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Monday
Feb242014

Geoengineering & the cultural plasticity of climate change risk perceptions: Part I

from Thehoustonfreethinkers.com

 Yesterday I posted a small section of a CCP paper, scheduled for publication in the Annals of the American Academy of Political & Social Sciences, that reports the results of a study on how emerging research on and public discussion of geonengeering might affect the science communciation environment surrounding climate change.

I’ve been thinking of geoengineering again recently, mainly because on my trip to Cardiff University I got a chance to discuss public attitudes toward it—existing and anticipated—with Nick Pidgeon, who along with Adam Corner and other members of the Cardiff Understanding Risk Group, has been doing some great studies of this topic.

How the public will perceive geoengineering is fascinating for all kinds of reasons, but the one that I find the most intriguing is geoengineering’s inversion of the usual cultural meanings of climate change risk. 

According to the cultural cognition thesis, we should expect persons who are relatively hierarchical and individualistic to be climate change skeptics: crediting evidence of the dangers posed by human-caused climate change implies that we should be restricting commerce, industry, markets, and other forms of private orderings—activities of extreme value, symbolic as well as material, to people with these outlooks.

By the same token, we should expect persons who are egalitarian and communitarian to be highly receptive to evidence of the danger of climate change: because they already are morally suspicious of commerce, industry, and markets, to which they attribute unjust social disparities (actually, they might like to take a look at the disparities that existed in pre-market societies & figure out which ones were greater, but that’s another matter!), they find it congenial to see those activities as sources of danger that ought to be restricted.

This is the plain vanilla rendering of Douglas & Wildavsky’s “cultural theory of risk” (I don't actually buy it, to tell you the truth!)—and, indeed, Wildavsky, who died in 1993 (at the early age of 63), had already characterized global warming as “the mother of all environmental scares”:

Warming (and warming alone), through its primary antidote of withdrawing carbon from production and consumption, is capable of realizing the environmentalist’s dream of an egalitarian society based on rejection of economic growth in favor of a smaller population’s eating lower on the food chain, consuming a lot less, and sharing a much lower level of resources much more equally. 

But Wildavsky—a mainstream political liberal whose experience with the radical “free speech” movement at Berkeley left him obsessed with the “rise of radical egalitarianism”—puts a spin on climate change that contravenes the fundamental symmetry of the laws of cultural cognition. 

That is, he seems to imply that it’s only “egalitarian collectivists” who will be motivated to assign to evidence of climate change risks a significance biased in favor of their preferred way of life.

But if, as Douglas and Wildavsky so adamantly insisted in Risk and Culture, “[e]ach form of social life has its own typical risk portfolio”—if  all “people select their awareness of certain dangers to conform with a specific way of life,” and thus “each social arrangement elevates some risks to a high peak and depresses others below sight”—then there's no more reason to expect hierarchical individualists to form reliable perceptions of climate change risks than egalitarian communitarians.

Wildavsky would have come closer to conveying the logic of his and Douglas’s own position, then, if he had called global warming the “mother of all environmental risk-perception conflicts.”

If we follow the symmetry of cultural cognition out a bit further, moreover, we can see that there is in fact nothing inherently “egalitarian” in climate-change belief or inherently “individualistic” in climate-change skepticism.  

Dangers are selected for public concern according to the strength and direction of social criticism,” we are told.  But because what effect acknowledging a particular assertion of risk will have on the stock of competing ways of life is determined not by people's "direct examination of physical evidence" but by their understanding of social meanings (those are what determine for them what the "physical evidence" signifies), all we can say is that in the context of some particular society's "dialogue on how best to organize social relations," acceptance of human-caused climate change just happens to be understood as indicting individualism and vindicating egalitarianism.

But that could change, surely!  

The case of geoengineering shows how. 

The argument for investigating its development—one forcefully advanced by both the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and Royal Society—obviously presupposes both that human-caused climate change is happening and that it poses immense threats to human well-being.

But the cultural narrative of geoengineering is quite different from any of the other proposed responses. Whereas carbon-emission restrictions proclaim the inevitable limits of technological and commercial growth, geoengineering (much like nuclear power) asserts the potential limitlessness of the same.

“We are not like the stupid animals,” the geoengineering narrative says, “who reach the pinnacle/mode of the Malthusian curve and then come crashing down.” 

“We use our intelligence to shift the curve—deploying technology, fueled by commerce and markets, to successfully repel the very threats to our well-being that are the byproducts of commerce, markets, and technology! Brilliant!

“It used to be said,” the geoengineering narrative continues, “that the natural population density of a city like, say, London, was  shy of 4,000 persons per mile—because at around that point people would inevitably die in droves from ingesting their own shit (literally!).”   “But we invented modern systems of sewage and water treatment—we used our ingenuity to shift the curve—and now we can have cities (London: 12,000/mile; Sao Paulo 20,000/mi) many many times more dense then that!”

“Well,” the narrative concludes, “the time has come again to shift the curve, to use our ingenuity to handle the byproducts of our own ingenuity, to blast our shit into outerspace so that we don’t choke on it! Let’s go!”

This is inspiring to the individualist.

It is demoralizing to the egalitarian.  The “lesson” of climate change, for him or her, is “game over," not “more of the same”; "we told you so!," not "Yes, we can!"

The answer to our “planetary over-indulgence” is a “diet,” not “atmospheric liposuction”!

And because the cultural narrative is demoralizing to the egalitarian, geoengineering is terrifying

The risks form unforeseen and unforeseeable consequences are too high.  After all, the climate is a classic “chaotic” system—one the sheer complexity of which defies the sort of modeling that would have to be done to intelligently manage any geoengineering “fix.”

It will never ever work, and scientists like those in the NAS and Royal Society are being foolish for even proposing to investigate its risks and benefits. Indeed, it's dangerous even to discuss geoengineering, the mere mention of which threatens to dissipate the surging public demand in the U.S. and other industrialized countries to impose a carbon tax and enact other sorts of restrictions on fossil fuel use.

But what if the best available scientific evidence on climate change—including the inevitability of genuinely catastrophic climate impacts no matter what level of carbon mitigation world governments might agree to (including complete cessation of fossil fuel use tomorrow)—suggests that that nothing short of geoengineering can stave off myriad disasters, including continuing rising sea levels, violent and erratic storm activity in various parts of the world, and famine-inducing droughts over much of the rest?

Who should we expect to be skeptical of that evidence? The egalitarian communitarian or the hierarch individualist?

If in considering such evidence, the two could be observed to be trading places on whether the “scientists were biased,” “computer models could be trusted,” “the call for action is premature” etc., would that not be a nice little proof of the cultural theory of risk?

Tune in "tomorrow" & I’ll show you what the results of such an experiment looks like! 


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Reader Comments (5)

Dan -

"we should expect persons who are relatively hierarchical and individualistic to be skeptical of climate change skeptics: "

Did you really mean "Skeptical of climate change skeptics?"

Or did you mean either of "Skeptical of climate change" or "...to be climate change skeptics?"

If they really were skeptical of climate change "skeptics," I'd have to stop using my quotation marks.

Also

" Whereas carbon-emission restrictions proclaim the inevitable limits of technological and commercial growth,.... "

I would say that is an assumption rather than a fact, but even if it were a fact, more to the point is that certainly not everyone who supports ACO2 restrictions feels the inevitable outcome would be limits of technological and commercial growth. Far from it. Working backwards from an assumption that they do assume that it would limit growth, to implying that is actually the reason why they support ACO2 restrictions - because of a suspicion of commerce, industry, and markets (if indeed that is what you are doing) - seems wrong-headed, IMO.

While the profile you create might apply for some, it looks more to me like a caricature. I know many people who would like to see ACO2 restrictions but: do not think that it would necessarily limit growth, and certainly don't want to see ACO2 restrictions because they think it will limit growth. While "skeptics" like to create an enviro-Nazi, capitalism-hating, energy depriving statist out of everyone who wants to restrict ACO2 emissions, in fact those who specifically want to limit ACO2 emissions as a vehicle for restricting growth are a distinct minority, IMO.

Far more people, IMO, would like to see not no growth, but differentiated growth that takes a more egalitarian shape, which in fact would also limit population growth but not limit per capita income or access to energy or access to food or access to education or access to political empowerment, etc. And they would like to see that taking place in conjunction with the limitation of ACO2 emissions.

Maybe I read something into what you were saying that isn't really there?

February 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua:

1. Fixed the glitch on "skeptics" - thx!

2. I agree there is something wrong w/ how worldviews are treated as explanatory mechanism in the post. This is what I had in mind, actually, with my parenthetical "(I don't actually buy it, to tell you the truth!)" No one could be saying -- or be saying & hope to be taken seriously -- that HIs & ECs et al. are consciously adopting positions on empirical issues ("is the temperature of the earth heaing up? & as a result of human activity?" etc) b/c those positions have culturally congenial implications; the argument has to be that they are unconsciously engaging information -- selectively crediting & discrediting it -- in a manner that connects their beliefs to their cultural commitments. I'm sure Dougals & Wildavsky see (saw) things that way. But they speak, as I do in this post, as if there was intentionality or purpose in the formation of the risk perceptions-- they say people "select" & "choose" those perceptions to promote or criticize one or another "way of life" or "ideal society" etc. They can say-- I would here-- that describing the process in terms that imply agency & goals in belief formation is a kind of rhetorical shorthand, or an expositional aid. That's okay, except that what it's a shorthand for never gets addressed adequately in D&W. It's not behaviorally or psychologically realistic to posit that people form beliefs in order to advance ways of life! They form beliefs in the same manner that they hear sounds or see images: that is, they simply give information the effect that their sense-making faculties entail for it. It is certainly possible for their sense-making facuties to be hooked up to their cultural commitments, but we would need a behaviorally & psychologically realistic account of how that can be. If someone asnwers our demand for that by saying "the HI disbelievers in global warming because doing so promotes his way of life" at that point, then we are dealing w/ a nonexplanation--not an expositional/rhetorical shorthand. For me, "cultural cognition" is the set of mechanisms that furnish a cogent, empirically supportable explanation of the phenomena that the "cultural theory of risk" describes. Moreover, in the course of trying to identify and understand such mechanisms, I have become deeply skeptical of the stylized story about "individualists" & "egalitarians" & their opposing views of "markets" & the like. We are all members of a liberal democratic capitalist culture here; we all love markets & commerce etc., the affectations some adopt in writing in for publications like the Nation notwithstanding. A real explanation -- as opposed to a role-playing game performance -- must account for disagreement among people of that sort.

February 25, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

Dan -
"2. I agree there is something wrong w/ how worldviews are treated as explanatory mechanism in the post.”

As much as I believe that motivated reasoning/cultural cognition/confirmation bias/identity-protection/identity-aggression/identity affirmation explain much about how we reason and evaluate evidence, and explain much about the polarization related to issues such as climate change, I find the whole "world view" component to be unsatisfactory as an underlying mechanism. As I have aid before, I think that although cultural cognition will cause people to identify in different ways when they are talking about their "world views," I think that there is far more cross-over in world views than their is divergence. I see evidence of that when people are contradictory in how they project their "world views" into the day-to-day. As one example, when those with a world view that identifies with "small-government" ideology suddenly see the mandate of Obamacare as threatening to "small-government" ideology when previously, when a mandate was being proposed by Republicans, it was seen as a policy that promoted "individualism" and "personal responsibility.

" No one could be saying -- or be saying & hope to be taken seriously -- that HIs & ECs et al. are consciously adopting positions on empirical issues ("is the temperature of the earth heaing up? & as a result of human activity?" etc) b/c those positions have culturally congenial implications; the argument has to be that they are unconsciously engaging information -- selectively crediting & discrediting it -- in a manner that connects their beliefs to their cultural commitments."

Agreed. Similarly, I think that no one (or at least very few) is really advocating for government involvement in personal lives just for the sake of having personal lives controlled by government. The differences in views about government involvement stem from culturally mediated identification of inappropriate government involvement - so that conservatives can think that gay marriage should be made illegal and liberals think that government should make laws that make it more difficult for kids to buy 64 oz. sodas. Those views on "government involvement" on either side are not formed based on evidence about outcomes. They are (often) formed in ignorance of the information about outcomes (as with climate change).

" They can say-- I would here-- that describing the process in terms that imply agency & goals in belief formation is a kind of rhetorical shorthand, or an expositional aid. "

I see that as a dangerous practice, as I think it reinforces the problem. That is why I objected to your construction in your post - because in it I recognized an argument that has been fallaciously used to characterize my views and those of many others.

"That's okay, except that what it's a shorthand for never gets addressed adequately in D&W. "

That's why I think it is dangerous. If you describe it with that kind of shorthand, it is possible to not get beyond that point. Better, IMO, is to always talk about the underlying cognitive and psychological components, and to not rely on some "worldview" paradigm as explanatory. IMO, the "worldview" construct is secondary. I think it rests on top of the causal influences.

"It's not behaviorally or psychologically realistic to posit that people form beliefs in order to advance ways of life! They form beliefs in the same manner that they hear sounds or see images: that is, they simply give information the effect that their sense-making faculties entail for it. It is certainly possible for their sense-making facuties to be hooked up to their cultural commitments, but we would need a behaviorally & psychologically realistic account of how that can be. "

I've linked this before - but I think that this is a good "model" for what happens in reasoning.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-lN8vWm3m0

"I have become deeply skeptical of the stylized story about "individualists" & "egalitarians" & their opposing views of "markets" & the like. "

I don't buy it either. We are all individualists and egalitarians. We hold those values, as values, in common for the most part. Where we differ is how our cultural orientations translate those values differently so as to match our identification patterns.

"A real explanation -- as opposed to a role-playing game performance -- must account for disagreement among people of that sort."

Is not the "real explanation" out attributes as pattern-finders and identity-protectors?

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Dan--I hope you plan to respond to the op-ed in today's (Apr 10, 2014) New York Times by Ted Nordhaus that claims your materials included information about nuclear energy as a solution along with geothermal. Best, DC

April 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDC

@DC:

We once did an experiment that had a design similar to the geoengineering one but that used nuclear power. Among the things that make this study much better is that the outcome measure was open-mindedness toward evidence rather than simply perception of climate change risk.

What did you think of their op-ed?

April 10, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

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