by Judith Curry
Climate change awareness is complex and strongly mediated by socially constructed attitudes. It is important to recognise that many of the social and cultural obstacles to belief are not removed by major impacts and may, indeed, be reinforced. – George Marshall
George Marshall has a very interesting essay at the blog Climate Change Denial, entitled Reasons why Climate Disasters Might Not Increase Concern About Climate Change.
From the home page of the blog:
This blog explores the topic of the psychology of climate change denial – with observations and anecdotes about our weird and disturbed response to the problem. It seeks to answer a question that has puzzled me for years: why, when the evidence is so strong, and so many agree that this is our greatest problem, are we doing so little about climate change?
My name is George Marshall- I am the founder of a climate change charity, the Climate Outreach Information Network.
Here are some excerpts from his essay:
In the wake of extreme heat, droughts, and Hurricane Sandy, many people are assuming that, at last, there may be the critical mass of extreme weather events that will tip public opinion towards action on climate change.
However this assumption deserves to be challenged.
Disasters can reinforce social networks (and with them established norms and worldviews)
In disasters, especially in areas with strong communities, people tend to pull together and show a remarkable and inspiring sense of collective purpose.
We know, though, that attitudes to climate change are strongly correlated with political and ideological worldviews (see for example the work of Dan Kahan and the Cultural Cognition Project ). We can therefore anticipate that a stronger cultural cohesion could make it even harder for ideas that challenge existing worldviews to be voiced or accepted- creating even further obstacles for the acceptance of climate change in societies that are currently skeptical.
And we could anticipate that extreme events might also reinforce existing concern in places that are already disposed to accept climate change.
Disasters can increase social confidence and certainty.
Accepting anthropogenic climate change requires a high degree of self-criticism and even self-doubt. It requires a preparedness to accept personal responsibility for collective errors and for entire societies to accept the need for major collective change. And, inevitably, this process of acceptance would generate intense debate and conflict.
Disasters may very well do the opposite and provide proof of the worth of the existing social system- including the existing worldview and lifestyle. The spirit of pulling together and moving on generates a consensus to suppress divisive issues and support the existing society. Areas of contention or disagreement are likely to be suppressed in the interests of social cohesion or out of respect to people who have offered kindness and generosity. After all, if your current society and economic model has served you well in a crisis you are surely less willing to accept change.
Disasters encourage powerful and compelling survival narratives (that can overwhelm weaker and more complex climate change narratives).
So a complex and challenging narrative [like climate change] will have a very hard time being accepted as social truth when it is competing against strong, appealing and highly coherent narrative.
It’s a hard one to sell at the best of times, and a disaster is the very worst condition for this narrative because it is overwhelmed by a much more attractive story: “we support each other, we are surrounded by evidence of our love and kindness, we are tough, we faced a huge challenge and we won through…and we can do it again”. This does not just speak to local pride, but the much larger mythology of frontier town Texas.
Disasters are cyclical and create escalating baselines
Human psychology is strongly prone to creating patterns and comparisons based on the ‘availability’ of comparable events. In terms of environmental issues people tend to be very poor at noticing decadal change (and certainly intergenerational change) because of a shifting baseline.
Disasters create intense but isolated events after which things go back to ‘normal’. The pain and loss of the event generates an intensified desire that there be a ‘normal’ state to which one can return, making it harder to people to accept that there are larger changes underway. The desire for stability makes people more prone to see a disaster as being at the extreme end of natural variations (that is to say part of a normal cycle).
However, any extreme event has also created a new baseline. The next event will be measured against this baseline and, if this is equivalent or lesser will reinforce the idea that it was part of a normal cycle. There is a good chance too that the collective learning and adaptation to the previous event will ensure that future events will be more manageable and have lower human and economic impacts. This too will reinforce ideas the perception that such events are not escalating.
The critical consideration in how events are perceived is the relationship between an event and the most recent comparable events, and the time that separates them. Events that are far apart are unlikely to be noticed, whereas we could assume a greater perception of change around events that are relatively recent, memorable, and clearly escalating.
Repeated disasters generate hopelessness and powerlessness
The ‘Paradise in Hell’ communitarianism pertains to events that are relatively rare anomalies in an otherwise confident and successful society. If extreme events occur with regularity – especially if they occur too regularly for communities and economies to recover fully- they could generate a sense of despair and helplessness.
I suspect that the most likely response to regular extreme events would be for people to move or to bunker down into inwards looking family and social groups. This in turn would work against the outward looking confidence required to take action on climate change. People may, under these conditions, accept the reality of climate change but if they do so they will have to accept that actions to mitigate emissions, even across the entire world, will not prevent further more extreme and severe events.
Different kinds of extreme climate may have different impacts on public attitudes
It is important to differentiate between different kinds of climate event and suggest that they may have different outcomes in public attitudes. Droughts and heatwaves are extended conditions that encourage the perception that there is a long term change underway (a change in the ‘normal’). What is more, although they generate solidarity in suffering there is far less of the ‘pull together’ cohesion that occurs in major disaster events. We could reasonably infer that they may be more likely to generate an increase in concern about climate change.
The relationship between climate disasters and perceptions of climate change is complex as it is mediated by socially constructed narratives.
This means that campaigners and communicators should be very wary of charging into areas affected by extreme weather events and assuming that they have fertile ground for increased activism around change. The very opposite may be true, especially if they are perceived as outsiders who are breaking into the community (which may never have been stronger or more united) and exploiting its suffering. It would be hard to imagine anything more counterproductive than an environmental activist organisation dropping a banner in the midst of a conservative community after a major disaster.
The critical condition for affecting longer term attitudes is the extent to which events are translated into a socially held narrative that speaks to people’s sense of their own identity. And this requires a steady long term approach – waiting until the dust has settled and working with trusted local communicators who can make a case that the single event fits into a narrative pattern of longer term change.
JC comment: The scientific support for linking Sandy to AGW is weak to missing, at best. On the issue of linking Hurricane Sandy to AGW, pbs.org has an interesting article titled Hurricanes and Climate Change. It is fairly well-balanced for an article on this topic. As a reminder, here is my own essay on the topic.
However, that does not stop scientists from pushing this link, presumably motivated by thinking that such a link will spur ‘action’ on climate change. We can only hope that Marshall’s essay will have some influence on this strategy. Not only does it apparently not work in terms of influencing ‘action’, but it can pervert science in the process.
The shifting baseline point is an interesting one. This remark brings to mind the recent article in timesunion.com titled The storms of New York. These include the great blizzard of March 1888, which motivated development of NYC’s underground transit system. Torrential rains in March 1913 spurred engineering to regulate the flow of the Hudson River. The 1938 hurricane motivated improved organization and coordination of federal emergency relief efforts. NYC mayor Andrew Cuomo makes this statement:
“Anyone who says there is not a change in weather patterns is denying reality,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said after Sandy. New York has had two “hundred year storms” in two years, he noted.
We really need a better way of communicating the statistics of rare events. The frame of ‘hundred year storms’ makes sense only in a stationary climate, and climate is not stationary even in the absence of AGW.