likely to believe global warming is happening than climate change…while Democrats would rate global warming as more serious than climate change.

The new Yale figures suggest that global warming may have a greater advantage with Republicans than previously thought, but this still hides a much greater problem- that the difference in attitudes associated from the rival terms is tiny compared with the yawning gulf between people who think that it (whatever it is called) is happening or is not happening – or whether they even care. In my view polling on climate change can never provide a complete picture because it calls on people to give an opinion on a topic that, in reality, most of them give little if any thought to.

This Yale survey, for example, found that over a third of people thought that the issue- whatever it is called- it should be a “high or very high priority for the president or congress”. But when the Pew Research Centre asked people last year to rank “global warming” (it used that phrase) among twenty other issues that could be a priority for the president it came in at the bottom. Pew has been asking this question every year since 2001 and, even at the peak of public concern around 2007, global warming has never moved off bottom slot, way below such front-of-mind issues as economy, health and deficit, but also below such intangibles as “dealing with the moral breakdown” and “reducing the influence of lobbyists”.

So, yes, people care a bit, and they may care marginally more than that with slightly different terminology. But the critical consideration remains the cultural priming around the issue as a whole. This raises a number of other issues about language that I would have liked Yale to ask: to what extent do people personally identify which either phrase? Can they describe who they think uses each phrase? Which phrase do they associate with their own social in-group and which do they associate with outside groups?

It is most revealing that, when invited to choose “a word that comes to mind”, the strongest response, by far, was “naysaying”– that is to say, the strongest association for either term was with social meaning and conflict rather than the scientific content. This follows closely on research by the University of New Hampshire, released last week, that found that climate change (it used this phrase) is now a more politically divisive issue than gun control, abortion or the death penalty.

In a way then, a little terminological ambiguity is an advantage in the polarised framing war surrounding this issue. I very much hope that communicators do not take the lesson from this that they should all talk from one phrasebook about “global warming”. As soon as we do, that phrase will become irrevocably poisoned by its association with advocates and, every time it is used, will reinforce the cultural battlelines.

And, in any case, does it really matter? Although neither phrase is ideal, neither is disastrously bad either and both have sufficiently bland emptiness that they allow new people to fill them with their own meanings. In the end names become associated with the associations we put on them. Things often thrive with bizarrely inappropriate names. Radio Shack?  Craig’s List?  Sometimes you just have to work with what you have and concentrate on giving it the social meaning that creates conviction.

 

NEW REPORT Science & stories: Bringing the IPCC to life

The facts are not enough: IPCC outputs must be coupled with human stories and powerful narratives to bring the science to life

COIN today releases a report on how the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) can communicate better with the public.

We based our study on interviews with 16 key experts from the media and leading NGOs.  Our central argument is that IPCC outputs must be coupled with human stories and powerful narratives which can bring the science to life.

To engage the public, the IPCC needs to work with a range of partners who can weave stories with cultural credibility from the science: how will climate change affect the things people love?

In addition, by reorienting and restructuring the IPCC – so that it provides science ‘on demand’, tailored to the needs of different audiences and stakeholders – its relevance and influence could drastically increase.

We are not arguing that the IPCC has failed. It’s job is currently to present policy makers with a robust assessment of the latest climate science. But it is clear that  presenting the world with information is not creating the political change we need. More facts and more information are unlikely to convince the public in the future.

We also recommend that the IPCC should invest in communication and begin using video and social media. The IPCC must create an engaging and accessible public face.

The recommendations proposed are those of COIN alone. They may not reflect the view of anyone interviewed or their respective institutions. For more information contact adam.corner@climateoutreach.org.uk 

A one way ticket to carbon heaven?

Are carbon offsets for flights a one way ticket to carbon heaven?

In this blog by Roger Tyers, a PhD student at Southampton University, he asks whether carbon offsets for flights offer a ‘one way ticket to carbon heaven’. The post was originally published by Sociology Lens.

I recently had my carbon footprint calculated over the phone with a member of an environmental NGO called the Surefoot Effect. It was an interesting experience.

The conversation was going well. I was asked questions about how I heat my flat (answer: I’ve never turned the heating on), how I commute to work (I cycle), how much meat I eat (I’m vegetarian) and my carbon footprint came in at roughly half the UK average, until I was asked about the topic I was dreading… how much I fly.

Last year I took a series of long-haul flights, because I’d finished a job in South Korea, and on my way back to the UK I visited Malaysia and India as a tourist. These flights bumped up my carbon footprint considerably. Without flights, my carbon footprint was around 6 tonnes of carbon.  With flights, my footprint was doubled to 12 tonnes, slightly more than the UK average. All my good, green work, it seemed, had been for nothing. I am just as much of a carbon terrorist as all my car-driving, meat-eating peers.

Flying is, by far, the most carbon intensive activity most people engage in. For example, a round-trip flight from London to New York is estimated to create around 2 tonnes of CO2 per passenger. That’s about 15% of your annual footprint gobbled up in less than twelve hours travel-time. And it’s more than the average Indian’s total annual footprint, a comparatively tiny 1.7 tonnes.

This creates an ethical dilemma for me, and I’m sure I am not alone. In almost every other aspect of life, whether it be transport, diet, or household energy, there is usually a ‘green option’ which we can choose to take. Is the green option for flying just… to not fly? According to the likes of environmentalist and Guardian columnist George Monbiot, the answer is a firm yes. Linking the fact that it is the richest people in the world who fly, and the poorest in the world who are most threatened by climate change, he argues that ‘we are all killers” in a characteristically provocative piece from 2006: “Flying kills. We all know it, and we all do it. And we won’t stop doing it until the government reverses its policy and starts closing the runways.

So, what is an environmentally-minded person such as myself to do? Not flying is the most simple and obvious solution, but is this really viable? I have friends and family who live in different continents – can I never visit them? Am I to deny myself the possibility of travel, of seeing the wonders of the world and experiencing different cultures? Professionally, as an early-career researcher I know that University bosses evaluate academic staff, in part, by how many international conferences they attend. Am I to sacrifice my career prospects by only attending events I can reach by land or sea?

Carbon offsetting is one potential solution to this impasse. It has fallen off the radar somewhat in recent years, but in the mid-noughties it seemed to catch the imagination of academics, journalists and even rock stars (more on that later*).

The premise of carbon offsetting is that we firstly calculate the carbon produced by a passenger on a particular flight, we then attach a price to that carbon, and then we pay an offset company to perform an activity which reduces an equivalent amount of carbon elsewhere. If we take our return flight to New York, which produces about 2 tonnes of carbon, the price to offset it would be £40.34, using the offset company Myclimate and £51.94 using Atmosfair (I’ll explain why the prices are different later too**).

The offset companies then use this money to pay for projects which reduce carbon from the atmosphere – this could be planting trees, investing in renewable energy, destroying harmful chemicals, or in other more innovative ways. One particularly interesting project is using money from offsets to produce clean cooking-stoves to replace open-fires for cooking in the developing world. The clean cook-stoves not only reduce the need to chop down trees (they use about half as much firewood as open-fires) but they also stop children breathing in as much woodsmoke, and they create local jobs in cook-stove production.

In fact, it’s projects like this which are becoming more popular, as they provide social, health and localised economic benefits to communities which are more tangible than rather abstract carbon reductions. Tree-planting might be simpler to understand and more iconic, but it’s actually not a very efficient way to reduce carbon from the atmosphere.

A woman cooking with a modern cookstove, funded through carbon offsets. Traditional cooking, using an open fire, is far more smokey and wood-intensive. Source: http://www.berkeley.edu/news2/2011/11/cookstove410.jpg

Which brings me to our rockstars*…

British rock band Coldplay tried to offset the emissions that had been caused in the production of their album ‘A Rush of Blood to the Head’, by planting 10,000 mango trees in southern India. The band’s fans were also encouraged to donate to the project. However, due to mismanagement very few of the trees were actually planted, little of the carbon reductions were realised, and a lot of the band’s and the fans’ money er… disappeared.

Coldplay tried to do their bit. Source: Karl Axon [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Stories like this have created more than a little cynicism about offsetting. In response, almost all airlines and offset companies now use verified offsets which are stamped with either the ‘Gold Standard’ or the ‘Verified Carbon Standard (VCS)’. These are UN-recognised certifications that attempt to ensure that the offsets are real and are actually delivered.

And what about those different prices for the offsets**?  Well, another complexity with emissions from air travel is that emissions created by aeroplanes at high-altitude are more damaging to the atmosphere then ground-based emissions. But the science on exactly how much more damaging is not clear. Some companies use a more conservative (and therefore more expensive) multiplier than others. Again, this confusion doesn’t help dispel anti-offset cynicism.

Even if carbon offsetting can be shown to be rigorous in its calculations and shown to be properly monitored, there is another, perhaps greater ethical issue: that it might just encourage customers to continue to fly, or even to fly more (the ‘rebound’ effect’). In a joint statement by the WWF, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, they give their support to carbon offsetting but only as a last resort – we should always try and reduce our emissions first. Similarly, the hierarchy endorsed by the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change “Calculate→Avoid→Reduce→Offset” reminds us that offsetting should never be our first choice.

A very funny satire on the concept of offsetting can be found on the Cheat Neutral website. It’s well worth a look, as it makes us wonder if carbon offsetting isn’t just a way to make ‘green’ people like me feel less guilty about flying; a cheap ticket to Carbon Heaven, if you like.

Finally, critics of offsetting argue that they distract from the larger-scale technical improvements and policy reforms which are required to make air travel more sustainable. There is a valid point here that radical action is needed to tackle our growing addiction to air travel, but as I’ve written in a previous blog, the aviation industry is unlikely to ‘go green’ within our lifetime, and offsets, for all their practical and ethical problems, give the conscientious traveller a means to take action here and now.

Are kids being ‘brainwashed’ on climate change? A teacher responds

Luke Sinnick argues that a recent report from the Global Warming Policy Foundation is selective and biased in its use of evidence: kids are not being ‘brainwashed’ on climate change.

This guest post is by Luke Sinnick, a teacher of A-level Biology at Greenhead College, Huddersfield.

The Global Warming Policy Foundation’s recent report written by Andrew Montford and John Shade is titled ‘Climate Control: Brainwashing in Schools’. The report seeks to show “examples of serious errors, misleading claims, and bias through inadequate treatment of climate issues in school teaching materials”. Here, I outline my thoughts on the report as a teacher of A-level Biology.

As the report is critical of ‘misleading claims’ and encourages teachers to take a more critical approach to education I will highlight a few misleading claims that I feel Montford & Shade make themselves.

Throughout the report they have selectively used evidence to support their case and are demonstrating exactly the kind of ‘inadequate treatment’ of the issues that is the focus of their criticisms of the education system.

They start with the suggestion that promoting environmental awareness entails “the corruption of the curriculum in schools in support of a radical worldview that is almost certainly at odds with the majority view in our society”. However, there are repeated polls showing that the ‘majority view’ is that human activity is affecting the climate and that levels of concern about the effects of climate change remain high.

In Part 2, Montford and Shade criticise the Geography Association’s suggestion “to encourage children to think about issues such as the alleged imminent exhaustion of fossil fuels”. However, depletion of oil reserves in 40 years is a reality suggested by groups not normally considered promoters of ‘radical worldviews’ such as Institute for Mechanical Engineers.

They also discuss problems with the CGP revision guides and their apparent bias.

Firstly, CGP are known for their ‘informal’ style and inclusion of (bad) jokes. For example, one guide suggests that “methane is a stinky problem but an important one”. We could analyse this statement for its factual accuracy (considering methane is actually odourless) but that would not be a fruitful exercise when writing a serious policy paper.

Secondly, at the bottom of the page on ‘global warming’ in the CGP guide, it is stated that ‘global warming is still just a theory – lots of scientists putting together pieces in a jigsaw. The theory has not been completely accepted yet – so be careful when describing what we actually know’.

To present this as a ‘radical worldview’ full of ‘bias’ is again, in their words, highly ‘misleading’.

They criticise the inclusion of questions such as “explain actions religious people might take to look after the planet” and the marking criteria as being biased. However GCSE religious studies papers regularly include questions such as “Explain briefly why some people have a civil marriage ceremony“. This doesn’t imply a ‘brainwashing’ of children towards a civil marriage ceremony. Again, the selection of material is itself a biased and misleading analysis.

They only use a tiny selection of comments at the bottom of a TES survey as an example of ‘what teachers think’ when they could have equally contrasted these views with an article in The Guardian expressing a very different view if they genuinely sought a balanced perspective.

Finally, they conclude “gone are the days when the education system hoped to generate young people equipped to form their own opinions on complex scientific, sociological and political issues”.

Although its not clear which days they refer to, I agree this would be an amazing achievement for education. Teaching children to critically analyse the political influence of the data they are given could ironically be conceived itself as a ‘radical worldview’ due to its fundamental link with effective democracy as excellently explained by authors such as Henry Giroux [1].

We teach a huge number of separate scientific facts to children during the AQA A-level Biology course which I am familiar with, some of which we do have time to discuss and criticise, some we unfortunately do not. This would be more apparent to Montford and Shade if they had further experience in education or engagement with the teaching profession when writing such a report.

I do think critical analysis in science education should be promoted and encouraged but the choice of which facts to be analysed should be based on the strengths, weaknesses and complexity of the science involved, not the bias of writers such as Montford and Shade.

They may be interested to know I also taught a lesson this year to a high achieving A2 Biology class where I did actually give equal time to non teacher-led activities looking at arguments for and against man made climate change, providing a range of data ‘for’ and ‘against’ (including showing them ‘the great global warming swindle’ they suggest in their report), and got them to vote at the end which side they supported.

Their critical analysis led them to unanimously support a human influence.

[1] Giroux, H (2011) On critical pedagogy. Continuum books

A symphony of reason and emotion

Why pit thoughts and feelings against each other, asks guest blogger Sander van der Linden…climate change is in reality a ‘symphony of reason and emotion’.

This guest post is by Sander van der Linden,  a doctoral candidate in social-environmental psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and a visiting research scholar at the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication at Yale University (2012 – present). His research explores judgments and perceptions of environmental risks, the determinants of pro-environmental behavior, risk communication, behavioral change as well as theories of social influence and persuasion.

In a forthcoming paper that will be featured as part of the Journal of European Social Psychology’s special issue on Climate Change, I tackle a crucial question that has so far remained unaddressed: what is the nature of the relationship between personal experiences with extreme weather, negative emotions (or ‘negative affect’) and risk perceptions of climate change?

I try to answer this question in the context of a wider discussion, one that has daunted scientists for centuries, namely; the cognition-emotion debate.

About 30 years ago, the late psychologist Robert Zajonc, published an influential and at the time, somewhat controversial paper in which he suggested that “affect” (the term social psychologists use to denote a specific type of emotion) is fairly independent of, and precedes in time, perceptual and cognitive operations.  In other words, we ‘feel’ before we ‘think’.

In a similar vein, more recently, Paul Slovic and colleagues formulated what has now become widely known as “the affect heuristic”.  We can think of “affect” as a fast, automatic and evaluative gut reaction that has become associated with a particular object (through learning and experience).

For example, the work of some of my colleagues at the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has clearly shown that (a) most people tend to have immediate, negative and unpleasant affective associations with the term “global warming” and that (b) “affect” is a key predictor of climate change risk perceptions.

Yet, others have maintained a different perspective. For example, diametrically opposed to Zajonc is the work of the late psychologist, Richard Lazarus.

Lazarus wondered how it is possible that different individuals can experience different emotions given the same situation. In response, he formulated “appraisal theory”, which along with the work of many others, suggests that individuals first perceive, interpret and process information in terms of how it relates to their personal values, goals and experiences. From this point of view, affect is seen as a post-cognitive process (i.e., we must first perceive or appraise a risk before we form any type of affective response). Think of it this way: if you don’t know what it is that you are perceiving, how can you generate an emotion in response?

In light of this debate, recent neurological research has pointed out that thinking in terms of two separate, independent systems (cognition vs. emotion) is really not all that useful at the level of neuroscience, as the pathways related to cognition and emotion are deeply interconnected. Indeed, our cognitions (“thinking”) can influence how we feel (“emotions”) and in turn, our “affective” feeling-states can influence our thinking (“cognition”). Yet, the way in which affect functions in relation to cognition can be strongly dependent on the context.

In fact, when talking about climate change, context is key. Climate change is a relatively unique type of risk in the sense that it cannot be experienced directly. One question that has been puzzling climate change researchers is to what extent personal experiences with extreme weather influence risk perceptions of climate change. It is not unreasonable to assume that people only associate extreme weather with climate change if they make some sort of perceptual or cognitive mental link that these two phenomena are related.

To illustrate, when faced with extreme weather (e.g., a hurricane), most people are likely to experience an instinctive fear-driven emotional reaction. However, at the same time we must retrieve cognitive information about the nature of the perceived risk as well (i.e., how do you know that you should be afraid of a tornado or hurricane?).

What is crucial to understand is that in order for the experienced emotion to be directed at climate change, some type of cognitive link relating the risk event (“extreme weather”) to climate change is needed first. Thus, this perspective seems to be well aligned with Lazarus’ interpretation that affect is post-cognitive. Yet, at the same time, when this link has been made, we would expect that affect is also a strong driver and determinant of risk perception.

Using results from a UK national survey, I found exactly this: negative affect towards climate change is only formed when a conscious risk attribution is made (i.e., people first have to interpret and connect their personal experiences with extreme weather to climate change). However, when that link has been made salient, affect not only clearly functions as a strong driver of risk perception, affect and risk perception actually mutually influence each other in a dynamic feedback system. These results strongly favor a so-called “dual-processing” perspective – implying that both psychological theories hold true.

You might ask; so what?

The way in which cognitive and affective process mechanisms shape our beliefs and perceptions about climate change is important. Indeed, the interactive engagement of both cognitive and emotional processes is key to fostering more public engagement with climate change. For example, research has shown that negative affect motivates people to seek out information about climate change. Additionally, while of course no single weather event can be linked to climate change, based on my research and that of others, one way to increase negative affect is by making the link between the rising incidence rate of extreme weather and climate change much more explicit.

In conclusion, when it comes to climate change communication, pitting cognition against emotion is not a very useful approach, as it is not their separation that is interesting but rather, their interrelation.

Will UK floods bring an end to climate silence?

There is a possible silver lining to the disastrous floods swamping the UK – an end to public apathy on climate changeclimate

The wettest January in the UK in 250 years followed by a stormy February have brought misery to many thousands. Floods have submerged large chunks of the south-west of the country, a key stretch of railway collapsed into the sea, and the river Thames spectacularly burst its banks, deluging towns and villages.

As a statement from the UK’s weather service, the Met Office, made clear, these are the sorts of events that are made more likely by climate change. But a strange disconnect has run through mainstream media coverage and political discourse. Amid the clamour to apportion blame and political point-scoring, one conversation was conspicuously low profile: whether this is a bitter taste of what climate change has in store for the UK.

For a long time, social scientists have been interested in the impact of flooding and other extreme weather on public attitudes to climate change. Because it is regarded as a distant and intangible threat to people across much of Europe – not here, not now and not us – communicating its risks has proved to be a significant challenge. Intuition would suggest that personal experience of the sorts of events associated with climate change would cut through the psychological security blanket that usually keeps the issue at arm’s length. And sure enough, research has found a link between being flooded and elevated concern about climate change.

In a study published in 2011 (Nature Climate Change, doi.org/dkpspz), people who had been flooded expressed not only higher levels of climate concern but a greater willingness to reduce their carbon footprints. In another more recent survey of Welsh citizens, those living in a recently flooded area were 10 per cent more likely to agree that the impact of climate change is already being felt.

Sudden and extreme events like flooding are a grim reminder that the climate is changing. But even mundane changes can play a role in shaping opinion. An analysis of US views over two decades found a clear and consistent relationship between average temperatures and belief in the reality and seriousness of climate change. The study even put a figure on this: for every degree that temperature rose above the average over the previous 12 months, there was a 7.6 per cent increase in agreement that the world was warming.

So will the 2014 floods catalyse a dramatic reduction in public apathy to climate change? A new study led by my colleague Stuart Capstick suggests that some people will be unmoved – because weather patterns are interpreted according to existing beliefs and values. The research focused on perceptions of climate change during a cold snap that engulfed the UK in 2011, analysing responses according to political views and values.

Those who were more individualistic and endorsed free-market economic principles were more likely to be climate sceptics, and this group saw the freezing temperatures as evidence that the world was not warming. But three times as many people viewed the disruptive, chaotic weather as proof of a changing climate.

Extreme weather, like every aspect of the highly polarised topic of climate change, is thus subject to powerful psychological, cultural and political filters, which conspire to produce confounding outcomes. The Daily Mail – a newspaper renowned for its sceptical editorials and reporting – responded to the floods in a predictable manner. Rather than criticise the government for failing to invest in climate change adaptation, the paper picked a familiar villain – the overseas aid budget – and argued that it should be redeployed to help flood victims.

As much as climate change is a scientific issue, the stories we read about it are important too.

Scientists are understandably reluctant to make causal links between any single weather event and the complex dynamics of a changing climate. Definitive proof that this weather is the result of climate change is currently beyond us. But without a coordinated and consistent message that more flooding is on the way for the UK if ambitious action on climate change is not forthcoming, there is no guarantee that the public will join the dots. In the absence of a coherent narrative on this, uncertainty flourishes and scepticism is likely to grow.

The sociologist Robert Brulle tracked US public opinion on climate change over more than a decade, piecing together events and influences that had swayed views. Brulle’s analysis pointed strongly to the importance of “elite cues”; that is, signals and messages that people get from the media, politicians and other high-profile voices. What they say matters – especially when they say nothing.

Unsurprisingly, with such a muted national conversation in the UK, public interest has dwindled. A climate silence prevails.

A report I wrote for the Climate Outreach and Information Network at the end of last year argued that the climate change debate urgently needs new narratives that make the link between the climate challenge and ordinary people. Climate change will have an impact on most aspects of society, yet it remains stuck in an environmentalist niche, as if only greens needed to concern themselves with the effects of a warmer world.

In flooded Oxford, residents held a demonstration that posed a simple question: can we talk about climate change now? Belatedly – and after thousands of homes have been damaged by floods – the issue of climate change is gradually re-entering the national discourse. It may be the only silver lining in an otherwise thoroughly gruesome winter’s tale.

Originally published by the New Scientist magazine 14.02.14

Time to stop obsessing about scientific uncertainty?

Human behaviour is an uncertainty that dwarfs all others

For fans of probability, confidence intervals and margins of error, climate change is a dream come true. For everyone else, the fact that uncertainty (inherent in any complex area of science) has gradually become one of climate change’s defining features is a constant headache. Because uncertainty – real or manufactured – is a well-rehearsed reason for inaction.

What proportion of scientists agree that human activity is changing the climate? How sensitive is the climate to carbon emissions? Is it very likely or merely likely that flooding will increase? And what does likely mean anyway?

Questions such as these have become a stick with which to beat climate models. Scientists (naturally reticent in their communicative style) feel obliged to reel off lists of things they don’t know, and forget to re-emphasise the (remarkably certain) link between human behaviour and climate change.

The precautionary principle (slippery concept that it is), rests on the idea that less-than-complete knowledge is no reason for inaction. But spreading doubt, playing down the scientific consensus, and focusing obsessively on uncertainties has been the central strategy of climate sceptics, following the helpful example of the tobacco industry before them.

Clearly, there is much that could be done to improve the communication of uncertainty. Scientists could focus on the knowns before the unknowns. Communicators could re-frame the issue as one of risk, a concept familiar from the insurance industry, rather than uncertainty. Verbal statements of uncertainty could be accompanied by numerical figures, to overcome individual and cultural biases in their interpretation.

But there is also only so much that refining our communication of uncertainty will achieve. Because while we obsess over solar flares and natural cycles, we overlook the single biggest uncertainty in the climate system: us.

Fundamentally, the amount of carbon dioxide that we emit over the next 50 years will determine the extent to which the climate changes. Unlikely as it is, the climate may yet reveal itself to be relatively insensitive to the billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases that we have pumped into it.

But even on the lowest credible estimates of climate sensitivity, burning half of our known reserves of fossil fuels will unleash unprecedented changes in the chemistry of our planet. So what we choose to do – and how quickly we can muster the collective willpower to do it – is an uncertainty that dwarfs all others.

The conclusion that it is us – rather than the climate – that is the most intractable source of uncertainty is the central theme in a new paper by Antony Patt and Elke Weber. They argue that our tendency to prioritise daily personal experiences over statistical learning, and our existing political views have a far greater influence on people’s views about climate change than than the error bars on scientists’ graphs.

Both the authors have spent a great deal of time analysing ways of improving the communication of uncertainty within climate science. So it is all the more intriguing that they write:

“Perceptions about the existence and extent of climate change may vary less as a result of how climate risks are communicated, and more as a result of whether solutions are portrayed as possible … (F)or people to support these policies in the first place, it is not sufficient and may not even be necessary for them to perceive climate change as a problem.”

In other words, uncertainty about the science is likely to dissipate in the face of meaningful engagement with effective climate solutions. When people feel inspired by the answers to climate change, they no longer see uncertainty about future predictions as the central question. But the longer the climate discourse is mired in the intricacies of uncertainty, the less likely it is that this kind of transformation will take place.

It is a difficult message for scientists to take on board – the careful communication of uncertainty is a central plank of their training. But the evidence continues to grow that the barriers preventing effective climate policies reside primarily with us (rather than the uncertain predictions of climate science). And the focus on finding the perfect method of communicating uncertainty may in fact be simply reinforcing the sceptics’ framing of the problem.

First published by Guardian Sustainable Business on 31.01.14

Time for a more Radical Plan?

‘Every little helps’ is not a proportionate response to climate change. It is time for a more Radical Plan.

In 2014, England will follow the example set by Wales and Scotland and introduce a carrier bag charge. If the Welsh and Scottish experiences are anything to go by, the policy will drastically reduce the number of bags in circulation, keeping unnecessary waste out of landfill and removing a little polythene from the diet of our cities’ seagulls.

Like recycling, re-using carrier bags has become something of an iconic “sustainable behaviour“. But whatever else its benefits may be, it is not, in itself, an especially good way of cutting carbon. Like all simple and painless behavioural changes, its value hangs on whether it acts as a catalyst for other, more impactful, activities or support for political changes.

The evidence from Wales is not encouraging. My colleagues at Cardiff University analysed the impact of the introduction of the carrier bag charge. Although their use reduced dramatically, rates of other low-carbon behaviours among the general public remained unaffected.

To be clear: fewer plastic bags would be a small, good thing. But as a major two-day conference at the Royal Society headquarters in London this week made clear, “every little helps” is a dangerously misleading mantra when it comes to climate change.

The Radical Plan meeting featured contributions from across the physical and social sciences, as well as civil society. The organisers – Professors Kevin Anderson and Corinne Le Quere of the Tyndall Centre – posed contributors a brutally simple question: what would need to happen if we were to do more than simply pay lip service to the idea of avoiding dangerous climate change?

The answers were undeniably radical – and none mentioned re-using plastic bags.

Scientists and engineers described the unprecedented scale of energy system change necessary to decarbonise rapidly. Social scientists argued for a transformation in the way we view ourselves, our consumption, and our role in society. Economists demolished the idea that economic growth could be maintained forever in a fossil-fuel driven, finite world. Policy experts questioned whether our current carbon targets were fit for purpose.

But across almost all of the papers presented at the conference, there was an inescapable consensus: a fundamentally different economic system is required, if we are serious about avoiding dangerous climate change, based on nurturing wellbeing rather than stoking corporate profit.

This is, of course, not a new idea. But what was striking was the convergence across contributors from the breadth of the physical and social sciences. The clear message was that unrestrained capitalism is incompatible with decarbonisation: the sums simply don’t add up.

Many sceptics see the issue of climate change as no more than a figleaf for ushering in a new era of socialism. The conclusions of the Radical Plan conference are unlikely to convince them otherwise. But for the vast majority of us – who say we “get” climate change, but still somehow cling on to the idea that small, incremental behavioural changes will be sufficient – the conference should be a wake-up call.

Nudging, tweaking, or cajoling people into piecemeal behavioural changes like re-using plastic bags is not a proportionate response to climate change. Engaging the public through their personal carbon footprints is really only a means to an end – and that end is a political and economic system that has sustainability as its central organising principle.

And if these sound like radical statements, unbecoming of the stately, reserved sentiments associated with the Royal Society, then consider the prospect of a world that is four or even six degrees hotter and the havoc and suffering that would be inevitable. This is also a radical choice.

Clearly, economic systems do not overhaul themselves – and in a democracy, majority support is a prerequisite for any significant societal shift. Politicians do not take risks if they don’t think the electorate will support them. And civil society cannot function without a diverse supporter-base.

This means that public engagement still lies at the heart of the challenge of climate change, but it is a form of public engagement that goes way beyond plastic bags. And any public campaign that treats minor behavioural change as a valid goal in itself is also taking a radical stance: complicity in a dangerously warmer world.

Article originally published by Guardian Sustainable Business 13.12.13

Why is climate change scepticism such a slippery concept?

Climate sceptic arguments are constantly shifting: no wonder trying to classify and define scepticism is so frustrating.

What exactly is climate change scepticism? The quest to provide a satisfactory answer to this question is now well into its second decade, with scholars, commentators and campaigners (on both sides of the argument) offering taxonomies and classification systems in an attempt to pin the term down.

Some consider scepticism to be a form of ‘flat earth’ denial: the product of conspiracy theories and the domain of crackpots. Others point to the historical evidence that the same tactics – in some cases the very same institutions and individuals – have been behind co-ordinated attempts to smear the science linking smoking and lung cancer and that linking human CO2 emissions and climate change.

Certainly, there is some truth in both of these conceptualisations: some people deny that there is any link between human activity and climate change, or even that the earth is warming at all. And it is a matter of record that lobby groups have run campaigns explicitly designed to undermine the science of global warming.

But these are minority forms of scepticism (if that is even the appropriate term to use). In the UK, the proportion of people who dispute that human activity is playing some role in changing the climate is small. Most people, if they are sceptical at all, fall somewhere between uninterested, uncertain and disinclined to trust what they read in the papers.

A new investigation led by Stuart Bryce Capstick at Cardiff University is the latest attempt to bring some clarity to the debate. Drawing on both survey data and focus groups with members of the UK public, the study suggests that scepticism can be divided into two categories: ‘epistemic scepticism’ (where people doubt the reality or causes or climate change) and ‘response scepticism’ (where people dispute the efficacy of acting to tackle the problem).

Interestingly, the study found that it is the latter type that is most strongly associated with a lack of concern about the issue. As the authors put it: “This is important because whilst there are clear arguments which can be made concerning the level of scientific consensus and degree of confidence in an anthropogenic component to climate change, doubts concerning personal and societal responses to climate change are in essence more disputable.”

This statement seems to get to the heart of why scepticism is such a slippery concept: so much of it is bound up with (or even indistinguishable from) broader societal questions where there is no right or wrong answer. How much influence should governments have over people’s lives? To what extent should industry be regulated? These are issues that go beyond climate change, yet are central to its resolution.

It is well known, for example, that people don’t trust journalists or politicians. Yet measures of climate change scepticism often ask questions relating to media exaggeration of the problem. What could be interpreted as a statement of scepticism about climate change may in fact be a rejection of the trustworthiness of the media in general.

There is a sense, then, in which attempts to classify and re-classify scepticism are a somewhat circular exercise. Dogmatic ‘response scepticism’ – although seemingly oriented towards the feasibility of tackling climate change – could be equivalent to epistemic scepticism in terms of the practical outcomes for the planet. In other words, a steadfast response sceptic, who doubts the severity of climate impacts and questions the wisdom of spending public money on mitigating them, is effectively acting as if there were no problem in the first place.

And, as anyone who has ever tried debating with climate sceptics below the line on comment threads will confirm, the categories of scepticism are often crossed with a frustrating level of fluidity.

An argument may begin with disagreement over the sensitivity of the climate to carbon dioxide, but then move on to the supposedly compromised research funding of ‘alarmist’ scientists and end on the dubious motives of politicians adopting green taxes.

The reason for the shape-shifting character of so many sceptic arguments is that none of the specific reasons on their own are the basis of the dispute – for many, climate change simply looks and feels like the kind of issue to which they ought to be opposed.

Capstick’s new paper reinforces a finding that is now well-established: that people’s worldviews, political beliefs and personal values are strong predictors of whether they doubt climate change.

People apply motivated reasoning processes to selectively accept the information that supports their existing beliefs. And it is this motivated reasoning that propels the whole process along.

Very few people beyond the community of climate scientists producing the data can claim any real authority with regard to the underlying facts themselves. We decide whether to trust the information we receive, and weigh up the pros and cons of acting on it, based not on a deep interrogation of the evidence but on our judgement of whether it seems legitimate.

As this judgment of legitimacy is itself a product of our personal politics, it is perhaps no surprise that scepticism is such a slippery concept to get to grips with.

First published by the Guardian Sustainable Business 19.11.13

Telling stories about climate change

The science and politics of climate change get all the attention – the human face of climate change doesn’t get much of a look in. And although social scientists have made progress documenting the sorts of factors that shape public engagement, the poets and storytellers have so far been relatively quiet.

Facing the Change: Personal Encounters with Global Warming is a new kind of book about climate change, featuring not the usual science and politics but rather an edited collection of literary prose and poetry that explore the personal, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of one of the major crises facing the world today. According to Steve Holmes, the editor of the collection, the book offers new and potentially helpful angles from which to approach climate change, using personal stories to foster personal and political empowerment.

One poet who has taken up the challenge of engaging with climate change – intellectually and physically – is Emily Hinshelwood. Emily walked across Wales asking every single person she met three questions about climate change:

1. What images come to mind when you think of climate change?

2. How often does climate change come up in your conversations?

3. Is there anything you (personally) can do to limit the effects of climate change?

The result, which we re-publish below with kind permission of the author, is a fascinating document of personal mental imagery about what climate change means to ordinary people. To find out more about Emily’s work, visit her website.

A Moment of Your Time

Fog. Fug. Smog

Cough. Smother. Choke

The planet in nasty grey-blue smoke from

factories with chimneys, from scratching out coal;

big lumps of ice falling off the North Pole, so the

sea levels rise,

the polar bear dies

the Houses of Parliament tip, then capsize.

Whole blinkin’ islands wiped off the map

and over here…. the summers are crap

it’s been pissing for weeks now, the drain’s overflowing

and the sparrows don’t know if they’re coming or going

the daffodil blooms  – then he shivers with cold

we do our recycling – we do what we’re told

but the haycrop’s all ruined, the riverbank’s burst –

d’you know

since I’ve recycled, it’s only got worse

hurricanes, tsunamis, the wreck of the land

and everyone everywhere with their heads in the sand –

me

me on a deckchair – with my head in the sand.

Me – with a bacardi breezer,

suntanned – with my head in the sand

while the desert expands.

 

Dust. Thirst. Dry

Crops. Wilt. Die

Kids like sticks

African villages starve

but that won’t stop me from driving my car!

There’s so many people – we’ve all got bad habits

and countries where women are breeding like rabbits

and building more factories and digging more coal

and more and more ice falls off the north pole

so the water goes higher and we get more rain

and the desert moves further up into Spain.

But we do our recycling we do what we’re asked

it’s a blue bag for plastics and a green bin for glass

We separate cardboard, we clean out our pots

but how do we know they don’t landfill the lot?

Cos it’s not getting better, the seasons are screwed

the poor little bees just don’t know what to do

there’s Cameron on his bike – bla bla bla

with his briefcase coming after in his diplomatic car.

We know what we’re doing – we can’t seem to stop and

Society says – Don’t think – JUST SHOP!

 

So we buy more gadgets to plug in the wall

that need more electric that burns more coal

till the last lump of ice falls off the North Pole

and there’s more freak weather

and London’s drowned

and we knock up more houses on much higher ground

and we pour more concrete and we build more roads

and we keep our borders resolutely closed

till food is so dear and there’s nothing to eat

and it’s our grandchildren – like sticks – begging in the street.

 

Then – maybe then – we’ll stop

park the car

unplug the x-box

we’ll learn a bit of self-control

and then

maybe then

we’ll stop digging up coal

 

Will floods & heatwaves convince people to care about climate change?

Why do floods – but not heatwaves – make people think about climate change?

This is a re-post of a blog by Leo Barasi – you can find the original at his blog Noise of the Crowd.

I’ve been arguing for a while that there’s been too little done to explain to the British public why they should care about climate change. If the problem is seen only to affect animals and people in other countries, campaigners will struggle to win mass support for action to tackle climate change. It has to be made real and personal, or many people just won’t care enough.

But that raises a difficult question. If people don’t already think that climate change will affect them and their family, how do you persuade them they should care?

Fortunately, a mega poll by MORI for Defra provides some answers and the starting point for what a campaign could look like.

According to the UK Climate Risk Assessment, the two most important climate risks facing the UK are flooding and summer heatwaves; I will focus on these as the possible bases for a campaign. However, the poll shows a radical difference in how they are perceived.

It won’t come as much of a surprise that most people in the UK think that flooding is the main risk from climate change (bear with me – it gets more interesting).

The chart below shows the proportion who think flooding has already become more frequent and the proportion who think it will become more frequent by 2050 – and the same for heatwaves. Flooding easily wins out:

UK-impacts-1_Leo

Perhaps this is a product of how heatwaves and floods are distributed. Different parts of the country suffer floods at different times, and most serious incidents get news coverage – while heatwaves tend to hit the country in one go, so coverage is more concentrated. So floods may just be in the news more often*.

But I don’t think that’s the full explanation, and here’s where it starts to get interesting.

A later question asked respondents to move on from considering the likelihood, and to say how concerned they’d be if the UK actually experienced these changes. The results are similar: far more people would be worried by more flooding – in fact, more people say they wouldn’t be concerned by heatwaves than that they would be:

UK-impacts-2_Leo

So, even if a campaign succeeded in convincing more people that, as it were, summer is coming, most people wouldn’t be that bothered by the prospect. The point is superbly encapsulated in ITN’s presentation of the deadly heatwave this summer. A few hundred people may be dying, but overall everyone’s basking in it and generally having a nice time:

UK-impacts-heatwave_Leo

I take two main conclusions from this for campaigns about UK responses to climate change.

Firstly, if someone were to start a campaign now about why people in the UK should want action on climate change, the obvious choice would be flooding. People believe it’s already happening, that it’s going to get worse, and that its worsening would be a major problem. While the poll also shows most people don’t think they personally are at risk from flooding, they’re still concerned and there’s nothing else that has so much legitimacy at the moment.

However, this isn’t to say campaigners should forget about heatwaves. Because another question shows that the conjuction fallacy is affecting the results**. The principle of this fallacy is that people often think that a specific condition, described in detail, is more likely than a broader condition, which is not described in detail, but which the specific condition is an example of.

In this case, we’ve already seen that people don’t think heatwaves are very likely. But when you give them more details about what you mean – make it real – by spelling out the impacts of a heatwave, the proportion who think it’s likely becomes much greater. There’s no equivalent change with flooding, perhaps because most people have already thought about what it means:

UK-impacts-3_Leo

Even with this effect, heatwaves are still seen as less likely – but the gap is much smaller, and the following question that tests concern about these specific impacts finds no difference between the described-in-detail floods and heatwaves.

So the case may not yet have been won for why people in the UK should really care about tackling climate change, and flooding looks like the strongest ground for developing the argument further, with the potential to be credible and effective. But with some work to demonstrate the connection between the principle and what it means in practice, there’s no reason heatwaves can’t ultimately be part of a campaign as well.

* Another factor is that the poll was conducted in the middle of another flood-ridden winter, which probably did swing the numbers a bit – but I doubt enough to explain all the difference.

** I’ve totally read Daniel Kahnemann.

Scientists, sceptics, and advocates

Debates about science, scepticism and advocacy in climate change miss the point: it is social and cultural values that determine public engagement with climate change.

There’s been a series of thought-provoking blogs on the Guardian website this week, focusing on the intertwined issues of science, scepticism and advocacy within climate change.

First, on Tuesday, Warren Pearce argued that it was climate sceptics, not climate scientists, that were the ‘real champions’ of the scientific method. Next, Tamsin Edwards stated that climate scientists were compromising their integrity and public trust by offering opinions on policy, echoing a common sceptic complaint. And, finally, on Friday Dana Nuccitelli accused them both of falling victim to the arguments of ‘concern trolls’, who ‘feign concern at every little climate uncertainty or issue they can use to manufacture doubt and delay the action necessary to solve the climate problem’.

I broadly agreed with Warren’s points regarding the tendency to over-simplify the nature of climate scepticism. Not ‘all’ climate sceptics endorse free market or conspiratorial beliefs (although these statistical relationships are real, and can’t be discounted in any attempt to understand climate change scepticism). As we argued in our recent report on engaging centre-right citizens more effectively on climate change, scepticism is typically attributable to the ‘facts’ of climate change failing to resonate with the values of a particular audience.

However, I thought Warren was over-generous in his characterisation of some sceptic communities, especially the Bishop Hill blog, which frequently and predictably descends into angry, aggressive denouncements of individual scientists. I think Warren’s aim is to bring about a more constructive dialogue, but it is a huge stretch to describe the typical conversation on blogs like Bishop Hill as anything approaching a constructive or measured evaluation of science.

I don’t accept that they are the ‘true scientists’ in the debate – but they do express many of the broader concerns that the general public more broadly share (e.g., the cost of climate policies, or the trustworthiness of politicians or energy companies), and its here that debates about climate change are more likely to be won and lost – not in debating the detail of climate science.

Tamsin’s piece argued strongly for climate scientists to refrain from offering opinions on matters of policy, and warned that becoming ‘advocates’ had led to an erosion of trust among the public, and compromised scientists’ integrity. This is a huge and complex area of debate that speaks to questions beyond climate science: many scholars of science policy have struggled with these issues for decades, and to my mind have not provided entirely satisfactory answers.

The problem – which is both practical and philosophical – seems to centre on what counts as ‘advocacy’. Certainly, an academic supporting a particular energy policy in their professional capacity would count as advocacy (although I don’t agree that this is implicitly ‘wrong’). But is it advocacy for an academic to say they are very worried that the world is not decarbonising fast enough to avoid dangerous climate change? Is it advocacy to even use the term ‘dangerous climate change’ because that is in itself a political construct?

Tamsin argued that there was a moral obligation for scientists to remain ‘neutral’ (whatever that means) on specific policy issues, but I would argue that there’s been a general abdication of moral responsibility among a whole range of people, including climate change academics, in not being honest about the degree to which they see the risks of climate change as requiring ‘some kind of’ more ambitious policy response.

Stating that the world should be implementing policies that will decarbonise the economy is expressing a normative position, but one so consensual and weakly prescriptive that it would be difficult to find fault with it. But many scientists fear even expressing views like these for fear of being attacked as being an advocate.

It is not being an ‘honest broker’ to claim no opinion, effectively handing the citizen’s voice that every scientist is entitled to, to whichever groups in society are shouting the loudest on the issue. It is akin to not voting in an election – a non-vote implicitly backs the powerful and the established.

Finally, Dana Nuccitelli took exception to the credence which both Warren and Tamsin attributed to sceptic views, pointing out (again) the many and various errors and faults in the reasoning and evidence of the sceptics that both articles, in different ways, were keen to defend. I agree with Dana that both articles were over-generous in their characterisation of online scepticim, and very much with his suggestion that:

“…constantly getting the science wrong, and ignoring the inconvenient data all stem from the same root cause – ideological opposition to climate solutions. No matter how much effort you put into pleasing contrarians, they are not going to be part of the solution”

It struck me as a surprising thing for him to say, however, given that so much of his time is spent correcting, re-correcting, and exasperatedly re-re-correcting contraian errors. In fact, there is an entire counter-culture of myth-busting, truth-seeking fact warriors who lavish a great deal of time and energy on proving the sceptics’ arguments wrong. I don’t dispute for a second that they are wrong. But it isn’t the way to win over public opinion on climate change.

In a funny way, Dana Nucitelli and Tamsin Edwards agree on one thing: that public opinion crucially hinges on an accurate communication of the scientific facts. But what determines whether people believe in the facts of climate science?

There is now a huge body of empirical social science that provides an answer to this question. It tells us that things like values, ideology, social norms, ‘biased’ risk perceptions and to a small extent, knowledge about climate change, determine beliefs about climate change (science and policy). Communicating climate science more effectively means finding ways of making the ‘facts’ of climate change resonate with the range of different values and social views that people hold.

Warren Pearce, Tamsin Edwards and Dana Nuccitelli may not see this as an appropriate role for scientists – but to ignore the social science that tells us what public engagement with climate change is based on seems to me to be pretty unscientific.

Adam