What to do? What to do?

October 31st, 2010 <-- by Richard Rood -->

What to Do ? (1) Politics and Knowledge:

A few months ago a Republican candidate for State Office came to my office to talk about climate change. At the end of the hour he asked me how I thought we could advance beyond the current political state which is publicly characterized by, my word, tribalism – do you or do you not believe in climate change? Since I had recently posted an article on the subject (here), I had some semblance of an answer queued up. At one level the answer is time, but I will get back to that.

At the top of the strategy was the realization by scientists that climate change was, now, a political issue, and that within the realm of the political culture, knowledge-based education was not, first and foremost, the way forward. In fact, in many cases, the exposure of more knowledge, more science, was likely to have a negative effect, fueling the political turmoil, and damaging, more, the body of scientific knowledge. Nuance of the scientific literature adds to uncertainty, and all uncertainty can be used to build doubt, which is the goal of the political argument.

Climate change has been a political issue for many years, but the relative weight between political issue and scientific issue has changed. The fact that a political candidate came to my office is, perhaps, a measure of how political it has become. But there are more thorough and, do I dare, more scientific measures. As mentioned in an earlier blog, Anthony Leiserowitz and colleagues have been investigating the how the public perceives climate change. Table 31 in this June 2010 presentation shows that Democrats are in a very small minority of those who are “Doubtful” or “Dismissive” of climate change. Republicans are in a slightly less distinct minority of those “Alarmed” or “Concerned” about climate change. The group who identified themselves as “Concerned” was the largest of six groups.

The majority of people who were “Alarmed” and “Concerned” about climate change identified themselves as Democrats. In the categories of “Doubtful” and “Dismissive” the largest group of people identified themselves as Republican, with a large percentage identifying themselves as Independent.

This quantifiable information supports the identification of climate change as a political issue and aligns climate change with the values associated with political affiliation. Hence, policy (and de facto commercial) interests and political values of taxation, regulation, energy, environment, conservation, etc. enter into how people think about climate change. For example, climate change means we have to change our reliance on fossil fuels, and if I make my living on fossil fuels, then I will likely be inclined to embrace the doubt that is the product of the political argument.

Once accepting that climate change is, publically, a political issue more than a scientific issue, it is important to realize that this challenge to science-based motivation of policy and societal change is not unique to climate change. In a paper I have referred to many times before Liisa Antilla states in her conclusions (I refer you to the original paper for the references):

“The attack on climate science, observed Pollack (2003), replicates previous assaults on science, such as by the pesticide industry (DDT), coal-burning electric utilities (acid rain), and the chemical industry (effect of CFCs on stratospheric ozone). Furthermore, Nissani (1999, p. 37) stressed that the ‘phoney’ controversy surrounding anthropogenic climate change has been preceded by controversies on such issues as slavery, child labour, and civil rights. There have always been experts willing to back up a ‘profitably mistaken viewpoint’; there have always been efforts ‘to cover the issue in a thick fog of sophistry and uncertainty’ and to ‘unearth yet one more reason why the status quo is best for us’ (Nissani, 1999, p. 37–38).”

It is important to appreciate that the politicization of climate change is not unique because it means that there is not some piece of magic, something that we have being saying wrong, that if we say it correctly, more convincingly, with a preponderance of knowledge and rationality – if we say it correctly, then we can move forward. Also realizing that the climate change is not unique in its politicization allows us to depersonalize the attacks, which are sometimes highly personal (a tried and true political tactic).

The use of the heavy weight of scientific investigation in such a political argument, I assert, serves just as much to maintain the politically useful perception of the arrogance of scientists and elitism of education as it does to correct misconceptions. This continual flow of knowledge and education from scientists engaged in this political game fuels the words of those making the argument that there is a conspiracy to deny personal choice – forced vegetarianism, a breathing tax, small dangerous cars …

Never mind the fact, the evidence, that small cars are not distinguished by excess danger, this is not a game of knowledge, of facts. Though not specifically focused on climate change a recent paper by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler study The Persistence of Political Misconceptions. They find through case studies of a set of recent cases, that the correction of incorrect information in polarized political issues did not lead to a rationalization of factual knowledge. In fact, they found that the correction of factually incorrect information could backfire, leading to more polarization. Quoting from their conclusions:

“As a result, the corrections fail to reduce misperceptions for the most committed participants. Even worse, they actually strengthen misperceptions among ideological subgroups in several cases.”

The realization and acceptance of climate change as a political issue that has a significant element of political values or ideology in how climate change is perceived has a profound influence on how we advance beyond the current political state. Notions that the way forward is simply a matter of communication are naïve. Yes, there is a subset that such information might influence; however, it will not convince those who have taken an explicit anti-climate change position. It will likely fuel them, amplify their message, with that also influencing those in middle ground open to influence. Not a simple case. The next articles will explore more aspects of the strategies for advancing the issues of climate change – What to do? What to do?

What to Do? (2) Who is the Audience?

In the previous article I argued that much of the “opposition” to climate change was politically motivated or politically aligned. With such political positioning a communications and education strategy motivated by the opposition only feeds the political argument. This is especially true in crisis situations, where reactions to the crisis serve to build and perpetuate the crisis. Then some become vested in maintaining the crisis, including those whose primary goal is to seed doubt – which is the purpose of the political argument. Casually, therefore, it makes some sense to step back from the argument and, perhaps, seek to do no harm.

More generally, if the way scientists, individually and collectively, decide to communicate is based upon and focused on the points raised by political opposition, then this seriously compromises the ability to move forward with knowledge-based action. Why? As argued and substantiated in the previous article, the correction of factual misstatements often does not make things better and can make things worse. This means that the energy expended in making the arguments of correction is largely wasted, and the messages that enter into the public dialogue are largely defined by the political opposition. This does pose a dilemma, which I will get to below.

I return to the research of Anthony Leiserowitz and colleagues who investigate how the public perceives climate change. This research divided the U.S. into Six Nations as indicated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: From Center for American Progress, Global Warming’s Six Americas. Here is a June 2010 update and more figures.

Focusing only on the “Alarmed” and “Concerned” communities, together, they provide an actual majority. This suggests that, in fact, the science-based study of the Earth’s climate, projections of climate change, and the potential consequences have been communicated and accepted as substantive. On top of this, it is reasonable to add to this informed group the people listed as “Cautious,” yielding quite a large majority of people who have at some level heard and are receptive to the issue of climate change. The “Cautious” group is split across Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Not only does this suggest success from the point of view of the scientist, but it has implications for communication strategies as well as moving forward.

With regard to communication strategies, the target of communication might naturally be those in the “Cautious” group. Therefore, rather than reacting to the message of the “Doubtful” and “Dismissive,” it is perhaps worthwhile to respond to the questions of “Cautious.” Hence, we need to know the questions of the “Cautious,” and these will not be only questions about scientific investigation.

With regard to moving forward, the results in Figure 1 show a majority of people are “Concerned” or “Alarmed.” Under the assumption that these people do not hang on in quiet desperation, there should be a substantial amount of actions and intellectual energy focused on developing and implementing solutions. Therefore, the extraction of knowledge from these evolving activities serves not only to promote creativity and accelerate the development of solution paths, but also to diversify the base of people who are advancing climate change as an important issue. This takes climate change out of the realm and culture of scientists, making the message more broadly concrete, and revealing more and more opportunity that comes from addressing climate change as a societal value.

Above, I mentioned a dilemma. On one hand I am advocating that scientists (perhaps others) disengage from the political argument. I base this argument on the idea that participation in the public political argument often makes the problem worse; this includes the correction of untrue information and errors. Yet aren’t we required to make these corrections? It is important to assure that there is knowledge-based information, and that this knowledge-based information is regularly refreshed. It is important that there is education, both formal and informal. It is important that we constantly improve the ability to communicate the essence and the substance of complex problems. Explicitly, the dilemma is both the need to correct incorrect information, with the realization that the correction of incorrect information does not lead to knowledge-based reconciliation of disagreements.

What is required to bring some rationalization of this dilemma is, again, the recognition of the political motivation of the opposition, and to set that political opposition into its proper context. It exists; it can be identified, and the level of response is then tailored to what it is. If the political opposition is continuously engaged; if it is allowed to define the strategies of communication and education; then it serves to erode the science-derived knowledge base. This is, perhaps, a generalization of Edwin Friedman’s Fallacy of Empathy, which is that an excess of empathy towards an individual propagates through an organization and exaggerates the (usually negative) influence that that person has on the organization. Success requires the containment of the political (and emotional) argument, and the separation of the education and communication functions from this political and emotional argument. This is a difficult, but necessary and doable, proposition. And, as argued above there is a ready audience for this message. (Do I dare invoke the Silent Majority …. No.)

The point of this blog is that to move these issues forward it is necessary to avoid the lure of the political argument and the personal attack. It is critical to identify the receptive audience, and it is critical to target substantiated information to this audience. On the flip side it is important to minimize the harm of participation in the political argument, and it is important to avoid having the political argument define the communication and education mission of the importance of climate change.

What to Do ? (3) The Messenger Matters:

The first article in this series was motivated by a Republican candidate for State Office coming to my office to talk about climate change. The previous two entries in the series (one, two) have focused on the identification of the evolving political nature of climate change and what that means to knowledge-based education and communication. I have argued that scientists, generically, are not well positioned to participate in ideological confrontation and are easy foils for savvy political strategists. This leads to a dilemma – there is a need for communicating correct information about climate change, but at least a subset of this communication serves to fuel the political cause of those who oppose using resources to address climate change on a political or ideological basis. It is easy to make things worse.

One of the common points made in political arguments is that scientists sustain arguments about the threats of climate change because it is a way to keep funding coming to the field. This is a classic conflict of interest argument, which does not, intuitively, carry a lot of substance. For example, as Steve Schneider pointed out, if scientists were truly vested in a conspiracy to enhance and maintain their funding, then they would not state that global warming is “unequivocal” (IPCC 2007). It would be a lot smarter to say that we think global warming is important, but we need to do a WHOLE lot more research. For scientists to state that warming is “unequivocal,” and that we really need to pay attention to impacts often works against the obvious self-interest of the climate scientist. Such a position empowers new fields of expertise and their constituencies. In a tight budgetary time this pulls money away from science. But like the knowledge of climate change itself, if too much effort is made to counter the conflict of interest argument, then this only serves to fuel and spread the political argument. (“More research” is quite often a political tactic to delay action.)

There is a point to be extracted from the above. The messenger is important.

The role of the scientist in the communication of scientific issues and in the possible consequences is complex. Scientists open themselves up to the conflict-of-interest criticism if there is even an indirect link between what people say and the way they get their funding. However, scientists are required by the scientific method and, de facto, contractual obligation to report their research. In their reports they need to write why the work is novel and important. Being novel and important does contribute to sustained funding – as it should. On top of this there is constant pressure from agency program managers and politicians for scientists to communicate their results in a way the public can understand. There was a time period when I was in the government where it was stylish to be asked the question “so what?” The implication of this question was that you must go beyond saying something is important, but you must say why it is important – often we were told, “so your mother could understand it.” In addition to these motivations and demands for scientists to communicate broadly, there is also the role of advocacy. There are some who see issues as so important that they move beyond the purveyors of objective knowledge to advocates of particular points of view (Scientists as Advocates).

Earlier in this series I put forward the notion that scientists needed to be cognizant of their role in what is now political discourse and, perhaps, to seek to do no harm. This requires scientists not only to understand their audience, but to also understand where their point of view is perceived to lie. Assume that one determines that they are engaged in a political exchange. Then given that the IPCC report has been politicized, authors of the IPCC report are by definition engaging in a political discussion. Being in a political discussion the role of correct facts and consideration of complete knowledge becomes complex. Not only does the aforementioned role of factual knowledge in science-motivated political issues come into play, but the IPCC author is a political voice motivated by a perceived partisan defense of their position and their work. Careful accurate statements by a scientist in such a position are likely to do little good, and careless statements are likely to generate new tendrils of the political argument and contribute to escalating personal attacks and attempts to discredit the messenger.

The messenger is important, and the most obvious way past the problem of the politicized messenger is to expand and diversify the messenger base. Perhaps the easiest diversification of the messenger base is to engage a far broader cross section of voices from the community of scientists. There are experts outside of the community of IPCC authors and the lead authors of classic papers. These voices bring new strength and perspectives to the body of knowledge – different ways of stating ideas. Often these voices are young, the next generation, and if we have confidence in our efforts, then we should have confidence in those who have learned from us.

The idea of the inclusion of new voices in scientific communication is almost simplistic; however, it is not easy to achieve. For example, journalists and reporters naturally come to the expert and the people at the top of the author list. They come to people who have made news, perhaps have a history of controversy or the notoriety of an advocate. In this case, if there is to be diversification to new voices, then making that happen might fall to the scientists themselves – scientists opening the paths to new voices. Sometimes this requires a harsh personal accounting of where a scientist sits in the political and communication environment, followed by self-imposition of boundaries. Am I doing good? Am I doing harm?

The role of translators between the climate expert and a particular audience is growing. The audience ranges from the general public to people in business, in government, in nongovernmental organizations, in academia and education, and even to climate scientists from different sub-disciplines of climate science. Translators are often needed in complex problems. The experts in the field may or may not be good communicators, and they are often not comprehensive and objective.

Traditionally, a subset of journalists stood as translators, but the past decade has seen great changes in journalism. We have the democratization of journalism with the emergence of, for example, blogs; the decline of structured, editor-supervised journalism; the emergence of point-of-view journalism; and the identification of virtually all authors as representing a point of view or a political position. In many instances, I strive to serve as a translator in these blogs/articles, and I have made the deliberate decision in my research career to translate between fields.

A natural question arises in this search for translators and honest sources of information: are there ways that we can organize to provide a source of substantiated, vetted, and unbiased climate information? Ideas of community wikis and community-certified blogs emerge. (see Judy Curry’s controversial take on this) This will be explored more in future articles, but such a self organization has, potentially, profound implications for the process of peer review and role of the professional societies. Such an approach is, perhaps, a democratization of science, which would change the role of the expert.

The widest diversification of the messengers of climate change comes from the active inclusion of people who are positioning themselves to adapt to climate change and to address the changes in energy policy that are necessary to affect climate change. I have mentioned several times the paper by Daniel Farber that concludes that scientific investigation of climate change warrants legal standing in U.S. courts (Trust, but Verify). I have also discussed the positions articulated by Jim Rogers the CEO of of Duke Energy. Responses to climate change can be found in national security, energy distribution, municipal climate action plans, the insurance industry, etc. These are people and organizations who have looked at the knowledge, looked at the evidence, and have started to align capital and human resources with the solution space. These are the stories and the messages that need to be brought forward. Diversification of the messenger community outside of the community of scientists and academics and government researchers not only brings forward voices who are responding to the body of climate-change knowledge, but also untangles conflict-of-interest perceptions and provides concrete examples of the translation of climate science to action. This is where some principles of organization need to be focused.

What to Do ? (4) Time for New Community:

This is the final in a series of blogs that explores the political nature of climate change, strategies for communication of information about climate change, and how to move forward our collective response to climate, climate variability, and climate change. One of the ideas that I have advocated is to make much larger and more diverse the people who are contributing to the discussion and knowledge base of climate change. In this final piece, I want to move away from the original points of the first three articles to broader issues of developing and providing information about climate change. (Previous articles in this series: one, two, three)

Though a few scientists and politicians identified human-caused climate change as an important environmental issue before World War II, until the last 20 years or so, climate change remained primarily in the realm of scientific investigation and scientists. With the emergence of global warming as an environmental issue that will disrupt societies, climate change became an issue of public policy. In contrast to, for example, the issue of tobacco and lung cancer or even coal burning and acid rain, we have not moved to situation where the definitive proof of global warming and its consequences lie behind us. There is not, therefore, a definitive boundary between the time of scientific research and the time of public policy. The two are required to coexist. (Here is new paper that I wrote with Maria Carmen Lemos on the use of climate projections in public policy.)

In the initial research-dominated phase of an issue that emerges as a public policy priority, it is natural to imagine scientists and science communicators working to inform the public as well as those who are perceived as having a need to know. This is a push of information, and in earlier articles I have argued that there has been quite an effective push of knowledge about climate change (Who is the Audience?). As a result of this successful push of information, there are many individuals who are motivated to take action on climate change – or at least to figure out what to do about it. Aside from high profile efforts like the Climate Action Partnership, I have worked with people considering how to migrate forests northward, anticipate new public health risks, manage fisheries, price carbon, maintain urban water supplies – the list goes on. My first point is that there are already many more people on this solution side than there or on the physical climate research side. We need to recognize more vigorously the resources represented by this community and to develop the capability for this community to both pull on the climate-science knowledge base and to contribute to development of that knowledge base.

There is a second point that follows from the recognition of this community outside of the mainstream of climate researchers. As an example, consider the issues facing a water resource manager in coastal Florida versus North Dakota. In Florida there are concerns of sea-level rise, salt water intrusion, and the sinking of land as ground water is removed. Wetland ecosystems are central to Florida’s water management challenges. In North Dakota concerns are more likely dominated by better management of rivers and lakes in the presence of more volatile drought and flood cycles, as well as competition with agricultural needs. Both managers have to deal with their current facilities, projections of population, tax bases, and local, state, regional, and national water policies. The take away message is that to incorporate climate variability and climate change into plans for management and development is strongly influenced by the specifics of the problem. It is so strongly influenced by the specifics, that it is unreasonable to expect that a guidebook to climate solutions will be generated by a relatively modest number of climate experts and then prescribed to a waiting audience. With the enormous complexity that will be faced in seeking climate solutions, it is, again, necessary to consider how community-based approaches can be used to allow the organization of the complexity and the emergence of new solution paths.

I advocate, here, a re-framing of the climate and climate-change problem. Rather than this being, primarily, a scientific problem with scientists or an institutional service pushing information to waiting and perhaps under-informed audiences, we must develop community-based resources that allow for the participation of an informed community in the evolution of climate solutions. This supports the pull of information, self-organization, self-correction, and the ability of the community to inform the research needs of the community. Simple to say – more difficult to accomplish.

Climate and weather scientists have been at the forefront of data sharing and community activities (again a reference to Paul Edwards’s book, A Vast Machine). A major reason for sharing of weather data is the need to have routine observations of the entire globe in order to provide weather forecasts. Within the climate community the development of the Community Climate Model serves as a premiere example of community resources. Now the Community Earth System Model (CESM) this activity has provided a series of models available for general use by both scientific and non-scientific communities. The CESM activities have engaged through its working groups a large number of scientists. This activity was begun at a time when climate science was, primarily, the concern of research scientists and when computational and intellectual resources required the centralization of efforts to develop super systems that were beyond the ability of individual researchers.

The community reframing that I am advocating recognizes the evolution and successes of open source communities and the use of open innovation techniques in management of complexity, complex problem solving, and the emergence of knowledge (Wikipedia, for instance). Compared with the original concept that led to the Community Earth System Model (CESM), these open communities have broader, more active, less managed participation by the community. A re-framing might be that a model would be built by the community not for the community, even if there is substantial community participation.

The concepts of open communities raise many concerns, especially when there is a need to assure accuracy and truthfulness of information and results. Going back to the basic definition of the scientific method there is the notion of controlled experimentation, where the environment is controlled to isolate cause and effect. There is the fundamental practice of anonymous peer review to assure accuracy. Often in the building of complex systems like rockets, there is need for control over process to assure mission success. Opening up processes and knowledge generation raises the risk of inaccurate knowledge – it potentially opens up a body of knowledge to political manipulation or advocacy or advertisement. The question then arises on how to reduce these negative risks to a level that they are overwhelmed by the positive attributes of problems being solved and the emergence of solutions out of the complexity.

The questions of a successful community become, therefore, how is governance instituted to assure the accuracy of information, how is credibility established, how are inaccuracies identified and corrected? The success of an open community relies on its relationships with existing and evolving entities, institutions, and communities. The existence of successful open communities suggests plausibility. The goal of an open climate community would an accessible knowledge base that serves as trusted resource of objective information for those who have an interest in climate and climate change.

Time. At the start of this series of articles I mentioned that one thing that is necessary to evolve climate and climate change, productively, as an issue is time. When I wrote that, I was thinking of the half-generational time span that is needed for controversial environmental issues to rise above the opposition to the changes in behavior that are necessary to address the issue. I was thinking that we need to shorten that time span. Part of what is needed to accelerate our response to knowledge of climate change and actual climate change is to shorten the amount of time that is needed to produce accurate and usable information about climate change. This requires us to generate new methods of review and evaluation of knowledge and to accept new ways of the inclusion of uncertainty in complex problem solving. This requires education and alteration of climate scientists and the scientific process just as much as it requires education by scientists about climate and climate change. The large number of people already making decisions about how to invest their time and money in response to the body of knowledge about climate change will move much faster than is consistent with the traditional generation of scientific knowledge. We need the best climate information at any given time. Despite the challenges of governance to assure accuracy, if we don’t develop open community based approaches to climate change problem solving we will not accelerate our collective response; we will miss opportunity, and we will isolate the generation and use of scientifically generated knowledge from problem solving when it is most critical.


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