Thursday, December 9, 2010

Unvarnished truth is hard to swallow

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.


  1. I think what they are suggesting is that to continue to fool the public into action on AGW, the message must be repackaged. Maintain the same ol' lies from the previous climate campaign, but this time soften the message somewhat, make it more believable. Up to now, they have been making ludicrous claims that climate and humans are responsible for everything bad, no matter how unrelated or unlinked; they would just state some obscure scientifically unsupportable link and then let the media create the crude headlines. This method has failed. Do you think this new softer approach will resurrect the green movement or is climate change toast (as most people believe)?

  2. @Anonymous: I don't think "more believable" is the finding. I think that people want to hear that the problem can be solved. We don't know whether it can be or not; the question is whether saying it can (or might) be will motivate engaged action or not.

    I don't know whether a change of message will have the needed effect. I wonder whether the needed engagement will only be achievable after some awful, irrevocable catastrophe happens (e.g., the Maldives sinking beneath the sea).

    Is climate change toast? Climate change is happening. The question is whether land masses on Earth (and the creatures who live on them) are toast.

  3. Hey Steve,

    Ugh. I'm not sure how wise I am responding to this (politics is only equaled by religion in its ability to turn otherwise sane people into polemic-spouting dicotomaniacs), but here I go.

    1. I think Feinberg and Willer arrive at a reasonable conclusion. Only how they get there seems dubious. I would invoke the "Soothsayer" model instead. People have been bombarded with doomsday messages from a variety of sources, both credible and otherwise, for millennia. So far, doomsday remains purely conceptual. The result: Repeated invocations of doomsday paired with a stubborn lack of global cataclysm tends to drive many people in the direction of ignoring the doomsday message altogether, regardless of the accuracy of the prediction.

    2. Technology isn't really the problem or the solution to global climate change. The primary contributor of greenhouse gasses to the environment has always been and will likely continue to be volcanism. That said, human beings are contributing to the problem. OUR problem is that we are looking at the mechanism behind our contribution to greenhouse gas emissions ass backwards.

    Technology is only nominally creating emissions problems. The larger problem is the gross overpopulation of the planet. There are too many people. Period. The larger a population gets, no matter what species, the more toxicity that species generates as it consumes more and more resources and creates more and more waste in the process. In our case, that toxicity is compounded by all of the exotic resources we exploit combined with the technology requiring those resources. Trim the population, trim the toxicity.

    Of course, the “fewer people” solution is a difficult sell. There is almost an “Evil Dictator” vibe attached to the idea. How do you set policy on the “right” number of people necessary to safely populate the planet? How do you deal with the ramping down from current population levels to more ideal population levels, and how to you get everyone on the face of the globe to agree to what is an “ideal” population level both locally and globally? Messy, at best.

    3. Last, the sad truth of the matter is that climatolgical science is still very much in its infancy. That doesn't mean we haven't identified a legitimate problem in global climate change, but it does mean that we likely have a very incomplete picture of all the variables driving the change and how to effectively model those variables. Again, that doesn't mean there is or isn't a problem, but it does mean that we could very easily cause as much harm trying to "fix" things as we do actual good, given humanities repeated self-immolation in the fires of "unintended consequences."

    Complex, multilayered, and interesting problem. Like most such problems I wonder if we, as a species, completely understand the question yet, much less have a proper answer.

  4. @Dan:

    Well, when doomsday becomes something other than conceptual it'll be here. La-di-da.

    We can't stop volcanos from erupting. If volcanos erupt, if a big asteroid slams into Mexico, if the sun goes supernova -- c'est tout. As best I can tell from following the science, human contribution to climate change is a fact, and a significant one. It's the fact we might be able to do something about.

    Overpopulation? Maybe so. So far, human ability to deal with overpopulation hasn't inspired confidence: Hitler and Mao come to mind, as you imply. So I suppose I'd put "solve overpopulation" in the same "Yeah, right" category as Bjorn Lomborg's suggestion that we might reflect or deflect sunlight away from our planet to cool things down a bit.

    We as a species probably don't fully understand the problem. If we wait to act until we do, it may be too late to do anything about it.

  5. >>Well, when doomsday becomes something other than conceptual it'll be here. La-di-da.<<

    Hey, I'm just saying, that's the mindset. I'm not saying I agree with the mindset, but it's not going to la-di-da away anytime soon. Would that it were that easy.

    >>Overpopulation? Maybe so. So far, human ability to deal with overpopulation hasn't inspired confidence: Hitler and Mao come to mind, as you imply.<<

    By that argument, since human ability to deal with overconsumption hasn't inspired confidence, we can ditch that option as well. Sounds like a bad idea to me.

    >>We as a species probably don't fully understand the problem. If we wait to act until we do, it may be too late to do anything about it.<<

    I totally agree. All I'm saying is that we shouldn't be too surprised if our "solution" to climate change ends up making some other problem, sort of like "Yeah! Antibiotics have destroyed bacterial infections forever!" changing to "Crap! MRSA!"

  6. Great question, Steve. I wonder what kind of people are predisposed to action by "doomsday" scenarios and which are propelled by more reassuring scenarios? Perhaps those of us who are already pretty sure the world isn't "safe, sane, and fair" are more quick to respond to the idea of total catastrophe. Also we tend to believe that the current apparent "safety" of the world can change suddenly and irrevocably something the vaunted American optimism doesn't allow for.

    Then there is the element of sacrifice and let's face it, as I type on my electric powered computer with the heat on, most of us are not all that interested in living within our energy means, making the personal changes/sacrifices it would take to slow down climate change. So in my humble opinion it's going to take a big ole slap in the face from nature before people do things differently.

    As for population it seems probable to me that it will drop drastically in the future simply due to the odds.... I read an article many years ago in the New Yorker that stuck with me and made the point that the odds are that we are alive when most people are alive, not at the beginning of a time when the population is huge and stays that way long term. Not an exciting thought for a parent and teacher of the young.

    I do find I experience a fair amount of cognitive dissonance between my beliefs about what the future holds and the way I live my daily life...

    Oh and for your dystopian reading pleasure I recommend my recent reads "After the Flood" by Margaret Atwood and "Super Sad True Love Story" by Gary Shteyngart.

  7. @Leah: Thanks for weighing in. Though they stated the inverse, I think your idea about who might respond to scenarios of total catastrophe lines up with Feinberg & Willer's study.

    No, most are not interested in reducing energy consumption, especially when it's conceived as sacrifice. Sacrifice is easier, I think, when communities share it, and those who try to lead or influence in that direction are stymied in many ways ... for one, calls for the significant levels of change needed to have impact at the global level are widely viewed as hysterical or apocalyptic or misguided.

    Today's SF Chron announces the U.N. climate change conferences adoption of the teeny tiny increment of "progress" this way: The U.N. climate change conference adopted a package of measures Saturday focused on tempering the effects of a warming planet, breathing new life into a process that many had declared moribund. Although the steps taken here were fairly modest and do not mandate the broad changes that scientists say are needed to prevent dangerous climate change in coming decades, the result was a major step forward for a process that has stumbled badly in recent years.

    Not confidence inspiring. We are marching to dystopia.....