25 May 2010

Incoherent Policy Narratives and Climate Skepticism

One of the enduring myths in the debate about climate change is that action to decarbonize economic activity depends upon a specific view of climate science. The logic holds that if people are concerned enough about climate change -- if they have sufficient alarm -- they will then have the motivation needed to support policies that have high costs and involve sacrifice. From this perspective, public opinion on climate science thus serves as a proxy for public support for policy action.

This logic is flawed, both conceptually and empirically, as I'll illustrate by discussing a well-meaning but ultimately incoherent article on the front page of today's New York Times. The article explains how climate skepticism is on the rise in Great Britain.
Nowhere has this shift in public opinion been more striking than in Britain, where climate change was until this year such a popular priority that in 2008 Parliament enshrined targets for emissions cuts as national law. But since then, the country has evolved into a home base for a thriving group of climate skeptics who have dominated news reports in recent months, apparently convincing many that the threat of warming is vastly exaggerated.
The article explains that the rise of skepticism threatens climate policies:
Politicians and activists say such attitudes will make it harder to pass legislation like a fuel tax increase and to persuade people to make sacrifices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. . .

The lack of fervor about climate change is also true of the United States, where action on climate and emissions reduction is still very much a work in progress, and concern about global warming was never as strong as in Europe.
The logic is flawed conceptually because "fervor about climate change" is far from the only reason that people support energy policies that advance decarbonization. Other reasons for public support include energy security, diversification, economic growth and jobs, replacing dirty energy with clean energy, energy reliability, costs and so on.

That the logic is flawed can be convincingly shown empirically. Consider that climate skepticism in Great Britain has been deemed to be a problem for years. For instance:
2007: "The public are far more sceptical about global warming than most politicians would have us believe, a new poll has revealed today."

2008: "Surprising politicians, a poll released Sunday indicates a majority of the British public does not believe human activity has caused global warming."

2009: "The British public has become more sceptical about climate change over the last five years, according to a survey."
Yet, right in the middle of this period the UK government passed the 2008 Climate Change Act with essentially no opposition and broad public support. The Act mandates emissions reductions of 34% by 2020 and 80% by 2050, making it the most aggressive piece of national legislation anywhere. Skepticism about climate science presented no obstacle to passing this legislation.

The NYT also reports that more Americans believe that climate science has been exaggerated in public discussions:
A March Gallup poll found that 48 percent of Americans believed that the seriousness of global warming was “generally exaggerated,” up from 41 percent a year ago.
Here is a hypothesis to consider: The public is smarter than they are often given credit for. It is possible that the public can at the same time support policies that lead to decarbonization of the economy while at the same time believing that climate science has been exaggerated.

The message from the public that many experts (including the media) have yet to comprehend is that policies which require "sacrifice" are nonstarters. It does not matter what the public believes about climate science, they are not (in general) going to sacrifice or endure hardship. This reality should be a boundary condition for policy design. With this consideration, the public has consistently supported action on climate change, notably moving to a less carbon-intensive economy. The policy challenge is thus to figure out how to design policies that meet these political realities, a challenge that policy experts have yet to tackle.

The NYT actually further politicizes climate science by implying that the battle over the integrity of climate science is one-and-the-same as the battle over climate policies:
Scientists have meanwhile awakened to the public’s misgivings and are increasingly fighting back. . . It is unclear whether such actions are enough to win back a segment of the public that has eagerly consumed a series of revelations that were published prominently in right-leaning newspapers like The Times of London and The Telegraph and then repeated around the world. . .
By equating issues of science with issues of politics the NYT thus is apparently willing to minimize the issues of scientific integrity that have surfaced regarding the IPCC:

In January, for example, The Times chastised the United Nations climate panel for an errant and unsupported projection that glaciers in the Himalayas could disappear by 2035. The United Nations ultimately apologized for including the estimate, which was mentioned in passing within a 3,000-page report in 2007.

Then came articles contending that the 2007 report was inaccurate on a host of other issues, including African drought, the portion of the Netherlands below sea level, and the economic impact of severe storms. Officials from the climate panel said the articles’ claims either were false or reflected minor errors like faulty citations that in no way diluted the evidence that climate change is real and caused by human activity.

This narrative thus reinforces two sorts of policy failures:

First, it perpetuates a flawed expectation that once people only believe enough or the right things, they will then be willing to make sacrifices leading to successful climate policies. Yet, public opinion on this point has been constant for decades -- support for decarbonization policies is not about belief in science, but rather the short-term costs and benefits of proposed policy action, which has nothing to do with long-term climate change. Similarly, that the public does not want sacrifice has been a constant in public opinion.

Second, it enables the pathological politicization of science not just by equating views on science with views on policy, but also by encouraging the looking past real problems in the IPCC. The logic of this narrative holds that if climate science is in any way diminished, then support for action is necessarily reduced, so it is best to look away from problems in science, or even to minimize them. The public is no so easily fooled. However, looking at actual poll data should be enough to show that views on climate science are not tightly correlated with support for action on energy policies that accelerate decarbonization.

The NYT concludes:
The public is left to struggle with the salvos between the two sides.
The public is in fact doing just fine. It is the media and other elites who continue to carry along an incoherent narrative who are doing most of the struggling. When they start listening to what the public is actually saying, rather than trying to force public opinions into a predefined but ultimately unrealistic mold, might be the time when debate over climate policy truly opens up.

You can read a more in depth treatment of this argument in my forthcoming book, The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won't Tell You About Global Warming. Pre-order your copy today ;-)