New Study: Political Elite Shapes Climate Discourse

Fresh analysis of public opinion presents a vexing challenge for climate communicators.

Climate communicators must be feeling confused. They’ve been advised to talk more about 1) extreme weather, 2) public health, 3) national security, and green tech, to cite just a few of the messaging frames recommended to them in recent years.

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They’ve also been advised to widen the scientific conversation; be less boring; show climate scientists at work; make climate data more visceral; personalize climate impacts; and push back harder on disinformation.

Now, a new study led by Drexel University’s Robert Brulle submits that none of this matters as much as what politicians say about climate change:

A great deal of focus has been devoted to the analysis and development of various communications techniques to better convey and understanding of climate change to individual members of the public. However, this analysis shows that these efforts have a minor influence, and are dwarfed by the effect of the divide on environmental issues in the political elite.

The state of the economy and media coverage also play significant roles in shaping societal attitudes, the study found, but the “most important factor in influencing public opinion” on climate change is “the elite partisan battle over the issue.”

J. Craig Jenkins, a co-author of the study and professor of sociology at Ohio State University, says: “It is the political leaders in Washington who are really driving public opinion about the threat of climate change. The politics overwhelms the science.”

Oh, great. This suggests that Republican voters have lately been taking their cues from Rick Perry’s blithe dismissal of climate science and Rick Santorum’s repeated assertion that climate change is a “hoax.” Political operators who have been pressuring the GOP to toe a more extremist position on climate change seem to have already intuited the study’s main finding.

With no prominent Republican office holders speaking out as a counterforce (Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have gone silent), it appears the polarized dynamics of the debate will rule the day. After all, how is it possible to forge consensus and compromise (much less have a civil, constructive conversation) on an issue if one of the two major political parties rejects it outright?

Brulle and his fellow researchers seem to presume as much, for they write: “Given the vested economic interests reflected in this polarization, it seems doubtful that any communication process focused on persuading individuals will have much impact.” The intractable politics of climate change leads them to conclude:

Therefore, any communications strategy that holds out the promise of effectiveness must be linked to a broader political strategy. Political conflicts are ultimately resolved through political mobilization and activism. Further efforts to address the issue of climate change need to take this into account.

It will be interesting to see how the findings of the Brulle et al analysis are received by other social scientists studying climate change. Some, like Dan Kahan at Yale’s Cultural Cognition project, contend that, “antagonistic cultural meanings are the source of the climate-change-debate pathology.” Kahan says the debate is filtered through our individual cultural and ideological values, not a rational understanding of climate science.

If that’s the case, and if the Brulle study holds up to scrutiny, then it seems the outcome of the climate change debate will be determined by the values of the political elite. But those values are not shaped in a vacuum, as we’ve seen with previous social movements in the U.S. that led to civil rights legislation, greater women’s equality, and foundational environmental laws protecting our air and water.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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21 Responses to New Study: Political Elite Shapes Climate Discourse

  1. Paul in Sweden says:

    KK, you seem to have identified your marching orders and have raised up a nemesis but I am still confounded at what your end game might be.

  2. keith Kloor says:

    Paul,

    Care to elaborate? That’s a bit too cryptic for me.

  3. Nullius in Verba says:

    “After all, how is it possible to forge consensus and compromise (much less have a civil, constructive conversation) on an issue if one of the two major political parties rejects it outright?”

    The obvious answer to the question is “if the other party rejects it too”.

    Or to put it another way:
    After all, how is it possible to forge consensus and compromise (much less have a civil, constructive conversation) on an issue if one of the two major political parties accepts it outright?

    When your definition of “compromise” is “you change your mind and believe/do what we say”, then there is no point in holding the conversation. But that doesn’t have to be what the conversation is about. If you can accept that it is possible to converse without having to agree, then there are many things to discuss.

    You could ask about what climate science can do to address sceptics’ concerns and persuade them. (Transparency, being open about data and methods, taking quality seriously, using software engineering good practice, using state-of-the-art statistics, encouraging good scepticism, etc.) Likewise, we should ask what it would take to make you sceptical?

    You could ask about sceptic views on economic impact. There may be free market solutions, ways to get business involved, finance options, ways to spread or re-apportion the risk. Suppose someone offered a ‘climate bond’ that would pay out at a high interest rate if sea level rise exceeded 1 m by 2050, nil otherwise. (Or vice versa.) Its value would depend on the market’s estimate of the likelihood of it happening, and would be a way to raise finance as insurance against disaster. Whenever people differ about costs and probabilities, there is always a way to make money from the difference and offset the risks, to the advantage of both parties.

    You could discuss low-carbon energy. Most sceptics I know would tend to be in favour of nuclear. It’s economically feasible, we already have the technology, it scales, it’s reliable, there’s fuel for thousands of years, it’s relatively safe, and it doesn’t emit carbon dioxide. We don’t mind if we’re doing it for different reasons, but it’s something we should both be in favour of. So how about a big bi-partisan push for a few thousand new nukes?

    And so on. It’s not that there’s nothing to discuss, it’s that fanatics are insisting that it’s got to be their way or no way, and the other side must surrender unconditionally before we can even talk. That’s not true.

    We’re not simply going to agree, but we can still have a constructive and civilised conversation about what we should do about the fact we don’t agree, and what we can do despite not agreeing.

    • Bob Jacobson says:

      Of course, there is always the alternative: let things take their course and when the pain becomes too intense to bear, have prepared policies and programs that will find a ready audience. In the USA — the sole society in which climate change is a debatable topic, because everything here is debatable, merited or not — the impacts on people’s lives are beginning to equal the impacts already experienced and no longer a matter of debate in more vulnerable regions. (It’s not that the USA is less vulnerable objectively, but we spend freely to mitigate the outcomes, mostly by consuming more high-carbon energy and piling up debt that ultimately will make our defense budget seem like a piggy bank.) Some people are simply not to be persuaded and others cynically conceal their worries.

      An interesting study would be of corporate America, which long ago starting planning for a dramatically changed climate. Why has it been so easy among American industries (except for the petro-based industries, as one might expect, but who are also diversifying into alternative energy) to make the case for climate adaptation? Follow the money, as they say.

      I note that climate deniers for the most part tend to be poorer than most, live more desperate lives, manifest fear of change, and relish being spoilers of what they perceive as the world against them, including calls for reason. There’s no gain in placating them. They are the inheritors of a tradition of reaction dating back hundreds and even thousands of years. As climate scientists know, the Earth will abide, but humans may not. It’s only reactionaries in North America who despite their religiosity haven’t gotten the word…yet.

      • Bob Jacobson says:

        PS Nuclear energy is “relatively safe”? Where? In America, we’re a major storm away from our own Fukushima.

        • Nullius in Verba says:

          Fukushima was actually an excellent demonstration of just how safe nuclear energy actually is.

          Let’s compare it to something concrete: is your house “safe”? When you sit in home, are you nervous about having tons of brick and concrete suspended a few feet above your head? You would probably say “yes, of course it’s safe”, but let’s judge it by the same standard we judge nuclear power.

          You claim your house is “safe”, but if you hit it with a magnitude 9 earthquake, and then shortly after smash a 30 foot high wall of water moving at a hundred miles an hour into it, will it still be standing? Or will the whole thing collapse on top of you?

          In Japan, something like 10,000 people sat in their “safe” houses died. And left a landscape strewn with rubble which is going to cost billions to clean up. And a tsunami leaves the land tainted with salt, and no crops will grow until it is gone.

          So is a nuclear power station that was still standing and killed less than a handful more dangerous than houses which collapsed and killed thousands? Or, if you want to look at it that way, more dangerous than building thousands of houses on an island prone to earthquakes and tsunamis?

          The thinking appears to be that it is, because within a few days of the disaster, none of the news reports mentioned the tens of thousands left homeless or burying their dead, it was all about the nuclear reactor. The tiniest trace of radioactivity anywhere was picked up and breathlessly reported around the world, although the fact that raw sewage was floating down the streets was not. Sewage is more dangerous, it kills more people, but they’re more scared of the radioactivity.

          So that’s why I say “relatively safe”. It’s safe, relative to all the other risky things that we consider safe. It’s not absolutely safe – nothing is – but the risks are far lower than for many other dangers that we consider it acceptable to take.

          It would be interesting to know where the anti-nuclear denial of science comes from, political elites, or perhaps the coal mining industry? How should science communicators talk about nuclear energy to overcome this block? Or should we sit back and do nothing, and wait for energy prices to skyrocket before offering it again?
          It’s an interesting comparison, isn’t it?

          • HankH says:

            Nullius,

            I couldn’t agree more.

            When we look at problems with current alternative energy technologies and point out all of the technical and hypothetical problems, we’re told “yes, but advancements in technology and innovation will eventually solve them. Until then lets push ahead.” Yet when nuclear power is presented as a viable alternative energy, then quite illogically we are told by the very same people that we are incapable of applying advancements and innovation to address its comparatively fewer technical and hypothetical problems.

            If we are to be serious about developing a viable alternative energy portfolio then nuclear must be on the table with the same “can do” attitude that wind and solar garners.

      • PJP500 says:

        It’s the fault of those NASCAR loving, wrestling watching, beer drinking church going trailer trash, always creating problems for those in the know.

  4. RickA says:

    The problem with the climate change debate is no one knows the answer.

    If it actually got 3C warmer, and the world had all the trouble that has been forecast, I am sure Republicans would jump on board, and want a Manhattan project to solve the problem.

    In the absence of certainty about whether there is actually a problem, and how big – we are advised to apply the precautionary principal.

    The problem with that is the expense and the cost/benefit ratio.

    Spend trillions to solve a problem which may not exist – yeah people are going to fight over that.

    Spend trillions to solve a problem which everybody can see, touch and agree is actually a problem – that is a little easier, but even then people fight over the cost/benefit of certain actions (take poverty or starvation for example).

    Even if we all agreed about what actions to take – the dirty little secret is that there is no technology which the world could switch over to, which would supply the necessary amount of carbon free power (except Nuclear – which is pretty expensive).

    Decreasing economic output to solve the problem is never going to fly.

    We cannot turn food into fuel – we already have billions starving (or at least hungry) worldwide.

    We cannot deprive third world countries a rising standard of living (which uses a lot more power and meat takes a lot more grain).

    So, what is left.

    The only solution (in my opinion) is to invent non-carbon energy which is actually cheaper than coal, gas, oil and/or nuclear.

    Guess what – we haven’t done that yet.

    This reality also fuels the debate, in my opinion.

    • Bob Jacobson says:

      The reality is that deferred maintenance is always more expensive in the long run than dealing with issues before they become critical. Can’t see the earth warming? Read the news.

      • RickA says:

        Yes – the Earth is warming.

        But it has been warming since 12000 years ago.

        Sea level has risen 50 meters since then, and only that last meter is blamed on human activities.

        The big question is – if we spend trillions – say to build 300 nuclear power plants, and generate all our power from a non-carbon source – will that flatten or reverse the trend in carbon emissions?

        Even if we do reverse the trend in carbon emissions – do we really know whether that will lower the temperature?

        What caused the Earth to warm over the last 12000 years, while carbon stayed flat at 280 ppm?

        Might that not continue, even if we do change the CO2 trend?

        Acting without knowing is not necessarily a good use of public money.

      • HankH says:

        As a medical researcher who is always concerned with the question of what is best for the patient’s care, I’m always amazed at this absurd argument – it’s better to apply remedy now than risk consequences if we don’t.

        In the medical profession where preservation of life and best outcome for the patient is the ultimate goal, your premise has been soundly rejected over and over. It is not in the best interest to subject a patient to unnecessary procedures which, in themselves, carry unintended risk that could potentially be far more detrimental to the patient’s welfare. This is not just a medical question. It has broad scope foundations in the social sciences as well and adequately addresses the appropriate political response to perceived societal crises.

        Every time I see this argument raised, I cringe as it ignores taking into consideration an informed view of the potential greater risk of doing the wrong thing. For me, the “we’ve got to do something now” argument is full of good intent but absent an understanding that centuries of practical exercise in ethical practice has established as “good practice.”

    • Ken says:

      Even if climate change turns out to be a non-issue there are still serious problems that have to be addressed. Climate change and energy issues are one and the same. All of our high-tech, industrial society is based on fossil fuels. Those fuels are finite. If we wait until fossil fuels are seriously depleted, it will be too late.

      So, why do we wait to find an alternative to fossil fuels? Even if climate change turns out to be a non-issue?

      Often the response is: “we will find other sources of energy”, or “the market will figure it out”, etc. Which alternate sources of energy? Why should we wait until we are well down the depletion curve?

      Consider that the US’s strong military position is totally dependent on petroleum. Air travel is totally dependent on petroleum. Most any transport bigger than a sub-compact car will need petroleum. Electricity is fungible, but heating is dependent on fossil fuels.

      The issue is bigger than global warming, whether the GW effects are big or small. Its unfortunate more people are not looking at the whole picture.

      • HankH says:

        Ken, I agree that cheap alternative energy needs to be a priority. It is inarguable that we have an economy and transportation infrastructure built on fossil fuels.

        The problem goes beyond just energy generation. Energy storage and portability remains a major technological challenge that, unless solved, makes any near-term viable alternative energy generation strategy unsuitable for transportation. The only way to focus on these technical challenges is to decouple alternative energy from issues like global warming, where the prime focus is C02 mitigation, making alternative energy an adjunct but dependent issue.

        The technological developments which will lead to cheap alternative energy generation, storage, and portability need to stand on their own independent of other issues else they are affected by which way the wind blows on the other issues, which is why I see alternative energy development has a bleak economic future if it remains tied to the global warming narrative.

        So, in a sense, while I agree with what you say, I would prefer to frame it as the issue is independent of global warming and people shouldn’t allow important issues to be overburdened or lost in the whole picture.

  5. Great observation, thanks. I am not sure that I would label Republicans as pure politicians. I know this sounds biased, but if we look at their public behavior and speech, it seems they proselytize for the interests of a carbon oligarchy.

    In just this one issue – the lock-step adherence to anti-science certainly does not serve, nor follow public opinion. But instead it neatly carries the interests of carbon capitalism. Republican miss the chance to carry a spirit of common-wealth-ism.

    A more pure politician would adhere to science then navigate and negotiate between interests and goals of our national interests – which must include a safe future. Instead this is acting like high priests at a magic show.

  6. John says:

    To HankH, thanks for answering my question. All climate scientists are saying is don’t endanger the planet (in this analogy, ‘yourself’) by putting excess CO2 in the atmosphere (‘smoking’), to prevent a probable, and costly climate catastrophe (as in ‘lung cancer’). No one is saying to go on ‘chemotherapy’, just to stop harming yourself.

    • HankH says:

      John,

      If there is genuine concern that CO2 is causing catastrophic AGW then mitigation of CO2 would be the correct answer. However, emergent climate research no longer supports the +6 to +8C climate sensitivity that was the basis for past alarm. Present consensus holds a climate sensitivity of +1 to +2.4C which begs for an entirely different approach to policy making.

      But lets assume for argument sake that +6 to +8 is the real figure. The problem I see with current political solutions proposed is they do absolutely nothing to reduce CO2. Until CO2 emission models can be decoupled from economic KPI’s, proposed mitigation policies fail to account for emissions export which simply shifts emissions to other countries with zero net reduction, the UN stops treating China and India as developing nations and giving them a pass on emissions when their emissions growth more than outpaces our reductions, then I can’t be supportive of draconian policies that accomplish nothing but making carbon trading companies and governments rich.

      Basically my analogy is to use appropriate treatment for the patient’s real problems and not charge huge sums of money for treatments that are shown to have no benefit.

  7. I agree that human caused climate change is a political problem that needs a political solution. In a democracy that means that the public have to agree that a problem exists, and also, that a political solution exists. The scientists’ task is to clarify the nature of the problem. The task for the rest of us is to identify political solutions and these will vary according to our political values. There will be neoliberal political solutions, socialist political solutions and many other variants. Some will be better than others. Public debate will thrash out those issues.

    In an era like ours where the dominant ideology is neoliberalism, political elites are likely to come up with neoliberal solutions to human-caused climate change. This in fact has been the case with Kyoto-based instruments like emissions trading – and they haven’t worked, because they’re designed to protect the profits and interests of carbon-emissions polluting corporations since unregulated lobbying has allowed corporate capture of the regulatory process.

    I think Keith Kloor’s reference to the agenda-setting power of popular mobilisation and organisation – for example the civil rights movement – is spot on. I think a key task for climate change communicators is to find ways of communicating at the political grassroots to support this kind of popular mobilisation. For a start this means communicating the broad areas of climate science agreement and steering clear of climate science infighting.

    For popular mobilisation, the only necessary climate science basis is the established fact that human caused climate change is happening as a result of excessive use of fossil fuels, and it’ll get worse if we don’t deal with it. So we need to reduce fossil fuel use and increase clean energy use. For anyone who takes time to look at the evidence, this seems absolutely clear. More detailed climate scientists’ arguments about how many different kinds of climate change forcings can dance on the head of a pin are really not politically relevant at this stage.

    Popular mobilisation also needs basic technological information – that it’s technologically possible to substitute clean energy for fossil fuels, and it’s also technologically possible to increase energy efficiency so we need less energy to achieve the same results. Otherwise, we’ve just got a problem without any solutions, and you can’t base grassroots political action on that.

    It would also help if climate change communicators could avoid the (frequent) implicit or explicit suggestion that humanity is loathsome and must be punished for the damage it’s caused to the environment. This isn’t exactly a good way of encouraging people to mobilise around finding the political will to tackle the problem – but it seems a frequent subtext to many green communications.