A summary for a study titled Global Warming Warnings Can Backfire begins: "From Priuses to solar panels and plastic-bag bans (and even green dating!), it seems that everyone’s going green. The message that our world is in danger if we do not take action is also everywhere: from images of baby polar bears drowning to frightening images of a parched barren future. The push to go green is based in good intentions, but an upcoming study in Psychological Science shows that the popular 'do or die' global-warming messages can backfire if the situation is presented too negatively."
The study is slated for publication in January's Psychological Science; the authors are Matthew Feinberg & Robb Willer.
(Referral credit where it's due: UC Berkeley's press release factory published Dire messages about global warming can backfire, new study shows on 16 November, but I didn't come across the story until our student newspaper, The Daily Californian, picked it up in an article a week later.)
Earlier this week I wrote about finding Nevil Shute's On The Beach (1957) problematic for presenting the danger of nuclear war in clean, controlled, and airbrushed colors. As I wrote in my blog post of Monday, when I watched the film and reread the book -- each a classic -- over Thanksgiving weekend I found On the Beach a bit ridiculous. I think Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006) gives a more honest view of what apocalypse-on-Earth might look like, should things come to that.
Each book packs a moral wallop. Each warns of a future only a maniac would want to see happen, a future most would go some distance to forestall. But I had a hard time taking On The Beach seriously because its characters go to their deaths with such stiff upper lips, conforming like docile children to social strictures that about to flatline. I had to pinch myself from time to time to remember I wasn't reading a farce. McCarthy's The Road? No such problem.
But the Feinberg and Willer study to be published next month suggests that of the approaches taken by these novels, published nearly fifty years apart, the kinder, gentler message is more likely to reach its readers.
Again from the Psychological Science summary: "Results showed that those who read the positive messages were more open to believing in the existence of global warming and had more faith in science’s ability to solve the problem, than those exposed to doomsday messages, who became more skeptical about global warming."
I have to confess that when I read that sentence Mary Poppins fairly leaped to mind ...
... but not in a very delightful way.
So let's dig a little deeper into Feinberg & Willer:
"Our study indicates that the potentially devastating consequences of global warming threaten people’s fundamental tendency to see the world as safe, stable and fair. As a result, people may respond by discounting evidence for global warming," said Willer [...]. "The scarier the message, the more people who are committed to viewing the world as fundamentally stable and fair are motivated to deny it," agreed Feinberg.
But perhaps motivation to deny isn't the only issue the study is surfacing, or even the most important.
Feinberg & Willer's study, its summary explains, finds that people are "open to believing" a serious problem exists when they have "more faith in science’s ability to solve the problem." These are two sides of a single coin, though, aren't they?
If a doomsday message suggests that a very large problem can't be solved, people don't want to believe the problem exists. That's heads. Tails might be: people are willing to believe a very large problem exists, so long as it's not really very large (because it can and will be resolved -- and, perhaps much more tellingly, somebody else is going to take care of it). Whether the world is, indeed, "safe, stable and fair" -- whatever a person's convictions might be on the question -- is something else again.
But let's shift gears for a moment, and consider another angle on global warming.
I saw the preview several weeks ago in a theater, but have not watched this year's documentary Cool It!, which portrays Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg and his conviction that climate change is a "manageable crisis" (as the Boston Globe put it). Lomborg is selling big engineered solutions. For example, according to Reuters, "Geo-engineering that could [...] be used to reflect sunlight into space." (Yeah, right.)
I suspect this film is a variant of the wishful human tendency Feinberg & Willer have found in their subjects.
Judging from the trailer and reviews, Cool It! pushes a message that Al Gore and the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth are massive downers, man. This is not only the frame of Cool It!, it is also the frame of Feinberg and Willer's study: "Overall, the study concludes, 'Fear-based appeals, especially when not coupled with a clear solution, can backfire and undermine the intended effects of these messages.'"
While some of what I gleaned from glimpses into the movie looked on the mark to me -- if all we can throw at climate change are efficient light bulbs and hybrid cars it's certainly not going to go away -- Lomborg appears to lean toward giving smart scientists big money to solve problems for humankind, rather than engaging people to behave differently than we have to-date under the influence of free market capitalism, and the burdens and bonuses of industrial civilization.
The effect of behavior to-date, of course, is that we're heading for climate-induced catastrophe before the end of the current century, according to a supermajority of scientists. There's still a chance to head off the worst of what's predicted, most think, but doing so will require widespread and radical changes in our behavior (which, most scientists agree, lies at the root of today's climate change) and the economies that influence them.
The chance that the worst can be engineered into submission by a vanguard of geeks and their electronic slide rules? Not so much, in this skeptic's humble opinion. And if a "clear solution" -- like reflecting sunlight back into space -- is actually a pipe-dream, it doesn't actually add value to an appeal, whether "fear-based" or not.
What would be required to motivate radical changes in human behavior and the economies that influence them? I think that question has an easy answer, generally speaking: it would require, first, that humans recognize and acknowledge that current behaviors are leading us headlong into deep doo-doo. From there, compared to from a state of denial, it's a much shorter distance to shouldering the responsibility necessary to fix a problem that's too big to be delegated to faceless bureaucrats and professionals.
But, as Feinberg and Willer show in their forthcoming study, Lomborg's message is of a type people are more likely to take in -- precisely because it suggests that there's an easy way out. It certainly would be easier to leave it to engineers to solve their equations, while the rest of us, as George W. Bush urged Americans in September 2001, "Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed."
But the easier thing is unlikely to help, any more than going to Disney World made the world safe from murderous lunatics willing to fly airplanes into buildings.
Thomas Friedman, responding to diplomatic dirty laundry recently aired by WikiLeaks, listed a series of behavior patterns that have seriously -- and perhaps irrevocably -- weakened the United States in relation to putative allies as well as declared enemies. Friedman wrote this past Saturday in a New York Times op-ed, "Geopolitics is all about leverage. We cannot make ourselves safer abroad unless we change our behavior at home. But our politics never connects the two."
And, indeed, that failure to connect is precisely what Feinberg and Willer -- and Nevil Shute -- have shown that people prefer to do.
If climate change is real (which the vast majority of scientists believe is so), and if there may still be a way out (which also seems to be a widely shared assessment), what kind of messages will motivate the engagement and commitment necessary to fix it? A message that softens the raw horror of what will come if we fail? Or one that sticks you right smack in the sights of the worst that can happen?
I know what kind of a message strikes me deeply, and I suppose that makes me an outlier in Feinberg and Willer's universe. Y tu?
Thanks to Pierre J. for the photo of the nuclear explosion.