Handle with care

By Bryan Walker 22/11/2010

Who is to temper the message of climate science to fit the psychology of those who receive it?

According to a report in Science Daily a forthcoming study will show that people may discount the evidence for global warming if it threatens their fundamental tendency to see the world as safe, stable and fair. On the other hand they may get past their scepticism if the findings of climate science are not presented apocalyptically and solutions to the problem are offered. Robb Willer, UC Berkeley social psychologist and doctoral student Matthew Feinberg have co-authored the study which will appear in the January issue of the journal Psychological Science.

I won’t report the details of their experiments, which are outlined in the Science Daily report for any who would like further information. The claim that people don’t respond to doomsday themes is common enough, though the study’s investigation of how this is related to their view of the world as just and fair may well be illuminating. What I found myself thinking as I was reading the report of the study was not so much whether it is revealing as what it is supposed to imply for those who practise climate science.

I can’t really see that it carries any implication at all for the scientists. Their work is to report what they detect is happening and will happen in the future if we continue to overload the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. There’s no way in which what they discover can be communicated as anything other than serious in its consequences.  I wrote some months ago about the unedifying spectacle of Bjorn Lomborg attempting to downplay the seriousness by talking about ’balanced information’ and moving away from end-of-the-world stories. He was on a climate change panel at a PEN conference and his address immediately followed James Hansen’s. Hansen had said that if we burn all of the fossil fuels we are guaranteed to pass tipping points, the most imminent major one being disintegration of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. Lomborg didn’t address the science at all, but simply said that ’apocalyptic information’ turns people off and is part of the reason why we’ve seen a decline in public concern about global warming. The sombre warnings of the scientist were simply swept away by the economist. Easy. But not an option for the scientist who can hardly moderate the message because it might turn people off. In fact the possible public response cannot be allowed any influence on the studies climate scientists are conducting.

However there are solutions which come hand in hand with the serious findings of the science, and there’s nothing to say we can’t embrace the solutions without dwelling on the consequences of what will happen if we don’t. I notice that Arnold Schwarzenegger in his planned new role of environmental activist is likely to avoid mention of the words climate change or greenhouse gas emissions, which he thinks are a turn-off for some people. “You’ve got to make it hip. You’ve got to make it sexy to be part of this movement.” I hope he meets with success. Nevertheless he is launching on his role because he is aware of how great a threat climate change poses to the human future. It’s there as background reference for him.

I wonder how the experiments described by the psychologists would turn out if they were administered to the population of a Pacific island threatened by sea level rise. Or to Peruvian or Bolivian farmers hit by glacier retreat. Their sense of stability and safety has already been eroded and is hardly likely to interfere with their estimation of the evidence for climate change. They’re not turned off by information that the effects of climate change are potentially catastrophic. They can see that. It’s seemingly the wealthy and protected societies which require communication so delicate that it won’t arouse any sense of fear.

Any approach that will result in drastically lowered emissions and green energy is to be welcomed. But the science is implacable. There’s no way of making it unthreatening.

[Traveling Wilburys]