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.