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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.


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.

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.

Zhou, Jack. 2016. “Boomerangs versus Javelins: How Polarization Constrains Communication on Climate Change.” Environmental Politics: 1–24.

191 Responses to “Boomerangs versus Javelins: The Impact of Polarization on Climate Change Communication”

  1. 151
    Ronoh says:

    The politics of Republicans are very tricky because the fail to consider the effects of climate change which in the long run affects the lives of many Americans. The scientist should also take a leading role in informing policy and manifesto of all political players. Thanks

  2. 152
    mt says:

    The link at the end of the article to the treatment text does not work (404).

  3. 153

    I’m discouraged to see this kind of article at RC.

    Lab tests involving contrived treatments do not measure the effect of consistent, science-based exposition over time.

    Subjects in these tests know they are subjects in tests. The “treatments” are admittedly contrived stories meant to test how people would react to messages of certain types from specific sources. The more sophisticated the subject, the more likely they are to be confident that the messages are indeed contrived.

    When I am presented with a contrived message in a situation like that, my confidence in the message declines. There is nothing surprising about this. I will boomerang away from any claim that comes from a source that I believe to be fictitious, regardless of my previous position.

    What we need to know is how best to convey the actual content of scientific understanding to the public in the presence of active efforts at misinformation. Studies of this sort seem to me to be utterly uninformative.

    Let me offer an anecdote to elucidate how this works.

    When I was an undergrad at Northwestern, I took an intro to psych class, and so of course I was a member of N in several experiments. I remember clearly an experiment which was sold to me as an experiment in language learning. I was taught words for shapes and colors in a contrived language. I was taught different words for isosceles and right triangles. There were two shades of blue, but I was taught that there was only one word for blue.

    At the third session, I was asked to identify which two shapes were most similar in a set. There were two blue objects of different shades, and two triangles of the different types in one batch.

    I said to the experimenter “The purpose of this experiment is clearly to indicate how language acquisition affects perception. You want me to say the blue shapes are most similar, while another group has been taught two words for the shades of blue and only one word for triangles. Now, do you want me to answer this question so as to confirm your hypothesis or so as to refute it”. The grad student was honest enough to dismiss me and drop my data point. However, the purpose of the experiment must have been obvious to other, more docile types who just wanted the participation credit. Their decision is only whether to cooperate with the obvious demand characteristics of the experiment or to defect.

    In this case, the decision is so removed of actual real world meaning that one expects most docile undergrads to simply give the expected answer and take their credit for being a subject. I expect the experimenter got a significant result he expected, and a good grade in his own class.

    When we are trying to decide which “treatment” inclines a person to change their mind in a lab setting, the demand characteristics are very different. One knows that one is being tested to see what sort of information will change one’s mind. One strongly suspects that the information being presented is contrived and fictitious. The social connection to one’s cohort and confidence in one’s own pre-existing position can only be hardened by such a treatment.

    What we need to do is stop running our communication efforts through social scientists. Of course, messages need to be targeted to audiences. But messages across audiences have to be both mutually consistent and honest.

    Changing one’s mind is not a sudden thing, and the likelihood of it happening using a “credible” source who is also perfectly imaginary and not actually part of the subject’s network of trust is negligible. The likelihood of being offended by the entire experiment, on the other hand, is high. How to detect this in a lab setting escapes me, which is fine, but it also seems to escape ,amy of those publishing on the subject.

    This approach to communication of science tells us nothing of consequence.

  4. 154

    Perhaps marketers understand how people change their minds better than social scientists do.

    “This doesn’t mean the evidence doesn’t matter. It means that we’re bad at admitting we were wrong.”

    “Change someone’s mind with the trinity of evidence, persistence, and empathy.”

  5. 155
    Ric Merritt says:

    Thanks MT for the tough love. I’ve always been skeptical of results about people pulling levers controlling trolley tracks to choose between flattening one businessman in a suit or a troop of Brownies on a field trip. I’ll be more convinced after I see statistically valid results from the field about how the trolley lever is pulled when this situation arises in real life.

    I’m guessing there’s quite a lot of published comment, unread by me, about just this issue, but that could get pretty far OT.

  6. 156
    Edward Greisch says:

    Trolleys: If you move the switch lever half way and hold it in the vertical position, the trolley will derail. Or if you switch back and forth fast enough the trolley will derail. Enough trolleys.

  7. 157
    Edward Greisch says:

    Michael Tobis: I can’t find a “subscribe” button on Planet 3.

  8. 158
    Starlordinfidel says:

    Why did you block me on Twitter
    without answering my questions about Co2 IR absorbance at higher concentrations? How does it retransmit something it never absorbed?

  9. 159
    Thomas says:

    154 Michael Tobis, excellent posts.

    Yes, you’re right, marketers/advertisers ad makers and fiction writers do know more about how to “influence” people’s beliefs and choices than social scientists do.

    Rational business people (and Politicians for that matter) do not spend trillions on advertising for no return.

    Cognitive science is catching up with the fact that what matters isn’t ‘evidence’ but how that evidence can be applied to shifting peoples ‘beliefs’.

    That facts aren’t the issue, it’s people’s ‘beliefs’ that’s the real target.

    The IPCC et al was never equipped to deal effectively with people’s beliefs and cultural norms based upon those beliefs. Communication failure was therefore preordained imo.

  10. 160
    Hank Roberts says:

    Since the post by “starlordinfidel” isn’t considered boring,
    although it’s really been rebunked and debunked many times
    since first researched as described in the History,
    here’s the information he/she is asking for:

  11. 161
    Jeffrey Shaw says:

    I am a republican who follows this issue and reads the viewpoints presented here and in other similar true belief venues. As pointed out in the comments republicans are catching up to the easily obtainable fact of global warming. However, when the community of scientists takes a fact that is projected to occur in a wide distrobution of possible warming rates based on best modelling and then you impose on that the less certain impacts of that warming, particularly in north america thats when skepticism creeps into the great calls to action. This is worsened by the politicization of those calls in international bodies and their negative economic consequences. Most calls to action fail to invoke confidence even in the prospect of significantly deminishing global carbon emissions let alone averting impending climate or geopolitical disasters. The frames used in this study are political overplays that are easily identified and thus cause a reaction against. The scientific community does much better when it treats people intelligently and sticks to the facts that are known well and the facts that have indured over time. I suggest that establishing a shared belief that our world is warming is a good starting point. As unreasonable as republicans can be on this issue some of the alarmist overeach present in the comments section regarding are immediate impending doom is so out to lunch that you will turn most democrats off.

  12. 162
    frustrated says:

    George Lakoff (UC Berkeley) has dealt with all this AND with proposed solutions (see trade book “Don’t Think of an Elephant”). He deals with deep-framing and hypo-cognition and well as Dem and Rep worldviews. I’m frustrated that his insights are not more widely used.

  13. 163
    mike says:

    JS at 161: please take your bucks and buy up a lot of shoreline real estate. If you are right that global warming is being overblown, you should make a killing on the investment. If you are wrong, you will have some skin in the game and can seize the opportunity to commiserate with subsistence farmers and fishing people who live near sea level.

    Use your knowledge that SLR and AGW is being oversold and get in there. This is your moment.

    Warm regards,


  14. 164

    “This is worsened by the politicization of those calls in international bodies and their negative economic consequences.”

    IMO, the ‘politicization’ proceeds primarily from those whose vested interests are threatened by acknowledgement of the problem–not ‘international bodies.’

    Exhibit “A” is the pervasive use of rhetorical tricks in place of logic: straw man argumentation; arguing from consequences (e.g.., ‘negative economic consequences’); the debunking of ‘zombie’ arguments (for instance, the ‘CO2 saturates’ argument, which did have scientific legitimacy back in 1905, but which was a good 50 years past its ‘sell by date’ when the IPCC was commissioned); the emphasis on uncertainty; moving goalposts; and most of all, the mutual incoherence of talking points (as in, “the planet isn’t warming, but Mars is warming by the same amount as Earth.”)

  15. 165
    Phil Scadden says:

    Jeffrey, where do you think the conclusions of the IPCC working group 1 ever treated people other than intelligently? That CO2 is a greenhouse gas is definitely a fact that is well-known and endured over centuries, but that apparently doesnt stop people denying it when they cant think up a solution that fits with their political values. Frankly, I would have thought that an intelligent person would change their ideology when it didnt fit with reality rather than denying a reality.

    Instead we get Inhofe with:
    “I was actually on your side of this issue when I was chairing that committee and I first heard about this. I thought it must be true until I found out what it cost.”
    Is that supposed to be evidence of intelligence? The evidence to date is that it is cheaper to mitigate than adapt, but apparently no solution is acceptable if it has economic downsides??? Right-wing ideologies in other parts of world are big on taking responsibility for one’s actions. You stuff up, you take the consequences. Are Republicans actually comfortable with idea that the wealthy west reap the benefits of fossil fuels while other people, whose contribution is minimal, bear the consequences?

    As an outsider, it seems from (thankfully) afar, that whole US political system is deeply flawed and dysfunctional.

    I would agree that there are complete alarmists out there as well, but all that is wanted is an appropriate policy response to the well-established science, not Greenpeace. The IPCC was set up to determine just that.

  16. 166
    Jeffrey Shaw says:

    I think that the IPCC reports have been mostly reasonable and are, for the most part, science driven. I think that republicans should continue to awaken to the reality of global warming. However, logic also says that carbon reduction programs will not work. A logical person might also argue that wealth redistribution to curupt 3rd world nations is shooting oneself in the foot just to do it. The united states is the most generous country in history to help international causes. We know full well the perrils of giving large swaths of wealth into quasi democratic , non-functional political atructures. These two concepts of carbon lowering and warming reparations dominate the international discourse yet will not change the courae of warming to thia planet one bit.

    While it has been discussed previously at RC there is no regular reference to the fact that mitigation as the most realistic and feasible option.
    Moreover, while we need our politicians to be aware of the issue so they can consider options for addressing it we also need to keep scientists impartial to the facts so that bias doesn’t inform each new discovery. In my view the best way to communicate with republicans is to reflect uncertanty appropriately. The concept of framing the issue in stark terms around speculative consequences to national security ect. doesn’t help.

    First things first- complete the sell on warming. Second have an open discussion about what the effects will be both positive and negative on different issues while being honest again about uncertanty. Third lets be honest about the comparative benifits vs economic consequences of different strategies.

    Lets not kid ourselves either – carbon taxes and emmision regulations bear negative economic consequences with little potential gain to show for it in terms of slowing warming. Everything we have done in the name of preventing global warming has been just for show.

    One other idea:

    It is incumbent that science literate republicans like Newt Gingrich be targeted to be a champion. The biggest hindrance to getiing these types of folks on board is the politicalization of the cummunity of scientists working on this issue.

  17. 167
    nigelj says:

    Jim Shaw @166

    You claim that carbon reductions wont logically work, but give no explanation why. It’s pretty hard to take you seriously if you just make bold statements of claim while accusing “warmists” of doing the same.

    The science definitely suggests carbon reductions will work, as explained in thousands of research papers and articles easily googled.

    The only stumbling block is political will. We need politicians with sound policies and the courage to have them, as with any necessary reform. This is the case all through history, and it has worked in the past with good leaders emerging.

    Sadly while Obama has articulated good policies on climate change he has been personally attacked and undermined. Good leaders need support.

    You say there is insufficient discussion of mitigation. I think you meant to say adaptation? At this stage the published studies mostly suggest slowing rates of carbon emissions along with adaptation is better than adaptation alone.

    You say the science should approach things with levels of certainty in order to convince Republicans. But the IPCC reports have always been full of levels of certainty, so it’s hard to see what more can be done.

    Perhaps Republicans just need to look at themselves and how they analyse things, and whether climate sceptic arguments make any real sense, because they don’t. Maybe Republicans could also ask whether the vitriolic attacks on climate scientists like Michael Mann have any foundation in fact, because they certainly don’t.

  18. 168
    Phil Scadden says:

    In my view the best way to communicate with republicans is to reflect uncertanty appropriately?”

    Second have an open discussion about what the effects will be both positive and negative on different issues while being honest again about uncertanty

    Again, as far as I can see both of these have been done in the IPCC reports to little avail. Want to be more specific about where the reports fail?
    there is no regular reference to the fact that mitigation as the most realistic and feasible option.” Huh? What is the Stern report then?
    Or for something more local.

    Republicans seem to find some excuse for ignoring any evidence/analysis they dont like.

    I am also surprised that you think carbon tax would have little impact on emissions. People arent going to buy a cheap option to avoid tax? Reducing emissions is largely about not generating from coal. What do you propose as better solutions to reduce emissions?

    Finally “the politicalization of the cummunity of scientists working on this issue.” is also odd. In my experience, my colleagues belong all parts of the political spectrum, but you can hardly by surprised by some anti-Republican bias emerging in climate science when anti-science members are appointed to science committees, and the reward for their work is to be accused of fraud and threatened with defunding. That said, the alleged politicization is more perception than reality in my opinion. Scientists are saying things folks dont want to here, and all proposed solutions conflict with political values, ergo scientists must be agents of the enemy.

  19. 169
    Phil Scadden says:

    I often wonder how the world would be if a Republican had championed climate change instead of Al Gore.

  20. 170

    #169, Phil–“I often wonder how the world would be if a Republican had championed climate change instead of Al Gore.”

    Bush I did, sort of:

  21. 171

    #166, jshaw–

    “The united states is the most generous country in history to help international causes.”

    OT, but possibly this is an indicative statement, so I’ll address it briefly.

    That “most generous country” meme is mythology that is persistent and widely believed in the US. However, it is almost certainly not true.

    In terms of public funds, it’s definitely not true. The US gives only 0.17% of GDP to Development aid, good for 20th place in the donors’ table; Sweden, the top donor in these terms, does better by a factor of nearly 10, at 1.4%.

    Private aid is another matter, and one in which the US does better, relatively speaking. However, in 2002 at least, the US was still only #4 in private aid on a per capita basis, behind Norway, Switzerland, and Ireland, respectively:

  22. 172
    Dan H. says:

    I think part of the problem is that some people think that the solution to all the problems is to simply reduce (eliminate) carbon dioxide emissions. In most cases, this is not the predominate issue.

    For instance, those islands most threatened by rising seas are those that have altered vital natural barriers due to over development:

    By many accounts, deforestation has had a much larger environmental effect than rising carbon dioxide levels:

    Where are all the politicians when it comes to combatting these issues? Perhaps it is due to the lack of government revenue created by the various taxes.

  23. 173

    “By many accounts, deforestation has had a much larger environmental effect than rising carbon dioxide levels…”

    Perhaps. However, the two sources you provided do NOT say that. The first is quite clear that we *must* reduce emissions, and in fact says that under BAU, direct emissions would amount to 97 gT, compared to 23gT from deforestation. So, direct emissions are larger by a factor of more than 3.

    The second says that deforestation is a bigger source than transportation. However, the biggest fraction of emissions isn’t transportation; it’s electric generation. Ergo, direct emissions must be less than half of transportation plus generation together.

    It’s great that you provide sources. However, it would be even greater if they actually said what you think they do.

  24. 174
    Phil Scadden says:

    Dan H. I dont think your references back your position at all. I am sure development exacerbates problems with rising levels, but the real problem is the rising sea level, and over longer term, rising sea levels affect much larger areas.

    You claim deforestation is “much larger environmental effect” than rising CO2, but your references point out that deforestation contributes to rising CO2. Bigger than trucks/cars? But not bigger than thermal coal.

    It also implies a false dichotomy. We need tackle deforestation too and maybe you are deaf but I hear plenty politicians calling for combating deforestation. Re-afforestation is an important tool in combating global warming and carbon credits for forests and carbon tax on deforestation are tools for combating it.

    To me this is Lomberg-like rhetoric, trying to find an excuse for not dealing with the Co2 issue by raising other issues. We face multiple inter-linked environmental challenges – energy supply, water, food security, habitat/biodiversity loss as well as climate – and we have to solve all of them simultaneously. However, cost estimates to date would put climate at top, and solving is not incompatible with all the others.

  25. 175
    Phil Scadden says:

    Perhaps it is due to the lack of government revenue created by the various taxes.

    This is odd statement. Behind it would appear to be idea that governments are only interested in things that create revenue. Obviously, the more revenue a government has, the more it can achieve, but its those spending goals that motivate policy not revenue. Right now, the government goal should be moving to non-carbon energy sources.

  26. 176
    nigelj says:

    Dan at 172

    “For instance, those islands most threatened by rising seas are those that have altered vital natural barriers due to over development:”

    I disagree. In the long term islands are far more at risk from climate change and rising sea levels than short term erosion problems or bad local decisions. Therefore reducing CO2 is important.

    “Perhaps it is due to the lack of government revenue created by the various taxes.”

    What on earth does that contradictory statement mean?

  27. 177
    Jeff Shaw says:

    Well I stand corrected on several points. Kevin, you rightly point out how I overstated the case of US generosity but even with your corrections US generosity is impressive. Moreover, if you look in absolute and not relative terms (as most of the countries ahead of the US have small populations of well above average median income) the US is still a leader. If you add its contributions to international organizations as well it is hard not to be impressed. My point was merely to state that there are a lot of intelligent efforts to help less fortunate countries and people around the world that cause more progress than a climate change based wealth redistribution would. I think that the US is a responsible member of the international community and has done more as the most powerful nation in the world then most if not all of the predecessors to this position. I do not believe their is a moral imperative to castrate ourselves for the potential unintended consequences of our, and the rest of the developed worlds, productive economies.

    Nigel J – two clarifications 1) I understand mitigation to mean geo-engineering strategies such as sunblock while I understand adaptation to mean doing things like relocating people in low lying areas at risk of flooding. Both strategies may make more sense then carbon reduction. Is this fair? 2) my claim regarding carbon reductions being useless is an admittedly cynical (or realists) view of the ability of the world to do achieve this together and not a disbelief in its potential effect. If you look at why Australia’s carbon tax failed or why Alberta’s will fail it has a lot to do with local consequences to economies that are placed at a disadvantage against international competition and the real effect on peoples bottom line. I just don’t think that international agreements that are uniformly adhered to are possible when it comes to measures to achieve MEANINGFUL carbon reduction. I could be wrong and my lack of enthusiasm may be part of the problem. On the other hand a realistic approach may avoid unnecessary distraction and economic straddling.

    In addition I was complimentary to the language of the IPCC reports, the last of which I have read, and rather being critical of the ‘framing’ arguments being proposed in the stem article. I will admit, as is implicit in my prior posts, that republicans need to do more to gain an understanding of the real issue of climate change. I think that the IPCC helps and does change minds even if it happens too slowly. What doesn’t help is the oversell as it makes people naturally skeptical.


    While I don’t support unfair attacks against the likes of Mann, and while I do recognize his ability to be scientifically open minded on occasion (as in his temporarily held theory that the relative frequency of el nino a nd la nina events may itself be a feedback mechanism), there is still evidence, contained in the hacked emails, that he is a biased scientist that uses his clout to to influence what is deemed publishable work in a manner that is influenced by his own agenda. I recognize that this is not unique to this field but surely after those emails were revealed his reputation in the community of scientists should have taken a bigger hit. Am I out to lunch here? He is a great scientist but this should not protect him against real criticism.

  28. 178
    Balstrucio Gimenez says:

    One good move would be to stop lying and manipulating, that tends to alienate people, as nobody likes being lied to, particularly in a serious issue like science.

    Example? Karl 15, “mistakenly” choosing the wrong baseline for comparing temperature trends, wiping out the pause in the process, just in time for Paris..

    That’s the kind of things you people shouldn’t do if you ever want to earn the public’s trust again.

    Just a thought.

  29. 179

    I am a Republican, or what I consider to be a critical-thinking conservative. I would like to point out what differentiates liberals from conservatives. I challenge you and the liberal-minded folks commenting on this article to show everyone just how smart liberals really are and do something substantial and productive to change the direction of the climate. Or, you can just keep talking about it. Steven E. Sexton, CEO and Managing Director of Environment & Power Systems International

  30. 180
    nigelj says:

    Jeff Shaw @ 177

    I think your definitions of mitigation and adaptation are ok for the purposes of your discussion.

    The trouble is geoengineering is high risk and full of unknowns. It could very easily do more harm than good. There is plenty of analysis, so I suggest you google the issue. To me it is a last resort strategy.

    I agree getting a country to have political and public agreement on reducing emissions is hard, however obviously several countries do in fact have emissions trading schemes or carbon taxes. British Columbia has an effective carbon tax scheme and good public support for it, so these things can be done.

    Getting agreement between countries is harder still. However the EU has quite good agreement between member nations. Again it can be done.

    However perhaps a large part of the reasons for difficulties on reducing CO2 emissions is climate change sceptical nonsense pushed by various right wing think tanks. The thinking appears to be “we are going to poison the debate with sceptical nonsense” whether you like it or not, so therefore emissions reductions will fail at a political level. I think its pretty sad if society has sunk to that level.

    Michael Mann has been unfairly attacked but I think it was Phil Jones, another climate scientist who had emails stolen or hacked. This is in fact illegal. If it happened to a sceptic there would be outrage from the sceptics.

    However regarding the hacked emails, numerous investigations have found no evidence of lies, fraud, conspiracies or the like therefore the continued attacks on the people involved are really below the belt. Yes Jones or one of the other people involved ( I forget which) made some critical comments about some paper being published, or about the publisher, and they were not ideal comments, however it is just frustration. The comments were not a hanging offence, not even slightly. There was no corrupt influence or improper influence. I’m willing to bet serious money climate change sceptical scientists have said exactly the same sorts of things. Wikepedia has an article that thoroughly covers the climate research unit email controversy as below.

    If anything the email leaks showed a normal group of people just working hard at their job, with a few normal human frustrations. Compare this to the death threats directed at Michael Mann and others, or silly attempts to take climate scientists to court over nonsensical matters. Unfortunately these are being undertaken by people generally on the right of politics. However personally Im a political moderate and Im not saying anyone is perfect here.

    Maybe it’s fair to say “there is sometimes fault on both sides of the debate”, but attacks on Michael Mann and people like Phil Jones have gone way past the point of justification. Way past.

  31. 181
    Mal Adapted says:

    Steven E. Sexton:

    I challenge you and the liberal-minded folks commenting on this article to show everyone just how smart liberals really are and do something substantial and productive to change the direction of the climate.

    The most substantial and productive thing any US voter, undifferentiated by ideology, can do to change the direction of the climate is to lobby his or her Congressional representatives for a carbon tax.

    Surely you are aware, Mr. Sexton, that anthropogenic global warming is a tragedy of the commons, requiring collective action to avert. It is primarily caused by people removing fossil carbon from geologic sequestration by the petatonne, and returning it to the atmosphere by burning it for energy. The solution is conceptually simple: everyone who burns fossil carbon for energy must be persuaded, one way or another, to stop.

    Americans are among the largest per-capita emitters of CO2 because the prices we pay for fossil fuels allow us (you too, Mr. Sexton) to externalize — that is, socialize — their climate costs. The most economically efficient way to reduce our emissions would be to internalize at least some of the costs of AGW in fossil fuel prices. Since the “free” market (by definition) won’t do that, governments must intervene. The intervention preferred by economists is a carbon tax on fossil fuel producers, sufficient to eliminate the price advantage fossil carbon now has over carbon-neutral alternatives. If history is a guide, market forces will then drive the development of the carbon-neutral economy to completion, while keeping energy prices as low as possible.

    Leaving aside your cultural identity as a conservative, Mr. Sexton, are you smart enough to understand that as long as fossil energy is “cheaper” than carbon-neutral alternatives, the “free” market will impede the abatement of AGW, and you and your “critical-thinking” friends will ride for free on the sacrifices climate realists make to reduce their own carbon footprints? You won’t get off the hook that easily, I’m afraid.

  32. 182
    Phil Scadden says:

    Jeff, I am not so cynical on effects of pricing carbon, but I do think the US has to it, or no agreement is possible. If US does and prices carbon at the border as well, then you providing huge market incentive to switch to non-carbon energy source both in US and in would-be exporters to US. This is using US consumer power to effect change. If US wont do it, then you wont get any effect.You have to get off coal sooner or later. Let’s do it sooner by pricing it out of the market.

    In climate discussions, mitigation usually means CO2 reduction, but sure.. Where do you get the idea that adaptation or geoengineering is more sensible? Not from IPCC studies of the options. This would involve moving the populations of the great deltas (nile, mekong, bangladesh) elsewhere. Who and how do you propose this will be paid for? How would geoengineering costs be met?

    Steven Sexton. I am not US and not used to thinking of myself as “liberal”, but if current Republicans define “conversative” (more appropriate tags spring to mind), then I am not conservative. However, you want something that is smart that would change the direction of climate.

    Couple of possibilities.

    1/ Top-down approach (can liberals do that?). You ban building of any new CO2 emitting facility and give existing ones max lifetime of 30 years. Let the market sort out best alternative way to meet energy demand.

    2/ Pigovian tax on carbon, including taxing at border, set at a level to make coal uneconomic compared to alternatives (that price getting lower all the time).

    In both systems, I envisage a large scale investment in research and alternative generation, plus electrification of transport. And that will slow climate change. Continued denial of the problem and shooting the messengers will dont solve a thing. What is stopping the US from implementing measures like above? The Republicans. Either come up with a better solution (please) or get out of the way.

  33. 183
    Digby Scorgie says:

    Steven E Sexton @179

    Whether one is liberal or conservative is utterly irrelevant. What matters is one’s attitude to science. Do you accept the scientific method as the only valid means of investigating natural phenomena or do you not?

    If you accept science, as every rational person should, then you will know that climate science tells us we have to stop burning fossil fuel sometime this century. A typical target date is 2050. Secondly, climate science tells us that there is a limit to how much more carbon dioxide we can spew into the atmosphere. That limit implies that about 80% of known fossil-fuel reserves must be left in the ground.

    Now work backwards from there. If we can’t burn all of our known fossil-fuel reserves, what is the point of looking for more? Therefore, world governments must ban any further exploration for new sources of oil, gas and coal. That is a very simple policy to implement, but I doubt any government will do it.

    On the first point, if no fossil-fuel power station can be allowed to operate beyond 2050, that places a limit on the life of all such power stations in the world. It gives governments a third of a century in which to transition to alternatives. That is something that all engineers should be able to manage without too much difficulty, given the necessary support. I won’t hold my breath.

    That is not all that is needed, of course. There are many other problems. Aviation and shipping are just two. But it seems to me that after thirty years of inaction, world politicians are just not interested in taking effective steps to combat climate change.

    For what it’s worth, my instincts are conservative too. But I live in New Zealand, not the US, and my conservatism would probably look liberal to an American. Anyway, what I wish to conserve is a congenial society and a healthy environment, with the economy the servant of both. What do US Republicans wish for?

  34. 184
    Jeff Shaw says:

    Phil, While the US is still a net importer of petroleum, imports make up less than 25% of us consumption and in part come from countries that we share free trade agreements with. Taxing petroleum imports may not be so straight forward. I am not as sure that this strategy wouldn’t just make foreign petroleum more profitable by decreasing US production to the net benefit of the rest of the wolds petroleum producers but not the climate.

  35. 185
    Brian Dodge says:

    “… true belief venues…” This venue is REALclimate. We understand reality through science, not belief. Science is observing. Science is making measurments (a special kind of of observing), to quantify, to characterize our observations with numbers. Science is understanding the relationships between observations. Science is doing the math, to quantify the relationhips; and doing the statistics, to quantify and understand the errors. Gavin Schmidt, Michael Mann, Rasmus Benestad, Ray Bradley. Stefan Rahmstorf, Eric Steig, David Archer, Ray Pierrehumbert, William Connolley; Jim Bouldin, Caspar Ammann, and Thibault de Garidel didn’t get to where they are by “true beliefs”, but by doing the hard, tedious, work of science. This includes confirming their work with that of thousands of other scientists, what is colloquially referred to as “standing on the shoulders of giants”. Most Republicans are denialist fools standing in the shadow of charlatans and lunatics.

  36. 186
    Phil Scadden says:

    Jeff, you misunderstand me. Switching from petroleum products is obviously important but not as urgent or as important as stopping using coal. When you import goods from China etc, you need to consider the energy sources used to create those goods. If you have carbon tax in US, which made electricity generation from coal more expensive, then your manufacturers would be at disadvantage compared to countries where there was no tax on coal generation. The solution is tax those goods at the border on basis of embodied energy, UNLESS they can be verified as being created from non-carbon energy. This puts pressure on those exporting countries to switch away from coal as well. They are paying a carbon tax even if their own governments have not implemented such a measure.

    Of course, carbon tax on petroleum will speed electrification of transport. The efficiency of electric motors means less carbon tax per km, even if the electricity is still generated from fossil fuels, (especially combined cycle gas plants. Since the carbon tax is paid by whoever converts FF to CO2, it has little impact on import/export pattern of raw FF. Ie you tax at the petrol pump, not the importer.

  37. 187
    nigelj says:

    Steven Sexton @ 179

    You appear to imply that conservatives do something about climate change and liberals dont. You provide no evidence apart from your own involvement in energy systems which is entirely anecdotal, although praiseworthy.

    However we cant all start renewable energy companies. The main thing people can do is lobby government for things like carbon taxes or other initiatives, and the evidence suggests liberals have greater concern about climate change than conservatives, from numerous polls.

    Liberals also buy more electric cars or fuel efficient cars. The following study certainly suggests this.

    So you appear to have a very weak case. It appears to be liberals that “do more” about climate change.

    However personally I don’t think its about liberals versus conservatives, as this becomes a generally divisive road to go down. Different points of view ideologically are all valuable. But you started the divisive argument, and I think it was important to show how weak your argument was.

  38. 188

    Jeff Shaw–“I do not believe their is a moral imperative to castrate ourselves for the potential unintended consequences of our, and the rest of the developed worlds, productive economies.”

    Oddly enough, castration is one strategy I’ve never heard suggested for mitigating carbon emissions.

    No, not metaphorically, either.

    Transforming the energy economy is a large and expensive task, but estimates of actual cost run under 10% of GDP–eg., the UK’s Stern Report put it at 5% of GDP, and I don’t think that included offsetting economic benefits. To be sure, the uncertainties are very large, but catastrophizing the cost is unwarranted.

  39. 189

    “Example? Karl 15, “mistakenly” choosing the wrong baseline for comparing temperature trends, wiping out the pause in the process, just in time for Paris..”

    Example of denialist rhetoric?

    #178, by Balstrucio Giminez, which attacks Karl et al, 2015 with an allegation that appears to be made up out of whole cloth, just in time for a new record-warm year, as measured by Spencer & Christy’s UAH…

    Myself, I’d have thought that was borehole material, but whatever…

  40. 190
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Sexton

    So you sell a “VOCGEN” liquid- or -gas-fueled generator with “overall system efficiencies (electricity and useful thermal energy) greater than 85%” remotely controlled by a “computer with modem.”

    Hurrah, you’re making money from the climate change problem.
    And points for making use of a modem, keeping those antiques out of the landfill counts for something.

    And you decry regulation, and refer potential customers to the clean air rebates>/a> as part of their payback calculation.

    Huzzah, you’re making money from the clean air regulations.

  41. 191
    Phil Scadden says:

    I do not believe their is a moral imperative to castrate ourselves for the potential unintended consequences of our, and the rest of the developed worlds, productive economies

    This sounds like weasel words to me. Is this supposedly a rationalization for saying that you dont think that western world, who have overwhelmingly contributed most of the excess CO2 to the atmosphere and enjoyed most of the benefits from using the resource, should have no part in then helping those, especially those who have contributed virtually nothing to the problem and got no benefit from FF, from the consequences of climate change because the effects were unintentional???

    If so, do you seriously expect others to respect that position? This is not a conservative position in my experience of the politics. It is more like the rationalizations you get from people in jail to justify their crime. Conservatives I know believe that you take the consequences for your own actions whether intended or not.