"Yes we can--with more technology!" A more hopeful narrative on climate?
Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 10:16AM
Dan Kahan

Andy Revkin (the Haile Gebrselassie of environmental science journalism) has posted a guest-post on his blog by Peter B. Kelemen, the Arthur D. Storke Professor and vice chair in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University.

The essay combines two themes, basically.

One is the "greatest-thing-to-fear-is-fear-itself" claim: apocalyptic warnings are paralyzing and hence counterproductive; what's needed to motivate people is "hope."

That point isn't developed that much in the essay but is a familiar one in risk communication literature -- and is often part of the goldilocks dialectic that prescribes "use of emotionally compelling images" but "avoidance of excessive reliance on emotional images" (I've railed against goldilocks many times; it is a pseudoscience story-telling alternative to the real science of science communication).

But the other theme, which is the predominant focus and which strikes me as really engaging and intriguing, is that in fact "apocalypse" is exceedingly unlikely given the technological resourcefulness of human beings.

We should try to figure out the impact of human behavior that generates adverse climate impacts and modify them with feasible technological alternatives that themselves avoid economic and like hardships, Kelemen argues. Plus, to the extent that we decide to continue in engaging in behavior that has adverse impacts, we should anticipate that we will also figure out technological means of offsetting or dealing with the impacts. 

Kelemen focuses on carbon capture, gas-fired power plants, etc.

The policy/science issues here are interesting and certainly bear discussion.

But what captures my interest, of course, is the "science communication" significance of the "yes we can--with more technology" theme.  Here are a couple of points about it:

1. This theme is indeed likely to be effective in promoting constructive engagement with the best evidence on climate change.  The reason isn't that it is "hopeful" per se but that it avoids antagonistic meanings that trigger reflexive closed-mindedness on the part of individuals--a large segment of the population, in fact-- who attach high cultural value to human beings' technological resourcefulness and resilience.

from Kahan, D.M. Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk, in Handbook of Risk Theory: Epistemology, Decision Theory, Ethics and Social Implications of Risk. (eds. R. Hillerbrand, P. Sandin, S. Roeser & M. Peterson) 725-760 (Springer London, Limited, 2012).CCP has done two studies on how making technological responses to climate change --such as greater reliance on nuclear power and exploration of geoengineering -- more salient helps to neutralize dismissive engagement with and thus reduce polarization over climate science.

These studies, by the way, are not about how to make people believe particular propositions or support particular policies (I don't regard that as "science communication" at all, frankly).  The outcome measures involve how reflectively and open-mindedly subjects assess scientific evidence.

2. Nevertheless, the "yes we can--with technology" theme is also likely to generate a push-back effect. The fact is that "apocalyptic" messaging doesn't breed either skepticism or disengagement with that segment of the population that holds egalitarian and communitarian values. On the contrary, it engages and stimulates them, precisely because (as Douglas & Wildavsky argue) it is suffused with cultural meanings that fit the moral resentment of markets, commerce, and industry.

For exactly this reason, individuals with these cultural dispositions predictably experience a certain measure of dissonance when technological "fixes" for climate impacts are proposed: "yes we can--with technology" implies that the solution to the harms associated with too much commerce, too great a commitment to markets, too much industrialization etc is not "game over" but rather "more of the same."  

Geoengineering and the like are "liposuction" when what we need is to go on a "diet."

How do these dynamics play out?

Well, of course, the answer is, I'm not really sure. 

But my conjecture is that the positive contribution of the "yes we can --with technology" narrative can make to promoting engagement with climate science will offset any push back effect. Most egalitarian communitarians are already plenty engaged with the issue of climate and are unlikely to "tune out" if technological responses other than carbon limits become an important part of the conversation.  There will be many commentators who conspicuously flail against this narrative, but their reactions are not a good indicator of how the "egalitarian communitarian" rank and file are likely to react. Indeed, pushing back too hard, in a breathless, panicked way will likely make such commentators appear weirdly zealous and thus undermine their credibility with the largely nonpartisan mass of citizens who are culturally disposed to take climate change seriously.

Or maybe not. As I said, this is a conjecture, a hypothesis.  The right way to figure the question out isn't to tell stories but rather to collect evidence that can help furnish an answer.

Article originally appeared on cultural cognition project (http://www.culturalcognition.net/).
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