Communicating Climate Change

Summary: 'We don't believe them anymore, *them* being those CEI authors who insist with a straight face that global warming science is a plot of "socialists and communists". We're wise to their tactics. Nevertheless, we feel sorry for them when they pathetically claim that because of their "efforts to educate the public, Greenpeace has repeatedly targeted [them], by stealing their garbage on a weekly basis...."'

Climate Change Communication-- Does It Work?

The American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) met last week in San Francisco, California and convened a panel on communicating climate change. The AAAS website summarizes the panel's take home message: "More communication of climate change science won't spur problem solving, says CU researcher". The panel was based on a book by coeditors Lisa Dillings and Susanne Moser called: "Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change." According to the AAAS panel press release:

"The notion that more information about the science of human-caused climate change will spur effective problem solving by American society is just flat wrong, according to a University of Colorado at Boulder climate policy analyst."

As Dilling put it: "What we do know is that handing out fliers about the consequences of climate change and assuming people will change their ways doesn't work". She added that most people don't connect their own energy consumption with CO2 emissions.

We were eager to delve into the book, to learn about these issues, pull out pithy quotes and interesting facts and share them with you, but since the book is listed for over $100 on Amazon, you'll have to buy it yourself. For now, we'll make assumptions based on the bits of the book that Amazon gives sneak previews of.

Communication Doesn't Work -- Really?

Taken at face value, the conference press release states the antithesis of what we've observed over the years. We read it and thought -- Really? Communication isn't working? True, once we would have agreed with this premise. For years, it seemed as if peoples' concerns over climate change were diminishing even as more and more scientific evidence for global warming piled up. Intelligent people, our friends even -- with no ExxonMobil holdings at all-- dismissed the facts of climate change!

Last April, in considering my options for gloomy posts on this sorry state of affairs, I had half a mind to just post a link to and call it a day. Instead Acronym Required published a weary review of the so called "two sides" of the climate change debate and titled it "Sea Change or Littoral Disaster". We noted: "Each headline that shows more evidence of warming is greeted with hope from those who believe that the naysayers really, really do need one more piece of evidence to convince them. Then the barrage of squawky letters to editors follows from the people who insist the science is all flawed."

Since that post, there has been a palpable, almost surprising change in public acknowledgment of climate change. Yes, we have a year's worth of research, but as well, there's corporate attention, the movie "The Inconvenient Truth", more evidence of warming and melting and extreme weather events, an election that put leaders who recognize the importance of the climate issue in charge, as well as the bi-annual report from the International Panel on Climate Change IPCC. All of these communication efforts have ahelped sway public perception. The media has also changed its tune, from the relentless and nonsensical even-steven coverage of the so-called both sides, to a more truthful representation of the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change.

When we reflect back on 2006, it seemed that this tangible change in recognition of climate change was one of the most hopeful events of 2006. As opposed to the conclusions of communication panel, I credit this sudden recognition with ALL the skillful and urgent communications. Am I naive? Granted, the authors in the AAAS paper talk about communication not representing people's willingness to change. But isn't the first step towards a solution just acknowledging the problem? Perhaps, if we dare believe it, communication is actually working wonderfully.

Communication Works

To further challenging the AAAS authors' point, if communication doesn't work, then why do the CEI and AEI and conservative public relations firms, not to mention individuals like Horner, work so hard at communication? If communication didn't work, why has ExxonMobil pumped $19 million dollars into disinformation campaigns about global warming? If communication doesn't work, then why do all these organizations put so much effort and money into getting their messages across? If communication doesn't work than why is every other ad on television for a shiny new automobile, as the automobile industry insists on selling SUVs, despite global warming.

To make her point, Dilling says that 90% of people think that global climate change is serious or very serious but only 1/3 of people find this "worrisome" -- a number that the authors say has been growing smaller until "very recently". But perhaps this corresponds to the oil companies' political campaign over the same time period which sought to present global warming as "not a problem"¹. Is it completely coincidental that people surveyed responded with the exact answer that was the message of the conservative groups against global warming¹? And perhaps the "very recent" increase of people who find global warming worrisome corresponds to "very recent" surge in communication and research about the problem -- Gore's movie, IPCC, etc.

The message of climate change deniers is appealing not only because it denies the possibility of impending catastrophe, but because it protects the status quo by presenting the easiest action item of all -- do nothing. If you choose to do nothing your evidence becomes that somebody says climate change is not a problem. That's arguably an easier and more appealing than the effort required to cut back on CO2 emissions. Cutting back on consumption threatens our "core values" advertised everyday on TV, touted in the media, and expressed by President Bush. Anti-consumption is a hard sell these days, and communication is a large part of consumption's appeal. On the other hand, alternative energy and conservation efforts have also recently gained attention -- where would we'd be if we hadn't made all of this communication effort?

Dilling's book probably goes into good detail as to the reasons why climate change scientists felt like the message wasn't getting across. But perhaps the multi-million dollar campaign pushing the conservative line, "don't worry"; overpowered the alternative message with its grim vision about "changing our lifestyles".

Communication from the Ideological Right

Clearly not everybody has acknowledged climate change, most disturbingly, the White House. The Bush administration won't step forward on the issue, perhaps because they're still all ears to their loudest constituencies. Fox News trots out the party line and occasionally breaks from serving up fare such as "What it's Like to be a Hooters Calendar Centerfold", to advise the Bush White House on climate policy. The Fox News blog "Junk Science" agitated noisily when the White House announced it was considering a measure to list Polar Bears as an endangered species last December:

"Rather than issuing the proposal in a tentative and low-key manner, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne issued a media release and reigned over a press teleconference."

"It's a futile gesture that only signals a weakening in the Bush administration's heretofore strong stance against global warming hysteria."

Heretofore, we would know that the moment "Junk Science" published those words "global warming hysteria", we'd be hearing them in future conversations with our climate change challenged friends, who would spew the exact phrase in their tedious argumentation. Now, it's not as likely. Last April we wrote about "George Will and his ilk" and the relentless climate change denial brigade. Now his ilk have less of an effect on our opinions.

Not to say that all the forceful naysaying has simply melted away under the bright lights of the IPCC report. Christopher Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), for instance, who in the past found an audience in the Senate for his negative opinions of international climate treaties, is making media rounds publicizing his book, "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming and Environmentalists". Horner says he never denied climate change, it's just that the climate changes and that's not proof of anything. The difference between now and last April, in my opinion, is that these arguments aren't salable to the general population.

To my point, Horner appeared on Jon Stewart on Comedy Central, where he insisted to an unimpressed audience, that climate change is large scale plot of conspiring anti-capitalists. The audience sat, silent, tense, disbelieving, except the time they just broke out laughing. That was after Horner said that "wherever the so-called socialists and communists are in governments anywhere then they are in coalition with the Greens".

Horner proposed that the only reason that industry might appear to be complying [by acting on climate change] is to obtain a "get out of jail free card" from the Greens. "The powerful Greens??", Stewart scoffed. Stewart and his audience weren't buying any of it. Horner appeals to a self-selecting audience, for instance stating on his website that because of his "efforts to educate the public, Greenpeace has repeatedly targeted Mr. Horner, by stealing his garbage on a weekly basis...." That is sad.

We've long been educated and are now familiar with tobacco's denials of the links between cancer and smoking and also know that the same denialists have been recruited for the global warming cause. We've read the papers, we've seen the oil profits, we've heard the scientists and the bloggers. But when, exactly, did the campaign to discredit global warming lose its edge? When public opinion got nudged into a downward spiral by the Bush administration's blatant mendacity in Iraq? The federal and state bungling of Hurricane Katrina? Gore's movie? The newspaper editorials? The freakish storms and extreme weather events? Somewhere along the line communication changed public opinion.

Communicate but Don't Relax

While we think we see the tide turning, we're not smug or righteous. To Americans, Horner may sound nuts. But in context of a European audience (where the Green Party actually has a place in government) his neo-liberal parry makes more sense. In fact, even the Democratic Party of the United States has worked to undermine the already quite small Green Party of the United States. The Democrats have blamed the loss of key races on the Green Party, and when one mayoral race in California became quite close three years ago they sent Bill Clinton, Al Gore and a parade of Democrats to campaign for the Democrat candidates to stand up to a viable Green Party contender. In Europe, social-democratic governments are foundering economically but the governments that have Green Party representation are also the ones that ratified Kyoto. Is Horner trying to appeal to the Democratic Party? Is he trying to link the global warming movement to a marginalized political party? To the Europeans?

But even corporations are responding to current climate change. Business practices that save energy and makes environmental sense, and business sense. Given that Horner represents business interests, he's unreasonably fixated on a outdated and ideological message, if not certifiably paranoid about what he called the "Communist threat". Nevertheless, he's unyielding and clever in his goal to garner allies for his cause He's perhaps too easy to underestimate.

They'll Fix it

If we've moved beyond the climate change "debate", however, as I argue we have, we've only entered another stage. I'm not sure what to call it, but it if we appropriated something like the familiar five stages of dealing with catastrophe- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, then maybe people have moved on to some sort of denial/bargaining phase. People's minds fill their minds with ideas about how we can buy our way out, with some carbon credits, some alternative energy, or some prizes. Again, this is procrastination. If buying our way out doesn't work, at least we've bought some time.

Companies have visibly increased their marketing budgets to make it seem like they're "green". Electric companies put up websites with ads that urge people to take the bus. ExxonMobil runs full page ads in the Wall Street Journal that state: "actually, we're working to reduce emissions for 6.5 billion people". The stock market swoons, not at that happy little marketing message, but because aside from the message, there are glorious ExxonMobil oil profits, in the range of $36.1 billion in 2006 -- $1,146 per second -- $6 dollars per year of oil profits for every human on earth. One money manager frothed: "I think if oil prices stay north of $50, this company is going to continue to have tons of cash... this company is going to be minting money."

With much fanfare, Richard Branson offered a $25 million dollar prize to someone who can figure out how to extract CO2 from the atmosphere. He delivered the announcement standing next to a smiling Al Gore, who in "The Inconvenient Truth" mocked those who would continue polluting, then try to the earth cool down with giant ice cubes.

There are actually technology schemes that are underfunded and might have potential. People talk about storing CO2 in caves, about "artificial trees with "leaves" that absorb the gas, solar-powered scrubbers, and carbon-sucking towers in Antarctica".This is all very optimistic, but I can't help but be reminded of a chef acquaintance, a consummate practical joker. When new assistants started working in his kitchen he would invariably ask them to run an errand for him. It was an emergency, he'd explain, waving his arms frantically, a mishap with his soup de jour...Could the assistant kindly run like the wind, across town to Chez Chez and ask them for a huge favor - to borrow their pepper extractor? The Chez Chez kitchen would comply with a straight face, sending back some useless tool, a slotted spoon say, explaining to the underling its hidden powers. It wasn't a serious culinary lesson about the futility of trying to remove spice that has been too exuberantly applied to a vat of soup, just a failing source of amusement to most involved (except the exhausted assistant). Nevertheless it has a familiar ring.

Branson acknowledges that the schemes might not work, and that people need to curb their output. But that's not the dominant message. Like most businesses, he's more keen on continuing his own company's growth, and significant pollution, than having his freedom to pollute curbed by carbon regulation. Silicon Valley businesses are currently very active hosting alternative energy panels at venues in the Bay area, that quickly sell out at $20 and up per ticket. Businesses are more eager to pursue profitable energy "alternatives" for the future, than to stop pouring carbon into the air now. Citizens are happy to let business figure it all out for them. This new bargaining is an extension of the last message actually -- you don't need to worry. You don't really need to do anything, lets see if someone can invent something. Change is too difficult and no fun, lets not think too hard about that, lets try to buy or bargain our way out -- I can pick up some milk and butter and carbon credits at the store on the way home honey....

Not everyone is controlling the communication about climate change, but some people are, and consumers are busy acting according to the messages they're receiving from those strong communicators.


¹McCright, Aaron, Dunlap, Riley, (PDF) Defeating Kyoto: The Conservative. Movement's Impact on U.S. Climate Change Policy. (PDF) 2003, in Social Problems Vol 50(3) 348-373. (McCright is one of the authors of the book, this is a interesting study that he co-authored (that's not in the book))


Some related Acronym Required articles:

On Climate Change denial: Sea Change or Littoral Disaster

Business and Climate Change: "Carbon Emissions Disclosure Project"

Ice core research to study atmospheric conditions 650,000 years ago: "Holocene Days"

Politics and climate change: "Will Loose Lips - Or Global Warming - Sink Ships?".

Carbon emissions regulation after Katrina: "The Environment & Katrina-Slick Oil Fallout"

Drought in the "Amazon", and in "Australia".

Science research communication and climate change: "Research, Politics and Working Less", and "Science Communication".

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