16 November 2009

The Paradox of Apocalypse Fatigue

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger have an interesting article up at Yale360 on public opinion and climate change. Here is an excerpt:
Perhaps we should give the American public a little more credit. They may not know climate science very well, but they are not going to be muscled into accepting apocalyptic visions about our planetary future — or embracing calls to radically transform “our way of life” — just because environmentalists or climate scientists tell them they must. They typically give less credit to expert opinion than do educated elites, and those of us who tend to pay more attention to these questions would do well to remember that expert opinion and indeed, expert consensus, has tended to have a less sterling track record than most of us might like to admit.

At the same time, significant majorities of Americans are still prepared to support reasonable efforts to reduce carbon emissions even if they have their doubts about the science. They may be disinclined to tell pollsters that the science is settled, just as they are not inclined to tell them that evolution is more than a theory. But that doesn’t stop them from supporting the teaching of evolution in their schools. And it will not stop them from supporting policies to reduce carbon emissions — so long as the costs are reasonable and the benefits, both economic and environmental, are well-defined.
And for those wanting to use science as a tool to turn up the alarm, N&S argue that there exists a central paradox:
In fact, the louder and more alarmed climate advocates become in these efforts, the more they polarize the issue, driving away a conservative or moderate for every liberal they recruit to the cause.

These same efforts to increase salience through offering increasingly dire prognosis about the fate of the planet (and humanity) have also probably undermined public confidence in climate science. Rather than galvanizing public demand for difficult and far-reaching action, apocalyptic visions of global warming disaster have led many Americans to question the science. Having been told that climate science demands that we fundamentally change our way of life, many Americans have, not surprisingly, concluded that the problem is not with their lifestyles but with what they’ve been told about the science. And in this they are not entirely wrong, insofar as some prominent climate advocates, in their zeal to promote action, have made representations about the state of climate science that go well beyond any established scientific consensus on the subject, hyping the most dire scenarios and most extreme recent studies, which are often at odds with the consensus of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
I wouldn't be surprised to see reactions to the N&S piece along the lines that the science is alarming and demands that we act now. Given the arguments about the effect of this strategy on public opinion made by N&S, that would be an ironic response indeed. Instead, it is important to recognize what public opinion allows, rather than continually emphasize that which it does not:
What is arguably most remarkable about U.S. public opinion on global warming has been both its stability and its inelasticity in response to new developments, greater scientific understanding of the problem, and greater attention from both the media and politicians. Public opinion about global warming has remained largely unchanged through periods of intensive media attention and periods of neglect, good economic times and bad, the relatively activist Clinton years and the skeptical Bush years. And majorities of Americans have, at least in principle, consistently supported government action to do something about global warming even if they were not entirely sold that the science was settled, suggesting that public understanding and acceptance of climate science may not be a precondition for supporting action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Until this last point is appreciated by advocates, including the most outspoken activist scientists, even efforts made in the best faith to motivate action by arguing politics through science are not just unlikely to work, but have the opposite effect to that intended. That is the paradox of apocalypse fatigue.