Dire straits: Media blows the story of UC Berkeley study on climate messaging

Brulle: “This isn’t a reliable analysis of science-based education. The conclusions drawn from a tiny study don’t support the extravagant claims made in the press.”

“Gloom and doom on climate can backfire, new study says” blares the Washington Post.  “An Inconvenient Mind” snarks DotEarth.  And, of course, the discredited denier Anthony Watts of gleefully chimes in at WattsUpWithThat, “Finally, recognition that doom and gloom, hell and high water, and all that”¦ really aren’t effective.”

Ahh, if only people would actually read the entire study, including the crucial supplementary material, before explaining its supposedly deeper meaning, one that just happens to fit their preconceived notions.

As we will see, this study, if it proves anything, finds that the strongest possible science-based messaging is effective.  Climate hawks should feel confident explaining to the public as clearly as possible the dire consequences if we fail to take action to reduce emissions together with the myriad cost-effective solutions available today that make averting catastrophe so damn cheap compared to the alternative.

What’s ironic is that bloggers who mostly ignore the vast sea of thorough scientific literature that makes the strongest possible case that we risk multiple catastrophes if we don’t get off our current emissions path — or who attack such studies based on little or no actual substantive analysis of their own — are so quick to leap on a small-sample study that doesn’t even prove what they think it does.  Some might call it “confirmation bias.

Upon seeing the full study, Dr. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University, whom the NYT quoted last year as “an expert on environmental communications,” emailed me:

“This isn’t a reliable analysis of science based education.  The conclusions drawn from a tiny study don’t support the extravagant claims made in the press.”

Let’s look at the study more closely, to find out what conclusions can and can’t be drawn from it.  You can read the study here:  “Apocalypse Soon? Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just World Beliefs.”  You can read UCB’s release here.  As the WashPost explains:

While the researchers’ sample is hardly comprehensive or representative of America–the two psychologists conducted one experiment on 97 UC Berkeley undergraduates, and a second with 45 volunteers recruited from 30 U.S. cities via Craigslist–it raises an intriguing question about how environmentalists’ outreach on climate change.

Uhh, “hardly comprehensive or representative of America” is putting it mildly for such a tiny and unrepresentative sample.  But let’s press on.

In the experiment involving undergraduates, the subjects read a news article that began with factual data provided by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, but had two different endings. Half ended with warnings about the disastrous consequences of climate change, while half offered potential solutions to the problem, such as clean energy innovations.

The results–which will be published in the January issue of the journal Psychological Science–showed that those who read the upbeat ending were more open to believing in the global warming’s existence and were more confident about science’s ability to solve the problem.

You might imagine that the exact wording of the news article and the different endings would be quite crucial to figuring out just what this study means, if anything.  In fact, I’d say you can’t possibly draw any conclusions about the study without seeing the language.

But that “supporting information” isn’t available online yet, so I asked one of the authors for it.  Here is the “news article” (without either ending) “with factual data provided by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change”:

BOSTON — “Global warming is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, issue of our time,” says Professor Jonathan Spencer an expert on global climate change, “yet, few people really understand its causes and consequences.”  Spencer, who has studied global climate change at Harvard University for the past two decades, is a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that met last week in Boston for its semi-annual meeting.

Spencer is a co-author of a forthcoming pamphlet, called Understanding Global Warming, which is aimed at educating the average citizen about global warming.  The pamphlet describes the cause of global warming as “excessive and unnatural levels of carbon dioxide that collect to form a ‘pollution blanket’ that traps the sun’s heat in the Earth’s atmosphere.”  Though carbon dioxide is a natural component of the Earth’s environment, Spencer points out that the current levels of CO2 are much higher than what they should be based on historical patterns.  Worse yet, the amount of CO2 continues to rise at an alarming rate.

The IPCC is made up of hundreds of environmental scientists from countries all around the world.  Together, they recently delivered their annual report to the United Nations which attested that the rise in CO2 levels is directly caused by human activity.  Specifically, the report claimed that much of the precipitous rise in CO2 can be traced to the use of coal-burning power plants and gasoline-powered automobiles.  Coal-burning power plants, the most common type of power plant in the United States, produces 2.5 billion tons of CO2 every year in the U.S..  Not far behind, automobiles in the U.S. emit an estimated 1.5 billion tons of CO2 each year.

The IPCC says many devastating consequences of global warming are possible, some of which we have already begun to feel. In particular, the past decade has seen record breaking heat waves all across the world, including a major heat wave that killed at least 35,000 people in Europe in 2003. Along with heat waves, global warming is also heating up ocean temperatures, which could have a direct impact on the intensity of hurricanes.  As ocean temperatures continually rise, it is predicted that the frequency of category 4 and 5 hurricanes will also rise.  Furthermore, the rise in global temperatures could also have a significant impact on the number of wildfires occurring across the U.S.. Rising temperatures are believed to lead to increased dryness and drought.  According to the IPCC, frequency of wildfires in California, Nevada, and Arizona has already reached record highs and could continue to rise.  In addition, possibly the most serious consequence is sea-levels rising.  As the earth warms up, the massive sheets of ice that make up the Artic and Greenland are melting at a dramatic pace.  As they melt, the runoff flows into the sea which gradually raises sea levels all around the world.  As the seas rise, the IPCC predicts that current coastlines could start to disappear, including much of Florida, California, Texas, and Hawaii.

Pretty damn dire — though completely science-based, kind of like An Inconvenient Truth. On our current emissions path we risk devastating heat waves, more superhurricanes, dryness and drought and wildfires, and dangerous sea level rise.  Sounds a lot like Hell and High Water!

Here’s the “positive condition” ending:

However, all that being said, Spencer and the members of the IPCC are optimistic about the future.  They believe that global warming is completely reversible, and it is not too late to act. In fact, Caroline Defoe, Professor of Environmental Studies at Yale University and IPCC member, “The solution is simple: ingenuity.  Human beings can solve most any problem if they put their minds to it.”

Amanda Liu, member of the IPCC and author of the recent book How to Fight Global Warming: What Science and Technology Can Do agrees with Defoe, “A drastic decrease in CO2 emissions would pretty quickly slow the rise in global temperatures, and in the long-run, would even allow the Earth to return to its normal temperature patterns.”  The best way to decrease CO2 emissions, according to IPCC is to switch from an “oil and coal society” to a “wind, solar, and geothermal society.”  Liu adds “Much of the technology we need already exists.  We just have to perfect it and find innovative ways to implement it.  But I am confident that human ingenuity can overcome this mammoth obstacle.”

This is, of course, the core argument of Al Gore, ClimateProgress, Bill McKibben and indeed just about every single one of the climate hawks who communicate regularly on this subject.  Doing nothing risks “many devastating consequences” but “much of the technology we need already exists.”  We just need to deploy it already!

Isn’t it so reassuring to know that the message we all use works!

So what is the “dire condition” ending, the “doom and gloom” message that doesn’t work with this small, unrepresentative sample:

Unfortunately, according to many members of the IPCC, global warming is now at a point where it may be irreversible.  “We fear it may be too late. We may have reached the point of no return,” says Caroline DeFoe, Professor of Environmental Studies at Yale University, “I hate to admit it, but all the numbers and computer models point in the same dire and devastating direction. No one knows for sure how horrible it will get, but we should prepare for world wide chaos and destruction.”

Amanda Liu, member of the IPCC and author of the recent book, Why Science Can’t Help, agrees with Defoe, “The first domino has been pushed over and now the chain reaction is underway and building momentum.  Global warming is going to change everything for the worse.  It is just too big of a problem for science to grapple with.  We don’t even know where to start. Everyday we find out that something entirely new and unexpected is either directly or indirectly adding to the problem and causing more and more destruction.”

Gosh, who ever would have guessed that a message that says “it may be too late” — that the problem is just too damn big for science to grapple with, so much so that we don’t even know where to start — might not work so well?

Seriously people, is there anybody on the planet who uses that message — not counting, James Lovelock, intermittently, the exception that certainly proves the rule (see “Lovelock still makes me look like Paula Abdul, warns climate war could kill nearly all of us, leaving survivors in the Stone Age“)?

Certainly I don’t believe it is true.  Yes, politics — not science — may cause us to delay action beyond the tipping points, but that isn’t the issue here.  Quite the reverse.  We do know where to start.

Revkin writes:

The work certainly supports criticisms of communication efforts such as the video shown at the opening ceremonies in climate talks in Copenhagen last year:

Actually, the study doesn’t support criticism of that video.  I’m personally not a big fan of that video, but it does clearly lay out the dire threat that we face and it certainly doesn’t say the problem is hopeless.  Quite the reverse — it directed people towards an international effort aimed at reducing emissions.

If people want to draw conclusions from the small sample of this study, then it would seem to be telling us:

  1. The message that does work is we face Hell and High Water if we don’t act but fortunately much of the technology we need to solve this problem already exists.
  2. The message that doesn’t work is that the problem is so hopeless science doesn’t even know where to start.

As it turns out, there is more academic research supporting that conclusion, which will be the subject of a later post.


51 Responses to Dire straits: Media blows the story of UC Berkeley study on climate messaging

  1. A Siegel says:

    So, who are they attacking?

    After all, even within An Inconvenient Truth, Gore ends with (small) steps people can take to reduce emissions (e.g., action can help).

    Your works — paper and electronic — constantly highlight paths toward solutions.

    Etc … etc … etc …

    Creating a strawman to pick apart rather than studying the actual communications.

    And, the number of subjects involved seems more like a Master’s thesis level piece of work rather than something that should be taken seriously. How much of this is UCB’s press release fault?

  2. Steve H says:

    I presume that the supplementary materials were not provided to the journal’s reviewers. I really don’t see how, given the absolute ridiculous nature of the ‘dire’ ending, one would allow that to pass. But, much as the supposed real journalists failed to ask for it, I am not the least bit surprised by this.

    I do hope that the reviewers and editors, upon reading the supp, are able to somehow withdraw their endorsement of this paper. It would seem to me that the standard would need to be that the arguments used would have to ones that have actually been said by prominent proponents (with documentation). Then again, I deal in the, ahem, real sciences.

  3. Scrooge says:

    What this says to me is you can’t expect just educating the population to work. The followers of blogs like WUWT need someone to hold their hand and say we can fix it for you.

  4. BB says:

    Do you really think the results of the study would change appreciably if every human being in the US participates? You spend enough time pointing out the lack of solid messaging in the media, the dupability of the public, and the deficiency of climate understanding in general…I suspect the information of the study might still be confirmed when they use a larger sample, but, as you pointed out, there is something for everybody within it (or, rather, things all sides can draw out of the information).

    If the messaging hinges too much on the immediate breaking-point of unstoppable irreversable climate change that results in human/animal/plant devastation, without enough acquiescence to the idea that there’s still time to act, then not only do you risk the sort of messaging issues presented in this study, but also risk encouraging (though you may disagree) ecoterrorism.

  5. fj3 says:

    Actually, there’s a lot of positive messaging out there addressing the “Soylent Green-like” dire current condition of humanity “liquefying the planet to run civilization . . .”

    Plenitude, The New Economics of True Wealth

    Cognitive Surplus, Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

    Social Change 2.0, A Blueprint for Reinventing Our World

    Prosperity without Growth, Economics for a Finite Planet

    Next Generation Democracy, What the Open-Source Revolution Means for Power, Politics, and Change

  6. Andy Revkin says:

    If Joe had bothered to read my Dot Earth post instead of calling it “snarky,” he would have seen Robert Brulle crediting the work even as he (and others) described its limitations and put it in much broader context:

    Robert Brulle, a professor of sociology and environmental science, Drexel University:
    I would definitely think the conclusions are worthwhile and interesting. There is an emerging body of literature within sociology that focuses on the collective identity threats and climate change. The “just world” hypothesis is theorized within sociology as threats to ontological security. This concept, developed by Anthony Giddens, refers to the “Confidence or trust that the natural and social worlds are as they appear to be, including the basic existential parameters of self and social identity.” The sociological argument maintains that how individuals respond to information needs to consider the context of both social norms shaping interpersonal interaction and the broader political economic context. So in this viewpoint, climate change and the challenges it presents to the taken-for-granted expectations of economic growth and progress is very similar to the identity threats engendered by the civil rights movement and racism, or feminism and patriarchy. So the sociological approach varies considerably from the more psychological approaches based in structural linguistics. I don’t think there is any one correct perspective, as different disciplines originate from widely varied intellectual orientations. Overall though, there is something going on with the cultural responses to climate change that merits serious examination.

    [JR: Not! I read your whole post, obviously, which is 1) how I was able to explain why you were wrong and 2) why I emailed Brulle. You didn’t read the entire study and neither had he. When I sent him the entire message tested, then he replied as he did. Characteristically, you don’t admit that you were wrong in how you characterized the study.

    Let me add that you have been very quick to accuse others of “confirmation bias.” The fact is, had the media seen the full message tested, I doubt they would have written the story the way they did, including you. But if you are telling me you stand by what you wrote, well, that is interesting to note.]

  7. fj3 says:

    Even James Lovelock’s pessimism — he says he’s an optimist — with Gaia, is a profoundly enlightening encapsulating vision of life interacting with the rest of the world, quite extraordinary and beautiful; transcendent.

  8. Barry says:

    Great news in that study: the messaging used by almost every climate activist I read is the one that works best. Climate Progress is a leader at this very messaging. Thanks for the fabulously effective work Joe!

    Also Joe is 100% right about “confirmation bias.” That is the biggest impediment to action right now. The GOP voters and politicians are being duped and imperilled by their own “confirmation bias”. They don’t like the solutions proposed so far to climate threats. So instead of proposing their own conservative solution to escape the “confirmation bias” rat hole, they are playing climate ostrich and ignoring the science.

    But betting your future (political, economic, security) that the 2% of experts are right and not the other 98% is wildly risky and nonconservative. They are betting their farm, their communities and their kids future on double zero…the wheel is spinning and the ball about to drop.

    Are you sure you want to do this, conservatives? Wouldn’t a policy that reduced climate pollution threats be better for you and those you care about?

  9. It seems obvious to me that too much gloom and doom dis-empowers people.
    We need to have at least some hopeful notes amidst the dire predictions.
    Heard on this vid:

    Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.

  10. MarkB says:

    Excellent investigate research on this one, Joe. I’ll note a further poor headline on Accuweather.

    “Can Scary Global Warming Messages Backfire?”

    Since both groups were presented with a scary global warming message, the whole conclusion is bogus. It’s the message that we can’t do anything to fix the problem (one particular scary message) that doesn’t fly. This is same message promoted by some science deniers.

    I posted this over at DotEarth…

    The study basically wrote an article and presented it to subjects in the following form:

    Group 1:

    Part 1
    Part 2

    Group 2:

    Part 1
    Part 3

    Part 1 was presented to both groups, and includes the dire warnings:

    “The IPCC says many devastating consequences of global warming are possible, some of which we have already begun to feel. In particular, the past decade has seen record breaking heat waves all across the world, including a major heat wave that killed at least 35,000 people in Europe in 2003. Along with heat waves, global warming is also heating up ocean temperatures, which could have a direct impact on the intensity of hurricanes. As ocean temperatures continually rise, it is predicted that the frequency of category 4 and 5 hurricanes will also rise. Furthermore, the rise in global temperatures could also have a significant impact on the number of wildfires occurring across the U.S.. Rising temperatures are believed to lead to increased dryness and drought. According to the IPCC, frequency of wildfires in California, Nevada, and Arizona has already reached record highs and could continue to rise. In addition, possibly the most serious consequence is sea-levels rising. As the earth warms up, the massive sheets of ice that make up the Artic and Greenland are melting at a dramatic pace. As they melt, the runoff flows into the sea which gradually raises sea levels all around the world. As the seas rise, the IPCC predicts that current coastlines could start to disappear, including much of Florida, California, Texas, and Hawaii.”

    Part 2 ends on a positive note – that the problem is reversible and can be fixed, which is close to what the science indicates (noting however that the problem isn’t entirely reversible)

    Part 3 ends on a negative note – claiming the problem is impossible to solve and it’s too late.

    So Group 2 found their article less believable. Who would have thought it? Part 3 is the message science deniers promote.

    The best messaging is to lay out the problem in reality-based terms and say it can be solved. In all cases, watering down or distorting the science isn’t advisable.

  11. Jeff Huggins says:

    The Case

    Indeed, given what the study actually presented people with, and given what it tentatively found, (we must still keep in mind the incredibly small sample size, the actual statements, the methodology, and so forth), the results support the already-strong case for why the media — including Andy — had better get their acts together ASAP and stop making bad excuses. I’m serious, and seriously so. The study shows that the time to inform people and help address the global warming problem is BEFORE it becomes too late — i.e., NOW DAMMIT — and not AFTER it becomes too late.

    Andy do you hear? Please respond. Read the full study, if you would, and then contemplate that point. And then let us know, please, whether (and how many times) you have marched upstairs to The Leaders (of TNYT) and insisted that media coverage should improve.

    On another note, but an important one (to put this in perspective).

    I spent a good deal of time in my career working in marketing in the toy industry, involving lots of research (it was a great marketing company, and most of the other folks in the department had been accomplished marketers at P&G). I also spent a lot of time doing marketing, market research, and associated marketing strategy stuff at Disney, and was the head of the research group at Disneyland, for example.

    Here’s the point. In the modest-sized toy company I worked for, we would not have even launched a single new plastic ride-on vehicle for children on the basis of such small-scale research, conducted in that way. At Disney, we would almost certainly not have launched a new Disneyland ad campaign of any size only on the basis of such research, nor even adjusted ticket prices to any substantial degree.

    So here’s the point: Here we are, all adults (?), talking about what this research means for how the media should convey the facts and importance of climate change, probably the biggest problem the world has ever faced. And media outlets want to use this sort of research as an excuse, without even reading it closely and without (apparently) having the actual skills necessary to interpret research: Andy has been doing it for more than three years now. But the reality is, responsible toy companies wouldn’t even launch a child’s toy on the basis of such research! Disneyland wouldn’t launch a sizable seasonal campaign based on such research, or change ticket prices to any substantial degree. And there the media are, using it incorrectly to make or imply excuses for how difficult their job is!

    It’s just ridiculous, and I’m embarrassed for the media. It’s shocking. And it has been over two years since a period during which I repeatedly asked Andy for the research that, in The New York Times’ view, supported and justified its approach to climate change coverage. It never came.

    Here, I’m not familiar enough with the study to comment on it or critique the research itself, for what it was intended to explore on a very small scale. (By the way, GO BEARS!) As long as the study itself was conducted well and didn’t over-claim its results or their relevance, no harm done, UNTIL the media apparently got their hands on it. Yikes. The media will mess up just about everything, it seems.

    And, universities have tight budgets, and there was probably only a tiny budget for this research. (Indeed, most of the work on it was probably done by students and volunteers, I’d suspect.)

    But for the media — including Andy — to pick up on this research, not read it well (apparently), draw or imply unsound conclusions, use them to make or imply excuses for the media’s own problematic coverage, and imply that the conclusions have some sort of great relevance to the largest issue humankind has faced (when a toy company wouldn’t even launch a child’s toy on the basis of such research!), well THAT’S the problem.

    And I do NOT feel that we are in good hands from the standpoint of the media!! Are we allowed to tell each other that, factually and urgently, or will that upset “the people” just a bit too much! Do we still have time to change our media? I think we do — and I think we SHOULD. Before it’s too late.



  12. spiritkas says:


    Is it any wonder that the deniers would jump on anything, even if it in fact doesn’t support their argument, that suggests their opponents should sit down and be quiet?

    Once again, they would silence us and challenge us at a million points where we’re proved right nearly every time and definately on everything that matters. While they who are shown to be wrong or arguing in bad faith on a continual basis are held up to no standards at all.

    Classic muzzle technique. They can’t ignore us anymore, so they’ll seek to discredit what we say, how we say it, that we have the right to say it, and constantly assert how wrong we are about everything. All without contributing an iota of content themselves.



  13. If we choose not to make a new way of life for ourselves, perhaps you can see what is visible through my eyes.

    Can you see in the offing, there on the far horizon within sight of every human being with feet of clay on Earth, the first slouching trillionaire in the universe lumbering toward Bethlehem to be born?

  14. But it is not just deniers who blew this story. Andy Revkin works for a moderately liberal newspaper and is supposed to be an objective reporter, and he got it as wrong as anyone eles.

  15. Wonhyo says:

    I believe we should do everything we can to slow the rate of global warming, prepare for its inevitable effects, and take care of those who are victims of those inevitable effects. This means dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. This means reducing energy needs and replacing fossil fuel energy to sustainable clean energy.

    I also believe we should be honest in our expectations. Even if we were to zero out future human CO2 emissions, will that really be enough to restabilize the climate? That may halt the increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration, but at 390 ppm, that’s still 40% higher than the pre-industrial ideal level and 30% higher than the 800,000 year pre-industrial maximum. Even if our natural carbon sinks (forests and phytoplankton) were in a healthy state, it would take decades to get atmospheric CO2 back to a stable level, during which time many of the positive feedback processes will be progressing forward. In any case, our forests and phytoplankton have been in dramatic decline in the last five decades and are showing signs of accelerating decline, rather than restabilization. If we were to zero out human emissions tomorrow, that would be only the first in many steps needed to restabilize the climate.

    Of course, there is still value in pursuing sustainable policies. Any slowing in the advancement of climate change is a good thing. Energy self-sufficiency through renewables will avoid energy wars. These reasons alone make it a good idea to aggressively pursue sustainable energy and lifestyle practices, even if they will not ultimately restabilize the climate.

  16. Andrew Porterfield says:

    It’s not the “doom and gloom” that’s creating public awareness challenges around global warming/climate change. What’s creating public awareness problems is supplementary material. And the expectation that the general public will read it.

  17. Mela says:

    “that doesn’t work with this small, unrepresentative sample”

    lol, it’s not a bad sample, as psychology studies are not polls. The effect sizes appear mediumish, and study 1 had decent enough statistical power. I don’t think that angle is the best approach. It’s not too different to complaining that paleo studies don’t have enough proxies, enough coverage blah blah.

    Effectively, reading the study it’s not really about dire consequences – as you point out both messages provide them very clearly.

    The difference is that one simply says “probably too late and we don’t know what to do!” (I would term this the ‘fatalistic/pessimistic’ condition), t’other says “yeah, we can do it and here’s how!” (‘optimistic’

    I actually think that the authors somewhat misrepresent their study/findings due to this (read the study a while back; first time seeing the materials). Surprised the reviewers at Psychological Science never pointed this issue out. When seen from this POV, the just-world angle can be explained by the association of just-world belief and high optimism (Lipkus et al., 1996).

  18. paulm says:

    It really is too late to expect the masses to move on this. The change has to start from the top.

    Obama are you ready to rock?

    There is a lot that can/has to be put in place now before the real austerity mesures need to be implemented.

    Our leaders need to kick start this. By the time it gets round to the real tough stuff there will be enough extreme event pain to pull everyone else along.

  19. Prokaryotes says:

    The movie “The Road” explains how cannibalism breaks out.
    The dire consequence of catastrophic climate change will shrink ANY historical human suffering. The process of species extinction is a slow and disastrous process which very well might be un-changebale at certain phases. The magnitudes and planetary scale is unprecedented and not even a nuclear holocaust has the potential to destroy all of life for hundred of thousand of years. Not even a nuclear war at this time would make any different, because even though it might could change the climate for some time and would decimate human populations, it won’t stop the process of oceans releasing huge quantities of anthropogenic carbon with the chance to trigger a runaway greenhouse effect.

  20. Aaron Lewis says:

    The IPCC AR4 projected a 31% loss of Arctic Sea Ice by the period 2080 -2100. ( True, the IPCC uses a 2002 ice baseline. However the IPCC 2002 ice level already shows the effect of 100 years of AGW. A more reasonable base line is that of the 1979-1989 period. By that baseline, we had achieved the IPCC’s full quota of year 2100 Arctic Sea Ice loss the very year that AR4 was published.

    In short, the IPCC AR4 computer models were wrong by ~2 orders of magnitude.

    The true error bars for IPCC AR4 projections are more than 2 orders of magnitude before we start to consider carbon feedbacks.

    Last summer, we saw an up-tick on NH CH4 in some places. ( at stations ZEP, AZR, MHD, & PAL, but with other stations providing little comfort that these are wrong.). This hints that carbon feedbacks are real and near.

    Including Arctic carbon feedbacks, the issues in the models that produced the original underestimate of sea ice loss, and ice dynamics, the IPCC sea level rise projections are too low (and too slow).

    “Science” has fooled itself. The bald truth is that “Science” does not know how big the AGW problem is, much less whether science can solve the problem.

  21. Prokaryotes says:


    Give someone just a dire message – he will try to avoid it.

    Give someone a dire message coupled with a solution – he will try to fix it.

  22. Edward says:

    Andy Revkin: In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not falling for your attempt to shut me up. Previous attempts to shut us up didn’t work either. Americans have never been cowards. Hitler didn’t scare us, the draft board we fought during the phony war in Viet Nam didn’t scare us, and none of our other enemies ever scared us either. Nobody is going to scare us into shutting up. We are not afraid of the Koch brothers.

    “An Inconvenient Mind” is further proof that Andy Revkin is a denialist. Otherwise, why bother us with such nonsense? If you want a front page headline, how about “CIVILIZATION TO FALL IN 2050”. If that isn’t worthy of a top of the front page headline in the NYT, there never was one. See:

    “Preliminary Analysis of a Global Drought Time Series”  by Barton Paul Levenson, not yet published.

  23. Edward says:

    10. Beam Me Up Scotty: YES WE CAN do it in 5 years for coal. YES WE CAN do it in 20 years for the rest of fossil fuels.

  24. PeterW says:

    Why on earth do we need some stupid half-ass study to show us how people respond to extremely bad news? Maybe we should look to history instead.

  25. paulm says:

    Hope can be dangerous. Action is what is needed.

  26. matto says:

    Not a big surprise that Joe is the only one to get this story right. Also not a big surprise that the yellow-bellied sapsuckers at Dot Earth and WUWT got it wrong.

    Great job Joe!

  27. Mike Roddy says:

    Both the verbiage and the sample are biased- the phrasing is subjective and manipulative, and Cal students are already aware of global warming science. Besides, the audiences we really have to reach are those who get their news from Fox, ABC, and USA Today, and who have no idea what is in store.

    A good percentage of Americans believe that Climategate proves scientists are dishonest conspirators, and that we might enjoy a slightly warmer climate, with faster plant growth and balmier winters. They have been lied to by the media, and reassured by soft deniers like Lomborg (recently featured on Dot Earth), Curry, and Christy.

    Nobody knows what the outcome would be if Americans were thoroughly educated about the implications of current climate science, incuding feedbacks. Those of us who have studied the science are both horrified and driven to action. A big reason has been our being educated and curious, and stumbling upon IPCC, Climate Progress, and the studies that have come out in the last couple of years.

    Most Americans would react like Climate Progress readers if presented with correct information, which is really only terrifying on the no action path we are currently on. My countrymen will be moved to action when they’re shown how much they’ve been lied to, and see the greed and selfishness that has been disguised as conservative politics.

    Incidentally, I’m a Berkeley grad, and was influenced recently by Dr. Harte, who was way ahead of his time in identifying biological feedbacks. Harte publicly pointed out the conservative nature of IPCC IV even in 2007, before it became obvious.

    I don’t know what Andy’s motive is in saying that maybe it’s not going to be that bad. Perhaps this study will provide comfort to the rich, who don’t want to frighten the horses (us). In any case, he needs to move a lot more decisively toward what the science says, and trust the people- and not the big army of idiot right wing commenters on his blog- to make the right decisions.

  28. Peter M says:

    It seems thus far that the 2007 report by the IPCC was very wrong

    they will obviously in their 2013 report have far more dire conclusions.

    As for Andrew Revkin- I long ago stopped visiting his blog the the NYT- he has joined to the ranks of the deniers- and seems to ignore the data- he chooses to see the world through rose colored glasses.

  29. Raul M. says:

    Good going Dr. Harte.

  30. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Time for a great speach Mr President, time to deliver on “Yes we Can”. Inform the people that our darkest hour approaches.

    A great speach can turn the tide, even Charles Lindberg fell into line after the “Day of Infamy” speach. Trust “a people properly informed”. When the people are properly informed those who continue to obstruct will know it is their last term in office.

  31. Craig says:

    Off topic comment: I noticed the phrase “climate hawks” was used in this post. I’ve also seen other bloggers such as Ezra Klein and Brad Johnson use the same phrase (which was originally unveiled by David Roberts of Grist).

    Has anyone seen the phrase used in a mainstream news article? (I did a Google search but came up with no references). I’m hoping this one makes it out of the blogosphere and into widespread usage. The first time I read Roberts’ post I actually got chills. Climate hawks is precisely the type of simple but powerful messaging needed in this debate.

  32. Bob Wallace says:

    Beam Me Up Scotty – #10

    “Replace fossil fuels in decades… Can we do this?”

    Might I point you to –

    Scientific American, November, 2009.

    A Plan for a Sustainable Future

    How to get all energy from wind, water, and solar power by 2030

    Jacobson and Delucci present a blueprint for getting almost 100% of the world’s energy needs (electricity, transportation and heat) from renewables.

    They take into account population growth and increases in standards of living.

    They show what we need to do in order to get there in 20 years.

    They cite only two potential problems.

    First, a potential shortage of rare-earth minerals which is most likely not a problem with the discovery of more sources of those materials and because new motor designs may have given a way to achieve the same efficiency using ferric magnets.

    Second, political will.

    So, it looks like one very big potential problem is standing between where we are and where we need to be.

    (You can read it at your library or purchase a copy on line. And I think there’s a piece about the article on this site.)

  33. Richard Miller says:

    Mike Roddy: If my memory serves me well, John Korsnick’s polling from Stanford showed that less than 6% of those polled even knew anything about climategate. On the one hand that is obviously good news, on the other hand it is bad news because it shows how hard it is to reach people on the climate issue. There are a lot of unreachables out there.

    Obama, however, could reach people if he did what the Bush administration did on the Iraq war, (without the lying etc.); namely, execute an all out relentless messaging campaign. I would not hold my breath on Obama doing that, he is the Neville Chamberlain of our time.

  34. richard sequest says:

    Yes, the study had flaws. Yes, the media mis-interpreted the results. And yes, to paraphrase Prokaryotes, #22, common sense tells us people will avoid an impossible problem but approach one that can be fixed.

    But, having said that, I am happy that the psychological/sociological sciences are weighing in on these issues. We definitely need more studies like this.

  35. Prokaryotes says:

    Peter W, as much as Churchill’s rhetoric was important and the right propaganda, the difference with his speeches were the active situation – not just a dire message/outlook.

    The Battle of Britain is the name given to the air campaign waged by the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) against the United Kingdom during the summer and autumn of 1940. The objective of the campaign was to gain air superiority over the Royal Air Force (RAF), especially Fighter Command. The name derives from a famous speech delivered by Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the House of Commons: “The Battle of France is over. I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin..

    And the UK assessed the chance of france becoming hostile to them.

    Once the climate change situation gets worse on the northern hemisphere, people will become very afraid and will start to act with panic.

  36. Peter M says:

    #37 Prokaryotes and all here

    see my reply to the TIME essay- in their blog under ‘Hybridsun’……..#3 reply

  37. Bruce Post says:

    Richard wrote: “I am happy that the psychological/sociological sciences are weighing in on these issues. We definitely need more studies like this.” I totally agree. The growth of brain science is making great strides in helping many folks understand how the human takes in and processes information. Quite frankly, though, I believe advertisers and marketeers have understood this for years. Consider the use of what is called “neuro marketing.”

    Of course, sorting through all this stuff and then figuring out what to do remain serious challenges. Here are a few books I have found helpful in trying to understand human denial:

    1. Daniel Goleman’s “Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception” (A layperson’s look at the pain response and how it affects our perceptions);

    2. Edwin Friedman’s “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix” (How a rabbi who worked for LBJ in the White House looks at our societal challenges. Find out how a protoplasmic view of the human organism can provide us a better perspective on societal systems);

    3. Cordelia Fine’s “A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives” (Funny, irreverent and informative); and

    4. John Kotter’s aptly-named “Our Iceberg is Melting.” (While this may be about change management and is written by a professor at Harvard Business School, it certainly crystallizes visually the dilemma we face.)

  38. Colorado Bob says:

    Several years ago , I noticed a phrase that was common to these reports from the changes we’re seeing , it was the fire fighters battling the fires of 2007 who repeated it over and over.
    Since then , it has become all to common, ” We’ve never seen this before.”

    Rain from Anchorage to Barrow an ‘extraordinary event’

    “We haven’t ever seen anything like this in the Interior,” hydrologist Ed Plumb at the National Weather Service in Fairbanks said Monday as the rain continued to fall.

    Read more:

  39. Prokaryotes says:

    Peter M, the points raised by the denier (post 4#), should be addressed by the Time’s staff now. Actually they and everybody else needs to do now the debunk work Joe does so efficient here at CP.

    One reason why i come to CP is that big oil CC lies are not tolerated. The difference between a skeptic in general and a big oil financed denialist is that a skeptic would adjust his assumptions according to data(scientific facts).

    Does it take a large scale impact event, maybe when it’s to late to change the emission path our civilization has chosen?
    Or for once can the combined scientific intelligence rule?

    It’s Dark Age 2.0 vs Industrial Revolution 2.0

  40. Chris Winter says:

    The General Discussion portion of the UC Berkeley study notes:

    Our results imply that because dire messaging regarding global warming is at odds with the strongly established cognition that the world is fair and stable, people may dismiss the factual content of messages that emphasize global warming’s dire consequences. But if the same messages are delivered coupled with a potential solution, it allows the information to be communicated without creating substantial threat to these individuals’ deeply held beliefs.

    If most people in the United States get their news from the mainstream media (hardly an unlikely proposition), the message they are getting is a composite one, made up of two principle parts. One is the scientific facts: that global warming is real, is caused by human activities, has been proceeding for decades, and will create harm at some future point. The second is the largely political warning, which presents one of several dire outcomes: that doing anything about the problem would be ruinously expensive; that global warming is a pretext for a power grab by various nefarious groups; or even that it’s all a hoax made up for said power grab.

    This state of affairs should make it well nigh impossible that a large majority of Americans would accept the reality of global warming. Yet, polls indicate that the majority of them do.

    Clearly, to borrow a line from an advert of yesteryear, “We must be doing something right.” Just as clearly, we need to do more of it.

  41. PeterW says:

    Prokaryotes I think you misunderstood my point with regards to Churchill.

    Churchill gave this speech just after the military disaster that led to Dunkirk. He basically told the British people the facts. “We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind….” But then he used his rhetorical skills to inspire people to act. As FDR did with Pearl Harbor.

    In many ways I believe both these speeches demonstrate what you said earlier. “Give someone a dire message coupled with a solution – he will try to fix it.”

  42. Anu says:

    ESA’s CryoSat-2 ice mission went live today:

    Many, if not most, people don’t care about “messages” or “explanations” about what is going to happen to the climate this century. They will hear that some “experts” disagree, so will wait till things are “settled”. They have enough other problems to worry about…

    It’s the summer Arctic that will wake up Pat Q. Public to the looming climate problem. If some predictions about vanishing sea ice volume are correct, the next three summers will be like a planetary alarm clock going off – this is what will get the world working on emissions solutions in a serious way. Not “messaging”, optimistic or pessimistic – the world is not scientifically literate enough on average to overcome the FUD used by the forces arrayed against climate change solutions. But once the summer Arctic sea ice is almost gone – this will be the “Oh ….” moment that wakes people up.

    Before that moment, it is too easy for non-scientific people to be confused, willfully or otherwise.

    I expect CryoSat-2 will be showing us, next summer, how soon that alarm will be going off.

  43. Anu says:

    You’ve just “moderated” away another reader.

    [JR: Huh? The spam filter throws a lot of people into it. Most just email me.]

  44. max says:

    Andy Revkin’s thin skinned reply is very instructive. He just doesn’t like being confronted or questioned. In contrast, most people with more scientific training understand that they can be expected to be challenged and questioned-that’s part of the scientific method-as anyone who has gone through PhD prelims can attest.

  45. sailrick says:

    Peter M @38

    I’ve posted not one, but four comments at the Time article. If anything I said needs correcting, feel free.
    I would encourage others to add their comments as well. TIME is mainstream media. Intelligent comments there maybe reach more people than on climate blogs.

  46. Jeffrey Davis says:

    It’s a story about perceptions and PR.

  47. Richard Brenne says:

    Climate change and all other human impacts are the biggest, most complex and important problems humans have ever faced, and so we’re all trying to get our thinking around this to do all we can to help create needed change. Simplistic conclusions are just that.

    For beginners, the conclusion that we need to stay optimistic and focus on solutions is probably appropriate at first. It’s like the American Civil Rights movement saying we need to stop institutional racism. But beginners didn’t do that much to address racism – it was the advanced thinkers, the most caring people who dug and chopped at the myriad maze of roots of all racism who really changed things.

    For advanced thinkers on this issue – and I feel the Climate Progress readers include many of the most advanced thinkers – something else might be in order.

    When we say, “We can solve this!” do we really mean “We can solve the balloon of growth in all areas that we’ve blown up as much as we possibly can and that includes overpopulation and overconsumption, unrelenting greed and the power to oppress and exploit others, and the results including Peak Oil and Peak Everything, species loss at maybe a thousand times the natural background rate and climbing, ocean acidification, the loss of 40 per cent of all phytoplankton that provides Earth with about half of its oxygen and the foundation of its food chain, ozone killing trees and plants globally, and the most rapid consistent change in Earth’s climate in its history”?


    On many comment threads here at Climate Progress you can see much deeper thinking that I think we need to address this fully.

    Telling people the full truth is simply the honest thing to do. Truth and honesty align themselves with everything positive while lies, prevarications, deceits, simplistic messages and wishful thinking do not.

  48. Susan Anderson says:

    Calling Andy Revkin a denier is a mistake. I suggest a look at all his articles over time, and his recent responses to a number of denialist commenters. I share your concern about his eagerness to embrace the middle, and the megaphone he provides to obvious nonsense like Hal Lewis, but if you must be such a small group that he qualifies as a denier, then you are really lost.

    The article addressed in this post has a slight bias, I agree, but all you hotheads are so eager to label anyone who doesn’t agree 100% about some of the difficulties are driving them towards those you accuse them of fraternizing with the enemy.

    By the way, a few of the commenters over there on my side of the aisle are not doing us a favor. Please climb down on the rhetoric.

    Spending time wringing hands with the choir doesn’t point as many people as you’d like towards honest thinking.

    I’m not saying that some of the points made here are not valid, just that the attack dog tone and galloping ahead on exaggerated assumptions without carefully checking the material is a recipe for pushing those not already convinced away.

  49. Susan Anderson says:

    I’m afraid my former comment may have conveyed a wrong impression, that I think more people are in the basket of irrational overreaction. On the whole, I regard this site as the real “All The News That’s Fit to Print” and am a huge fan. Just that if one gets on one’s high horse, doesn’t fact check, and labels moderates as extremists, it’s not helpful.