Monday, October 29, 2007

Me write pretty one day soon

The editors at Gristmill allow me to pollute the discourse with an obscenity. I'm amazed I'm still allowed to post at all, my posting there has been so uneven!
Apparently, we've all been going around in funeral dress, like flagellants during the Black Death. But that caricature is not even what bothers me, so much as the implied dishonesty.

I hate to break it to anybody who hasn't been paying attention, but things aren't good, and they're not getting better. Things are bad, and they're getting worse. When the UN releases reports saying "humanity's survival is at stake," things are fucking bleak. I don't see why the green movement should respond to that kind of news by putting on a happy face, or by trying to sidestep the issue.

Read the whole thing here.


Andre said...

Ugh, I can't be bothered to jump through Grist's hoops to comment there.

First, I wouldn't spend too much time bemoaning that 20% of Americans don't believe anthro climate change is serious. This comprises the hard core Republican base, virtually nothing will convince these people. I'll bet scarily large percentages of the US population believe that the Democrats are secretly communists or that the moonlanding was faked or that the UN is a dastardly organization bent on establishing global dictatorial rule or that the earth is 6000 years old. There may be some long run hope for converting these people but for the most part you need to pick your battles. We can accomplish a lot with sub-80% support.

Second, I'm mostly sympathetic to the main thrust of your argument, but greens get caricatured as doom&gloom hippies because a nontrivial portion of the environmental movement is full of doom&gloom hippies. From the population bomb to the Club of Rome in the 1970s, to nuclear winter, to the GMO scare and general hysteria over anything synthetic or that emits "radiation" (even Wifi gets condemned!) or "the WTO and NAFTA will lead to corporations overruling all our health and enviro laws", ad nauseum.

I don't have data to back this up but I suggest these guys tend to drown out the Amory Lovinses.

It's unfortunate that the more vocal, sensational elements of the movement create these bad perceptions but they do exist.

Third, framing matters. Unfortunately, people are still pretty irrational. Faced with "things are fucking bleak" they get conservative. Their natural reaction is to retrench and surround themselves in the familiar .

Matt Nisbet has a good presentation on framing and climate change here:

I agree that the gravity of the situation needs to be addressed but some sociological evidence suggests that overzealously hammering the dangers home might be counterproductive, even if the message is fundamentally true. I don't know what the best strategy is but I think at least some caution is warranted.

John said...

"This comprises the hard core Republican base, virtually nothing will convince these people."

That's exactly the problem. These are the people who vote in GOP primaries, so they end up determining the content of the GOP's positions, so basically half of the US political spectrum is hard-opposition to climate change, and a substantial minority of Dems are poisoned as well.

People can have impacts far, far beyond their absolute numbers.

"From the population bomb to the Club of Rome in the 1970s, to nuclear winter, to the GMO scare and general hysteria over anything synthetic or that emits "radiation" (even Wifi gets condemned!) or "the WTO and NAFTA will lead to corporations overruling all our health and enviro laws", ad nauseum."

That's a telling list, actually. Half of your examples are literally decades old, and in other cases the caricature bears no relationship to the reality -- read The Limits to Growth, and compare it with your preconceived notions of it.

And while I don't grant that it's the case, if these voices drown or drowned out positive voices, it's worth asking whether they're privileged because they fit in to a dominant narrative.

And as for framing, well, if it's determinative then we really are screwed. I don't believe there's a way to break people's attachment to the familiar without pointing out the harm it's doing. If framing problems as problems inevitably makes people conservative, then the battle really is lost. IF, however, framing isn't determinative, then this whole debate is moot.

Andre said...

My minor point (which on examination is completely absent from my earlier comment) on the 1 in 5 figure is that on its own it says nothing about the feasibility of imminent action on climate change. The real problem is that the rest who do believe in climate change rank it somewhere around 8th or 12th in their list of political priorities. Behind healthcare, education, terrorism, Iraq, immigration, etc.

My list was meant to be historical. My point was that certain elements of the environmental "movement" have been voicing hysterics or at least unrealistically pessimistic pronouncements for decades. I could just as easily subbed in the SPP for WTO and NAFTA. And nonsense about GMOs or cellphone towers or nuclear power is hardly dead and gone.

The top environmental priority of the Ontario NDP is a right-to-know law for "toxic chemicals" because "{[e]veryday Ontarians are exposed to a soup of dangerous toxic chemicals at home, at work, in our neighbourhoods, and in our rivers and lakes – some of which are known to be cancer causing."

IMHO, this is not productive language.

You're right that those guys at MIT who wrote the Limits to Growth should not be branded as doom&gloom hippies, though in my defence I was being facetious. And I haven't read it, but it was covered to some extent in the natural resource management literature I was assigned for my Masters coursework and referred to as a really flawed modelling effort which indicated (among other things) that non-renewable resource depletion is a serious, potentially catastrophic problem (nope).

Anyway, as I wrote, I'm mostly sympathetic to your point of view but I also wouldn't ignore the doom&gloom tag. A portion of it, though a small portion, is warranted. Broader public perceptions whether they are justified or not shouldn't be ignored. If saying "we're all gonna die" is counterproductive (I'm not saying it is, I don't have the data, but it might be, or it might be for segments of the population so target messages accordingly) then say something else. Maybe it should be more along the lines of "climate change will lead to an x% decline in standard of living" or "we have a moral duty to our children".

I am a little perturbed by your concluding thoughts about framing. Have you read any of the social science research on this subject?

It's not an either/or issue of state the problem - don't state the problem. Rather, there are various ways of stating the problem.

The fact is, framing is an important tool in shaping public perception. It's certainly not sufficient to ensure that meaningful climate action surmounts the big political hurdles it faces but given the data, it would be unwise to ignore it.