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Why Climate Disasters Might Not Boost Public Engagement on Climate Change

Source: NY Times

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Posted on 07 Nov 2012 by Neilson

Hurricane Sandy and Climate ChangeThere has been an intense rush to use Hurricane Sandy as a teachable moment to focus the public (and politicians) on the risks of an unabated buildup of greenhouse gases and resulting global warming. The climate campaigner Dan Miller epitomized that approach in a discussion here last week.

But it's important, always, to consider the other contexts to events, however dramatic, in judging whether they provide a real opportunity for engagement on the momentous challenge of getting the carbon out of the world's energy system. (This is a very different task than girding communities against climate-related risks.)

George Marshall, an expert on climate and communication, has just done that, in an important, if sobering, essay weighing the climate discourse around Hurricane Sandy against what he learned in recent interviews with a variety of people in Bastrop County, Texas, the suburban-exurban region east of Austin that experienced a stunning outbreak of wildfires in September 2011.

It would be hard to find someone more concerned about human-driven climate change and more involved in pursuing and assessing ways to get traction on curbing greenhouse gas emissions than Marshall. After many years of working at Greenpeace and other environmental and indigenous-rights groups, he founded Britain's Climate Outreach and Information Network and has also helped develop Talking Climate, an online "gateway to research on climate change communication."

I became familiar with Marshall's work through the Garrison Institute's annual meetings on "Climate, Mind and Behavior." He was one of many speakers and was particularly engaging.

A couple of days ago, Marshall contributed an important note in an e-mail conversation about the "Frankenstorm" and global warming, involving many participants in past Garrison Institute meetings. I asked him if I could post his thoughts here. Marshall helpfully fleshed out his note into an essay. Here's a long excerpt (posted with permission), followed by a link to the full piece on his blog.

In the wake of extreme heat, droughts, and Hurricane Sandy, many people are assuming that, at last, there may be the critical mass of extreme weather events that will tip public opinion towards action on climate change.

This is based on the long held assumption that extreme climate events will increase awareness and concern - and this would seem logical considering that climate change suffers as an issue from distance and a consequent lack of salience.

I have heard many scientists, including the former UK chief scientific adviser Sir David King, go further and argue that real public and political attention requires such events. Climate change campaigners are already building their public communications around this assumption (for example a viral campaign 'advert' contrasts Romney's ludicrous nomination speech with Sandy).

However this assumption deserves to be challenged. Climate change awareness is complex and strongly mediated by socially constructed attitudes. I suggest that there are some countervailing conditions - especially in the early stages of climate impacts. It is important to recognize that many of the social and cultural obstacles to belief are not removed by major impacts and may, indeed, be reinforced.

A few weeks ago I was in Texas interviewing people in Bastrop where, in 2011, the worst fires in Texas history(by a tenfold margin) destroyed 1,700 homes. The fires were directly related to the extreme drought and record breaking temperatures that struck central Texas in 2011. Causal links are always hard, but even the state climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon (who surely has one of the hardest jobs in climate science) made a cautious connection between climate change, the drought and the fires. I did six interviews in Bastrop: with the mayor, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, the editor of the local newspaper and with three people who had lost everything they owned in the fires.

It was very interesting that not one of them could recall any conversation about anthropogenic climate change in relation to the fires. The mayor, who said he accepted climate science, found that there was little interest or willingness among people to make this connection and it seems he felt it politic not to push it.

People did note that there was a change in the weather and most anticipated that the drought and fires could happen again. But they weren't really interested in talking about this- what they really wanted to talk about was their pride in their community, the value of their social relations, their resilience and their personal and collective capacity to overcome challenges. They had recovered remarkably fast and the local economy had grown (boosted by government recovery grants and insurance payments). The county is doing very well and continues to grow- incredibly, after entirely repeatable wildfires incinerated the homes of a third of the residents, it is said to be the fourth fastest growing county in the US.

I would argue that the responses in Bastrop are entirely consistent with what we know about the way that people respond socially and cognitively to disasters and climate change.

Disasters can reinforce social networks (and with them established norms and worldviews)

In disasters, especially in areas with strong communities, people tend to pull together and show a remarkable and inspiring sense of collective purpose. This is nicely reflected in Rebecca Solnit's excellent book, a Paradise Built in Hell

We know, though, that attitudes to climate change are strongly correlated with political and ideological worldviews (see for example the work of Dan Kahan and the Cultural Cognition Project). We can therefore anticipate that a stronger cultural cohesion could make it even harder for ideas that challenge existing worldviews to be voiced or accepted- creating even further obstacles for the acceptance of climate change in societies that are currently skeptical.

And we could anticipate that extreme events might also reinforce existing concern in places that are already disposed to accept climate change. It will also be very interesting to see how Hurricane Sandy affects attitudes to climate change of both people inside and outside affected areas. Given than attitudes to climate change are often held as part of a political identity, we cannot be surprised if people in a politically left leaning area (and much of the affected area is strongly Democrat) are prepared to ascribe extreme weather events to climate change. But this will not, of itself, be evidence that extreme events changes attitudes.

Disasters can increase social confidence and certainty.
Accepting anthropogenic climate change requires a high degree of self-criticism and even self-doubt. It requires a preparedness to accept personal responsibility for collective errors and for entire societies to accept the need for major collective change. And, inevitably, this process of acceptance would generate intense debate and conflict.

Disasters may very well do the opposite and provide proof of the worth of the existing social system- including the existing worldview and lifestyle. The spirit of pulling together and moving on generates a consensus to suppress divisive issues and support the existing society. Areas of contention or disagreement are likely to be suppressed in the interests of social cohesion or out of respect to people who have offered kindness and generosity. After all, if your current society and economic model has served you well in a crisis you are surely less willing to accept change.

We could say, for historical comparison, that the transition of Germany from a dictatorship to a successful social democracy required the self doubt and introspection that came with defeat. Britain and the U.S. won the war and with it a correspondingly inflated view of their own global authority that lasts to this day.

Disasters encourage powerful and compelling survival narratives (that can overwhelm weaker and more complex climate change narratives).
People's view of the world (and their place in it) is shaped through narratives. Social groups seek to negotiate shared narratives that are simple, appealing and reinforce shared values. In so doing they will reject or marginalize competing narratives that might challenge their current worldview. (For example just look at the competition of interpretive narratives around Thanksgiving !).

So a complex and challenging narrative will have a very hard time being accepted as social truth when it is competing against strong, appealing and highly coherent narrative. In the case of Bastrop the weak narrative is that the fires were caused (in part) by weather conditions which were caused (in part) by climate change which was caused (in part) by the culture and behavior of Bastrop residents.

It's a hard one to sell at the best of times, and a disaster is the very worst condition for this narrative because it is overwhelmed by a much more attractive story: "we support each other, we are surrounded by evidence of our love and kindness, we are tough, we faced a huge challenge and we won through and we can do it again." This does not just speak to local pride, but the much larger mythology of frontier town Texas.

And there are other powerful narratives waiting in the wings. In other disasters the most powerful narrative can be one of blame- of the people who started a fire (leading at times to the demonization of a supposed arsonist), the government who did not build the flood defenses, the construction companies who broke building codes, or the emergency services who failed to do their job.

These may well be valid arguments, but they also generate an enemy and victim frame which is far more compelling that anything offered by climate change. "It's their fault and I demand action against them and restitution" is a much more compelling story than "it may be my fault or our fault and I demand that we work together to change the way we live." The fatal flaw of the climate change narrative is that, uniquely among our major problems, it has no clear enemy at all.

There's much more, so I urge you to click and read the rest at his blog, Climate Change Denial. As I told him yesterday, I was glad to see him frame denial far more broadly than those using "denier" as a label for anyone rejecting the science pointing to greenhouse-driven dangers. I noted: "As I've written, there's been a lot of denial on a lot of fronts. I'm guilty of being in denial over the reality that better information doesn't necessarily change people.

Marsh all told me he is researching a book on humans' "complex psychological relationship to climate change and why we still find it so hard to accept it and take action." I look forward to reading the book, which sounds like it will build nicely on Mike Hulme's invaluable book "Why We Disagree About Climate Change:Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity."



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