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.


  1. On political issues where the science is relevant (e.g. health, climate change), what else than expert consensus should the policies be based on?

    Their argument seems to be against exaggerating the seriousness of the problem, so replying with “the science is alarming and demands that we act now” doesn’t go against their point (unless you’d claim that there is no big problem whatsoever, but I take that is not your position, based on your often stated position on agreeing with the scientific consensus). The only irony perhaps is that the science strictly speaking doesn’t demand anything; it merely lays out what the risks are of a BAU scenario. Society as a whole has to decide how to respond; not just the scientists.

    If both public opinion and public support have remained relatively unchanged during years of very different political and economic climate, than their stated conclusion (in bold) doesn’t follow. Rather, the conclusion should be that public opinion and public support don’t seem to depend on the economical and political climate. I think that increased public understanding and acceptance of climate science would indeed lead to more support for emission reduction measures. Though as the authors also say, the problem is the low priority this issue has for many people.


  2. -1-Bart

    The problem with your argument is that the empirical evidence does not provide much support at all for your assertion:

    "I think that increased public understanding and acceptance of climate science would indeed lead to more support for emission reduction measures."

  3. Or maybe the public is sick to death of hearing activists cry Wolf ! Over and over and over . . . .

    Wolf !
    Wolf !Wolf !
    Wolf !Wolf !Wolf !
    Wolf !Wolf !Wolf !Wolf !
    Wolf !Wolf !Wolf !Wolf !Wolf !
    Wolf !Wolf !Wolf !Wolf !Wolf !Wolf !

    Old parables are very good at describing human behavior, even in this age of Mass communications and twitter instant mobs.

  4. I suspect the support is even weaker. In my career at a consumer products company we researched whether environmental friendliness was marketable and could you get a premium for it. The consistent (20years) story was people view greenness favorably but won't pay extra for it. Also people are unlikely to say they don't believe in AGW for fear of seeming against the environment.

  5. Roger,

    My points still stand, amongst others: Their quoted 'evidence' does not support their quoted conclusion (in bold).


  6. -5-Bart

    Do your views make you a "denier" of social science research? ;-)

    There is in fact a large literature on "public understanding of science" and on public opinion and policy action that strongly supports the idea that views on science do not compel particular policy actions, or even action at all. For instance, you cannot explain differential smoking rates across industrialized countries based on knowledge of the hazards of smoking. Similarly with views on nuclear power, GMOs and climate change.

    I discuss this in my book, The Honest Broker, as reliance on a "linear model" of science and decision making. Do have a look.

  7. Everybody is in favor of clean air and clean water. 100%. Everyone is "for" the environment. What this tells us with regard to support for certain public policies is precisely zero.

    It's my impression (don't have a cite) that developing a better understanding of the actual science tends to make a higher percentage of people more skeptical than more alarmed. Given how bad a lot of the "science" is, this shouldn't be a surprise.

    The most telling aspect of public opinion is that alarmists generally will not agree to debate skeptics. In the rare instances when they do, the audience tends to move toward greater skepticism.

    Finally, follow the money. All the big media, all the big money, most of the major special interest groups and most of the lobbying effort and ad campaign is on the alarmist side. And yet they can't get legislation (even a ridiculously watered down mess) out of the most liberal Congress and administration in our history. That tells you where the people really are.

  8. I think what Mike describes in #4 is because most environmental issues, including this one, seem to abstract to people. When threats become real, and less abstract, they do respond. This is why AGW activists wonder about the potential for a Pearl Harbor moment, when a threat that previously seemed distant becaomes oh-so-real.

    I read the book Breakthrough, and Nordhaus and Shellenberger write a lot about how some messages do not work politically, this apocalypse fatigue. My question is whether changing the message to work politically disconnects it from the science behind it.

    The United States did not respond to the Axis because the message about the threat was changed. The US responded when it was attacked and the lie behind the isolationist impulse was made clear.

  9. Dean #8 - We are back to Revkin's "soon, salient and certain" (i.e., everything that climate change disasters are not).

    I do not believe people need a "Pearl Harbor moment" in order to act (as things stand, in climate science there is no such a thing as a "Pearl Harbor moment" and never there will be). What is wrong is that so many climate activists act as if a "Pearl Harbor moment" had _already_ happened. That is the disconnect between politics and science.

  10. It wasn't apparent in 1989 when the East block collapsed that the Soviet Union was a "dead man walking". Two years later it too collapsed.
    It isn't apparent in 2009 after the Copenhagen collapse that carbon controls have no future but it will soon be. After the big climbdown I expect a new master threat to emerge that will be embraced by the same alrmists who freaked out about global cooling, over-population, resource depletion, global warming, etc...

  11. While I agree that in theory "public understanding and acceptance of climate science may not be a precondition for supporting action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," why take some actions to support public understanding and acceptance of climate science? And while we're at it, help people appreciate the energy system, the enormous waste of energy in said system and the connection between energy consumption and climate science. (In a sense, energy data correlates with climate data, as has been pointed out on this blog in particular.

    There's some strong evidence to suggest people actually are hankering for good climate and energy information. The Ocean Project, for example, found teens in particular were tuned in to climate change issues, though other research from AAAS and others suggest their understanding is thin at best: http://tinyurl.com/yzqvtnc

    The Six Americas study also suggests that counter to the "information deficit theory" (which in a nutshell says information may help in some small way change people's behavior/alter society's policies) the more informed you are, the more concerned and motivated you are to do something about it.

    Yes, doomsday predictions and crying wolf are counterproductive. But in terms of risk assessment, if not for us then for our offspring, assuming we have some, shouldn't we have a Plan B or C if indeed no effective carbon/climate international treaty with teeth emerges?

    Given the huge illiteracy around basic climate science/energy awareness, I for one would devote some large fraction of the billions of dollars going into the Race to the Top education program and/or Cap and Trade programs into training educators and thereby students/learners in whole systems/holistic pedagogy that emphasize how, in the world of climate and energy (as elsewhere) everything is connected to everything.

  12. Mark- don't know about the Six Americas study. But I have read Gardner and Stern's "Environmental Problems and Human Behavior" (1995) and remember the economic pragmatism of human behavior- as in Stern (as I recall) should take the Metro but it takes longer and costs more. It seems like education would not solve this problem.

    Plan B or C, in my view, should be research and engineering designed to make carbon free energy cheaper and better than carbon forms. Exhortation is generally not as effective as economics.

  13. In summary then "honesty is the best policy". Well there's a surprise. But then again - best for whom? There are a number of very obvious instances of the loudest activists benefiting in terms stature, paid speaking engagements, grant-awards, promotions or prestigious prizes.

    Once again the word "expert" is bandied about without people having had to prove their expertise by actually being correct.

  14. Most regular Americans know that the batting record of apocalyptic predictions in history has been .000.
    Most regular Americans know that scientific consensus has been proven wrong more than a few times. From eugenics to piltdown to numerous medical 'breakthroughs' that litter the road, consensus is a proven unreliable guide. Combined with over the top, cynical hype such as is the regular fare of AGW, do not be surprised that in reality few buy into the apocalyptic claims of AGW, and that the number is sinking.

  15. What if American public decides it doesn't want to pay for reduced emissions? This might actually happen if cap and trade bill produces significant tax increases.

  16. omniclimate, #9

    While it's true that there is exaggeration, on any controlversial issue, there will be people who do that. You can't make people stop saying things that aren't true. Maybe you can convince some to stop, but in general there will always be people who do this.

    The question is whether enough people can see beyond distoritions, lies, whatever.

    As to needing that PEarl Harbor moment, I think that to get the magnitude of action needed, and break through the distortions, people probably do need something like this. I gave my example of WWII. Do you havea counter-example for a comparable situation?