So the NYT’s Andy Revkin blogs on the new Gallup survey, “Gallup: Rising View That Climate Risk Exaggerated?” and asks “What’s your take on what’s going on?” What’s your take on why Gallup finds “a record-high 41%” of Americans now say the “seriousness of global warming” is exaggerated.
[Yes, let’s put aside the irony of that question coming from the reporter who famously wrote an article, “In Debate on Climate Change, Exaggeration Is a Common Pitfall” that charged Nobelist Al Gore — the man most associated in the public mind with the climate warning — with exaggeration (a false charge, as I proved here).]
Here’s my take. Objectively, in the last two years, the science makes painfully clear that climate risk has grown sharply, far beyond what 99% of people I talk to realize, even highly informed people:
- Hadley Center: Catastrophic 5–7°C warming by 2100 on current emissions path
- M.I.T. joins climate realists, doubles its projection of global warming by 2100 to 5.1°C
- AAAS: Climate change is coming much harder, much faster than predicted
- Nobel laureate Rowland agrees we are headed to 1000 ppm
- NOAA stunner: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe
- Startling new sea level rise research: “Most likely” 0.8 to 2.0 meters by 2100
- US Geological Survey stunner: Sea-level rise in 2100 will likely “substantially exceed” IPCC projections
That means if the public has come to the reverse view, it must be due to the messaging and the media and the misinformers. Let’s look at all three — and why this poll vindicates my analysis that Obama can get a better climate bill in 2010.
The vast majority of scientists are consistently bad at messaging, rarely, for instance, straying far from their narrow area of expertise and easily out-debated in public fora by deniers who are not bound by the facts or by bizarre notions that you can only talk about what you are specifially the world’s foremost expert on (see “Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1” and “Part 2: Why deniers out-debate “smart talkers”).
The climate science activists (CSAs) — environmentalists and progressives — have, with one notable exception, downplayed the threat of global warming and key impacts (like extreme weather) for about a decade now. Indeed, in the mid-1990s, a foundation-funded effort used dubious polling data to convince many CSAs that telling the public the truth about global warming turned them off from the subject. As a result many CSAs switched over to positive message about clean tech, green jobs, and new technology. The CSA message splintered.
The conservative deniers, of course, never stopped their single-minded disinformation campaign (exposing a fatal flaw in the kind of static polling data the CSAs were duped by). The deniers have been especially persistent in pushing the “recent global cooling” myth — with the complicity of the media (see “Media enable denier spin 1: A (sort of) cold January doesn’t mean climate stopped warming”).
And, as I’ve explained, like most communicators, they are especially persuasive to those who share their world view — other conservatives and conservative-leaning independents (see “Deniers are still mostly duping only GOP voters” and “The Deniers are winning, but only with the GOP” and “The deniers are winning, especially with the GOP”). That’s especially true because, again, the CSAs largely backed off a strong, consistent message on the risks and impacts (see “Why do the deniers try to shout down any talk of a link between climate change and extreme weather?”).
Look at the key chart from the Gallup poll:
Republicans are as dupable as ever. Democrats are as undupable as ever. Duped independents are up sharply in the last year (after being unduped for the previous decade) — but I wonder if that’s in part because self identified Republicans have dropped sharply during that time, which has moved many former Republicans into the independent category, where they are as dupable as ever.
[Does someone have access to the internals of their recent polls to confirm this or not?]
In 2006 and 2007, we did have a strong warning, first from Al Gore and then from the IPCC, on climate science, which the media did pick up on, and no doubt contributed to the general lack of duping among Dems and Inds those years.
But after that we had a very hard denier push on the global cooling myth whereas the CSAs drifted into largely irrelevant messaging (see The “Reality Campaign” still doesn’t have a coherent message”) — once again thinking that the messaging war was over like some overconfident guy on the deck of a ship that proclaimed “Mission Accomplished.”
And of course the conservative denier columnists also kept pushing hard on the “global warming is exaggerated” meme, abetted by see-no-evil editors (see “The day DC journalism died: Washington Post is staffed with people who found ZERO mistakes in George Will’s error-filled denial column” and “John Tierney makes up stuff, just like George Will — does the New York Times also employ several know/do-nothing fact checkers?”).
On the other hand, other than perhaps Tom Friedman, no major national columnist regularly explains to the public the current scientific understanding of global warming and the catastrophe we are facing.
And of course many in the media figure they “did” catastrophic global warming in 2006 and 2007, so of course that ain’t news any more. And the media keeps downplaying or omitting the link between extreme weather occuring now and global warming (see CNN, ABC, WashPost, AP, blow Australian wildfire, drought, heatwave “Hell (and High Water) on Earth” story — never mention climate change and NBC News ignores climate change, blows the bark beetle story).
And of course the media tends to ignore climate impacts (i.e. the cost of inaction) when it discusses climate economics, while rarely failing to report the wild overestimations of the cost of action by conservatives and fossil fuel companies — thus again leaving the public with impression that the danger of global warming is being oversold (see Must-read study: How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics — “The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress”).
What to do?
I doubt scientists and CSAs will suddenly improve their messaging — though I’m glad that some scientists at least are, very recently, becoming uncharacteristically blunt. And conservatives have doubled down on their self-destructive strategy of denial and disinformation (see “Hill conservatives reject all 3 climate strategies and embrace Rush Limbaugh — what does that radicalism mean for Obama, progressives, and humanity?”).
And the MSM remains, well, mainstream. They follow. They don’t lead.
Only one person can change this dynamic. So let me end with the discussion from my post, “The deniers are winning, especially with the GOP,” of a year ago — revised to take into account that one person.
According to the United States Office of Strategic Services, Hitler’s strategy was based on the view:
In fact, Hitler himself defined the term “Big Lie,” in his autobiography Mein Kempf, as
a lie so “collosal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”
I don’t think this useful term should be a banned from public use just because Hitler defined it first (sorry Real Climate). I certainly apologize to anybody who is upset by the analogy — I’m not trying to compare deniers with Nazis — there is no such comparison possible — nor does it apply to all of the people who advocate one of the 6 myths below. No, the “Big Lie” refers mostly to the strategy of the professional class of those who spread disinformation for a living.
I do think the term gets to a fundamental reason why global warming denial is so effective. The science has now become unequivocally clear that the health and well-being of billions of people (and most species) are at grave risk from continued unrestricted human emissions of greenhouse gases (see links above).
But who could possibly believe that so many credible-sounding people, including major public leaders in the conservative movement, would so strongly argue that
- The earth is not warming and/or
- Humans are not a major cause of whatever warming is occurring and/or
- The problem is not an urgent one because the impacts are distant and tolerable and/or
- The solution is painful if not impossible with existing technologies anyway and/or
- Adaptation is a better strategy than mitigation and/or
- It’s just too damn late!
It is hard to believe — indeed it is almost impossible to believe.
And it has proven almost impossible for the traditional media to deal with (see “Media enable denier spin 2: What if the MSM simply can’t cover humanity’s self-destruction?”)
When I last wrote on this I said “I don’t have any easy answers to offer in this post. Shaming the traditional media doesn’t seem to work because they are mostly shameless — indeed the vast majority of journalists wear it as a badge of honor that they are criticized equally by ‘both sides’.”
There is in fact only one answer. The Obama team must devote significant effort to undoing the disinformation and muzzling of the past eight years. No single institution drives more of the media coverage and framing of the major national issue than the White House and the executive branch experts on a subject. A 2007 report by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee concluded:
As I argued in Salon:
The goal of deferring the climate bill to 2010 is not merely to allow time to get China on board, but to undo the last eight years of disinformation and muzzling of scientists by the Bush administration. The American public — and media and cognoscenti — are not prepared for the scale of effort needed to preserve a livable climate. The Obama team needs to spend a considerable amount of time giving public speeches, holding informal meetings with key opinion makers, researching and publicizing major reports on the high cost of inaction and the relatively low cost of solutions. That simply can’t be done over the next few months, when the administration’s focus must be — and the media’s focus will be — on the grave economic crisis.
Failing that, we are stuck with the public roughly where the Gallup polling says.
And that means we are stuck with a too-weak climate bill in 2009 (see “Sen. Bingaman doubts “the votes are there this year to pass” a bill like Boxer-Lieberman-Warner”).