by Judith Curry
A boomerang effect occurs when a message is strategically constructed with a specific intent but produces a result that is the opposite of that intent.
Both sides of the political debate surrounding climate change in the U.S. seem to be feeling the boomerang effect.
Boomerang effects in climate change campaigns
Matthew Nisbett has an interesting blog post that discusses the following new study:
Boomerang Effets in Science Communication: How Motivated Reasoning and Identity Cues Amplify Opinion polarization About Climate Mitigation Policies
H.S. Hart and E.C. Nisbet
Abstract. The deficit-model of science communication assumes increased communication about science issues will move public consensus toward scientific consensus. However, in the case of climate change, public polarization about the issue has increased in recent years, not diminished. In this study, we draw from theories of motivated reasoning, social identity, and persuasion to examine how science-based messages may increase public polarization on controversial science issues such as climate change. Exposing 240 adults to simulated news stories about possible climate change health impacts on different groups, we found the influence of identification with potential victims was contingent on participants’ political partisanship. This partisanship increased the degree of political polarization on support for climate mitigation policies and resulted in a boomerang effect among Republican participants. Implications for understanding the role of motivated reasoning within the context of science communication are discussed.
In press, Communication Research August 11, 2011 009365021141664. Link to abstract [here].
In the absence of a freely available online manuscript, I will quote from Mat Nisbet’s essay. The punchline seems to be this:
Climate change campaigns in the United States that focus on the risks to people in foreign countries or even other regions of the U.S. are likely to inadvertently increase polarization among Americans rather than build consensus and support for policy action. In contrast, locally focused campaigns that highlight the risks to fellow residents of a state or a city are less likely to activate strong partisan differences.
The study investigates the general problem of boomerang effects in climate change campaigns and advocacy. A boomerang effect occurs when a message is strategically constructed with a specific intent but produces a result that is the opposite of that intent. Previous studies, for example, indicate that the use of dire messages warning of climate catastrophe may unintentionally trigger disbelief, skepticism, and/or decreased concern among audiences.
The importance of climate change campaigns and how subtle and not-so-subtle features might interact with the background of different audiences was underscored by another key finding of the analysis: After controls, neither knowledge specific to climate change or general science literacy was significantly related to support for policy action.
The study also points to a strategy supported by other recent research. In this work, when information about the risks of climate change are localized, connected closely to values such as public health, and communicated in terms of co-benefits to the community, these campaign efforts are likely to be more successful at transcending ideological differences and building support for action.
Furthermore, as climate change is a global phenomena, news stories often highlight the impact that climate change is having and will likely have in the future on different parts of the world. While media messages are often created with an informational, rather than persuasive intent, our results suggest that broad public exposure to news stories discussing the impacts of climate change on other groups outside the United States is likely to amplify the partisan divide on climate mitigation policies as motivated reasoning drives political polarization in identification with those affected by climate change.
JC comment: I find this to be an interesting study, with results that don’t seem surprising to me. By framing the climate change problem and its solution as irreducibly global, the UNFCCC/IPCC has developed climate change policies that are politically infeasible and have torqued the science away from detailed and serious examination of regional climates and vulnerabilities. I’m a fan of the adaptive governance approach, whereby local/regional communities work to secure their common interest in the context of a changing climate.
Climate boomerang hits the Republicans
This title comes from a post at Collide-a-Scape. Roger Pielke Jr. is quoted as saying:
Climate change has become a wedge issue. It’s today’s flag-burning or today’s partial-birth-abortion issue.
Joe Romm makes the following assessment:
Pielke cites two well-known wedge issues that split Democrats, issues that Republicans have used to their advantage to drive a wedge between liberal Democrats and more moderate or conservative ones (as well as independents).
But the article actually makes the case that climate change is an issue splitting Republicans, and thus — intentionally or otherwise — it makes the case that global warming potentially can be used to the advantage of progressives.
Here is what some of the Republican candidates for President have been saying about climate change:
Rick Perry: Perry writes that there has been “doctored data” and accuses former vice president Al Gore, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his call to action on climate change, of being a “false prophet of a secular carbon cult.” “They have seen the headlines in the past year about doctored data related to global warming,” Perry writes. “They know that we have been experiencing a cooling trend, that the complexities of the global atmosphere have often eluded the most sophisticated scientists, and that draconian policies with dire economic effects based on so-called science may not stand the test of time. Quite frankly, when science gets hijacked by the political Left, we should all be concerned.” Perry goes on to write: “It’s all one contrived phony mess that is falling apart under its own weight. Al Gore is a prophet all right, a false prophet of a secular carbon cult, and now even moderate Democrats aren’t buying it.”
Mitt Romney: At a June 3 town hall meeting in Manchester, N.H., Romney was asked about climate change. He said: “I don’t speak for the scientific community, of course, but I believe the world’s getting warmer. I can’t prove that, but I believe based on what I read that the world is getting warmer. And number two, I believe that humans contribute to that. I don’t know how much our contribution is to that, because I know that there have been periods of greater heat and warmth in the past, but I believe we contribute to that.”
Jon Huntsman: The minute that the Republican Party becomes the party – the anti-science party, we have a huge problem. We lose a whole lot of people who would otherwise allow us to win the election in 2012. When we take a position that isn’t willing to embrace evolution, when we take a position that basically runs counter to what 98 of 100 climate scientists have said, what the National Academy of Science – Sciences has said about what is causing climate change and man’s contribution to it, I think we find ourselves on the wrong side of science, and, therefore, in a losing position.
Jonathan Adler at Volokh has an interesting analysis:
Those attacking Christie are suggesting there is only one politically acceptable position on climate science — that one’s ideological bona fides are to be determined by one’s scientific beliefs, and not simply one’s policy preferences. This is a problem on multiple levels. Among other things, it leads conservatives to embrace an anti-scientific know-nothingism whereby scientific claims are to be evaluated not by scientific evidence but their political implications. Thus climate science must be attacked because it provides a too ready justification for government regulation. This is the same reason some conservatives attack evolution — they fear it undermines religious belief — and it is just as wrong.
JC comments: Mitt Romney gets it right in terms of the science, mentioning uncertainties and caveats. Huntsman makes a key point in terms of the political implications of the anti-science connotations of this. Jonathan Adler makes the essential point IMO.
JC conclusion: The irony of it all. Just when we thought no U.S. politician (including President Obama) wanted to talk about climate change, suddenly it is a major issue in the Republican presidential campaign. JC’s message to Republican candidates: if you want to be well informed on the climate debate (scientific and political), spend time at Climate Etc. :)
Postscript: I have been working on my own little “climate boomerang,” specifically the revisions to my null hypothesis paper. Revisions should be submitted tonite. This one will be really fun when it is published :)