Talking Climate Change

On Revkin on Gore on Obama on climate--with some polling, cognitive science, KC Golden, and Joe Romm thrown in.
This post is part of the research project: Word on the Street


The water cooler talk today for Climate Nerds (and the Climate Coolsters too) is all about Al Gore’s Rolling Stone critique of President Obama’s failure to lead on climate change issues. Here’s the money quote on the singular agenda-setting power of the American president:

Yet without presidential leadership that focuses intensely on making the public aware of the reality we face, nothing will change. The real power of any president, as Richard Neustadt wrote, is “the power to persuade.” Yet President Obama has never presented to the American people the magnitude of the climate crisis. He has simply not made the case for action. He has not defended the science against the ongoing, withering and dishonest attacks. Nor has he provided a presidential venue for the scientific community — including our own National Academy — to bring the reality of the science before the public.

The point is that the public needs strong leadership on global warming. Otherwise we’re left confused and preoccupied with other pressing concerns. But it also brings up a long-standing question about whether more information is what Americans really actually need to get on board with climate action—in word and in deed.

The New York Times‘ climate expert and DotEarth blogger Andy Revkin weighed in, saying that he agrees with the part about Obama missing the agenda-setting boat. He goes on, however, to lament that Gore’s critique simply “retreads old arguments implying that if the disinformation on this tough issue were swept away, some kind of magical consensus would emerge.” And it does seem that piling on more and more scientific evidence that global warming is happening hasn’t worked so far and likely isn’t going to change people’s minds or get them fired up.

Revkin has been saying for years that the human brain is basically hard-wired to ignore this kind of risk until it hits us in the face. And he wrote a year ago (in one of his habitual climate blogger back and forths with Joe Romm) that even if each and every American had access to “perfect climate information,” our brains would still not be able to adequately process the urgency of the situation. There’s certainly some social and cognitive science backing this up—and I’ve been fascinated by this stuff for a while (and continue to look to studies of the human brain for clues on best practices in climate messaging).

The scientific evidence has been mounting for years; maybe we just don’t have the capacity to worry much about a threat as abstract and seemingly distant as climate change.

But new Yale/George Mason research on climate attitudes tells a somewhat different story. Namely, as Anthony Leiserowitz, who directs the Yale University Project on Climate Change Communication, put in a recent NPR interview, “So far the evidence shows that the more people understand that there is this [scientific] consensus, the more they tend to believe that climate change is happening, the more they understand that humans are a major contributor, and the more worried they are about it.

(Had to bold that.)

As I reported here recently, for the first time, this poll not only asked citizens what they thought of climate change, it also asked them to give their best estimate about how climate scientists feel about global warming. As it turns out, people do not have a good idea where scientists actually stand on this issue. “Only 13 percent of Americans got the correct answer, which is that in fact about 97 percent of American scientists say that climate change is happening, and about a third of Americans just simply say they don’t know.”

So are Americans simply becoming more anti-science? Leiserowitz says that’s not what his polls show. In fact, “most Americans have overwhelming trust in the science and trust in scientists,” he said. But the public is largely unaware of the consensus on climate change because that’s not what they’re hearing on cable TV or reading in blogs. “They mostly get exposed to a much more conflicted view, and that’s of course not by accident,” he said. That is a sly reference to a relentless multimillion-dollar campaign aimed at discrediting the science of global warming.

So, we do in fact need better information! (It should be noted that Gore also issues a blistering critique of the media’s failure to tell the climate story to the public. For more on that read Joe Romm’s analysis.)

But information alone is probably not the silver bullet.

Another thing is happening as well. It’s what I call the Vicious Cycle of Climate Inaction.

It’s a perpetual stalling mechanism that seems to be built into the system. Here’s how it works: inaction by leaders at the highest levels leads people to think global warming must not be as big a deal as they thought and, in turn, people thinking it’s not as big a deal as they thought maintains a political landscape where inaction by leaders at the highest levels is politically acceptable.

Climate Solutions’  KC Golden summed this up perfectly a while back in a book review of The Boiling Point by Ross Gelbspan that he wrote for Yes! Magazine:

The best antidote to denial is action. We once heard a participant in a Climate Solutions focus group say, “I don’t think global warming is a big problem, because nobody’s doing anything about it.” If it were really as bad as Ross [Gelbspan] says, surely the responsible authorities would be taking action! So action to protect the climate isn’t just the result of greater awareness of the problem, it is a precondition of greater awareness.

It’s an understatement to say that it would be nice if we could break out of that cycle—and Obama’s one person in a pretty darn good position to lead the charge, both by giving it his powerful voice and by truly working to move climate and energy policy forward.

Notably, Yale’s Leiserowitz says that if you drill down a bit (and I wrote about this yesterday in the context of Gallup polling on fossil fuels), the American public actually is not split when you ask them if they’d like to see a gradual transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. All the more reason for Obama to listen to Al Gore and use his bully pulpit to make a clear case for action—and then start walking the talk so that perpetual inaction doesn’t simply lead to more and more evaporation of public concern.

We are a community-supported resource and we can’t do this work without you!

Read more in ,


  1. Anna Fahey says:

    Salon’s Joan Walsh posted a great article on this today, including more on the media’s role in informing the public about climate change (and their failure to report now on Gore’s critique of them!):

    The fact is, Gore didn’t single out the president in “Climate of Denial”; most of his piece indicts the media for indulging in “debate” about whether climate change is real and human-made, when the science is unanimous that it is, as well as turning news into entertainment, to the detriment of serious reporting on global threats, in search of bigger audiences. He also calls out Fox News as a 24/7 purveyor of disinformation and Republican propaganda, on the heels of Jon Stewart’s great takedown last night. But Gore’s critique is just, like, too complicated, and kind of a downer, and maybe hits too close to home. So a lot of outlets are just saying: “Hey! Look over there! It’s not us — It’s Obama! Fight!”

    And she also gives a great overview of the political landscape:

    But with a Republican Party whose strategy consisted of saying no to everything, no matter how reasonable, that approach didn’t work. The Obama team also thought they could make progress by cutting side deals with the powerful interests that block change, promising big healthcare interests, for instance, that the public option was off the table. Healthcare reform ultimately passed, but without a public option or other methods to contain costs, and the side deals contributed to public cynicism about the process and the product. Likewise on the failure to pass a climate change bill, Gore says, “Senate advocates — including one Republican — felt abandoned when the president made concessions to oil and coal companies without asking for anything in return.”

  2. richard pauli says:

    Thank you so much. Sage comments. You define the core issue so well. The issue is not climate science, it is human psychology.

    Indeed it is not the force of gravity that has been our problem – it has been our adaptation to it.

    Climate change will unfold according to physical laws of science that humans can try to ignore. Or we can adapt.

    Jeekers these are interesting times.

  3. Gal says:

    “…even if each and every American had access to “perfect climate information,” our brains would still not be able to adequately process the urgency of the situation.”

    This has to be bullshit because of the simple fact that there ARE, in fact, many people who do understand and can process the urgency of the situation. So what are we? Genetic anomalies? Outerspace aliens?

    It’s just an excuse. There are lots of reasons people deny – it’s more comfortable, or profitable, or they are too greedy or selfish or lazy to penetrate the fog of disinformation paid for by corrupt industries and government agencies (there’s not much difference between them).

    But a cognitive inability to comprehend the cataclysmic destabilization of weather is not one of the reasons, any more than an inability to perceive evil prevented the spectators of the Holocaust from protesting.

  4. Nick says:

    The author here is out thinking the room here. The core problem of America’s inability to accept action on Climate Change is that those leading in advocacy for such action do not live up to there own principles. As Walter Russell Mead put it in a recent blog for The American Interest, “You can sit on ivory chairs with kings in their halls of gold, participating in the world of politics as usual, or you can live with the prophets and visionaries in the wilderness, voices of a greater truth and higher meaning that challenge the smug certainties and false assumptions of the comfortable, business as usual elites. You cannot do both.” At the end of the day, until Al Gore either walks the Climate Change walk or is replaced in national prominence by somebody who does, America will not accept dynamic action to mitigate Climate Change.

  5. Anna Fahey says:

    Thanks. It always helps me clarify my own thinking to get feedback from insightful readers!

    Gal—I like your idea that the cognitive barriers argument is just one more excuse for not doing anything. I’m going to dig into that a bit more to see who’s using it as such.

    In any case, I agree that it shouldn’t mean we just give up trying to educate people or motivate them to get engaged. And the way our brains process this info is certainly only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to getting people on board for action (plus, people are actually on board anyway despite the fact that our brains do have a hard time imagining a future that is different from the present.) To clarify: I don’t think that Revkin is saying that we can’t actually comprehend it (because you’re right that many do), but that we—and even the Climate Nerds—are hardwired to deny or ignore, delay, stall, and compartmentalize when things are really big and abstract. I’m hoping to write a lot more on the psychology of risk in coming months. Fascinating stuff. And I hope I made myself clear that it’s not just our brains but also the information we’re getting or not getting as well as the signals we’re NOT getting from our leaders that this is a crucial matter.

    Nick—Good point. I think that walking the walk is part of what I dubbed the “Vicious Cycle of Climate Inaction.” And walking the walk probably means personal choices / behaviors by leaders as well as pushing for big policy changes. In any case, there’s lots of debate about Al Gore’s role in the “movement” and whether he’s a good spokesman on this stuff or not. Hard to say. Thanks for your feedback.

    Interesting times indeed!

  6. Clyde says:

    Hooey. If Al Gore had a smaller house and lectured from his family room, he’d still be derided and ignored by the deniers.

    I think the answer is pretty simple and straightforward: the “adults” don’t behave, so why should the rest of us?

    When I read that every container ship coming from China goes through 24 tons of diesel a day, and that our military is spending $20 BILLION A YEAR in Iraq and Afghanistan on gasoline to air-condition canvas tents, and Congress is busy rescinding energy efficiency lighting standards and bans on the military’s use of carbon-intensive liquid coal, and labor unions are willing to fight for massive coal exports because there may be several new jobs – well, I start feeling downright silly about spending extra time (and sometimes extra money) to take public transit, use a clothes line, un-plug my phantom energy users and write another letter to the editor.

Leave a Comment

Please keep it civil and constructive. Our editors reserve the right to monitor inappropriate comments and personal attacks.


You may add a link with HTML: <a href="URL">text to display</a>