Climate hawks should focus more on the persuadable, less on the trolls

tea party global warming sign
tea party global warming sign

One of the more brilliant signs I saw at the fall 2010 Tea Party Rally at the Cuyahoga County Fairgrounds.

For years, climate hawks have devoted considerable time and energy to refuting arguments proffered by those who deny the basic tenets of climate change. This focus on countering climate deniers is evinced by the prevalence of handy lists of counter-arguments, including those from Skeptical Science, Grist, and Scientific American.

But, as I emphasized in a recent post, outright denial of the science is no longer the most potent weapon that “skeptics” have at their disposal. Instead, many of these actors have turned to denier 2.0 arguments, which frequently center on what Young and Coutinho term (paywall) the “acceptance-rejection approach.” This rhetorical acceptance that climate change is occurring opens up new pathways to forestall action on the issue by lulling the average observer into a false sense of security.

And, according to a recent article in the journal Global Environmental Change, this form of climate “skepticism” is exactly where we should be focusing our energies.

In the article, Drs. Stuart Capstick and Nick Pidgeon from the University of Cardiff develop a new taxonomy of climate change skepticism (or, as they British-ly spell it, “scepticism”). Using a mixture of quantitative and qualitative methods, the researchers define two basic types of climate skepticism – epistemic and response skepticism.

Epistemic skeptics turn their attention to the physical and scientific aspects of climate change. They challenge the fundamental nature of climate science, question whether whether it is man-made, and/or emphasize scientific uncertainty to cast doubt upon the topic. Epistemic skeptics seek to “construct climate change as an objectively uncertain phenomenon.”

Response skeptics, in contrast, don’t explicitly reject the science of anthropogenic climate change; in fact, many of them accept it. Despite this acceptance, however, response skeptics:

employ this type of skepticism to justify or explain lack of personal action on climate change, or as a way of distancing themselves from the need or requirement to do so.

Theses skeptics routinely question the effectiveness of potential responses to climate change, doubt that politicians can work together to address the issue, believe that the media exaggerates the risk, and are prone to fatalistic worldviews. Response skeptics are fare more likely to demonstrate a lack of concern over climate change as an issue than epistemic skeptics, perhaps due to the fact that many from the latter group may define themselves in opposition to climate “alarmists” and scientists engaged in the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” as Senator Inhofe has claimed.

As the research from Young and Coutinho demonstrated, smart climate deniers have begun to play more to such response skeptics by utilizing the acceptance-rejection approach. Accordingly, Capstick and Pidgeon argue that climate hawks should focus more directly on this audience as well. As they note:

whilst there are clear arguments that can be made concerning the level of scientific consensus and degree of confidence in an anthropogenic component to climate change, doubts concerning personal and societal responses to climate change are in essence more disputable.

Though it has become increasingly difficult to sway epistemic skeptics (who fall into either the “Doubtful” or “Dismissive” categories in the Yale “Six Americas” construction), response skeptics (the “Concerned,” “Cautious,” and “Disengaged”) are still persuadable. Moreover, these three groups accounted for 55% of Americans as of November 2013, far more than the 27% who identify as “Doubtful” or “Dismissive.”

six americas november 2013

Global Warming’s Six Americas breakdown, as of November 2013.

Most response skeptics view climate change as an issue that will largely affect people who are distant in both space and time. They fail to see it as an immediate, concrete issue that will affect them or the people they know and love. Accordingly, emphasizing the dire impacts that climate change is likely to have or is currently having in Bangladesh, the Philippines, or small Pacific island states will not only fail to motivate them to act, it may actually make them feel less engaged and more hopeless (PDF) about the issue, leading to greater inaction and division.

Accordingly, Capstick and Pidgeon discuss the need to focus on ways to localize climate change, as previous research has emphasized. As Lorenzoni et al noted (PDF) in a 2010 study,

Local environmental issues are not only more visible to the individual, but present more opportunities for effective individual action than climate change.

Rather than devoting so much of our time, resources, and energy to convincing people about whether Antarctic sea ice is waxing or waning, climate hawks should look to connect the issue to local environmental concerns. And one of the most effective ways of achieving this goal is to frame climate as a public health issue. According to research published in 2012, framing climate change as a human health issue “was the most likely [way] to generate feelings of hope.”

Making the link between health and local environmental challenges in a greenhouse world may represent the single most effective strategy for getting people from response skeptic to climate hawk. I have tried to do this by focusing on heat-related mortality in Cleveland, Great Lakes levels, and issues of microplastic pollution and algal blooms in Lake Erie. Fortunately, there now exist a number of excellent tools that allow people to bring climate models down to the local level, from these new interactive Google Maps from Berkeley Earth to “Your Warming World” from New Scientist.

Hearing and reading nonsensical rants from climate deniers gets my blood boiling just as much as any other climate hawk. But, given the amount of research available on this issue, perhaps we should all try to take a step back, realize the deniers are trolling us, and focus on more constructive efforts instead.

What if we approached climate change like nicotine addiction?

Dr. Steve Suranovic of the GW Institute for International Economic Policy (courtesy of George Washington University).

Dr. Steve Suranovic of the George Washington Institute for International Economic Policy.

Steven Suranovic, an economist from George Washington University, published an interesting article in this month’s edition of Global Environmental Change. The piece examines our current addiction to fossil fuels from a behavioral economics perspective, analyzing it through a cigarette addiction model.

According to this addiction model, which Suranovic initially developed in 1999 (PDF) treats an individual’s decision to smoke as a function of three factors: the immediate satisfaction from smoking, the potential health effects of smoking, and the perceived costs of nicotine withdrawal. He argues that, while a number of scholars have argued that addicts are irrational actors, they are, in fact, rational based on this model.

He then applies this model to our current dependence upon fossil fuels, which we know are currently damaging public health and the environment, effects on which will only exacerbate as a result of climate change. He describes individuals living within our current economic system as “unhappy addicts.”

The unhappy addict is completely aware that the negative future impacts outweigh the current benefits but continues to smoke at a high rate because the immediate adjustment cost is too high.

The article goes on to examine fossil fuel use, climate change, and the potential to transition away from fossil fuels through this perspective. Suranovic makes an important point about the difficulty of this transition – because individual efforts to reduce carbon emissions will not be felt immediately and, even if they were, these efforts would largely be imperceptible on the global level – “it does not make economic sense for any one person to reduce usage of fossil fuels.”

David Roberts at Grist has explored this issue in depth in several posts on uncertainty and the behavioral economics of climate change, so I won’t go into too much depth here. Suffice it to say that the uncertainty over climate change projects and impacts, the seemingly random distribution of extreme events, and our human tendency to value the present more than the future makes climate change the quintessential “wicked problem.”

Suranovic distinguishes climate change and fossil fuel use from cigarette addiction, however, by pointing out that, while cigarette use is an individual choice, our extant energy system presents a monumental collective action problem. Not only does one’s inability to make a perceptible impact on greenhouse gas emissions make it an irrational economic decision to switch to clean energy, other individuals (or countries, from a global perspective) can take advantage of this decision and benefit from it. If the United States suddenly banned the domestic use of coal tomorrow, there would be a massive glut of coal on global markets, drastically lowering its price. This would provide an incentive for other countries to take advantage of this decision and buy up coal at this reduced price. As such, climate change represents the classic “prisoner’s dilemma.”

While this component of Suranovic’s article is far from new, he does make one extremely interesting contribution to the debate. The Kyoto Protocol, which currently dictates international climate policy, calls for graduated reductions in carbon emissions for member parties. While the US is not a party to the agreement, President Obama made a commitment at Copenhagen to reduce emissions 17%, relative to 2005 levels, by 2020.

While the US has made progress on this front, global emissions levels have continued to increase in recent years, reaching a record high of 35.6 billion tons in 2012. Every year that the global community delays and fails to meet its marks, the annual reduction number inevitably increases. Kevin Anderson has traced this process in great detail, showing how waiting until 2020 to begin cutting global emissions would require a near immediate reduction of all carbon emissions in order to meet the Kyoto goal of an 80% reduction by 2050.

Anderson's emission reduction pathways, with peak emission years of 2015, 2020, and 2025. As the graphs illustrate, waiting until 2020 to implement carbon reduction programs, as the Durban Accord calls for, would require eliminating nearly all global carbon emissions overnight (courtesy of Grist).

Anderson’s emission reduction pathways, with peak emission years of 2015, 2020, and 2025. As the graphs illustrate, waiting until 2020 to implement carbon reduction programs, as the Durban Accord calls for, would require eliminating nearly all global carbon emissions overnight (courtesy of Grist).

Interestingly, Suranovic argues that, based on the addiction model, this approach is the likely way that we would act to avoid catastrophic climate change. He argues that the current economic and political systems would necessarily produce a “cold turkey” approach, rather than the gradual reduction approach laid out in UNFCCC documents.

Government leaders might recognize that the negative future impacts of climate change greatly outweigh the current benefits but may fail to act because the political cost of fossil fuel reduction is too great. In a similar vein, politicians may promise that something will be done tomorrow, and yet that tomorrow may take a very long time to arrive. However, once the negative future impacts loom large enough, cold-turkey adjustment would suggest a period of very rapid reductions in fossil fuel usage after a long period of almost no adjustment.

While he doesn’t acknowledge it in the piece, which isn’t surprising given that he’s an economist, Suranovic’s article seems to suggest that tackling climate change will require much, much more than making some adjustments on the margins. It will require an enormous mobilization of collective action to completely reform our existing economic, political, and social systems. Unfortunately, I’m still pretty skeptical that we can overcome the major barriers to collective action and actually precipitate this change.

It took 40 years to reduce smoking rates in the US by half. We don’t have 40 years to halve carbon emissions.

I sure hope I’m wrong.

Stop using the term environmental refugee

Grist had an article last week discussing the new book Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change, from UC Berkeley’s Anthony Guzman. In the book, Guzman discusses the potential socio-political consequences of 2°C warming, the threshold that the international community has set as the limit for global warming. Of course, recent research and our current emissions trajectory has us on pace to blow right past that number, but that’s for another post.

Anyways, the description of the article intrigued me, so I clicked on the link. In the post, Michael C. Osbourne from Grist describes his reading of the book:

Some of the scarier parts of the book are about the overabundance of water that’s coming our way: 2 degrees warming probably equates to about a one-meter rise in sea level this century. That’s enough to displace hundreds of thousands to millions of people in low-lying nations, and, as of now, there is no plan to deal with environmental refugees.

Cover of Andrew Guzman's new book, Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change.

Cover of Andrew Guzman’s new book, Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change.


And that’s where he lost me. I know that the term “environmental refugee” and its sister term, “climate refugee” have become buzzwords for environmental activists, particularly when we discuss the dire implications of climate change. In addition, they’re far from new. Essam El-Hinnawi of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) coined the term “environmental refugee” in 1985. A number of researchers and activists have bandied the term about to serve their own purposes over the years. Different reports offer a variety of wildly speculative projections on the potential number of people who will be displaced by climate change; they range from 162 million to 1 billion people displaced by 2050.

To put it succinctly, these estimates are, largely, absurd doomsday predictions that ignore the actual research on environmental migration issues. I explore the shortcomings of such projections in my previous research on climate change and national security, so I won’t go relitigate the issues here. Instead, I want to point out the inaccuracy of the term environmental refugee itself.

The word refugee has an internationally recognized legal definition, which emerged from the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugeesthe document that established the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. According to this refugee convention, a refugee is a person who:

owing to wellfounded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former
habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

People displaced by climatic disasters do not meet this definition. Now, if Guzman had argue that disasters and climate change are politically constructed phenomena and that climate change represents the single greatest environmental injustice ever enacted on the developing world by the developed world, I would be a vocal supporter. I steadfastly hold these beliefs. But that’s not the argument here.

Issues surrounding migration and displacement over environmental issues are highly complex and context-specific. Claiming that an extreme weather event will inevitably force a poor Bangladeshi to migrate to northeastern India belies evidence to the contrary and, more importantly, robs this hypothetical individual of his or her personal agency. And calling people who do flee in the face of environmental stresses a refugee strips the term of its incredibly important political and legal weight.

All of this is not to say that people are not forcibly displaced by environmental stress and/or extreme weather events. The work of the Environmental Change and Forced Migration (EACH-FOR) project demonstrates that environmentally induced migration and displacement are exceedingly pervasive throughout the Global South. According to the IFRC, roughly 5,000 new people become environmentally displaced every day. A new report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre suggests that 32.4 million people were displaced by disaster events in 2012, and some 98% of this displacement was the result of climatic disasters.

The evidence is quite robust that environmental catastrophes displace and/or force millions of people to migrate from their homes every year. So say that. Environmentally induced migration and environmental displacement are perfectly accurate, forceful terms. I know that refugee carries a certain set of connotations and a clear mandate for action, but climate hawks cannot just claim it for their own ends. Just as people need to be aware that their actions have consequences for the environment and the habitability of our planet, we need to learn that our words have meaning and consequences.