Geoengineering the science communication environment: the cultural plasticity of climate change risks part II

So … a couple of days ago I posted something on the topic of “geoengineering.”

I’m pretty fascinated by the advent of research and discussion of this new technology, which of course “refers to deliberate, large-scale manipulations of Earth’s environment designed to offset some of the harmful consequences of [greenhouse-gas induced] climate change.”

For one thing, geoengineering presents a splendid, awe-inspiring pageant of human ingenuity.

Consider David Keith’s idea, presented in an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, of deploying a fleet of thermostatically self-regulating, mirror-coated, nanotechnology flying saucers, which would be programmed to assemble at the latitude and altitude appropriate to reflect back the precise amount of sun light necessary to offset the global heating associated with human-caused CO2 emissions.

The only thing needed to make this the coolest (as it were) technological invention ever would be the addition of a force of synthetic-biology engineered E. Coli pilots, who would be trained to operate the nanotechnology flying saucers while also performing complex mathematical calculations in aid of computationally intensive tasks (such as climate modeling or intricate sports-betting algorithms) back on the surface of the earth!

But another reason I find geoengineering so fascinating is its potential to invert the cultural meanings of climate change risk.

This is what I focused on in my last post.

There I rehearsed the account that the “cultural theory of risk” gives for climate change conflict. “Hierarchical individualists” are (unconsciously) motivated to resist evidence of climate change because they perceive that societal acceptance of such evidence would justify restrictions on markets, commerce, and industry—activities they value, symbolically as well as materially.

“Egalitarian communitarians,” by the same logic, readily embrace the most dire climate-change forecasts because they perceive exactly the same thing but take delight at the prospect of radical limits on commerce, industry, and markets, which in their eyes are the source of myriad social inequities.

My point was that, if we accept this basic story (it’s too simple, even as an account of how cultural cognition works; but that’s in the nature of “models” & should give us pause only when the simplification detracts from rather than enhances our ability to predict and manage the dynamics of the phenomenon in question), then there’s no reason to view the valences of the cultural meanings attached to crediting climate change risk as fixed or immutable.  One could imagine a world in which crediting evidence of human-caused climate change and the risks it poses gratify hierarchical and individualistic sensibilities and threaten egalitarian communitarian ones.

Indeed, one could, in theory, make such a world with geoengineering.  Or make it simply by initiating a sufficiently serious and visible national discussion of it as one potential solution to the problems associated with global warming.

As I explained, geoengineering stands the cultural narrative associated with climate change on its head.  Ordinarily, the message of climate change advocacy is “game over!” & “told you so!”: your inquisitive, market-driven forms of manipulation of the environment to suit your selfish desires are killing us and now must end!

The message of the geoengineering, however, is “more of the same!” & “yes, we can!”: we’ve always managed to offset the environmental byproducts of commerce, industry, markets etc. with more commerce and market-fueled ingenuity (see the advent of modern sewage treatment as a means of overcoming “natural limits” on population density in big cities)—well, the time is here to do it again!

By making a culturally affirming meaning available to hierarch individualists, geoengineering reduces the psychic cost for them of engaging open-mindedly with evidence that human-caused climate change puts us in danger.

Of course, by attenuating the identity-affirming meaning that climate change now has for egalitarian communitarians—by suggesting that we needn’t go on a “diet” to counter the effects of our “planetary over-indulgence”; we have the option “atmospheric liposuction” at our disposal!—geoengineering could well expected to provoke a skeptical orientation in egalitarian communitarians, not only toward geoengineering but toward climate change science that implies the necessity and feasibility of conscious interventions to offset the impact of carbon emissions on the environment.

CCP did a study (to be published in Ann. Am. Acad. Pol. & Soc. Sci.) that tested these hypotheses.

In it, we instructed the subjects—nationally representative samples of 1500 US adults and 1500 English ones—to read a study on human-caused climate change.  A composite of real studies appearing  in Nature and Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, the study presented evidence that CO dissipates from the atmosphere much more sluggishly than scientists had previously anticipated.

As a result, the composite study concludes, phasing in strict CO2 limits (450-600 ppm) will have less beneficial impact than had previously been predicted.  Indeed, even if carbon emissions ended today, there’d still be substantial detrimental impacts—in the form of massive submersion of highly populated coastal regions due to continuing sea-level rise, and famine-inducing droughts in interior regions due to shifting weather patterns.

We then tested our subjects’ evaluation of the validity of the study.  For this purpose, we instructed them to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement with statements such as “the scientists who did the study were biased,” “computer models like those relied on in the study are not a reliable basis for predicting the impact of  CO2 on the climate,” and “more studies must be done before policymakers rely on the findings” of the study etc.

The sorts of arguments that typically are advanced by climate skeptics, these items enabled us to form a “dismissiveness” scale that reflected how closed or open-minded the subjects were in assessing this evidence of climate change.

We found, not surprisingly, that subjects disposed toward hierarchical and individualistic values—in both the U.S. and the English samples—were highly dismissive, while ones disposed toward egalitarian and communitarian values were highly receptive to the evidence presented in the composite study.

But that was in a control condition in which the subjects, before reading the composite study and indicating their views of its validity, read a story about a city meeting on a traffic-light proposal, a matter completely unrelated to climate change.

There were two other experimental conditions.  In the “anti-pollution” condition, subjects read a news story that reported that expert scientists were demanding implementation of stricter carbon emissions to offset the deleterious effects of climate change. In the “geoengineering” condition, in contrast, the subjects read a news story that reported that expert scientists were calling for more research on geoengineering in responses to those same anticipated effects.

Logically, the information in these news stories is no more related to the validity of the climate-science study that the subjects were subsequently asked to read and evaluate than was the information in the control-condition news story on traffic lights: either the evidence on carbon dissipation is valid or it isn’t; its validity doesn’t depend on what we are going to do if it is—restrict carbon emissions all the more or consider geoengineering; indeed, the evidence it is not valid, that issue is moot.

But psychologically, the cultural cognition thesis predicts that which condition the subjects were assigned to could matter.

The subjects in the geoengineering condition were seeing climate change connected to cultural meanings—“more of the same” & “yes, we can!”—that are different from the usual “game over!” & “told you so!” ones, which the anti-pollution news story was geared to reinforcing.

Because the congeniality of the cultural meaning of information shapes how readily they engage with the content of it, we predicted that the hierarchical individualists in the geoengineering condition would respond much more open-mindedly to the information from the climate change study on carbon dissipation.

And that prediction turned out to be true.

In addition, cultural polarization over the validity of the climate-change study was lower for both U.S. and English subjects in the geoengineering condition than in the anti-pollution condition, where polarization was actually larger for U.S. subjects than it was in the control.

But part of the reason that polarization was lower in the geoengineering condition was that egalitarian communitarians who read the geoengineering news story reacted less open-mindedly toward the climate-change study than their counterparts who first read the anti-pollution news story.

The egalitarian communitarians in the anti-pollution conditon saw no tension between– indeed, likely perceived an affinity between– the dire conclusions of the study and the  “game over!”/“told you so!” meanings that they attach to climate change.

But the conflict between those meanings and the narrative implicit in the “geoengineering” condition woke the egalitarian communitarians up to the CO2 dissipation study’s potential policy implications: if CO2 reductions won’t be enough to stave off disaster, then we are going to have to do something more.

Primed to see that the “more” was geoengineering– “more of the same!”/”yes, we can!”–many egalitarian communitarian subjects pushed back on the premise, either adopting or rejecting with less vehemence the dismissive responses that climate skeptics typically express toward evidence of human-caused climate change.

In sum, by inverting the cultural meanings attached to such evidence, the geoengineering news story made the hierarchical individualists more inclined to believe and egalitarian communitarians more inclined to be skeptical of climate change. That’s a pretty nice corroboration, I think, of the cultural cognition thesis!

I don’t think, however, that this result suggests the advent of geoengineering as subject of research and as an issue for public discussion will be a zero sum game for public engagement with climate science.

First, contrary to the warnings of some commentators, subjects exposed to the geoengineering information did not become less concerned about climate change.  Overall, they became more.

Second, the egalitarian communitarians in the geoengineering condition were less open-minded in their assessment of climate change evidence than those in the anti-pollution condition. But in absolute terms, they were still plenty open-minded—indeed, more open-minded, less dismissive—than hierarchical individualists in that very condition.

Third, the major impediment, I’m convinced, to constructive public engagement with climate science is not how much either side knows or understands scientific evidence of it.  It’s their shared apprehension that opposing positions on climate change are, in effect, badges of membership in and loyalty to competing cultural groups; that is the cue or signal that motivates members of the public to process information about climate change risks in a manner that is more reliably geared to affirming the position that predominates in their group than to converging on the best available evidence.

The key, then, is to clear the science communication environment of the toxin of antagonistic cultural meanings that now envelop the climate change issue.

The advent of public discussion of geoengineering, the CCP study implies, can help to achieve this desirable result by seeding public deliberations over climate change with meanings  congenial to a wider array of cultural styles.

Leave a Comment