Climate of Fear

Earlier this week, Juliet Eilperin at the WaPo discussed the results of a new study that the Climate Doom messaging crowd might want to pay attention to:

In the experiment involving undergraduates, the subjects read a news article that began with factual data provided by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, but had two different endings. Half ended with warnings about the disastrous consequences of climate change, while half offered potential solutions to the problem, such as clean energy innovations.

The results–which will be published in the January issue of the journal Psychological Science–showed that those who read the upbeat ending were more open to believing in the global warming’s existence and were more confident about science’s ability to solve the problem.

UPDATE: Andrew Revkin at Dot Earth takes up the study, as well. He writes that it

reinforces the case that a large part of the climate challenge is not out in the world of eroding glaciers and limited energy choices, but inside the human mind.

18 Responses to “Climate of Fear”

  1. laursaurus says:

    Could the same strategy work for Lomborg’s new film? From the reviews and the trailer, I get the impression that this is pretty much the theme.
    When the only remedies being purposed are levying taxes, people are suspicious.

  2. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    But—as Martin Hoffert, Nathan Lewis, Roger Pielke, Jr., and others keep emphasizing—if disastrous consequences would occur at CO2 concentrations above 550 ppm or thereabouts (that’s a counterfactual premise because we don’t have much certainty about specific thresholds for disastrous consequences, and the definition of disastrous is somewhat subjective), then clean energy couldn’t be deployed fast enough to prevent them. So in such a case, emphasizing clean energy solutions in order to get the public to believe the facts would, in fact, be misinforming the public.
    The facts are the facts, and my scientific training makes me cringe at the thought of distorting them (playing down the disastrous side and playing up a false optimism) in order to win public acceptance.
    Honestly, the whole point Curry, Pielke, and others emphasizing the “wicked” nature of the problem is that your premise that one can be “confident about science’s ability to solve the problem” is not realistic. I seriously doubt the ability of science or policy to solve this problem. I honestly fear that it’s unavoidable regardless what we do and that the best we can hope for is to make it somewhat less awful.

  3. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    I just looked at Revkin’s post: “The new Berkeley study of climate and behavior focuses on how descriptions of impending severe climate disruption may violate a deep-rooted human need to perceive the world as being orderly and just.”
    Suppose the world isn’t orderly and just. Are our only choices to follow Cassandra (tell the nasty truth and be dismissed) or Pangloss (use false optimism to gain a following)? I would hope, as Stephen Schneider did, that this is a false dilemma and that we can tell the truth and still persuade the public about the facts.

  4. rustneversleeps says:

    +1 ( * 2! ) to Jonathan Gilligan comments…

  5. Keith Kloor says:


    You write: “The facts are the facts, and my scientific training makes me cringe at the thought of distorting them (playing down the disastrous side and playing up a false optimism) in order to win public acceptance.”

    I don’t think this is what Revkin or the study’s authors are suggesting. (But Andy should speak for himself, if he comes over here.) It’s more about emphasis. So for example, Andy points to that scary video with the child in it, and I’ll tell you what: I wouldn’t want my two young boys to see that. I don’t want to frighten them about the world possibly coming to an end.

    Okay, so what about adults, then? Well, I just have to think that relentlessly hammering the climate doom  message isn’t going to work. People are likely going to tune it out, for the reasons that Andy laid out in his post.

    So again, I don’t think this is a matter of downplaying the potential repercussions of runway climate change; it’s more the sensationalizing/dramatizing that might seem to be counterproductive.

    That’s the argument I’m seeing.

  6. Artifex says:

    I think your observation is spot on. The “big scary” is a card that is played way too often and as a consequence we are mostly numb to it.
    If I am in a crowd and they are casually milling around and drinking beers while discussing “how doom is immanent”, I am going to have an entirely different reaction than if with the “doom immanent” rhetoric, they all start running. To a certain extent, that’s where we are now. The “we should make some rules and that guy over there should pay for it mindset” is usual for pretty much any situation and is the equivalent of the milling crowd. When actions are taken (or even proposed) that attempt to fix the problem in a way that is in some way detrimental to a progressive constituency, lots of folks are going to look up as the crowd starts to move and say “Maybe they really mean it this time ?”
    You want to be convincing ? Pass strict liability caps for the construction and operation of any non-carbon energy generation. If this is done for nuclear over the objection of the trial lawyers, I am going to start to get nervous. Defund the NEA and place the all the cash instead into a crash program for renewables. I will take serious notice. Pass a constitutional amendment requiring zero deficit spending including entitlements so that we can set aside resources for the coming problem. OK, I am convinced they are serious. Cutback SS and Medicaid to provide funds for installation of renewables. OK, my neck is on the line. What do I need to do to help out !?!?
    Simply stand around and tell me how those folks over there should pay more money while your core constituents feed on government funds and regulations ? Not so convincing.

  7. Jonathan,

    Have you considered starting your own blog? I would definitely be a regular!

  8. Jack Hughes says:

    Keith this is your most sensible post ever.
    The tricky bit is that the hi-tech-clean-and-green future is a mirage. It’s a pollyanna world where everyone makes wind-powered websites about … windmills. We cycle to work stopping off for a fair-trade latte at the co-operative coffee house then drop our family pet off at the pet de-carbonization and disposal center. Poor old Rover – but his carbon paw-print was just gross.
    The whole thing is just fantasy. Have you ever seen a steel mill or a cement factory ? Will they run on wind power ? How about the factory that makes your Apple Mac ? Do the workers just pedal the machines ?

  9. Jack Hughes says:

    This is how I became a sceptic. For many years I actually believed this climate stuff. But I was more and more puzzled that the “solutions” seemed to be wrong by several orders of magnitude.
    The climate and everything else going down the gurgler: and the answer … new lightbulbs.
    There was something so wrong with this picture that I started my own investigation and discovered a bizarre world of group-think and crummy half-assed science.

  10. Keith Kloor says:

    I echo Bart’s suggestion (7).


  11. willard says:

    > Suppose the world isn’t orderly and just.

  12. Alex Heyworth says:

    It is not a matter of trusting science to come up with the solution. We already have the solution, it’s called large scale adoption of nuclear power. There is no other solution (other than potentially fusion reactors) on the horizon. All renewable solutions lack the requisite energy density to be more than minority players on a whole of world scale, although some may be significant players on a local level, in a few places.

  13. Keith,

    I think the point Jonathan is correctly making is that even without sensationalizing/dramatizing the conclusions, what’s in stock under a BAU scenario is very serious and potentially frightening (dependent on the eye of the beholder, values etc, of course). Should scientists downplay the risks/consequences in order for their message to get through? Rightly so, most scientists are loath to either downplay or overplay the risks.

  14. Pascvaks says:

    Human history is loaded with examples of how to procede when faced with a delema of this magnitude.  Instead of coming up with a too expensive life changeing method to better hunt buffalo –rather than the current method of chasing a whole herd over a cliff and killing more than you can possobly eat in your whole tribe’s lifetime– some bright guy or gal comes up with the bow and arrow.

    Soooo, given the perceived need to do ‘X’, ‘Y’, and ‘Z’, some bright carbon unit infesting planet Earth needs to come up with a very attractive and very inexpensive method to do things a little different.  Let’s say s/he finds a better way to do ‘X’.  Someone else finds a better way to do ‘Y’.  And someone else finds a superdupper way to do ‘Z’ better.  They end up changing life on Earth forever!  Wah-Laa!  Now that’s the way it’s always been done, and nothing’s going to change it.  I know, it stinks.  But facts is facts and some guy or gal is going to have to invent a better way.  Nobody’s going to agree to some global treaty some idiot scientist (or group thereof with the UN and Al Gore thrown in) says we simply gotta’ have in the next 5-10 years.  People don’t work that way.  And that’s a scientific fact of political life in the 21st Century of the Modern Era.

  15. PDA says:

    That’s pretty much the Underpants Gnome Business Plan but without even any underpants:

    need to do “˜X’, “˜Y’, and “˜Z’

  16. PDA says:

    wow, ordered list FAIL.
    Keith, any possibility of adding a preview function, or the ability to format comments using HTML?

  17. Chris S says:

    Mind control?  Or just a more manipulative approach.
    Same difference, if you don’t have the science.

  18. dp says:

    the survey didn’t do what the media has said. joe romm got the fake articles used in the survey—
    —and instead of having one positive and one negative,
    “¢ both articles talk about negative impacts
    “¢ the positive closing is as described
    “¢ the negative closing is only slightly on the bright-side of lovelock (‘irreversible’ features strongly)
    this is really par for media sexing-up unhelpful summaries of ok studies i think (sez drive-by moron who came here via googling ‘climate hawk’).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.