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Weekend update: geoengineering and the expanding confabulation frontier of the "climate communication" debate

Despite its astonishingly long run in grounding just-so story telling about public risk perceptions and science communication (e.g., the Rasputin "bounded rationality" account of public apathy), the "climate debate" at some point has to get the benefit of an infusion of new material or else the players will ultimately die out from terminal boredom. 

That's the real potential, of course, of geoengineering.

Critics took the early lead in the "science communication confabulation game" by proclaiming with absurd overconfidence that the technology could never work: climate is a classic "chaotic system" and thus too unpredictable to admit of self-conscious management (where have I heard that before?), and even talking about it will lull the public into a narcotic state of complacency that will undermine the political will necessary to curb the selfish ethos of consumption that is the root of the problem.

But as anyone who has played the confabulation game knows, even players of modest imagination can effectively counter any move by concocting a story of equal (im)plausibility that supports the opposite conclusion.

So now we are being bombarded with a torrent of speculations on the positive effects geoengineering is likely to have on public engagement with climate science: that talk of it will scare people into taking mitigation seriously;  that foreclosing its development will increse demand for adaptation alternatives that would be even more productive of action-dissipating false confidence; that implementation of geoengineering will avert the economic deadweight losses associated with mitigation, generating a social surplus that can be invested in new, lower-carbon energy sources, etc. etc etc

At least some of the issues about how geoengineering research might affect public risk perceptions can be investigated empirically, of course.

In one study, CCP researchers found that exposing subjects (members of nationally representative US and English samples) to information about geoengineering offset motivated resistance among individuals culturally predisposed to reject evidence of climate change.  Accordingly, on the whole, individuals exposed to this information were more likely to credit evidence on the risks of human-caused climate change than ones exposed to information about mitigation strategies.

But just as the "knowledge deficit" theory doesn't explain the nature of public opinion on climate change, so "knowledge deficit" can't explain the nature of climate-change advocacy.  If furnishing advocates facts about the dynamics of science communication were sufficient to ward them off their self-defeating styles of engaging the public, it would have worked by now.  Evidence that doesn't suit their predispositions on how to advocate is simply ignored, and evidence-free claims that do support it embraced with unreasoning enthusiasm.  

But it's important to realize that the spectacle of the "climate debate" is just a game.

Actually dealing with climate change isn't.  All over the place, real-world decisionmakers--from local govts to insurance companies to utilities to investors to educators formal & informal--are making decisions in anticipation of climate change impacts and how to minimize them.  

Many of these actors are using the best available evidence, not just on climate change but on climate-science communication.  And they are ignoring the game that non-actors engaged in confabulatory story-telling are engaged in.

If this were not the case--if the only game in town were the one being played by those for whom science communication is just expressive politics by other means-- the scientific study of science communication would indeed be pointless.

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Reader Comments (4)

Here is the updated/correct link on the forthcoming paper on "Climate Advocacy in the Obama Years" spotlighted in this post:

I also adapted two articles at The Breakthrough based on the analysis in the paper , linked below:

September 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew C. Nisbet


I read the first of those - it seemed like an interesting biography of McKibben's campaigning.

But it seemed to me that it missed the point - that both Republican and Democrat legislators have both held exactly the same policy with regard to climate change since 1997 (although obviously they spin it differently for public consumption) and the political deadlock has nothing at all to do with sceptics or public opinion, and everything to do with the international politics of development. So while the tactics, media campaigns, finances, and activism are all very interesting from a domestic political point of view, they never had any chance of success and they've got little to do with the prospects for action.

Both sides of Congress expressed the core issue eloquently in the Byrd-Hagel resolution - Congress accepts the reality of climate change, recognises that effective action has to be universal or it won't work, and refuses to engage in any economically-damaging measures that we know are not going to be effective at solving the problem. The stumbling block is that all proposals to reduce carbon dioxide emissions exempt the developing nations, which destroys the effect of any such treaty. It would not stop emissions or save the climate, and would simply result in all the emissions (along with the wealth and industry) being exported to China and India. The US position has always been that it will join in when India, China, and the other developing nations do.

You will note that the breakthrough at Bali, negotiated in advance of the Obama presidency, came about after China agreed to emissions reductions, whereupon the US said they would join the treaty. A little while later, China 'clarified' that they only meant reductions in emissions intensity - i.e. no emission reductions at all - and the deal with the US was immediately off. Even under the new Obama presidency.

George Bush and Barack Obama operated exactly the same climate change policy - they'll join if it applies to everyone, as it must if it is to work. They are opposed by the international climate treaty negotiators of the other nations, who seem far more interested in finding ways to transfer American wealth to the developing world, to transfer political power over economies to a new transnational government, and to cripple the economies of the developed nations by cutting off their power supply. Climate sceptics and the Koch brothers have got nothing to do with it. Likewise with public opinion.

I've always found it a bit odd the way the pundits on both sides all ignore Byrd-Hagel. Do they simply not know about it, or are they interpreting it differently?

September 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

This gets to a thought I've always had about the mechanics of motivated reasoning. It's based on something I picked up from Eleizer Yudkowski. His point was that decision making actually functions by assigning absolute or ranking utility of outcomes. One doesn't sacrifice a child to save a city, you choose between a destroyed city and an intact city containing a dead child. You don't chose between 5 people or 1 person run over by a train, you choose between a world containing 5 people dead at the hands of a madman, and a world in which you have murdered an innocent human being.

I think this utility assignment is primary and unconscious, that it is step one in the mechanics of motivated reasoning (which would then be basically all reasoning). The next step involves some sort of trigger. Typically this will be the existence of another human being who has assigned significantly different utility to an outcome, or significantly different ranking to outcomes. Then the mind will produce logical reasons why you are right and they are wrong.

So, in the normal climate debate, you have the idea of reducing CO2 emissions world wide by 80% in the next 34 years. Two people then subconsciously assign utilities. One thinks "80% reduction of energy use, that sounds worse than say living in Berlin in the winter of 1944." The other thinks "Oh boy an environmental utopia" or "sweet, save the world!" Because the assignment of utility is vastly different, each brain then kicks into gear and starts coming up with reasons why the other is wrong.

But with geoengineering, there is no major difference in assignment of utility. The first person from above thinks "not the best idea in the world, but not the worst." The second thinks, "I can live without the environmental utopia if it actually saves the world." The general level of assigned utility is basically the same. So step 2, the triggering, never happens. And then all of a sudden people from the first category who would otherwise nitpick away every climate paper are found to have no present disagreement with them.

September 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

I think that the problem with portraying geoengineering as a solution is that profit from messing it up now and worry about what to do with the mess later is an old tactic of oligarchs. And, while some mediation methods have worked after the fact, overall they have not been as effective as being more careful in the first place might have been. And thus, this amounts to saying that people who have been refusing to accept climate change can accept it if you demonstrate that they don't have to change to do so. Which speaks to the tribal, non content nature of their climate denial, but does nothing much to effectively deal with it by control of current CO2 production.

Its sort of like when the Big Tobacco merchants of truth moved over from outright cancer denial to promoting low tar and filter cigarettes. Procrastination is profitable.

September 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

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