Each December my colleagues and I travel to DC or somewhere far warmer like San Francisco or San Diego to meet and discuss the state of risk communication research. One of the enduring foci of these meetings is climate change, and more specifically how we should go about communicating the risks of climate change and measuring people’s knowledge and perception of the same. Disclaimer: we all fly in planes, some of us quite a distance, which is not especially climate-change friendly.
Ignoring our own behavior for a moment though, one of the most important–and disturbing–findings consistently coming out of this research is that communicating the risks of climate change rarely leads to a more informed or pro-active public. Were this the case, we’d be well on our way to a carbon-neutral–or hold your breath, carbon-negative–energy system. Sadly, neither of these appear to be anything but an environmentalist’s dream, and with the election of Donald Trump in the U.S., a dream that may become a fireable offense.
Some studies have even reported an inverse relationship between climate-change knowledge and concern (and pro-environmental behavior), i.e., the more people know about it the less concerned (and less action) they report! How could this be? Well, without writing an entire book on the matter, here are some interesting propositions. Troy Campbell from Oregon University and Aaron Kay at Duke suggest it may be something called ‘solution aversion.’ Put simply, individuals may deny the existence of a problem because they fear the solution more than the problem itself. Imagine yourself a coal miner in western Kentucky for a moment; simply believing in climate change might put your own job–and your relationships with colleagues and friends–in far more jeopardy than the results of climate change.
And according to Dan Kahan, those relationships may be the key. Our beliefs are often important signals of loyalty to key peer groups and these relationships can lead us to process information differently–often in ways thought “incorrect” by scientists, a phenomena Kahan and others refer to as motivated reasoning. How do we overcome motivated reasoning? Simple. We disconnect facts from identity. Unfortunately the phenomena of “identity politics” is at an all-time high, and disconnecting facts from identity will likely prove as difficult as is separating facts from values. Spoiler alert: facts can never be separate from values, and according to Dan Sarewitz, knowing more of the former often just reinforces the latter anyway.
So, if people’s beliefs, or reported beliefs–and the two may rarely be the same (at this year’s meeting Nic Pidgeon and Christina Demski presented provocative research examining the measures we use regarding climate-change related beliefs, make sure to bother them both for more information)– are more a function of their relationships or professional status than people’s “true” knowledge, how do we go about raising concern or encouraging pro-environmental behavior?
One way would be for environmentalists, (liberal) politicians, and–perhaps most of all–academics to acknowledge that significantly mitigating emissions and addressing climate change risk requires real, and in some cases downright terrible, trade-offs. Bottom line: there will be losers. If it helps, imagine the scene in There Will Be Blood where Daniel Day Lewis murders Paul Dano with a bowling pin; this is the fate I imagine many of the losers fear. Addressing climate change risk is simply not on the whole a win-win. Surely, there are more discrete win-win’s available–Joe Arvai at the University of Michigan spends a great deal of time searching them out–and if we think honestly about the earth’s future inhabitants, mitigating emissions seems far less costly and far more beneficial than is currently discussed. And yes, the world’s mega-rich can certainly afford to lose quite a bit before they’d even notice any loss. But, for men and women alive today and who are already struggling from paycheck to paycheck, arguing that mitigating emissions is critically important is simply duplicitous and ineffective.
This is especially so because many of those losers will be individuals that have long been ignored by progressive policies and the forces of globalization: think again of our coal-mining friend in western KY. Ignoring these individuals is what cost liberals the 2016 election, and this ignorance is what will continue to slow any real movement on climate change. Case in point, the enduring argument that switching to renewables will create thousands of green jobs. Surely it would, but these jobs would be as unattainable for our friend in western KY as high-tech jobs in Silicon Valley are today. A single mom of two with a high school diploma is not going to be designing wind turbines, and we all know it.
Is honesty enough? Of course not. Supporting–and god forbid elevating–people that have more to lose than to gain requires tough decisions, creative policy measures, and likely a redistribution of resources–and I don’t just mean from the Koch brothers. Yep, you and I need to chip in too. And you might be critical of this post as offering little in the way of such measures, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Solutions are tough. So much so that they can kill beliefs. All I’m asking for is a bit of honesty regarding them. We can’t create, compare and decide upon honest solutions if we ignore they’re even necessary.
More to come…