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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. 1
    SecularAnimist says:

    Jack Zhou wrote: “the state of polarization in American politics and on climate change in particular have stacked the deck against advocates of climate action.”

    Well, of course — that is precisely the intentional result of a generation-long campaign of brainwashing, funded by the fossil fuel corporations, carefully crafted by the most insidious minds of Madison Avenue and delivered by the most powerful media of mass communication ever devised, which has specifically targeted the so-called “conservative” a.k.a. grassroots Republican infotainment demographic.

    This sort of analysis is fine, but ExxonMobil’s propagandists are decades ahead of you. They figured this stuff out before anybody had even heard of Rush Limbaugh. They know their audience. They know how to push their well-programmed buttons. They’ve been pushing them for 30 years.

    And the number one thing they drill into their victims 24×7 is that “advocates of climate action” are THE ENEMY.

  2. 2
    Christopher Hogan says:

    It is hard for the non-academic to cut through the technical language here. And this would be vastly clearer if you would provide one or two of your vignettes.

    After reading your paper, my understanding is that the vignettes were not informative pieces on the facts of climate change, but were instead some form of call to action. E.g., a single paragraph, where mythical Senator So-and-so says we must act in the interests of national security.

    And so, after prodding people with some call to action by some political authority figure, you found that the people who a) view this as a political issue and b) had dug in their heels, ended up just digging them in even harder? That certainly seems plausible.

    Just to be clear, this wasn’t a study about providing accurate information on climate change, to “skeptics”, to see whether that had an effect. This was a study in which an authority figure prodded them to take action. And all that that prodding did was solidify their opposition to action.

    Some people are exceptionally hard-headed. But average attitudes can change, albeit slowly, in light of the facts. So the observed boomerang effect may be a great explanation of why so many “skeptics” hate Al Gore. But I don’t think it should be construed as an argument for the futility of providing accurate information on climate change.

  3. 3
    Will Denayer says:

    This is very interesting. I made me think of an article I read a long time ago (forgot the reference) about voting behaviour. As can be expected, there is a whole library about the determinants of voting behaviour – why people vote and for who they vote. The article presented the thesis that there are two factors which, taken together, explain voting behaviour better than anything else: it is a) the political affiliation of the parents and b) the degree of social mobility since becoming an adult. We truly are a weird species.

  4. 4
    Gordon Shephard says:

    Anyone who has read Ernest Becker’s book, The Denial of Death, for which he received the Pulitzer prize in 1974, will have no difficulty understanding the reactions displayed in this study. The self is a defense mechanism, intended to protect the individual from knowledge that they will not simply die, but will cease to exist. To challenge a person’s self definition (e.g. to present convincing evidence of climate change to a person who has defined themselves as belonging to a group, Republicans, who reject climate change), is to challenge the mechanism that defends that person from the terror of admitting their mortality. The more convincing you are, the greater the terror.

    Just try to tell a drowning man that letting go of you will allow you to save him.

  5. 5
    Theo says:

    Yes, but . . . if any Republicans read your article, would you not be polarising them further, like plotting against them ?

  6. 6
    Hunter Cutting says:

    So, why don’t we see this boomerang effect in real life?

    The number of conservative voters in the U.S. who believe in climate change has almost doubled in the past two years.

    As of a couple months ago, 47% of conservatives now say the climate is changing, a leap of 19 points since 2014.

    This polling trend is confirmed by multiple sources.

    Advocates for climate protection must be doing something right, unless you think even more Republicans would have changed their minds but for the misguided work of advocates.

  7. 7
    Edward Greisch says:

    Jack Zhou did answer the obvious question: what to do. “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”

    We have to tell the Democrats and independents that it is happening now and will continue to happen until Y year when there will be no food in the grocery store. Y year is only a few years away and clearly within their own almost immediate futures. We must give a number of years, for example 13 years give or take 6 years. We have to specify that it is too late for some mitigation efforts and barely time for mitigation efforts that are not otherwise “nice.” We have to drill it home that we are on thin ice right now, and the risk is enormous and overwhelms all other risks.

    To the liberal Democrats, it is important to point out that gigadeath is inevitable already. Since there is no conceivable way to “rescue” anybody, immigration “reform” is counterproductive. The number of survivors, if any, may be a few times ten thousand, barely enough for the species to survive.

    It is important to give examples of what is happening elsewhere that will soon happen here: Syria, South Sudan, everywhere.

    Jack Zhou: Please continue your research and tell us the correct answer.

  8. 8
    Rob Quayle says:

    By far the simplest explanation for Anthropogenic Climate Change Denial is this: If a good, smart, & sincerely honest person believes, really believes (as a true believer) that God ultimately controls the weather, then of course there is no Anthropogenic Climate Warming. But is it even politically correct to say this in an open forum? And even if we say it & it is acknowledged as true by all concerned, what can be done about it? We are back to physics vs religion, & that can take a lot of time to sort out.

  9. 9
    Spencer Weart says:

    Excellent work! What I take away is, our primary emphasis should be on raising the salience of the climate change problem among politically lukewarm people, mainly by improving their understanding that the risks are grave and not distant.

    It’s worth noting that opinion is molded by elites. The whole thing could be turned around if only a fair number of respected conservative opinion leaders would stand up and do the right thing. Or at least, that would have been true a dozen years ago. At present there don’t seem to be any respected conservative opinion leaders!

  10. 10
    Hank Roberts says:

    > a leap of 19 points since 2014.

    Read further down on the page and you’ll find less encouraging statistics.

    “Of course it’s changing, it always has changed” isn’t progress, it’s shifting from one foot to the other on the same path.

  11. 11
    John Atkeison says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I have also found the new edition of George Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant” to be very helpful.
    The Yale “Six America’s” work is also helpful.

  12. 12
    JCH says:

    The number of conservative voters in the U.S. who believe in climate change has almost doubled in the past two years.

    As of a couple months ago, 47% of conservatives now say the climate is changing, a leap of 19 points since 2014.

    In the United States, this coincides with multiple regional weather/climate events in this century that have been pretty hard for people to ignore: drought, wildfires, unusual warmth, unusual cold, extreme precipitation, flooding, etc.

    And one thing that has made them a little harder to ignore recently is the local weatherman making repeated references to 2014 being a warmest year globally, and 2015 being a warmest year, and 2016 likely being yet another warmest year.

    This versus the background messaging of 2011 through 2013 of hiatus, slowdown, pause, etc.

    I think one thing that has changed in this century, and it is just a personal perception, is weathermen are becoming a little more forthright about anthropogenic global warming with their audiences, and the weather has been reinforcing them. Even in conservative places like Dallas Fort Worth.

  13. 13
    Mike Roddy says:

    I agree with Secular Animist here. Exxon and Koch have been working through our corporate media with sophisticated PR firms for years on this topic, with great success. The evidence is that the United States, in spite of a highly educated population by global standards, contains a far higher percentage of global warming deniers than almost any other country. The whole notion of whether human caused global warming is “real” is greeted with incredulity throughout the globe- except here.

    Thinking of better ways to communicate straightforward scientific facts is not the issue. Rather, Those who manipulate the public into believing lies that the perpetrators themselves do not believe need to be called to account.

    Lawyers are showing leadership here for a change, in the form of the many state AG actions against Exxon for knowingly manipulating the American public. Unfortunately, our Congress is bought, so actions from federal agencies are going to be cursory.

    That leaves actions from the ground up. Better framing of the language will move the needle about 1%. What we really need is offending corporation product boycotts, divestment (thanks for your persistence here, Bill), and product boycotts of media firms and programs, including Newscorp, CNN, and the most dishonest television networks, as determined by rigorous monitoring.

    Democracy cannot function if psychopathic corporations control both government and media. These groups are not reformable. It’s time to fight them instead.

  14. 14
    WillHansen says:

    There is a certain inevitability of failure any attempts to change a ‘conservative’ mindset, ideology, opinion or party policy.

    The psychological and neurological studies of differences between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ minds have consolidated around quite clear variations in actual anatomical structure of certain parts of the human brain. Some of the functions of these structures correlate with behaviors and attitudes concerning fear in conservatives and openness in ‘liberals’.

    There appears to be an element of neurological determinism in the attitudes and personality of conservatives that resists the plasticity of the free-thinker or liberal.

    The genetic components of these differences have not been untangled and there does seem to be a learned, or developmental aspect.

    From this it would seem that analyses like those of Zhou are confirming the neuroscience; conservatives are hardwired to their ideology and facts,debate and rational thinking are almost beyond them.

    Frighteningly this leaves us without many communication strategies that can get through Republican and neocon resistance.

    Some general refs:

  15. 15
    dan bloom says:

    What we need is a literary novel or movie based on that novel about agw that will have the same power of persuasion as Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach had about nuclear war and nuclear winter. Thats why i coined the genre term of cli-fi as a literary tool for authors to use

  16. 16
    Thomas says:

    Nice to have a simple “study” done and reported on. The scietiific basis and knowledge has been around for a long time. One doesn’t always need a “control group study” to see the self-evident basics using common sense. And yet some people do have to have such ‘papers’ by Zhou published before they see what has been spoken about in cognitive sciences, psychology and political/media studies for a very long time now.
    Especially out of Berkeley U eg the Psychology of Wealth

    11 John Atkeison, ‘don’t think of an elephant’ is good, Lakoff and other Cognitive Scientists / Linguists have since gone further.

    American Politics is formed by “Idealized Families” Nurturing vs Strict Father Model – Professor George Lakoff 2008 (link starts at 24m30s)

    The Key human issue in all of this is “empathy” – while noting that narcissists & sociopaths/psychopaths lack any degree of normal human empathy – and that all major corporate leaders and rightard politicians lack normal empathy except for their “idealized” fellow travelers and entrenched beliefs.

    Latest work 2015 – George Lakoff: How Brains Think: The Embodiment Hypothesis

    In this lecture towards the end Lakoff states with great simplicity that “conservatives can not ‘see’ global warming or climate change” – that’s why they think it’s YOU who is mad and the enemy of the nation. Their entrenched beliefs have taken them to a point of being ‘delusional’ and unable to see or hear or feel reality as it is.

    good backgrounder: “Reason is 98% Subconscious Metaphor in Frames & Cultural Narratives”
    2010 – George Lakoff pt1 of 6 – Frameworks, Empathy and Sustainability

  17. 17
    Salamano says:

    Was there any interest in studying a full spectrum of candidates for this condition or mindset? It might have been interesting to locate Democrats and leaning-independents and give them information that frames the conversation toward the skeptic side (the postulation here is that such framing already has a potential for success among certain people) … And then see if that changes the mindset of the Democrats (or further entrenches their views).

    Or pick another contentious current issue.

  18. 18
    Susan Anderson says:

    I’m very conflicted about all this. I am well aware of, and have been following the corrupt attacks on climate science and the total manipulation of our country’s knowledge base by big fossil and the Kochs. I subscribe to The New Yorker, and my earliest revelation was Chris Mooney’s “Republican War on Science” (which I still think was more complete than Naomi Oreskes work, though the two are quite similar). BUT …

    It occurred to me recently that in fact deniers are in a way more honest than the rest of us, because they actually acknowledge the real costs of the work we need to do. They don’t like it because it threatens the very ground they – AND the rest of us – stand on. We all have computers, cell phones, refrigeration, air conditioning, heat, and we travel in vehicles that use fuel. The temptation to deny reality is very strong. This does NOT excuse lies and evasion, but it does convict us all of hypocrisy as we type away on our internet about the need for us all to act, to act now, to get real.

    India, Africa, South America, and all, they want our comforts. Who could say because we have hot and cold clean water on demand, temperature control, refrigerators, etc., we are uniquely entitled. And yet, we are, in fact, in the possession of real knowledge about real danger faced by every living soul on earth, and their children, and all the other creatures on earth. Now there are ways we can transform our energy supply, and providing coal to India, for example is not that way. But it will require sacrifice and coordinated effort by all of us, not just “other people”.

  19. 19
    Digby Scorgie says:

    The proportion of climate-change deniers varies from country to country. In some, such as China, there are comparatively few deniers. Any theories explaining the high number of deniers in the US also have to be able to explain why there are fewer in some other countries. Conversely, if one can determine why one country has few deniers, perhaps one would find lessons that can be applied in the US.

  20. 20
    Thomas says:

    imo Climate Change is only one issue, one Symptom of a much deeper malaise

    iow “The sins of the father are visited upon the son” – rectifying the original error of the 1861-1865 outcome is the only long term solution for the people of US. It’s about ‘oil and water’ aka Cultural Narratives. They do not mix.

    Entrenched beliefs are never modified by ‘intelligent argument nor facts’ by those who know better. People are only convinced to adjust their false beliefs by having to personally confront the sustained effects of them by direct experience. They should have the freedom to make their own choices in isolation, without taking the rest of the nation down with them.

    That’s a two-edged sword, for ‘Progressives’ in the US are only now beginning to be confronted with their own false belief they could have changed other peoples minds on really critical issues like AGW/CC, sustainability, science, corruption and a genuine functional democracy. It’s only going to get worse from here as the polarization becomes even more intensified.

    “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Lincoln should have taken his own sage advice when he had the chance. The world needs more philosophers, scientists and academics in politics today.

  21. 21
    mike says:

    So, does this study say, in effect, you can’t reason with conservative republicans? Did we need a lot of research on this question?

    Warm regards


  22. 22
    Omega Centauri says:

    Hunter@6 and JCH @12. I’ve seen the similar sorts of polling results. And yet at the level of political candidates, the conservative candidates continue to dig in even deeper. Partly this is explained by the results sited above, the most active politically, have the strongest cognitive defense mechanisms. I’m sure it also has to do with chasing mega-donations from the fossil fuel donor class. So the party elite is diverging from the laity. But, the later, like those significant numbers of Democrats and Independents just don’t consider it to be an important enough issue to switch allegiance over, so the political calculus of the party elites shows that staying the (denial) course is best.

  23. 23
    Russell says:

    if ” At present there don’t seem to be any respected conservative opinion leaders” on climate policy, it reflects Stuart’s political evangelism having alienated them several books, and decades, ago.

  24. 24
    Geoff Beacon says:

    Great post.

    “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.”

    We won’t get effective framing on climate from the BBC: Floods, wildfires, blizzards, storms and droughts blamed on “the cold blob in the Atlantic”, “El Nino”, “the lake effect” but with little mention of climate change. Certainly no mention of how economic growth makes carbon emissions worse.

    They had a chance in 2007 but they cancelled their TV special Planet Relief but blew it out.

  25. 25
    Karsten V. Johansen says:

    Yes, to a great degree the problem is certainly genetically rooted. I’m afraid only observing that the laws of nature don’t wait for “economic” “laws” to agree with them, will eventually change enough minds.

    The main problem is not the loud sceptics. It is the lukewarm “believers” in high places, like Clinton etc. Their stubborn inaction and/or counteraction under the cover of a lot of “climatefriendly” talk is the main reason virtually nothing is happening.

  26. 26
    Jim Eager says:

    Hunter Cutting wrote: “Advocates for climate protection must be doing something right”

    And your evidence for that is?
    As JCH wrote, it’s more like climate change is starting to bite hard enough that even moderate conservatives can’t help but take notice. Hard core conservatives not so much. Zhou’s study is one of many that demonstrate they are more or less impervious to reason and acceptance of information that does not reinforce their beliefs.

  27. 27
    Bryson Brown says:

    The Republican Party and the broader right-wing in the U.S. has been relying on identity politics for a long time, from evolution to health care and abortion to the environment. In the short-term it seems that identity trumps evidence. But in the longer term, for most people, the facts become obvious and evidence wins. I hope it doesn’t take too long.

  28. 28

    Mike Roddy #13 scores some good points.

    Pretend one is an alien anthropologist to this planet. Such an observer might find it odd that the Supreme Court of Earth’s most powerful nation has conferred legal personhood on corporations. Actually, now an artificial legal construct has a status above mere humans. Corporations are now declared a species with guaranteed rights of survival. They are recognized as entities in a symbiotic relationship with humans — and they are now moved to the dominant species with and rights to exploit global resources and human interests. Humans have decided to abrogate the rights of humans. Our loss is the possibility of multigenerational survival.

    (See “The roots of the problem” in the insightful article at )

    The observer might regard this as a crude, early artificial life form. As the corporation species now both comforts and exploits humans, we can no longer protect ourselves against this relatively new parasitic species. It gathers wealth and global resources in a relationship that grows increasingly saprophitic – dangerous to all other species in the world. Humans are the species that created this species Until the corporation considers the situation as a risk to the life of the corporate species – nothing will change.

    One historical observation is that consortium of carbon fuel corporations formed an alliance in the 1970s and 80’s to join in an attack of psychological warfare to conquest of humans – the API axis forces launched the “Energy Tomorrow” campaign. Human interests have been fully subjugated since then (“trumped”).

    But like the toxoplasm infection in cats and mice – the very cognitive system of the host victim is damaged. And the corporation has no concept of – indeed is forbidden to consider the harm done to any other species in the well-defined goals of its existence – a corporate charter as its DNA. Humans may perceive a risk to future survival, but the corporation, by definition, really doesn’t care.

    This is part biological observation and a fascinating movie plot. Seems like the chess game till now has been played out by pawns. Now the major pieces are called into the endgame battle. Time to pay attention, take notes, plan carefully and act decisively. Interesting times.

  29. 29
    Dan H. says:

    I disagree. On polarizing issues, there is no middle ground. Scientifically, climate change is not a polarizing issue. Unfortunately, politically, it is. Politicians (with the help of the media, and some scientists) have made this out to be an either/or issue; i.e. either the entire temperature rise is man made and catastrophic, or it is all natural, beneficial, and nothing we can do about it. The political nature of this issue must be broken down, in order to transmit the message more clearly. Those that adhere to either belief, will not change. The best message is one of accuracy and truth. Show all the natural contributions that affect climate (and weather), and the man made contributions accurately and without bias. The general population responds much better to truth than propaganda. The extremists on either end will not be convinced, regardless of the evidence. Those in between will be swayed by good scientific evidence.

  30. 30
    Dan Miller says:

    “You can ignore reality, but you can’t ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.” — But, alas, waiting for things to get so bad that the world has no choice but to act, will be too late (if it’s not too late already).

    I think we must focus on getting political leaders to understand that climate change poses a clear and present danger to our society, country, and civilization. My experience speaking with senior Democratic members of Congress (including yesterday) shows that they are not aware of the insidious nature of climate change, such as the fact that CO2 lasts in the atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years (so delay makes the problem unmanageable), or that the warming so far will lead to the loss of Southern Florida by the end of the century or certainly by next century.

    As mentioned in some of the comments above, I the solution is to radicalize the believers (think Tea Party) and influence political leaders to act.

    The good news is that there is a carbon pricing policy that almost everyone (except the Koch brothers and Exxon) will like. Fee and Dividend is a “Republican” plan in that it uses market forces, doesn’t pick winners or losers (except CO2 is a loser), and doesn’t grow government at all.

  31. 31
    Russell says:

    “The proportion of climate-change deniers varies from country to country. In some, such as China, there are comparatively few deniers”

    And comparatively many internet censors.

  32. 32
    Leif Knutsen says:

    “One cannot do the same thing over and over and expect different results.” Albert Einstein

    I do not see the problem as humanities ability to engineer remarkable endeavors. IMO the problem is the socially enabled capitalistic paradigm of tax subsidized pollution of the commons that entrenches the already miss-guided power elite. Without a fundamental moral underpinning that guides capitalism to work for humanities well-being above personal rewards Planetary life support systems and humanity will be toast. In short, “Systems change, not climate change.”

    Before any problem can be solved the problem must be clearly defined. The problem has been clearly observed. Green house gas clearly implicated. Why are we still on the highway to ecocide? $$$/rewards going to the wrong hands IMO. We need to Geo-engineer the rapacious Capitalistic Paradigm which itself is a proven “faulty engineered” human construct. Back to the drawing boards.

  33. 33
    Ryan says:

    Just a thought. I work with many Republicans and I think I understand how they think. The number one axiom is “The left ALWAYS lies.” They believe this in their bones. So as soon as you show them an obviously leftist idea; ‘The Government wants more power to force some action’ they will assume that whatever reason you give doesn’t matter, it is after all just another lie. So they will dig in their heels. That isn’t some nefarious right wing brain washing. They believe it is just learned experience.

  34. 34
    Jon Kirwan says:

    Re: #18
    From: Susan Anderson

    It occurred to me recently that in fact deniers are in a way more honest than the rest of us, because they actually acknowledge the real costs of the work we need to do. They don’t like it because it threatens the very ground they – AND the rest of us – stand on. We all have computers, cell phones, refrigeration, air conditioning, heat, and we travel in vehicles that use fuel. The temptation to deny reality is very strong. This does NOT excuse lies and evasion, but it does convict us all of hypocrisy as we type away on our internet about the need for us all to act, to act now, to get real.

    India, Africa, South America, and all, they want our comforts. Who could say because we have hot and cold clean water on demand, temperature control, refrigerators, etc., we are uniquely entitled. And yet, we are, in fact, in the possession of real knowledge about real danger faced by every living soul on earth, and their children, and all the other creatures on earth. Now there are ways we can transform our energy supply, and providing coal to India, for example is not that way. But it will require sacrifice and coordinated effort by all of us, not just “other people”.

    The human population is arguably well in excess of the Earth’s carrying capacity for them. There is a TED presentation made around 2000, where the presenter said that the mass of humans and their domesticated animals were nearly 99% of all of the land-based vertebrate mass. There is a web site you can go to right now that says that humans are consuming the current ecological capital at about a 50% faster rate than the Earth can renew it. There are a number of different authors trying to estimate the human population that could reasonably be sustained over a long term, none of which where I recall seeing numbers close to our current population let alone more.

    I can’t speak to the comprehensiveness or predictive quality of the above. But I do take Isaac Asimov’s decades old point that to a rough 0th order estimate the amount of animal mass that can be sustained on the planet is a rough constant, so as human mass increases so must also the mass of other animals on the planet decrease. (Assuming the photosynthetic support system remains nearly constant.) So, in broad strokes and without getting mired in detailed arguments that may lose sight of larger issues, these things all collectively do seem to pose a question for us about where we are at, and headed, regarding human population levels.

    Now, I want to shift gears a bit. Because the above all pretty much assumes certain things about consumption levels tied to certain existing practices about how we live and work together. In some areas, people must already live in small communities to survive better. But in the US (I can’t speak well, elsewhere, but I imagine what I say here might project elsewhere without too much introduced error), we live in the smallest viable units — the single family. The very laws regarding the use of the property we live on will often specify a single family as the only allowed living unit. Single families maximally consume. They buy in small quantities, requiring lots of packaging, and leading to lots of loss along the delivery chain that reaches them. They buy the similar tools as their neighbors. They buy more than enough cars, to cover their peak need, rather than work out arrangements with neighbors. They live in a fair degree of isolation and consume a great deal more than would be otherwise necessary if they lived in small groups of perhaps 20 or so.

    And they lose out in political power, besides. In groups of 20, your political power is much greater. Such groups could easily afford to retain an attorney to look after their interests. Etc.

    There are myriad steps to take, moving forward. But I do think that one of the important changes ahead will be for the industrialized nations to come to grips with viable, sustainable groups or collectives (communes to some.) It’s one of the few things I can think of that retains and perhaps even improves upon the existing living standards and yet helps reduce the consumption levels in a meaningful way and that does so without being too distruptive or precipitious. It can be done within the existing legal structures, though I think there needs to be appropriate additional case law developed. I’m fairly sure that there will also need to be market makers, which can be the collective itself in some cases, so that people can enter or exit these groups with the least necessary pain to the collective or to the individuals involved during a separation event. But having people look out for each other, learn to get along in somewhat larger groups, and to share skills and resources may go some of the distance needed. How much of an impact it can have will depend, of course, on actual experience and perceptions and the ability to engage and embrace such changes and do the necessary work it takes to solve problems as they arrive.

    Okay. So it’s a thought that crosses my mind, anyway.

  35. 35

    And yet, change is happening, and more rapidly than many would believe (or, in some cases, welcome).

    Coal’s proportion of the US gen mix slumped to just 23.8% in March, barely above nuclear (21.8%) and renewables (19.2%). In bright-red Texas, wind outproduced coal 17.2% to 13.7%.

  36. 36
    Digby Scorgie says:

    Russell @31

    Regarding the few deniers in China, “many internet censors” is a red herring. There are other countries with few deniers. Try the Pacific Islands. You’ll find almost no deniers there, but then I suppose that’s because they’re struggling with the consequences of climate change right now.

    As I’ve noted before, there are two kinds of deniers: psychotics and suckers. The above study confirms this as far as I’m concerned. It also confirms something that everyone here seems to understand: The psychotics are fanatics and one simply does not attempt to reason with fanatics. They will only come to their senses when the reality of climate change smacks them in the face.

    The take-home message for me is that all efforts should be expended in showing the suckers how they’ve fallen victim to the campaign of disinformation waged by the psychopaths of the fossil-fuel industry. They need to be apprised of their suckerdom.

  37. 37
    SteveP says:

    Chris Hogan’s comment yesterday resonated with my own thoughts on the issue. “Just to be clear, this wasn’t a study about providing accurate information on climate change, to “skeptics”, to see whether that had an effect. This was a study in which an authority figure prodded them to take action.” My current working hypothesis is that Republican denialists are hard wired to need an authority figure to guide them. Their love of the military, their love of religiosity, their love of strong, father figure leaders points to some possibly serious hard wiring that reinforces fitting into a tribal hierarchy.

    At any rate, the climate change horse is out of the barn and running around out there somewhere. Things doubtless will get worse and maybe get very very bad. It feels to some of us like humanity has been overdue for a major thin out and, who knows, maybe some other human or natural disaster will pull the trigger before global warming does. Ironically, without fossil fuels, we know that we might have been heading into a lethal ice age. Remember, it doesn’t take miles of ice to wipe out a civilization with a growing population and a maxed out agricultural credit card. A few well timed frosts could really mess up the planetary calorie intake, just as a for instance.

    Myself, I keep my head down, minimize my footprint, do what I have to to survive. I try not to antagonize the corporate behemoths within and among which I am forced to live. I continue to hope that some enlightening disaster wakes up the Neanderthal tribalists before they stupidly trigger too many more genocidal trip wires. Zhou’s paper is interesting, and a great start, but what we need to do is to formulate some way to get past this reactance phenomenon. Perhaps we need to start by focusing our efforts on their leaders instead of their followers. Perhaps we need to focus on just one of their leaders, since the followers cannot be easily dissuaded. Paul Ryan is young and powerful and not so beholden to the fossil fuel industry as many other conservative politicians. Maybe we can get to him through the insurance industry, which is one of his major funding sources.

  38. 38
    Jack Zhou says:

    2. Christopher Hogan: I’m bummed to hear that the language was too technical to read clearly. I was really trying to not be too academic. To respond to the substance of your comment, the vignettes (which you can find here: boomerangs 2014.pdf) were not written to convey science-focused information but all of the messages were accurate in the sense of haing factual basis. The vignettes tied climate change to economic markets, national security, global poverty, and natural disasters and were based (as much verbatim as possible) on speeches or essays written by actual political elites. So the idea was to study how Republicans respond to real-life and fairly prevalent political messages about climate change from some authority figure. Messages that rely on purely scientific information were outside the scope of this paper.

  39. 39
    Jack Zhou says:

    6. Hunter Cutting: As some other commenters have already said, it really depends on what is being asked. Public opinion data are notoriously tricky to interpret, but one good rule of thumb is to compare like question wording with like question wording, so aggregating from multiple question sources might be problematic. In addition, agreeing that climate is changing is not the same as agreeing that climate change is a worthy issue for society to tackle. Pew has done a good job with asking the same question over multiple years on a number of different dimensions of climate change. As you can see at the bottom of this page (, the partisan gap on whether climate change should be a top issue for the president and Congress (i.e., is a societal issue worth pursuing) has increased over the past decade. It does look like more Republicans overall seem to be coming on board with climate action, though I wonder how those effects break down by strength of partisan identity.

  40. 40
    Jack Zhou says:

    14. WillHansen: I’m not sure I’m making the case that conservatives or Republicans are inherently more prone to motivated reasoning than political liberals. Some work (such as Jost et al. 2003) does touch on that question but there’s been a real back-and-forth in the political science literature about how to work out those sorts of questions.

    I would argue that identity defense, which is what I consider motivated skepticism to boil down to, is a very human response to unwanted information. Although I didn’t study liberals or Democrats in this paper, I would expect that they might very well backfire against information that claims that climate change is a hoax or something along those lines.

  41. 41
    Jack Zhou says:

    17. Salamano: Yes I would have loved to include Democrats/Dem-leaners in this study and presented them with counterattitudinal information to see if they backfire similarly but, sadly, they had to be excluded due to financial constraints. Unfortunately, representational samples cost a lot of money :(

  42. 42
    Edward Greisch says:
    “Regulation of financial industry is history if Trade In Services Agreement passes”
    TISA + TPP + TTIP = world government by corporations. COP21 is a dead letter.

    It turns out that there is more to fight than you thought.

  43. 43

    Further to my #35, the view from BP has coal use and production both down globally, significant rises in renewable energy, and primary energy use registering one of its smallest increases:

    Insufficient, but somewhat encouraging.

  44. 44
    Alfred Jones says:

    Kevin: Coal’s proportion of the US gen mix slumped to just 23.8% in March,

    AJ: Sounds wrong to me. PRODUCTION is what matters, and what I’ve read says that Coal PRODUCTION is not going down (Correction welcome). What we do is PRETEND. We take our high-energy systems and offshore them, we take our coal and export it, and the net result is a DECREASE in efficiency and INCREASE in emissions. As if that is some sort of advancement….

  45. 45
    Alfred Jones says:

    Mike: So, does this study say, in effect, you can’t reason with conservative republicans?

    AJ: Nope. It means you can’t reason with ANYBODY. I’ve met few folks here or anywhere else who would change their opinion if the Goddess herself came down and proclaimed the Truth. Seriously, have you noticed anybody here evolve?

  46. 46
    Scott Strough says:

    @Jon #34,
    You are no doubt correct, humans exceeded carrying capacity of the planet earth long ago. Seeing as how by definition carrying capacity is the maximum population size of the species that the environment can sustain indefinitely, given the food, habitat, water, and other necessities available in the environment. We humans with our clever brains and opposable thumbs cheated that boundary thousands of years ago with agriculture.

    But now Agriculture has grown so large and destructive that even agriculture has exceeded carrying capacity. So we humans with our clever brains and opposable thumbs have two options, reduce our numbers with war, plague and famine, or change agriculture to regenerative sustainable models of production, thus changing the carrying capacity and cheating that boundary once again.

    Which do you think is the better option?

  47. 47
    Piotr says:

    mike, 21: “So, does this study say, in effect, you can’t reason with conservative republicans? Did we need a lot of research on this question?”

    Actually, the study does say something new – not that you “can’t”, but that perhaps you “shouldn’t” (or you will drive them the from the undecided into the opposed)… Should we give the reverse psychology a try ? ;-)

  48. 48
    nigelj says:

    I have noticed this thing with conservatives. They are slow to accept new ideas, but do eventually accept them in many cases, and often become their strongest advocates.

    It would just be good if they did all this a bit faster.

    The trouble is climate science is complex. We don’t have a single equation like E=MC2, and compelling proof like a nuclear reaction. AGW relies on a complex mix of evidence. It’s hard for lay people to get to grips with climate science, although I applaud the efforts of websites like this one and to communicate the issues in digestible form.

    The whole issue thus becomes a question of what scientists or bodies do you trust? Of course it then all becomes politicised and vitriolic.

  49. 49
    Alfred Jones says:

    Bryson: In the short-term it seems that identity trumps evidence. But in the longer term, for most people, the facts become obvious and evidence wins. I hope it doesn’t take too long.

    AJ: Well, it’s like debating whether a bullet is dangerous. Yep, once the victim is dead, few folks will maintain that the cause of death was high salt intake, but until the planet is dead, the debate goes on…

  50. 50
    Vendicar Decarian says:

    All new truth is judged against what one already knows to be true.

    This is true for all people, irrespective of their ideological beliefs.

    Liberals are more open minded and more adept at altering their ideological world view when credible evidence contradicts what they believe.

    This is not true of Republicans, who tend to refuse to alter their world view and conclude that the new information they are presented with is either wrong, or a lie that is probably part of a conspiracy against them.

    Republicans aren’t hard wired to deny Global Warming. They aren’t hard wired to deny evolution or the standard model of the origin of the universe.

    They deny these things because their ideology is based on which group they identify with.

    If the group they identify with holds the general view that the poor are genetically programmed to be lazy parasites, then they are more likely to believe that because they identify as part of the group and tend to modify their beliefs to match that of the group.

    This has nothing to do with “not seeing” or having a different perception, and is all about seeing the truth and then using deceit, to deceive ones self that the vision is something else. Just make up an excuse, a conspiracy, an act of God or Lucifer.

    Republican ignorance is not being defeated because the group vision isn’t being targeted for defeat/conversion. Individuals are being targeted.

    When individuals are targeted, and you get a partial conversion those individuals don’t alter their group association. Hence they fall right back into the group think, and the battle is lost as they manufacture some excuse to maintain their group ideology.

    In order to defeat/convert a group on an issue, the group must be targeted. You have to defeat the group, in the eyes of the group, before there will be significant progress.

    The core of group think is usually a core of people who have older people who have internalized the ideology of the group. In the current environment these people would be the Trump supporters of the Republican party.

    These older cores may just die out, and at that time new ideas may become popular.

    This is happening now with the Republican party, with FOX news watchers and Trump supporters being mostly geriatrics. So, if you want to push for change, now is the time.

    Don’t expect consistency over time with Republican “true believers”. When Bush Jr. was running up the U.S. debt, there wasn’t a peep from the people who are now trump supporters. In fact Dick Cheney remarked that “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.”

    As soon as their party lost the election, their complaint was that deficits do matter and that the country was being spent into oblivion.

    This change in opinion occurred as a result of key operatives within the Republican party leadership who altered the ideological view of the group, and hence the beliefs of those who belong to the group.

    This should be taken as supporting evidence that in order to defeat/convert the Republicans, one has to challenge the group rather than individuals.

    There is only so long that Republican group think can defy reality. But reality will only change the party ideology slowly.

    For example the claim that there is a pause in the warming is now gone from public discussion. The claims now are that ‘Sure the climate is changing but there is no proof that man is responsible.’

    It has taken the better part of 2 decades to get this far.

    The upshot is that for there to be significant progress, one must either wait for decades, the Republicans must elect a leader who will change the ideology, or the Republican party must be crushed as a party.

    Scientists no doubt find it distressing to be required to enter the fray of politics… But in my view, there is no other choice, since time is running short.