Cheryl earlier linked to that widely-cited recent paper by psychologists Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg at UC-Berkeley that concludes what we've known for some time: fear-mongering public rhetoric only works when one wishes to invade foreign countries, not when it comes to convincing people about the importance of acting on climate change (I'm taking liberties here... the report is about climate change, not military invasions).
A minor industry in tsk-tsking anti-climate-fear-mongering warnings seems to have resulted, adding on to the more media-pervasive, misleading, and often fact-altering Lomborgian view that, there there, we're all just going to be alright (see one response here). Technological innovation, human ingenuity, rah rah. If environmentalists would just focus on happy thoughts and proposals for real improvements, some conclude, we might make real headway on climate change stabilization. What's needed is “a dash of more hope, all without losing the sense of urgency.” Well, put the latter way, it's hard to disagree.
As Isaac Smith notes in response, however,
Here’s the thing: Environmentalists already did this. It was called “green jobs,” which, although often oversold, was a bona fide attempt to frame the problem of climate change as an opportunity to put people back to work, revive American manufacturing, reduce inner-city poverty, &c. It was the complete opposite of doom-and-gloom, and yet it ultimately proved to be useless in the face of relentless opposition from Republicans and Democrats from coal- and oil-producing regions. Moreover, green jobs figured heavily, if only rhetorically, in the Recovery Act, and the failure of that plan to bring down unemployment (as opposed to halting its rise) may well have tarred the green jobs strategy as well.Maybe I'm out of the loop of the scary people, but at least in my decade or so of working on environmental issues, teaching active grad students, and as a delegate at UNFCCC COP15 last year in Copenhagen, I haven't actually witnessed much climate change scare-mongering. The struggle for climate scientists, most environmentalists, and policy analysts is to help the public have a much clearer understanding of the high and low probability risks of certain climate change effects and of possible solutions.
The more detailed conclusions of the Berkeley research are crucial, however. All the more so because they suggest something much different than the media's understanding and much closer to Isaac's point above.
Basically, the research finds that,
...dire messages about the threat of global warming will strengthen people’s acceptance of climate science when combined with solutions, which is the approach taken by leading climate activists.
Polar bears actually are severely threatened (and countless other species, some of which may turn out to be quite resilient and others not at all), the likelihood of increasingly extreme weather events actually does have a very high degree of probability, sea levels are already rising due to warming, glaciers all over the planet are melting as is Greenland's ice sheet as is sea ice, acidification of oceans due to GHG emissions is a serious problem, human migrations already occur in response to changing climatic and environmental conditions, etc. The risks vary depending on a host of factors that go into the notion of vulnerability. There is also intrinsically some degree of uncertainty (it's science!) about the characteristics of future events (it's the future!), but the risks are very real. We should be worried.
But there are also real, concrete, and feasible responses on the table. They've been there all along and are constantly improved and added to through genuine human ingenuity. Sometimes market forces are helpful; sometimes not. Browse, for example, Bellona's impressive document, "101 Solutions to Climate Change."
Old-timey economic platitudes about technological innovation spurred by rising prices on resource commodities or other reactions to what economists call "scarcity" (high cost/price), and blind faith in human ingenuity are near-religious assumptions about which we should be very concerned. My point is hardly that innovation and ingenuity are not possible. Precisely the opposite! The problem is the concomitant economic assumption that if broad technological innovation hasn't fully catalyzed quite yet, then "scarcity" is not yet an issue, costs having reached that margin at which it is more efficient to seek substitutes, then everything is A-okay. Providing the public good that is climate stabilization will have to wait. Too inefficient right now; thus, environmentalists want to make you jobless and broke, while climate scientists enrich themselves through NSF grant funding!
We're now dealing with a temporal dimension of ecological change that out-paces responsive and effective technological innovation. This is of the very nature of the problem of climate change. Some environmental problems are more easily captured temporally by human economy and technological change: for example, toxic industrial waste for which we have perhaps slowly but eventually developed containment systems or completely changed the processes that produced the waste. Climate change, however, is simply out-pacing our ability to understand it fully and to respond effectively. It is a complex system that could come to be characterized by its emergent phenomena, systemic features completely unpredictable from examination of the system's components.
[Human consciousness, for example, is an emergent property of the brain or perhaps brain-action-environment-brain transaction - you can't predict the rich essence or even existence of consciousness solely by observing electro-chemical processes in the brain. Why isn't consciousness simply experience of electro-chemical synaptic transmissions?].
The risks of climate change include the risk that we're simply too far behind to develop effective technical responses. This is not because of environmentalists, who have been urging new research, building new technologies, trying to find new approaches to policy-making, and continue to try to communicate real science all while up against a major media machine that sometimes willfully and sometimes out of ignorance confuses the scientific evidence and actual policy options.
The risk that we're falling behind too quickly in responding to climate change is basically generated by having this same damn discussion over and over again. And it is in the interests of a certain special class of people to prolong preliminary discussions by sowing confusion rather than engaging in serious discussions about remaining scientific uncertainties regarding the nature of climate change effects and policy options. As long as people are led to believe the non sequitur that any uncertainty entails universal and absolute uncertainty, they will have few incentives to change their preferences and behavior, even though it is in their own interests and those of their families, communities, and countries to do so. As long as public confusion about evidence, current observations, risk, and probability regarding the future persists, people will stand pat.
This is how the status quo always wins its battles.