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Consensus and geoengineering - how to convince people about global warming

Posted on 10 March 2015 by dana1981

Everyone agrees that global warming has become a polarized issue. Liberals tend to view themselves as being on Team Human-Caused Global Warming is a Problem, and conservatives tend to view themselves on Team No It’s Not. Convincing people to change their beliefs and leave their cultural group is a challenge with any polarized subject.

When it comes to climate change, the scientific evidence falls squarely behind the first team, and so the question becomes how we reduce the polarization that makes so many people culturally identify with second team. That’s a question social scientists have been grappling with for years.

One suggested approach involves consensus messaging – telling people about the 97% expert consensus on human-caused global warming. People tend to badly underestimate the expert consensus on this issue, and research has shown that communicating the 97% consensus makes people more likely to accept the scientific reality of human-caused global warming and the need to do something about the threats it poses.

Expert Consensus is a Gateway Belief

increasing public perceptions of the scientific consensus causes a significant increase in the belief that climate change is (a) happening, (b) human-caused and (c) a worrisome problem. In turn, changes in these key beliefs lead to increased support for public action. In sum, these findings provide the strongest evidence to date that public understanding of the scientific consensus is consequential.

The study illustrates “the gateway belief model” in the following figure.

The Gateway Belief Model.

The Gateway Belief Model. Source: PLOS ONE

In the study, the scientists asked people to rate their beliefs about these key issues before and after being told about the 97% expert consensus. The results validated the model. Subjects’ perceived expert consensus increased dramatically, and their belief in climate change, its human causation, concern about it, and support for public action all increased as well.

Overview of sample characteristics and key belief measures in van der Linden (2015).

Overview of sample characteristics and key belief measures in van der Linden (2015). Sorce: PLOS ONE

The increase in concern about climate change is a key result. Most people, including a majority of Republicans, support taking action to slow global warming. But they view it as a low priority, so they don’t mind when policymakers fail to take action. Hence there’s no penalty for climate denial in Congress, whereas there’s a big financial reward from the fossil fuel industry for delaying climate action. That calculation won’t change until people view tackling global warming as a higher priority. This study suggests that consensus messaging may help people grasp the importance of the problem.

The gateway belief model makes sense because people don’t have the time to learn about every important issue, so we often defer to the experts. As shown by a 2013 study led by Stephan Lewandowsky, 

when in doubt about scientific facts, people are likely to use consensus among domain experts as a heuristic to guide their beliefs and behavior.

Dan Kahan at Yale is also a social scientist, and has argued that consensus messaging is “counterproductive” and “deepens polarization.” However, both Lewandowsky’s research and this new study find that consensus messaging “neutralizes the effect of worldview” because “Republican subjects responded particularly well to the scientific consensus message.” Especially when they saw it in pie chart form.

Geoengineering Messaging

Kahan prefers to reduce polarization about climate change by telling people about geoengineering. He’s run experiments in which subjects read a fictional article about new technologies to offset global warming by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and reflecting sunlight into space. After reading the fictional article, conservatives become more likely to accept the science behind human-caused global warming, and so polarization is reduced.

The problem, as Andy Skuce notes in detail at Skeptical Science, is that the fictional article bears little resemblance to the realities of geoengineering. The technologies are described as “more effective than enactment of emissions restrictions” and would “spare consumers and businesses from the heavy economic costs associated with the regulations necessary to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations”. 

In reality, proposed geoengineering technologies are generally very expensive, would require international cooperation and regulation, and are extremely risky. As Skuce notes, even the scientists who are among the biggest advocates for geoengineering research agree that the technologies entail high risks, and their implementation should only be considered in the event that we first fail to mitigate global warming through carbon pollution reductions and have become desperate to slow rapid climate change.

Use the Brakes, not the Airbags

If the Earth’s climate were a car, right now we’re already driving dangerously fast and accelerating. Carbon pollution cuts would be the brakes, and geoengineering would be the airbags. Kahan’s experiment tells people that we don’t need to use the brakes because the airbags will protect us, and we can have fun going fast in the meantime.

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Comments 1 to 20:

  1. All analogies are imperfect, of course. But comparing geoengineering to an airbag seems particularly inappropriate. If it is one, then it's one that has never been and can never be accurately tested before the crash.

    So if it's an airbag, it's one that we're not sure, when activated, whether it will actually do much at all toward cushioning the blow, or whether it will rather smother us, or perhaps it is filled with deadly spikes that will eviscerate us.

    We just don't know for sure.
    And preliminary studies are not particularly hopeful (unless you only listen to the 'airbag' salesmen).

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  2. wili,

    I share your preferece for a different comparison to geoengineering. However, with all the recent airbag recalls because they did and could kill rather than save, the 'airbag with that clarification' would be appropriate.

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  3. I like Andy Skuce's presentation/rebuttal regarding geoengineering (which is like Naomi Klein's views on geoengineering in her book "This Changes Everything").

    Unlike an airbag, there is no way to test and prove that any geoengineering action would be as beneficial as hoped and would cause no harm anywhere to anyone, just making things sustainably better for all. And those 'solutions' would be abused to excuse making a bigger problem for future generations. And the lack of action to reduce the real problem because of 'faith' in those potentially damaging 'solutions' would potentially have massive disasterous consequences if they were implemented then briefly unable to be continued. And a 'desire to enjoy your life in ways that make problems for others because you can get away with it' is one of the least acceptable attitudes that has ever developed.

    The thoughtless application of science just for the unjustifiable short-term personal benefit gained by a few is not just unacceptable, it can be incredibly damaging.

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  4.   The only way to convince people is for the indicators they believe in to tell the story. People, and for good reason, are prone to disbelief and slow to be convinced that they need to change their minds. Advertising knows this and some advertising is more effective at persuasion than others.

    All human relations is politics and it is the regulation of industrialisation that is the problem and solution. The sheeple consumer can't do much except wait for physical indication that there is indeed a problem that they feel morally obligated to use their consumer power to solve, such as the melting of the Himalayas, otherwise they know it's the Governments problem as they write the laws that allow it.

    If the Government allows disinformation to be consumed by the voting public then they have every right to be convinced they aren't empowered to act as they have deliberately not been given the tools to make such a decision.

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  5. In the opening paragraph this comment is made " Convincing people to change their beliefs and leave their cultural group is a challenge with any polarized subject.".  This is correct.  However convincing people is hindered when reports that the models on which the IPCC bases much of its pronouncements, are reported to have a flaw in their assumptions on incident solar radiation (

    The thinking person, whatever "Team" they support, might wonder if all is as clearcut as is claimed.

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  6. Well a thinking person might read the paper. It affects regional predictions. Furthermore, models give you a way to predict future climate which are definitely more skillful than assuming nothing changes or reading chicken entrails, but they are the not source of the pronouncements on why human activity is causing climate change. Modellers (and IPCC) will tell you plenty about issues that they would like improved in models, but the  models have been shown to have skill as Chapter 9 of AR5 shows.

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  7. Oh yes. That's the kind of obvious error I can see myself making. But it's easily fixed.

    The authors are primarily concerned with getting the problem fixed, and so don't investigate the impacts of the problem - they presumably wanted to get this published as fast as possible. However given that they give a list of affected models, it would be pretty simple to check whether the affected models show different behaviour from the unaffected ones, e.g. in 21st century temperature projections.

    I'm afraid I'm to busy to take it on right now though.

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  8. A quick comparison with AR5 WG1 fig 9.07 shows that the affected list includes some of the weaker models (bcc, INM) and some of the best ones (CESM, EC-EARTH). So it doesn't seem to be an impactor of general model performance, although obviously INM has a lower time resolution which is likely to impact both.

    Similarly the affected list includes the model with the equal lowest ECS and equal third highest. Also equal second lowest and highest TCR.

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  9. scadddenp@6.  The paper is paywalled so this thinking reader doesn't have access.  With regard to your statement "but they are the not source of the pronouncements on why human activity is causing climate change"  is surprising. I had thought that it was only when CO2 concentration was factored in to the modelling the hindcasting by models matched the observations.  

    This is what Skeptica Science said "Testing models against the existing instrumental record suggested CO2 must cause global warming, because the models could not simulate what had already happened unless the extra CO2 was added to the model. All other known forcings are adequate in explaining temperature variations prior to the rise in temperature over the last thirty years, while none of them are capable of explaining the rise in the past thirty years. CO2 does explain that rise, and explains it completely without any need for additional, as yet unknown forcings".

    I had thought the forecasts by models showing how much the global temperature will increase in the coming decades was the corner stone on which IPCC pronouncements such as the increasing likelihood of extreme weather events, were based.  Is this not correct?

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  10. Others more knowledgable than I can pitch in if they wish, but my understanding is that predictions of future GW are based on three things: Basic physics (the asborptions spectrum of CO2 and CH4...);

    Paleo-climate studies (how the earth has responded to increases in GHG levels in the past); and

    Climate Models of various sorts.

    Pseudo-skeptics love to reduce this to the just the last, and usually just one of the last points, and then pick apart how one particular model has 'failed,' even though no model can be 100% accurate, or it wouldn't be a model--it would be reality.

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  11. ryland - Basic physics and paleo studies tell us what the general expected results of forcing changes will be. Models are quite useful in investigating the speed of change and to some extent regional effects of those climate changes. 

    However, this thread is on consensus, geoengineering, and communication. If you have issues you would like to discuss with models and their capabilities, I would suggest taking it to the appropriate thread for that discussion. 

    Communicating the science to the public is not (or certainly not just) an issue of model perception, but rather a question of communicating how certain the experts are of the science, of the evidence, and of the best information on options and trade-offs regarding climate change. And that in the face of some rather extensive lobbying to confuse the issues...

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  12. Sorry KR I was addressing the "Gateway Belief Model" and in particular the finding by social scientists  that suggests "perception of the expert consensus is a “gateway belief” that opens people to the acceptance of other important concepts."  The paper to which I was referring could cause some to doubt  the consensus which in turn could impact on the gateway belief and the "acceptance of other important concepts".  I didn't think this was off topic

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  13. Ryland, at a very basic level, physics tells you adding CO2 to atmosphere will result in more heating of the surface, and to the tune of 4x the magnitude of the solar cycle. That to my mind is a gateway belief. Furthermore it a rate of change far faster (couple of orders of magnitude) than Milankovich cycle forcings. You move to models to try and sort out what that will mean, and yes, to help sort out how much of observed climate change is due to CO2 versus other factors, but I would still say the core concept is completely independent of GCMs.
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  14. ryland - I dislike saying this, but a number of your recent interactions on these threads have followed a certain pattern:

    • A claim to the (broadly paraphrased) effect of "This article/link appears to pose a problem for AGW theory/models/statements",
    • Multiple responses from other posters to the effect that the claim is nonsense, a misinterpretation, etc,
    • Followed by your response of "Oh, just pointing out media coverage issues, not actually making a claim." And you express surprise at having been interpreted otherwise. 

    Whether you intend it that way or not, the pattern I've observed is quite reminicent of concern trolling. And given that pattern, the tone of the responses you have received are far from surprising.

    I will point out that most of the claims you have raised (whether yours or someone elses) are easily answered by either a search on SkS (search box on the upper left) or a quick Google on the topics involved. And that if you were to make posts to effect of "What can someone tell me about this claim"?, rather than just saying"This is a problem" with the implication that it really is an unanswered issue, you would be very quickly - and politely - pointed to the relevant information. 

    In the meantime - yes, there are media misinterpretations and poor or even selective presentations of the science. And those errors may receive quite a bit of attention from the rather small group of vehement deniers. But those denialist misinterpretations are still wrong, and the MSM appear to be getting a clue about that. 

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  15. I have responded to ryland's complaint about the insolation error in some models, on the Models Are Unreliable thread.

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  16. Thank you for your comments KR.  I am really rather flattered you should have spent time reading and dissecting what I write.  However, careful reading of the piece shows how fictional geoengineering can be used to decrease polarisation on climate change.  Equally of course fictional accounts could be used to increase polarisation.  My comments are directed towards that aspect of the piece.  And as for your comment about the MSM have you evidence that supports that?  If so that would seem valuable in the cause of decreasing polarisation.

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  17. I have a Masters Degree in Government.  This, perhaps, qualifies me to teach "Global Warming: Proof or Politics", which I do bi-monthly here in west-central Virginia.  I point this out because, although I read SkS "religiously" I find the science pretty baffling (which most of you "hard scientists" would not find surprising).  But, I am often struck by the many  comments on the subject of "how to convince the Deniers to 'buy' the science", a science which is very solid and, frankly, needs no additional "evidence" to get people off their butts and out into the street to solve this climate problem.  So, instead of fulminating over how to get the deniers to "get with the program" we should be getting the rest of us (the most of us) to get on with the solutions.  We know people believe in God without the slighest scientific evidence so why bother with such subjects?  People will believe in God and other fairy tales long after we have fixed the climate problem, so let's put managers and policymakers into positions of political power that can do what needs to be done here and stop wasting time and dialog on BS.

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  18. swampfoxh - I completely agree, hard-core deniers will never be convinced. And I think that single fact makes all the Kahan-style whinging about 'polarization' ineffective. 

    Is the goal to convince everyone, including those invested in not listening? Only if your sole question is "Can't we all just get along?". Or is it (IMO) more important to simply get things done, to minimize the damage from climate change? If the latter, then properly informing public opinion about the science and expert views, rather than vested disinformation, should at the very least point the way to sensible public policies. 

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  19. I suspect (and probably hope) that the science community can probably appreciate that the "personas" in the US political power structure are as much a part of the problem as the fossil fuel industry and the average voter himself.  On the one hand, President Obama, gives the appearance that he supports blocking the XL Pipeline while he opens up the Atlantic offshore drilling sites and certain Arctic continental shelf areas for drilling.  But, I don't see the scientific community (the hard science guys) saying much of anything about this hypocrisy.  Could it be that the great majorities of scientists are political liberals and deign to criticize this guy?  KR's looking for getting things done and wants the science to point the way to sensible public policies, but unless the scientific community is prepared to ridicule the inappropriateness of the power structure's "wacko" decisionmaking on climate remedies, even good science will give us nothing to bite into.  Massive population reduction, for example, is a sensible public policy if we are going to fix the climate problem.  Total curtailment of global coal fired power plants is another.  A permananet moratorium on global land clearing operations is yet another sensible public policy.  The shutdown of global synthetic fertilizer producers is yet another.  Shutting down the global internal combustion engine manufaturers, yet another.  But, the recent US-EPA 30%  reduction mandated for coal-fired power plants is not a sensible public policy  when the science realizes that just this one category requires at least an 85% reduction in emissions and that should have happened 12 years ago!

    I think I know what y'all are going to say about my doomsday scenario, but I want to hear it anyway, so, fire back.  I have class tomorrow and I'd like to tell my students what you have to say.  Thanks.

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  20.  I have been critical of Dan Kahan in a recent post here, but I think there's a lot of value in most of what he has written. I wrote a long post on SkS sometime ago that was broadly appreciative of his work. I think he is right to worry about getting more people, especially those on the political right in the USA, to accept the science. He's not alone in that.

    Where I differ with him is that I see consensus (or information) messaging as part of a two-pronged approach, along with his cultural cognition stuff, whereas he seems convinced that consensus messaging is counter-productive. I think the study that Dana highlights in this post effectively removes that worry.

    One irony is that the tone of some of Dan's informal remarks about consensus have themselves been rather harsh and they actually risk polarizing those of us who are trying to nudge public opinion in the direction of reality. If communicators are going to change the status quo, it's going to take all of us. 

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