Should Climate Scientists Speak Out?

Blog contributor 
Graduate Student

Theda Skocpol’s Hollingshead Lecture traced the fateful trajectory of cap and trade legislation through its June 2009 passage by the House of Representatives to its death in the Senate the following summer. Comparing the cap and trade failure to the contemporaneous and ultimately successful push for healthcare legislation, Professor Skocpol concluded that the cap and trade campaign was strategically misguided from the start. While healthcare advocates, their strategy forged from the lessons of past failure, girded themselves for political warfare, the cap and trade strategists sought to replicate the 1990 acid rain program success by drawing an assemblage of Republican “heartthrob” legislators into bipartisan coalition. This didn’t work.

Skocpol’s lecture, titled “What It Will Take to Mobilize Americans to Limit Carbon Emissions and Fight Global Warming,” gave a clear prescription for avoiding failure the next time around: advocates for climate legislation must acknowledge the political battle that lies ahead, and arm their campaign accordingly through “broad popular mobilization on the center left.” Key to this mobilization, says Skocpol, is proposing a policy that offers clear and concrete benefits to the average citizen. A cap and dividend approach, in which carbon permit revenues are returned to citizens in the form of an annual dividend check, exemplifies such policy.

But as David Roberts notes in his triptych discussion of Skocpol’s report: “What little public opinion research there is on the question seems to indicate that the promise of dividends does not, in fact, Change Everything.” While Skocpol suggests the cap and trade campaign secured legislative failure by bringing a spoon to a knife fight, attempting to win climate legislation by rallying citizens around a dividend check sounds a bit like bringing a knife to a nuclear showdown.

What accounts for the excessive and dangerous power wielded by opponents of climate legislation? Money, in two manifestations. First, as Skocpol noted both in her lecture and the report on which it was based, climate legislation advocates may not lack for funding, but they have nowhere near the same amount of organized, highly interested money backing their side. Second, the specter of economic ruin conjured by opponents of climate legislation is likely to loom larger in people’s minds than the allure of a dividend check that may not offset personal costs, especially given our tendency toward loss aversion.

Counter-mobilization efforts by opponents of climate legislation, Skocpol writes, were “remarkably successful in reaching the highly attentive ultra-conservative half of the GOP voter base, arousing anger and fear in their ranks…” And there are plenty of people on the left side of the Democratic base who are passionately concerned about climate change. But while Skocpol rightly notes that proponents of climate legislation need moderates to care, opponents of legislation need them not to care.

If the opposition has money, both psychologically and in Koch form, on their side, what chance do climate advocates have? In a struggle to get people in the middle to care about getting meaningful, effectual climate legislation, what gives the pro-climate side any countervailing force?

Most powerfully, perceptible evidence of a changing climate. That is, the weather. Patrick Egan and Megan Mullin used nearly-random exposure to local temperature fluctuations to document the influence of weather on people’s attitudes towards climate change. Egan and Mullin found the relationship to be particularly strong among people who don’t identify with either extreme of the partisan spectrum. In other words, the perceptible evidence embodied in weather is most important to those in the middle—the people most critical to climate legislation.

As extreme weather events increase in frequency and intensity, public concern will naturally grow. But the pace at which the public shifts from a vague consensus that climate action is a nice idea to concerted demand for effectual legislation depends on how clearly people perceive these events as evidence of climate change. Unfortunately, climate scientists—the public’s most trusted source of information regarding climate change—have been muddying that perception and hindering the rate of change.

Though recently there have been calls from within the scientific community to stop the foot-shooting, climate scientists are often careful to note that attributing any single event to climate change is not possible. The insistence on probabilistic language is born from scrupulous dedication to scientific precision. But we have already altered the global climate system: in a climate-changed world, weather events are due to climate change with probability 1. To suggest otherwise is to pretend at precision and sow confusion.

So, to return to the climate legislation showdown: in a global crisis, with wild-eyed opponents armed to the teeth, climate scientists are holding the keys to the pro-climate arsenal. And with too few brave exceptions, scientists demur that they don’t get involved in war. Meanwhile, time is passing, and things keep getting worse. As Bill McKibben notes in his response to Theda Skocpol’s report, “In the end, the problem isn’t getting a bill through Congress. The problem is global warming.”

Climate scientists are in a unique position to speak to the public about climate change. Certainly other figures are influential—but no other figures are widely perceived as such trustworthy sources of information. And while climate scientists certainly contribute dramatically to the climate cause through their research alone, small advocacy efforts by these scientists could make a big difference in clarifying the public’s perception of climate change. Critically, invoking uncertainty when asked if climate change caused an extreme weather event conveys the wrong information. All weather events in a changed climatic system are a product of that system. Because weather is the only publicly perceptible evidence of climate change, confusion on this point needlessly delays the public’s realization that climate change is real cause for concern.

What else could help get the message across about the seriousness of climate change? The It Gets Better Project has been powerful. How about an “It’s Only Getting Worse” project—or more bluntly, a “Seriously, You Guys, It’s Time To Start Panicking” project? Webcam testimonials from climate scientists who grasp the danger of inaction, on-air statements by TV weather reporters, personal stories from people who have experienced the effects of extreme weather first hand: these voices could go far in getting regular people (sorry, enviros) to see they have good reason to be angry and afraid about government inaction on climate change.

Area of study 
Energy & Environment