Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > Don't Blame Climate Change Deniers

Sep 24, 2014

Don't Blame Climate Change Deniers

Flooding in Marblehead Massachusetts caused by Hurricane Sandy (Wikipedia/The Birkes)

Ira Chernus, is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of "Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity."

MythicAmerica is on a forced hiatus while I deal with health problems. But over 300,000 people in New York City the other day reminded us all that no one's health will matter much unless we take care of the planet's health. So I felt moved to polish up a previously unpublished column and share these thoughts with you:

The old joke, "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it," is no laughing matter any more. It's dead serious. Yet the United States seems politically paralyzed on this most vital issue.

It's easy to blame the climate change deniers. But it's wrong. In Gallup's most recent poll only 18% of us denied climate change. In a CBS poll, only 11% were outright deniers.    

The vast majority of Americans are well aware that there's a real problem. More than four out of five agree with the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is happening now or surely will happen soon. And a solid majority believe that what they read in the news about climate change is either accurate or underestimates the problem.

Nevertheless, Americans put the climate almost dead last on the list of problems facing the nation.

30% of Americans believe climate change is here or on the way but simply do not worry about it. Virtually the same percentage believe it's already happening or will in their lifetimes but doesn't pose any serious threat to them.

Another public opinion study, by scholars at Yale and George Mason (Y/GM), found Americans falling into rather clear-cut categories. The "Cautious" and "Disengaged" -- neither true believers nor deniers -- add up to exactly 30%. A sizeable majority of them believe climate change poses a high risk to future generations. Yet virtually none of them "have thought a lot" about climate change.

The biggest political stumbling block is not the deniers. It's all those ignorers. How can so many ignore what they know is coming?

The Y/GM study found one crucial reason: uncertainty about the facts. Though most of the ignorers see a danger looming, few are really sure that it's happening now. Only about a third of them think that scientists agree on the facts. About four out of five say they "need more information to form an opinion." Nearly all say they could "easily" change their minds.

Don't be too quick to blame the 30% though. Even those the Y/GM study calls the "High Involvement Public" show surprising levels of uncertainty and apathy. About two-thirds of the "Concerned" say they're sure climate change is happening now. Yet four out of five say they need more information to make up their minds and 70% could "easily" change their minds. And only a tiny 13% have thought about it "a lot."

Among the thin sliver of the public (16%) who are "Alarmed" -- who all know climate change is happening and poses a danger to future generations -- roughly half say they need more information, and nearly a quarter are open to changing their minds. More than one-third have not thought "a lot" about the issue, and only about a third have expressed their concern to any public officials. 

Which means (I'm embarrassed to admit) that I'm a pretty typical American. For years I've written thousands of words on a wide range of subjects. Yet I've rarely addressed climate change, even though I've known that it's happening and poses unthinkable danger.

When I look in the mirror and try to figure out why I've avoided the issue, what I see staring back at me is that word unthinkable. When I write I try to be sure I know what I'm talking about. When it comes to climate change, the science seems so complex, so daunting, so far over my head that I hesitate to say or even think anything. I can never feel certain.

And I know that even the best scientists have to deal with uncertainty. They understand, as Elizabeth Kolbert recently noted in the New Yorker, that "while it is possible that the problem could turn out to be less serious than the consensus forecast, it is equally likely to turn out to be more serious."

That's why one of my friends, who is on the UN's Nobel-Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, taught me long ago to call the problem "climate chaos." She and her colleagues are sure that climate change is happening. But they also know that the dangers to human life come from the unpredictable, erratic, and often massive weather events that it causes (like the storm that dropped some 20 inches of rain in just a few days on her neighborhood, triggering unprecedented flooding).

Moreover, my friend tells me, climate scientists have been talking about all kinds of uncertainties for years. Recently she organized a conference on "Uncertainty in Climate Change Research: An Integrated Approach," because "uncertainty is present in all phases of climate change research." 

Even climate change philosophers deal with uncertainties that make our national conversation on the issue chaotic. Dale Jamieson points out that we can't be sure who to blame: "A lot of our thinking about policy tends to be oriented around a sort of good guy-bad guy polarization. Climate change is an issue that doesn’t fit very neatly into that stereotype. ... We’re all involved in contributing to the problem to some extent and we’re all involved in suffering from the problem to some extent."

The noisy climate change deniers bear some of the responsibility, of course, but surely not all. The fossil fuel corporations are a big part of the problem, too. Yet, as Paul Krugman recently wrote, "it’s not mainly about the vested interests. ... The monetary stakes aren’t nearly as big as you might think."

Then there are the huge greenhouse gas emissions from poorer countries, especially China and India. Can we really say they are part of "the enemy" on this issue, when we Americans emit so much more per capita? Millions of us in the U.S. drive our cars, and use more energy than we need, every day. We have met the enemy and they is us.

The evildoers in this tale are such a vast, diverse, vaguely-defined mass of people they're virtually invisible.

If we think of carbon dioxide as the enemy, it's also invisible: "tasteless, odorless -- it doesn’t present to our visual systems," as Jamieson says. David Ropeik, an expert on risk perception, agrees. The public doesn't worry because the threat "doesn’t feel immediate/imminent. It doesn’t feel…well…real. It’s more of an idea, a concept, an abstraction."

And we can't even be sure how big a problem carbon dioxide is. Methane may be the major culprit here.

Moreover, the effects of climate change are creeping up on us so slowly that they, too, are largely invisible. If this is an apocalypse, it's an agonizingly gradual one, the kind we just don't know how to think about or even believe in, much less deal with.

All in all, when I try to grasp the chaotic truth about climate change, I think I've got good reason to feel unsure and confused. 

So I ask myself: Is there anything I know pretty much for sure? I know that in politics "a narrative is the key to everything," as Democrat polling guru Stanley Greenberg once wrote. The Yale/George Mason scholars agree that if there's any chance of motivating the ignorers to get involved, new narratives are a key:

"Narratives foster involvement with a story and characters, and prior issue involvement is unnecessary for drawing the audience's attention. Memory of narrative content tends to be high ... and studies find that the persuasive effects of fiction can be as high as for non-fiction."

I know that the best politicians of every stripe -- from FDR to Reagan, from Elizabeth Warren to Ted Cruz -- are always great storytellers. Of course they aren't novelists. Though they may lie when it's useful, the stories they rely on most to get themselves elected and their policies enacted have to include some dose of real facts. Yet those facts have to be embedded in a simple, emotionally powerful narrative rooted in familiar cultural traditions.

The best politicians understand that shared stories are the glue that hold communities together. People cling to comfortable narratives because they want to cling to the other people in their comfortable group. Research now shows that even among the small minority who actually deny climate change, many probably know the scientific facts. They deny them mainly to reinforce their status as "true conservatives" -- the group bond that gives them a sense of identity.

Here's another thing I know pretty much for sure: The dominant narrative of climate change activists isn't working well enough. " We are absolutely certain," that narrative insists. "Virtually all scientists agree. Unless we act urgently we are doomed." What could be simpler or more emotionally gripping?

Nevertheless, this story has not in made much headway in the American political arena. The group Gallup calls "Concerned Believers" has held steady at only 39% for the last 14 years. And, as we've seen, not many of them are moved to consistent action or even apprehension. Hence the lack of political action.

Maybe that's because most of them, like the "Cautious" and "Disengaged," aren't impelled by a narrative that relies on a claim of absolute certainty. As long as climate change activists don't have any other kind of story to offer, they aren't likely to win any big political victories.

That doesn't mean the activists should throw out their prevailing narrative. Because here's another thing I know for sure: Every good political campaign needs niche marketing. There's still a sizeable minority of the U.S. population that believes the claims of scientific certainty, and they should hold on to their story.

The people I worry about are in all those other niches, the ones who will respond only to stories that begin with "No one knows for sure, but ..."

Then I ask myself, "Why worry?" I study and write about political narratives all the time. It should be fun to find some that allow for uncertainty. And it should be easy. In fact there's lots to choose from already. 

A Republican stalwart, Henry Paulson, says flatly: "It is true that there is uncertainty about the timing and magnitude of these risks ... We’ll never know enough to resolve all of the uncertainties. " But "we must not lose sight of the profound economic risks of doing nothing." Good businessmen don't wait for certainty. They calculate the odds and then take action.

That story about benefits to the marketplace from an all-out attack on climate change is growing. And it's bipartisan. Tom Steyer, perhaps the nation's wealthiest climate change activist, funds Democratic candidates and NextGen Climate, whose slogan is: "Act politically to avert climate disaster and preserve American prosperity."

EPA head Gina McCarthy took a similar tack when she announced the Obama administration's proposals for limiting coal plant emissions: "The plan will create demand for designing and building energy-efficient technology ... It spurs ingenuity and innovation. ... All this means more jobs” -- regardless of how big the threat really is.

However it's a gamble whether such a naked bid to economic self-interest will have a big impact, when so many Americans often vote against their own best economic interests.

A recent experiment tested a more idealistic message. Conservatives, in particular, proved more favorable to safeguarding the environment when they were told that "it is patriotic." Most moderates and even many liberals may respond to that kind of call too.  

The Pentagon has long been touting its version of that story. Its latest Quadrennial Defense Review  "identified climate change as one of our most significant national security problems"; at least that's the way the commander-in-chief read the report. Obama agreed with the Joint Chiefs that "climate change could end up having profound national security implications."  

Look at it this way, and suddenly uncertainty is even less of a problem. Whenever American public opinion has believed that a potential risk to our nation and our way of life loomed the horizon, no matter how small, we've never waited for absolute certainty. We acted first and got all the facts later.

Sometimes we've prepared for war -- and even gone to war -- no matter how slim the odds of real threat, because when it comes to protecting our homeland we take no chances -- as today's events in Syria and Iraq make painfully clear.

Risk analyst Ropeik is pessimistic. He thinks the patriotic vein won't be tapped deep enough to yield political results unless we "feel we were at war -- bullets-flying ... NOW 'I am in Danger' war." He might be right; the "Climate Patriots" meme has been around for several years without garnering very much attention (perhaps because it's been yoked to a meme of absolute scientific certainty).

But political narratives are germinating, unnoticed, all the time. Occasionally, unpredictably, one bursts into powerful prominence. People were talking about abolishing slavery, for example, for more than a century before the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. Christopher Hayes, for one, thinks we need a new abolitionism, though he knows it will be a tough fight.

Ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt called on the nation (in his first inaugural address) to "wage a war" against the Great Depression as if "we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe," Americans have united to resist all sorts of non-military dangers -- poverty, drugs, cancer, and even fat -- as long as the campaign was dubbed a "war."

They've also learned to pay big bucks for research and development in wartime that led to all sorts of unexpected and profitable technological breakthroughs. So the economic benefit, patriotism, national security, abolition, and war stories might all fit together in a tale I suggested recently: a gradual apocalyptic transformation from the possibility of catastrophic risk to the possibility of a far better world.

On the other hand, maybe the best to hope for is an endless a war of containment, like the cold war. For decades most Americans assumed that the apocalyptic communist threat could never be vanquished; we'd be staving it off forever. National security was reduced to risk management in a world of permanent uncertainty.

Now the U.S. government is funding an international project treating climate change precisely as an exercise in risk management. These scientists call it "a problem imbued with deep uncertainty." Their first, still unanswered question is "How large are the uncertainties?"

All these narratives -- and surely there can be lots more -- can start with the words, "No one knows for sure. But why take chances?" Any one of them might, or might not, be a political game-changer. 

In any event, looking over all the climate change narratives, there's one last thing I know for sure: The dominant story of the American mass media, "doom-sayers versus deniers," is far too narrow to reflect the true complexity of the political landscape.

So I say let a thousand narratives bloom. Or at least plant a thousand seeds, and see which ones bloom into political successes. No one can be certain about the future.

All we can do is keep nurturing all those stories and embrace the uncertainty. Because the political landscape of climate change, like the climate itself, is bound to be chaotic at least for a while. Right now, it seems to me, the more chaotic the better.   


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