Understanding the Climate State of Mind

In 2009, a cover story in The New York Times magazine titled, “Why Isn’t the Brain Green?” opened this way:

Two days after Barack Obama was sworn in as president of the United States, the Pew Research Center released a poll ranking the issues that Americans said were the most important priorities for this year. At the top of the list were several concerns “” jobs and the economy “” related to the current recession. Farther down, well after terrorism, deficit reduction and en ergy (and even something the pollsters characterized as “moral decline”) was climate change. It was priority No. 20. That was last place.

Several days ago, Gallup released poll results ranking U.S public concern for nine environmental issues. Global warming came in last. I discussed the poll yesterday in this post, and a lively comment thread ensued.

So what’s going on here? Why isn’t global warming more worrisome to people? Jon Gertner, in his Times magazine piece two years ago, summarized the conventional explanations thought to be responsible:

Debates over why climate change isn’t higher on Americans’ list of priorities tend to center on the same culprits: the doubt-sowing remarks of climate-change skeptics, the poor communications skills of good scientists, the political system’s inability to address long-term challenges without a thunderous precipitating event, the tendency of science journalism to focus more on what is unknown (will oceans rise by two feet or by five?) than what is known and is durably frightening (the oceans are rising).

He could have written that paragraph today. But as his story lays out, there is a growing body of social science research that suggests the above reasons are not entirely sufficient (though they are surely contributing factors).

Earlier this month, I attended a conference on the state of this research and how it can be used to better communicate the climate change issue. The three-day symposium was called “Climate, Mind, and Behavior.” On the first day, one of the presenters, Jonathan Rowson, a UK scholar, set the stage with this:

Quite a few of us realize that [more] information isn’t working, that facts don’t do it. The question is, why exactly?”

One reason, Columbia University’s Elke Weber explained during her presentation (her work was also featured in that NYT magazine article), is that our brains are able to process only so many concerns at a given time:

If we have attentional limitations, if we have to be selective”¦it’s because we don’t have sufficient attention for everything.

Weber characterizes this as our “finite pool of worry.”

Thus, fluctuating public opinion on climate change, as measured in year-to-year polling surveys, should be understood in this context, Weber advised:

Sometimes we see these precipitous dips [in concern about climate change]. A lot of it has to do with “˜compared to what’ are we concerned about climate change.

For example, Weber attributed a big dip in 2001 to the September 11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center:

We only have so much attention and worry to go around and compared to terrorism, climate change was low on the agenda.

Similarly, she added, a more recent dip in public concern occurred in 2008, amidst the global economic collapse.

Another reason why climate change doesn’t gain more traction, Weber said, is because of a lack of salience:

It doesn’t have the characteristics of making our hair stand up on end. For most of us, it’s distant in time and space.

Drew Westen, an Atlanta-based psychologist and political analyst who was beamed in via skype, reiterated during his talk that bombarding the public with more facts and data on climate change was a losing strategy. Instead, Westen argued that, “people don’t have strong emotions about climate change,” and that the best way to make the issue more deeply felt was through storytelling. Stories activate emotions, he said, noting:

We’re a storytelling species.

What’s needed, Westen said, are climate change narratives that

speak to ordinary citizens, particularly those that are on the fence.

Westen also emphasized the need for “multiple messages” that spoke to different demographics. Messages that succeed, he said, link climate change to values and concerns that people already have. So one message crafted around energy solutions might appeal to one group, while another message on pollution and health concerns might appeal to another.

This is similar to the framing strategy advocated by Matthew Nisbet and others.

I’ll be posting more dispatches from this symposium in the coming week. Meanwhile, those that are interested can head over to the Garrison Institute’s website, where a number of the talks are posted. Weber’s is just below.

19 Responses to “Understanding the Climate State of Mind”

  1. Hannah says:

    Interesting, made me think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I guess you can perfectly well create a “pyramid of worries” :o)

  2. PDA says:

    Keith, if as you noted in the last thread, the public is made up of “anyone who strongly identifies with WUWT, Morano’s corner, and the Tea Party, Democrats, Independents and everyone else who watches Snooki,” then who are these fence-sitters Weston refers to?

    Part of the problem with the “storytelling” approach, in my mind, it that the issue with climate is not what’s happening now, but what’s likely to happen in the future. And those stories have been told and re-told (and absurdly mis-told).

    So whither the “storytelling deficit?” And who’s left who is interested in hearing stories?

  3. Keith Kloor says:

    You make a valid point about the storytelling challenges. But you’re looking for homeruns, I think, while I would suggest pursuing a singles and doubles strategy.

    What do I mean by that? Well, if the success of a story is going to be measured by how well (and accurately) it conveys the projected worst case scenarios of climate change, then you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Quite frankly, that’s not an easy story to tell, as you pointed out in your link to the cartoonish Day After movie.

    Rather, what I suggest are simpler stories that contain all the elements of a good narrative–protagonist, conflict, plot, dialogue, etc–but with climate change and energy themes. This approach will draw more people into the subject matter without hitting them over the head with it. It is these kinds of stories that will engage average people the most.

    Right now, all our climate change debates seem to center on two dominant, hyperbolic narratives: hell and high water & climate change = hoax.

    Those narratives are here to stay for the foreseeable future and they have lots of passionate defenders.

    But they need not be the only narratives the general public is exposed to.

  4. Menth says:

    Your perspective is well laid out here.
    I often think of the “expanding circle” of human morality. Though I’ve never read Peter Singer’s book I’ve always liked that interpretation of the history of human morality  although there’s a good chance I’m misinterpreting it. My (very basic) understanding of primate behavior is that chimps, for example, have one reaction to those who aren’t members of their tribe: violence. It seems likely our ancestors were the same. Through technological innovation and economic prosperity we have seen this moral circle evolve and expand from the basic family tribe to the city state to the nation state. Step into today and behold the modern marvel of bestowing ‘rights’ upon those who aren’t even a member of our species when a few mere centuries ago people would burn cats in the town square for entertainment. Climate change asks us to take the long view and consider the welfare of those not only geographically distant but temporally as well; this is probably a lot to ask of our monkey brains especially since CC is mostly invisible to the human eye.
    As many others point out, care for the environment expands and contracts in rhythm with the economy. To me it’s clear that environmentalism in general is a luxury of expanding wealth and I find it ironic that people can advocate for economic contraction when the opposite is a major requirement for people to expand their circle of concern beyond their immediate surroundings.
    Another point I would underscore is that even if the poll showed that 98% of people said GW was their number one issue of concern the real indicator of “care” isn’t what you say it’s what you’re willing to do (spend, sacrifice).

  5. Lazar says:

    Global Warming may be perceived as: Not a national problem. Not an immediate problem. Not a problem with major impacts for human life. Not a problem which can be solved below the global level.

    Leiserowitz, Anthony A. 2005. “American Risk Perceptions: Is Climate Change Dangerous?” Risk Analysis 25 (6): 1433-1442. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6261.2005.00690.x
    “These results help explain the paradox in public
    risk perceptions, in which Americans appear concerned
    about climate change, but do not consider it a
    high priority relative to other national or environmental
    issues. This study found that, in aggregate, Americans
    perceive climate change as a moderate risk, but
    think the impacts will mostly affect people and places
    that are geographically and temporally distant. Critically,
    this study found that most Americans lack vivid,
    concrete, and personally relevant affective images of
    climate change.”

    More Gallup poll numbers…
    “Public opinion polls also demonstrate significant
    levels of public worry about global warming. In May
    1989, a Gallup survey of American public asked:
    “How much do you personally worry about the greenhouse
    effect or global warming?” Gallup found that
    35% worried “a great deal,” 28% worried “a fair
    amount,” 18% worried “only a little,” and 12% worried
    “not at all.” Thus, 63% of Americans were fairly
    to greatly worried about global warming in 1989.
    Gallup found that this level of worry oscillated over
    the subsequent 14 years, with a dip to 50% in 1997,
    an increase to 72% in 2000, and a decrease to 58%
    in 2002 (Brewer, 2002). The general decline in levels
    of worry may partly be the result of changing media
    coverage. During the unusually hot summer of
    1988, global warming was a front-page story across the
    country.Amedia analysis by the Center for Media and
    Public Affairs found, however, that since 1990, television
    network coverage of global warming declined
    by 50%, while national newspaper coverage dropped
    by 25% (FrameWorks Institute, 2001).”

    The global versus local problem has some support (Norton & Leaman 2004: “The Day After Tomorrow: Public Opinion on Climate Change”)
    So perhaps we should call it “local warming”? 🙂
    And/or emphasize that ‘our economy’ is inextricably dependent on the functioning of every other economy.

  6. kdk33 says:

    The public has weighed the climate change risk and weighed the costs and risks of decarbonization.  They have prioritized the climate problem agains all of the other problems competing for their limited resources.  They (at least US voters) have decided (correctly, IMO) to do nothing for now. 

    It’s all really rather simple.

  7. jeffn says:

    #5 Lazar- pay close attention to the dates of the surveys you referenced. Stories are important, but their consistency is even more important.

    Note that in the 1980s, the message was government must take action now! In the 1990s that “story” dropped off the front page and, after 2000, it reappeared. In 2007 it was “cheap and easy” to fix global warming, in 2009 it all became much more nuanced, costly, difficult (didja know China would balk at limits- who knew!).

    Do you remember who was in charge of the government in 1989, 1997, 2001, 2007, 2009?

    This isn’t a first, by the way. It’s a common joke that there is a “homelessness crisis” that is front page worthy or not depending on which party occupies the White House. That is narrative at work.

    I would also suggest that there must be a confluence of narrative and rational action alternatives at some point in order for narrative to gain traction. You can tell “stories” about the-big-one earthquake that will hit Los Angeles forever, but if your only action item is to abandon the city you won’t move the needle much on public opinion about taking action.

  8. kdk33 says:

    BTW, “do nothing for now”  seems to be catching on.  See Rockefeller(D) alternative to the McConnell(R) amendment.

  9. Bob Koss says:

    Change the narrative to what ever you want. You still have to overcome this narrative.
    If co2 pricing is put into effect, I, my children, and my grandchildren  will be forced into paying more for everything even tangentially related to co2 until the day we die. For this we would be saddled with a reduced standard of living and no benefit. My descendants would consider me a fool if I willingly went along with such an idea.
    The huge pot of revenue generated by such pricing will simply be handle by government the same way all such schemes are handled. It will be rife with cronyism, corruption and incompetent management, with only paltry residual amounts rebated to the public. The little guy will once again have no chance to even come close to breaking even.
    How many generations ahead do you provide for if you have written a will? Only the extremely wealthy even think about providing more than a couple generations ahead. Why in the world should anyone spend money on people 100 years in the future simply to provide them with some nebulously negligible lowering of global temperature by about 0.1-0.2C. Only someone with an exaggerated sense of altruism would consider doing that, and I’m not that person.
    To me, it is better to keep those funds under my personal control and pass any excess on to those of my descendants I feel will appreciate and make good use them.

  10. Andy says:

    Here’s an interesting take on the topic:
    “According to Gardiner, several economical, psychological and intergenerational dilemmas make it likely that an increased awareness of devastating “tipping points”, undermine political actors’ work towards effective climate change mitigation. Instead, it induces them to focus on adaptation measures, and involve in what Gardiner denotes an “Intergenerational Arms Race”.”

  11. Roddy Campbell says:

    It’s for sure that AGW creeps up the list when all else is going well – like environmentalism does.
    I think the claim to ignorance, that the public don’t get it because they are uneducated, or confused, a case made abhorrently imho by Trevors and Saier in this editorial in a scientific journal, held up by Realclimate as a great article, are in very significant part plain wrong.
    I think they understand the timescale, have a reasonably good instinct for uncertainty, not a bad BS detector, and a decent grasp that effective mitigation is viciously expensive and will have no effect at all unless the Chindians agree to stop GDP growth.

  12. Tom Scharf says:

    I find the whole “Why are skeptics brain damaged and how can we psychologically manipulate them?” meme to show very little respect for the counter argument, and simply digs the hole deeper for the pro AGW side.
    I don’t want to re-argue this topic that all posters know very well, but let me just state one simple fact:
    1. CO2 has continued to increase over the last two decades.
    2. There is no sign of accelerated warming, in fact it looks to be decelerating.
    Results matters.  Actual measurements are not matching theory.  I’m willing to wait to see if things change.  I accept the risk of waiting.  The data compels me to wait.
    The science is simply weak, there is a difference in believing a theory is wrong and believing it has not been adequately proven.  A distinction not made very often.

  13. Paul Kelly says:

    The story is aggregation of individual actions effecting fossil fuel replacement.

    For a variety of reasons, fossil fuel use should be replaced in this century, the faster the better. For the first time in history, the technology exists to begin to make it happen. Are current technologies now available at a scale and price sufficient to replace fossil? No, but they are sufficient to begin what is indeed a 35 ““ 50 year process. The idea is to start now with what we have. Energy transformation is best done and is being done from the bottom up.

  14. Michael Larkin says:

    Good God. And nary a mention of the fact that some simply don’t believe in catastrophic global warming. Tales/narratives won’t make a damn bit of difference for them.
    It’s simple. Predict that by the year XXXX such and such will happen, and if it does, folk will be more inclined to accept you. If not, they’ll grow ever more sceptical, not to say cynical.
    Tell them one year that droughts and lack of snow are on the horizon, then anther year that the floods and snows they are witnessing were predicted all along, and they’ll kick you into touch. A hypothesis that explains everything explains nothing.
    It’s a simple possibility: the orthodox view may be incorrect. If one assumes it isn’t, then of course all those who don’t play ball will be analysed as one might analyse the behaviour of chimps. And those on the receiving end of such analyses are never going to be persuaded they are respected. They’ll just see the orthodox as patronising, oleaginous, self-sanctifying twerps.

  15. Jack Hughes says:

    I’m lovin this narrative riff 🙂 A strong plot line with heroes and villains and high stakes.
    The narrative has flipped.
    At one time the heroes were brave, young, cool eco-warriors, speaking truth unto power. Armed “only with peer-reviewed science” thay courageously took on the mighty enemies of the establishment: big oil, big corporations, vested interests…
    Now the warmists are the establishment. Their message is the orthodoxy. It’s even taught in schools. Greenpeace and WWF are multi-million global corporations with pension schemes. Goverments and the UN are on the bandwagon And big money as well.
    Now the heroes are people of towering integrity like McIntyre and Andrew Montford of the UK. Plus an army of Davids – ordinary people who are speaking up.
    You want more narrative – bring it on. 🙂

  16. Jay Currie says:

    I do marketing and communications for a living. The reality is that you can only go so far with a product which does not actually work.
    The collapse of public hysteria and political support with respect to CO2 induced climate change is not about the communications. Hey, the media are still, by and large, in the tank.
    No, the collapse occurred when the scientists began to appear corrupt, when a real cost was put on wildly speculative benefits and when the sceptic side began to look at Climategate, the Mann intransigence, the lack of transparency, the arrogance and the shenanigans at the IPCC. And the weather.
    The fifteen years of non-warming which Phil Jones notes combines nicely with big snow and cool summers. Neither prove climate science wrong; both suggest that there is a lot more uncertainty than we were first led to believe.
    And, of course, the poor climate scientists make fools of themselves every time they claim snow is warming, Russian forest fires and Pakistani floods are warming, cyclones in Australia are warming and are contradicted, within a few days by actual science.
    Climate scientists, at least Team climate scientists, need to learn the first rule of holes: when you are in one stop digging.
    Not that you are going to be able to enforce message discipline on a bunch of showboaters like Hansen, Schmitt, Mann, Jones and Mr. “reverse the null hypothesis” Trenberth.  They have ceased to be scientist in any serious sense of that term and have ended up as advocates. Ad, frankly, they are not very good at it.

  17. @ #16, Jay Currie
    Well said. People aren’t very worried about Global Warming because it doesn’t appear to be a serious problem, and they smell a rat in the propaganda that says it is. People are pretty smart and observant about this sort of thing, especially when their pocketbooks are involved.
    From my informed-outsider viewpoint, the popular perception and ranking of global warming is about right.
    Cheers — Pete Tillman
    Professional geologist — climate gadfly

  18. Pascvaks says:

    People “know” that people are filthy, wasteful, and very lazy.  People “know” that these other people are having an impact on dear old Mother Nature.  People do like living in clean houses, in healthy, clean neighborhoods, in a beautiful world.  People are willing to “move up” to better, cleaner technology as it comes along.  And they are quite willing to pay for it one day at a time.

    As WalMart, Target, and the Chinese develope and sell better, cleaner, longer lasting products, people will (are going to) buy them.  If politicians jump up and down on their soapbox screaming about “Saving the World”, people are going to turn a deaf ear their way.

  19. Jack Hughes says:

    “Westen also emphasized the need for “multiple messages“ that spoke to different demographics. Messages that succeed, he said, link climate change to values and concerns that people already have. So one message crafted around energy solutions might appeal to one group, while another message on pollution and health concerns might appeal to another.”
    This is heading into Bootleggers and Baptists territory:
    opposite moral positions lead to the same vote. Specifically, preachers demand prohibition to make alcohol illegal while the criminal bootlegger wants it to stay illegal so he can stay in business”
    In fact the AGW bandwagon is already in that place: a coalition of people with very different interests. Some people desperately want to do something worthwhile in their lives and others just want a slice of the money.

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