Tuesday, September 20, 2011

4 reasons voters don't demand climate change action: How to frame the debate

Daniel Gilbert

In this classic article in the LA times analyzing public opinion on global warming ("If only gay sex caused global warming") Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, gives four reasons why the threat of global warming -- which 83% of the public knows is happening -- hasn't motivated the public to insist on decisive action to combat the threat.

He finds four critical problems that make the dangers of unchecked global warming a poor fit with our laboriously evolved sensitivity to risk: it's not an intentional action, it doesn't provoke moral outrage, it is a long-term rather than a short-term threat, and it is gradually worsening, making it hard for people to see the new conditions are as different as they are.

Gilbert just lays these problems on the table: he doesn't suggest solutions. But he defines the problem in such a way that solutions suggest themselves. In general, it's safe to presume that Gilbert would agree with the indomitable Michael Tobis, who reminds us that "We must make the invisible visible. We must make the vastness perceptible. We must make the alien familiar. We must make implausible truths obvious."

How do we do that in the context of Gilbert's four points?

1. It's not an intentional action. Except it is.

Understanding what others are up to — what they know and want, what they are doing and planning — has been so crucial to the survival of our species that our brains have developed an obsession with all things human. We think about people and their intentions; talk about them; look for and remember them.

That's why we worry more about anthrax (with an annual death toll of roughly zero) than influenza (with an annual death toll of a quarter-million to a half-million people). Influenza is a natural accident, anthrax is an intentional action, and the smallest action captures our attention in a way that the largest accident doesn't. If two airplanes had been hit by lightning and crashed into a New York skyscraper, few of us would be able to name the date on which it happened.

Global warming isn't trying to kill us, and that's a shame. If climate change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, the war on warming would be this nation's top priority.
 How we fight back: We get personal.

Stress the intentional distortion of the science, by people, the delay, procrastination, and denial, by people, to protect profits and the status quo. Emphasize our agency as it regards to the climate: we are choosing to shove millions of tons of fossil fuel carbon into the air. It wasn't an intentional act when it started, but the world has changed. People are doing this to us -- and while in a sense we're all doing it to each other, we're not all equally responsible. Fossil fuel companies -- led by people -- are both producing the bulk of the emissions and large amounts of money to distort the science, dishonestly sow doubt and confusion, and maintain their ability to damage our climate unchecked. It's intentional. It's personal.

2. It doesn't violate our moral sensibilities. Except it does.

 It doesn't cause our blood to boil (at least not figuratively) because it doesn't force us to entertain thoughts that we find indecent, impious or repulsive. When people feel insulted or disgusted, they generally do something about it, such as whacking each other over the head, or voting. Moral emotions are the brain's call to action.

Although all human societies have moral rules about food and sex, none has a moral rule about atmospheric chemistry. And so we are outraged about every breach of protocol except Kyoto. Yes, global warming is bad, but it doesn't make us feel nauseated or angry or disgraced, and thus we don't feel compelled to rail against it as we do against other momentous threats to our species, such as flag burning. The fact is that if climate change were caused by gay sex, or by the practice of eating kittens, millions of protesters would be massing in the streets
 How we fight back: We put the spotlight on the morally outrageous behavior of deniers.

This goes hand in hand with stressing intentionality, and it is uncomfortable to responsible people for the same reason -- we're taught to focus on arguments, not people, and use evidence, not ad homs. And I'm not arguing against that. Throughout, I take it as a given that those supporting action will use sound science, will eschew hysteria and unnecessary personal attacks. But as I've argued elsewhere, that doesn't mean given up our moral outrage at people who lie, cheat, distort and manipulate.

People engaged in this debate have a healthy sense of moral outrage at climate deniers. That's what this blog is founded on. Gilbert's analysis says we need to share that outrage with the public: it's a part of communicating effectively on global warming. CO2 may not be trying to kill us, but people who fake resumes, plagarize scientific papers, lie, cherry-pick and spin the media are recklessly endangering human life by means of manipulation and outright dishonesty to further either their right-wing ideological views and/or their personal profits.

That's part of the message. It's not enough to show that deniers keep getting it wrong; it's time to say why.

3. It's a long-term rather than a short-term threat. Until it's not.
The third reason why global warming doesn't trigger our concern is that we see it as a threat to our futures — not our afternoons. Like all animals, people are quick to respond to clear and present danger, which is why it takes us just a few milliseconds to duck when a wayward baseball comes speeding toward our eyes.

The brain is a beautifully engineered get-out-of-the-way machine that constantly scans the environment for things out of whose way it should right now get. That's what brains did for several hundred million years — and then, just a few million years ago, the mammalian brain learned a new trick: to predict the timing and location of dangers before they actually happened.
How we fight back: we show people the short-term disasters they fear are part of the long-term crisis

This one is simple: we need to show the link -- where it is demonstrated with solid science, without overreaching -- between global warming and extreme weather, global warming and famine, global warming and natural disasters. The right standard for a connection, as I've argued, is increased risk:

The linkage that is meaningful here is one of risk. If you smoke you may not get cancer. If you do not smoke you may still get cancer. Cancer and smoking are still strongly linked, even if a particular case of cancer can never be attributed to any one factor.

Climate models say Texas is going to burn. Texas is burning. That burning is linked to climate change. Climate change made it more likely to happen, it's happening and it will probably happen again. Complex events always have multiple influencing factors that muddy their pedigree. Focus on what counts -- risk.
Programs like ACE (Attribution of Climate Events) will help with this. Once there is a connection -- a connection of risk, not a bullshit, monofactorial, 100% dependent cause-and-effect relationship, which you will never by able to demonstrate for any complex phenomenon in the real world -- once you can say with confidence that an event is either more likely to happen because of global warming, or more likely to be more severe or otherwise atypical, then you can, and should, relentlessly link it to global warming.

When sudden, extreme weather events and natural disasters are linked to climate change -- and science strongly supports such a link in many cases -- climate change becomes a real, perceptible, short-term threat, because people can clearly see how it can change the course of their lives at any moment.

It's been ten years since September 11th. Yet Al Queda is still seen as an immediate, short-term threat, because it's clear that absence our actions, a similar, deadly act of terror could strike anywhere, at any time. When people understand the strong relationship between global warming and escalating extreme weather and natural disasters, it will have the same effect: a long-term threat becomes vivid and striking because of its explosive potential to become an immediate emergency.

4. It is gradually worsening, making it hard for people to see the new conditions are as different as they are. Except it's not gradual where it counts.

The human brain is exquisitely sensitive to changes in light, sound, temperature, pressure, size, weight and just about everything else. But if the rate of change is slow enough, the change will go undetected. If the low hum of a refrigerator were to increase in pitch over the course of several weeks, the appliance could be singing soprano by the end of the month and no one would be the wiser.

Because we barely notice changes that happen gradually, we accept gradual changes that we would reject if they happened abruptly. The density of Los Angeles traffic has increased dramatically in the last few decades, and citizens have tolerated it with only the obligatory grumbling. Had that change happened on a single day last summer, Angelenos would have shut down the city, called in the National Guard and lynched every politician they could get their hands on.

Environmentalists despair that global warming is happening so fast. In fact, it isn't happening fast enough. If President Bush could jump in a time machine and experience a single day in 2056, he'd return to the present shocked and awed, prepared to do anything it took to solve the problem.
How we fight back: Radical changes happening now need to be framed as a taste of the future

No doubt a time machine to 2056 would be the best solution. We have something very like a time machine, however: we have areas of the world that are changing at breakneck speed. The Arctic. Greenland and Antarctica. East Africa. Texas. A hurricaine barreling down on New York and New Jersey. When these things happen, we should not only point out the link to climate change, but stress these events as prologue to the new normal.  We don't need to exaggerate the changes, we don't need to weep and beat our breasts, we just need to communicate that radical changes happening now are a small taste of what's coming within our lifetimes.

So to turn a theoretical risk into something more real and immediate to people, do these four things:

1. Stress our human agency. Carbon polluters -- and especially the leaders of the fossil fuel industry -- are consciously, deliberately, and intentionally injecting millions of tons of CO2 into the air and transforming the climate, at terrible risk to human welfare.

2. Share your moral outrage at those that lie, dissemble, manipulate, and sow confusion.

3. Relentlessly emphasize the proven connection between short-term emergencies -- extreme weather and natural disasters -- and the long-term threat.

4. Underline the radical and destructive changes to bellwether environments as the face of the new normal if we fail to act.

We can make this a threat that the public sees and feels, the way people who really have dug into the science can see it and feel it. To do so we need to be accurate, we need to be right, but that alone is not enough. Without any compromise in integrity, we need to find the language and the images that make the invisible visible to the broader mass of voters who will allocate very little attention to the problem and none to solutions until they perceive (on their own terms) the threat.

UPDATE: Daniel Gilbert lays out his ideas more fully in this presentation -- the guy is an awesome speaker, check it out. H/t Jules in the comments. Thanks Jules!

Nathan Eagle: Global mobile workforce from PopTech on Vimeo.


  1. What a great post.

    Moral emotions are the brain's call to action.

    I've been aware of anthropogenic climate change and our big ghostly monkey wrench we're feeding into the planetary HVAC plant for some time. It wasn't until I began seeing charges of fraud flung against various researchers that I became angry about the situation. My dad was a scientist, I'm married to a scientist, when we socialize it's often with scientists; most of the people I know on a social basis are scientists. All of these people feature scrupulous honesty often to an annoying degree where little lubricating lies can't happen; "saying it as correctly as we know how" bleeds from their work and into their private lives. So, the fraud canard is just outrageous to me, thanks to my personal knowledge and personal connections; baseless accusations of dishonesty have made me angry enough to become more informed, to give money, to become more conscious and controlling of our energy spew, to act in a number of ways. I suppose that's some confirmation of your point.

  2. An interesting presentation by Gilbert on the same topic can be viewed here:

  3. One more (very useful) data point to support the notion that American politics is immersed in the emotional setting of the average 8-year old mind.

    (No offense to 8-year olds ... YOU still have a chance to grow up ... emotionally.)

    John Puma

  4. "Moral emotions are the brain's call to action."

    Wow. Did really catch that before. That's the money quote, all right.