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Boomerangs versus Javelins: The Impact of Polarization on Climate Change Communication

Filed under: — mike @ 7 June 2016

Guest commentary by Jack Zhou, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University

For advocates of climate change action, communication on the issue has often meant “finding the right message” that will spur their audience to action and convince skeptics to change their minds. This is the notion that simply connecting climate change to the right issue domains or symbols will cut through the political gridlock on the issue. The difficulty then lies with finding these magic bullet messages, figuring out if they talk about climate change in the context of with national security or polar bears or passing down a clean environment to future generations.

On highly polarized issues like climate change, however, communicating across the aisle may be more difficult than simply finding the right message. Here, the worst case scenario is not simply a message failing to land and sending you back to the drawing board. Instead, any message that your audience disagrees with may polarize that audience even further in their skepticism, leaving you in a worse position than you began. As climate change has become an increasingly partisan issue in American politics, this means that convincing Republicans to reject the party line of climate skepticism may be easier said than done.

In my recent paper in Environmental Politics, I show the results from a study examining how Republican (and Republican-leaning independent) individuals react when exposed to persuasive information on climate change. I find that after these individuals are faced with messages that go against their party line on climate change, they further oppose governmental action on the issue, become less willing to take personal action, and, from a psychological perspective, become even surer of their distaste for climate change.

My study asked the question: “how do Republican individuals perceive persuasive information on climate change action, and what types of information are more or less effective?” To answer this question, I conducted a survey experiment wherein respondents in the treatment conditions were asked to read a paragraph about climate change. Each paragraph linked climate change to a prominent concept in American politics (either free markets, national security, poverty alleviation, or natural disaster preparation), attributed the message to a fictional but realistic-sounding source (either a Republican former Congressman or Democrat), and ended with a call for public action on the issue. These passages were rigorously pretested to ensure realism and impact.

The experiment, conducted in March 2014, used a nationally representative sample of 478 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, who were randomly sorted into one of the eight treatment groups or the control group, where respondents were asked in a single sentence to consider climate change as a political issue. Afterwards, all respondents were asked a series of questions to assess their support for or opposition to governmental action against climate change, their likelihood of taking personal action on the issue, and how sure they felt about their climate change opinions.

What I found was that every single treatment condition failed to convince respondents. In fact, treating Republicans with persuasive information made them more resistant to climate action regardless of the content or sourcing of that information. Overall, simply being exposed to pro-climate action communication appeared to polarize Republicans even further; they became more opposed to governmental action and less likely to take personal action compared to the control group. They also became more certain of their negative opinions on the issue, displaying significantly lower attitudinal ambivalence compared to the control group. What’s more, all of these treatment effects doubled to tripled in size for respondents who reported high personal interest in politics, all statistically significant outcomes. These highly politically interested individuals make up roughly one-third of Republicans in the sample and in the United States.

These are interesting results, though perhaps not unexpected given knowledge of American climate change politics. Traditionally, political communication research has focused on a phenomenon called framing, which basically deals with how information is presented to an audience. Framing effects come in two varieties: which facets of an issue are emphasized (“message effects”) and who is the communicator (“source effects”). A vast literature in political science, sociology, and psychology have shown that framing information may strongly impact how individuals perceive that information.

However, persuasive framing effects – meaning framing that shifts an individual’s opinion in the direction of the frame – have been hard to come by in climate change communication research. This is likely due to the fact that the issue is very much polarized, boasting public opinion gaps in the 40 percentage point range between Democrats and Republicans on an array of different aspects of the issue. For these polarized issues, we might expect framing effects to butt up against other effects. Specifically, the theory of motivated reasoning provides an explanation of how political identity influences how individuals process information and communication.

Motivated reasoning is essentially the concept that people may be spurred to think in specific ways by forming cognitive motivations. In particular, individuals may engage in directional motivated reasoning, which means that they have a preference to believe something and will process information in order to satisfy that preference. These motivations are borne out of aspects of one’s identity – those strongly held beliefs that a person understands to define him or herself. For instance, someone could be motivated by their identity as a New Yorker, an Ohio State fan, or, of course, a Democrat or a Republican. Motivations are not borne out of ignorance or irrationality or mis-education; they are oftentimes simply what makes someone that person.

In practice, motivated reasoning boils down to identity defense – motivated reasoners want to protect their beliefs. This effect manifests in two ways: a confirmation bias and a disconfirmation bias (for review, see Lodge and Taber 2013). When motivated reasoners comes across information that agrees with their prior beliefs, they tend to believe that information without a lot of conscious thought. However, when motivated reasoners are exposed to dissonant information, they tend to become critical and argue against the information. After all, simply accepting information that conflicts with their priors would weaken their sense of self. When motivations become strong enough, this process of counter-arguing can convince a motivated reasoner to be even surer of his or her preferred position and become even more polarized. This is known as a backfire or boomerang effect.

When it comes to politics, the strength of an individual’s motivated reasoning is strongly tied to that person’s interest in politics. This relationship makes sense for multiple reasons. Given that motivations arise from strong personal identity beliefs, political motivations go hand-in-hand with interest about the subject. Furthermore, as an individual becomes more engaged with politics, they are better able to recognize and process the political cues that align with their party and ideology. From these cues, the motivated individual can deepen their motivations. For instance, political interest helps with understanding that a pro-life stance has Republican connotations while a pro-choice position is associated with the Democratic Party. Without the relevant political savvy, these phrases lack much meaning.

In my study, I found plenty of evidence of these backfire effects when it comes to Republicans and climate change action. An example of one of these findings (support for or opposition to governmental action) is shown below to illustrate how Republicans, particularly those with high personal interest in politics, respond negatively to pro-action communication. In effect, for Republican respondents with low personal interest in politics (middle plot), exposure to treatment framing seemed to have had little impact – these individuals appear generally apathetic on the issue and on politics in general. But for those with high personal interest in politics (right plot), exposure to pro-action framing triggered a considerable backfire in opposition to governmental action.

Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 10.56.20 AM

Indeed, there are many potential unseen landmines to step in when trying to persuade skeptical audiences on the issue. Say you use an ineffective message. Those frames may turn off your audience or resonate with unintended thoughts or beliefs – such as a global security message backfiring on an audience of staunch isolationists. Suppose you find an effective message but your source is seen as lacking credibility. Your audience may feel they are being pandered to and backfire that way. Even when you have an effective source and message and can produce a persuasive framing effect, there’s no telling how long that effect will last before decaying or how that framing effect fares when countered with arguments from the other side that reinforce the audience’s prior attitudes.

For audiences who are motivated to be skeptical about climate change, providing corrective information, such as debunking the climate pause, may not work either. Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler (2010) have shown that factually accurate information used to correct political misconceptions are likely to fail when they fly in the face of strongly-held prior beliefs – another backfire. Indeed, there is evidence that an individual’s views on climate change are less related to education and views on science as they are to cultural and political identity (Kahan et al. 2012). Simply put, people have a tendency to believe what they want to believe.

If this is the case, what is to be done about climate change communication if Republicans are difficult to reach and the political environment on climate change remains toxic? I should preface that I do not think it is impossible to persuade Republicans to reconsider their stances on the issue. Rather, the state of polarization in American politics and on climate change in particular have stacked the deck against advocates of climate action. In addition, it is currently unclear what sorts of messages are seen as consistently persuasive, which messengers are considered credible, and if it is possible to recruit these types of messengers.

However, the issue is only growing in geopolitical import and circumstances, both political and physical, may change. Social science research suggests that framing is most effective when frames are repeatedly circulated and incorporated into political discussion, in effect shifting the societal understanding of climate change to include those frames. However, this means that, besides the times and effort needed to research effective frames and messengers, advocates need to continually reach audiences whom may be strongly resistant to such communication. This may be an inefficient use of political resources.

Instead, perhaps there are other populations who may be easier to reach, and with less gnashing of teeth. A 2014 New York Times/CBS News poll found that 37% of Democrats and 49% of independents thought that the impacts of climate change will not occur until sometime in the future or not at all. A 2016 Pew Research Center poll shows that just 55% of Democrats and 41% of Independents consider climate change to be an important issue for the President and Congress. These are a pool of individuals who may be, at the outset, agnostic on the issue or even in favor of action but not yet mobilized. Moreover, they are less likely to be polarized against the issue and more open to persuasive communication.

References:

Kahan, Dan M. et al. 2012. “The Polarizing Impact of Science Literacy and Numeracy on Perceived Climate Change Risks.” Nature Climate Change 2(10): 732–35. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1547

Lodge, Milton, and Charles S. Taber. 2013. The Rationalizing Voter. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Nyhan, Brendan, and Jason Reifler. 2010. “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions.” Political Behavior 32(2): 303–30. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09644016.2016.1166602

Zhou, Jack. 2016. “Boomerangs versus Javelins: How Polarization Constrains Communication on Climate Change.” Environmental Politics: 1–24. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11109-010-9112-2

The Early Anthropocene Hypothesis: An Update

Filed under: — mike @ 15 March 2016

Guest post from Bill Ruddiman, University of Virginia

For over a decade, paleoclimate scientists have argued whether the warmth of the last several thousand years was natural or anthropogenic. This brief comment updates that debate, also discussed earlier at RC: Debate over the Early Anthropogenic Hypothesis (2005) and An Emerging View on Early Land Use (2011). The graph below outlines the evolution of that debate through 4 phases.

RuddimanFigure

In phase 1 (the 1900’s), scientists viewed Holocene climate change as driven only by natural causes until the industrial era began. But by the late 1990’s, ice core data revealed late Holocene GHG rises unlike trends in previous interglaciations. Two hypotheses proposed natural causes for the CO2 increase: carbonate compensation (Broecker et al., 1999, 2001) and coral-reef construction (Ridgewell et al., 2003).

In phase 2 (2001-2003), the early anthropogenic hypothesis (EAH) challenged natural explanations for the anomalous late Holocene CO2 (and CH4) rises, attributing them to the spread of early agriculture thousands of years ago.

In phase 3 (2004-2008), several arguments were advanced against the EAH:
* too few people lived millennia ago to have had a significant influence on land clearance, GHG emissions and climate;
* a (proposed) interglacial stage 11 analog for the Holocene suggested that thousands of years of natural warmth still remain in the current interglaciation;
* the weak decrease in ice core δ13CO2 during the last 7000 years did not permit extensive deforestation which would have released abundant 12C -rich carbon.
Papers by myself, my co-authors at Wisconsin, and others during phase 3 rebutted some of these criticisms, but community opinion remained divided.

Phase 4 (2009-2016) has seen a major shift in viewpoint of published papers: 30 papers favor aspects of the EAH, 6 papers oppose it, and 5 are in the middle. Most of the phase 4 papers that oppose the hypothesis or are ‘in the middle’ are based on modeling studies. Many of the 30 supporting papers are broad-scale compilations of archaeological and paleoecological evidence:
* The average GHG trends from 7 previous interglaciations show CO2 and CH4 decreases, in contrast to the late Holocene increases;
* Interglacial stage 19, the closest Holocene analog, shows decreases in CH4 and CO2, and the CO2 decrease closely matches the 2003 EAH prediction;
* CH4 emissions from Asian rice paddies account for 70% of the observed CH4 rise from 5000 to 1000 years ago
* historical data show that early per-capita land use was at least 4 times larger than assumed in several phase-3 land use simulations
* a recent land use simulation based on historical evidence accounts for more than half the CO2 anomaly originally proposed in the EAH;
* pollen evidence shows nearly complete deforestation in north-central Europe before the industrial era began;
* δD and δ18O trends show anomalous late Holocene warmth compared to cooling trends in prior interglaciations, in agreement with A-OGCM simulations of the warming effect of the anthropogenic CO2 and CH4 trends.

_____________
Anyone seeking more detail on this issue should contact pisgahill@gmail.com for pdf copies of the recent 2016 Ruddiman et al. paper in Reviews of Geophysics and an invited paper just submitted to Oxford University Press that summarizes the history of this debate, with full references to the papers shown in the table.

How Likely Is The Observed Recent Warmth?

Filed under: — mike @ 25 January 2016

With the official numbers now in 2015 is, by a substantial margin, the new record-holder, the warmest year in recorded history for both the globe and the Northern Hemisphere. The title was sadly short-lived for previous record-holder 2014. And 2016 could be yet warmer if the current global warmth persists through the year.

One might well wonder: just how likely is it that we would be seeing these sort of streaks of record-breaking temperatures if not for human-caused warming of the planet?

Precisely that question was posed by several media organizations a year ago, in the wake of the then-record 2014 temperatures. Various press accounts reported odds anywhere from 1-in-27 million to 1-in-650 million that the observed run of global temperature records (9 of the 10 warmest years and 13 of the 15 warmest years each having had occurred since 2000) might have resulted from chance alone, i.e. without any assistance from human-caused global warming.

My colleagues and I suspected the odds quoted were way too slim. The problem is that each year was treated as though it were statistically independent of neighboring years (i.e. that each year is uncorrelated with the year before it or after it), but that’s just not true. Temperatures don’t vary erratically from one year to the next. Natural variations in temperature wax and wane over a period of several years. More »

An Online University Course on the Science of Climate Science Denial

Filed under: — mike @ 22 April 2015

Guest post from John Cook, University of Queensland

For many years, RealClimate has been educating the public about climate science. The value of climate scientists patiently explaining the science and rebutting misinformation directly with the public cannot be overestimated. When I began investigating this issue, my initial searches led me here, which was invaluable in increasing my understanding of our climate and making sense of misinformation. RealClimate has inspired and empowered a host of climate communicators such as myself to step forward and help make climate science more accessible to the general public.

To further the work of educating the public, and empowering people to communicate the realities of climate change, the Skeptical Science team has collaborated with The University of Queensland to develop a MOOC, Making Sense of Climate Science Denial. MOOC stands for Massive (we’ve already had thousands of students sign up from over 130 countries) Open (available for free to everyone) Online (web-based, no software required) Course.

The course examines the science of climate science denial. Why do a small but vocal minority reject the scientific evidence for climate change? What techniques do they use to cast doubt on the science? And we examine the all-important question – based on scientific research, how should we respond to science denial?

Several strands of research in cognitive psychology, educational research and a branch of psychology called “inoculation theory” all point the way to neutralising the influence of science denial. The approach is two-fold: communicate the science but also explain how that science can be distorted.

So our course looks at the most common climate myths you’re likely to encounter online or in the media. We examine myths casting doubt on the reality of global warming. We explore the many human fingerprints on climate change. We look at the messages from past climate change and what climate models tell us about the future. And we look at how climate change is impacting every part of society and the environment. As we examine myths touching on all these parts of climate science, we shine the spotlight on the fallacies and techniques used to distort the science.

FLICC

As well as our short video lectures debunking climate myths, we also interviewed many of the world’s leading scientists. I had the privilege to speak to Ben Santer, Katharine Hayhoe, Richard Alley, Phil Jones, Naomi Oreskes and let’s not forget my long, fascinating conversation with Michael Mann. I was also lucky enough to interview Sir David Attenborough at the Great Barrier Reef. We spoke to both climate scientists and social scientists who study the psychology of climate science denial. Some of the most powerful moments from those interviews came when the scientists described the attacks they’d personally experienced because of their climate research:

Our MOOC starts next Tuesday, April 28. It’s a free online course hosted by the not-for-profit edX (founded by Harvard University & MIT). It runs for 7 weeks, requiring 1 to 2 hours per week. You can enroll at http://edx.org/understanding-climate-denial.

A Scientific Debate

Filed under: — mike @ 13 April 2015

Guest posting from Bill Ruddiman, University of Virginia

Recently I’ve read claims that some scientists are opposed to AGW but won’t speak out because they fear censure from a nearly monolithic community intent on imposing a mainstream view. Yet my last 10 years of personal experience refute this claim. This story began late in 2003 when I introduced a new idea (the ‘early anthropogenic hypothesis’) that went completely against a prevailing climatic paradigm of the time. I claimed that detectable human influences on Earth’s surface and its climate began thousands of years ago because of agriculture. Here I describe how this radically different idea was received by the mainstream scientific community.

Was my initial attempt to present this new idea suppressed? No. I submitted a paper to Climatic Change, then edited by Steve Schneider, a well-known climate scientist and AGW spokesman. From what I could tell, Steve was agnostic about my idea but published it because he found it an interesting challenge to the conventional wisdom. I also gave the Emiliani lecture at the 2003 December American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference to some 800 people. I feel certain that very few of those scientists came to my talk believing what my abstract claimed. They attended because they were interested in a really new idea from someone with a decent career reputation. The talk was covered by many prominent media sources, including the New York Times and The Economist. This experience told me that provocative new ideas draw interest because they are provocative and new, provided that they pass the key ‘sniff test’ by presenting evidence in support of their claims.

Did this radical new idea have difficulty receiving research funding? No. Proposals submitted to the highly competitive National Science Foundation (NSF) with John Kutzbach and Steve Vavrus have been fully funded since 2004 by 3-year grants. Even though the hypothesis of early anthropogenic effects on climate has been controversial (and still is for some), we crafted proposals that were carefully written, tightly reasoned, and focused on testing the new idea. As a result, we succeeded against negative funding odds of 4-1 or 5-1. One program manager told me he planned to put our grant on a short list of ‘transformational’ proposals/grants that NSF had requested. That didn’t mean he accepted our hypothesis. It meant that he felt that our hypothesis had the potential to transform that particular field of paleoclimatic research, if proven correct.

Were we able to get papers published? Yes. As any scientist will tell you, this process is rarely easy. Even reviewers who basically support what you have to say will rarely hand out ‘easy-pass’ reviews. They add their own perspective, and they often point out useful improvements. A few reviews of the 30-some papers we have published during the last 11 years have come back with extremely negative reviews, seemingly from scientists who seem deeply opposed to anything that even hints at large early anthropogenic effects. While these uber-critical reviews are discouraging, I have learned to put them aside for a few days, give my spirits time to rebound, and then address the criticisms that are fair (that is, evidence-based), explain to the journal editor why other criticisms are unfair, and submit a revised (and inevitably improved) paper. Eventually, our views have always gotten published, although sometimes only after considerable effort.

The decade-long argument over large early anthropogenic effects continues, although recent syntheses of archeological and paleoecological data have been increasingly supportive. In any case, I continue to trust the scientific process to sort this debate out. I suggest that my experience is a good index of the way the system actually operates when new and controversial ideas emerge. I see no evidence that the system is muffling good new ideas.


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