Tag Archives: expertise

Climate Change: Politics and Perception in the United States

By Jillian Smith, University of Birmingham 

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Donald Trump. Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

It has been a battle worthy of Cervantes, had he been alive in this era of anthropogenic climate change.  Simply mentioning the terms ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ can elicit impassioned, often divisive, rejoinders from an audience.  Invariably, belief and cultural systems drive the discourse of climate change opinion and news reportage; it is a complex chicken and egg scenario.  There does, however, appear to be an esoteric climate change–political nexus that also, perhaps deplorably at times, influences public opinion.  Nowhere does this egregious unification seem more prevalent than in the United States.  How do the politics around climate change influence the narratives and public perception?

Astoundingly, when a group of researchers set out to examine seventy-four American public opinion polls between 2002 and 2010, they discovered that neither extreme weather events nor scientific stories affected public perception of climate change (Brulle et al., 2011).  News reports – but more importantly, the politicians framed in the reports – were the biggest influences (Brulle, et al., 2011).  The two strongest events driving public concern in the United States at the time were the Democratic Congressional action statements and the Republican roll-call votes (Brulle, et al., 2011).  Indeed, most studies indicate that American views of climate change are strongly influenced by partisan politics.  Worldwide, however, educational attainment is generally regarded as the single biggest predictor of climate change awareness.

Interestingly, while Americans and Canadians share a border and enjoy similar lifestyles, a 2010 cross-border poll revealed fewer Americans claim solid evidence of global warming “based on what they have read or heard” (Borick et al., 2011).  Remarkably, 58 percent of Americans and 80 percent of Canadians answered affirmatively to the evidence of global warming (Borick et al., 2011).  A more recent opinion poll suggests that while 70 percent of American adults believe global warming is happening, only 53 percent think it is caused by human activities (Marlon et al., 2016).

To delve into the cultural and worldview disparities between the United States and Canada would be an exhaustive endeavor.  Still, it remains striking that Canada, within reach of America’s massive media kingdom, consistently reports and frames anthropogenic climate change differently than the United States.  While American reports continue to debate the science behind global warming, Canadian reports tend to frame the mitigation of anthropogenic climate change  (Good, 2008).

Novelty, controversy, geographic proximity, and relevance are all important frames in scientific stories (Caravalho, 2007).  Experts employ frames to simplify technical jargon; journalists use frames to craft appealing news reports; and audiences rely on frames to envisage an issue (Nisbet, 2009).  When climate change basics are framed as scientifically tenable positions, audiences must choose to question or quarantine their comfortably held beliefs.  In documenting Arctic ice edge narratives, Veland and Lynch (2016) state that we tend to rely on narratives that provide comfort to us.  The authors add that ontological insecurity can be a major challenge in making sound environmental decisions.

Once upon a time, scientists were informers and people listened.  Today, because the average citizen does not read peer-reviewed scientific literature, many rely on media and opinion pieces to educate themselves on newsworthy science stories.  Disparagement between petulant politicians and scientists often overshadows the science.  But climate change is a science; it does not require belief.  In that sense, public opinion matters little.

Moreover, the post-modernist notion that all ideas are worthy of expression can become unfavorable in the realm of climate science.  Science is indeed stronger with scrutiny; but those scrutinizing it are often politicians, journalists, and bloggers, not scientists.  It is not difficult to weave scandalous narratives about anthropogenic climate change: one side includes ‘alarmists’ and ‘manipulators of science’ who say the earth is doomed; the other claims global warming is an ‘elaborate hoax’.  This ‘experts in conflict’ narrative is a popular practice used predominantly in the United States.  International research demonstrates this custom is not widely used outside of America (Young & Dugas, 2011).

Undoubtedly, the path to re-engineering society will require a reorganization of thought – perceptions without politics, notions detached from debates, narratives with new frames.  Veland and Lynch (2016) assert that the Anthropocene narrative warns that stories–and the networks that make them–must change.  As Cervantes said through Quixote, “he who walks much and reads much knows much and sees much.”  The path forward surely involves assembling this collective knowledge and having discussions, not debates.

References

Borick, C., Lachapelle, E., & Rabe, B. (2011, February 23). Climate Compared: Public Opinion on Climate Change in the United States and Canada. (The University of Michigan; The Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion) Retrieved from Public Policy Forum/Sustainable Prosperity: http://www.sustainableprosperity.ca/article911

Brulle, R. J., Carmichael, J., & Jenkins, J. C. (2011). Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the US, 2002-2010. Climatic Change.

Carvahlo, A. (2007). Ideological cultures and media discourses on scientific knowledge: re-reading news on climate change. (S. Publications, Producer) Retrieved from Public Understanding of Science: http://www.pus.sagepub.com

Good, J. E. (2008). The Framing of Climate Change in Canadian, American, and International Newspapers; A Media Propaganda Model Analysis. (C. J. Communication, Ed.) Retrieved from http://www.cjc-online.ca/index.php/journal/article/view/2017/2006

Marlon, J., Howe, P., Mildenberger, M., & Leiserowitz, A. (2016). Yale Climate Opinion Maps – U.S. 2016. Retrieved from http://www.climatecommunication.yale.edu

Nisbet, M. (2009). Communicating climate change: Why frames matter for public engagement. Environment, 51 (2).

Veland, S., & Lynch, A. (2016). Arctic ice edge narratives: scale, discourse and ontological security. Area, 49.1, 9–17 doi: 10.1111/area.12270

Young, N., & Dugas, E. (2011). (C. S. Association, Producer, & University of Ottawa) Representations of Climate Change in Canadian National Print Media: The Banalization of Global Warming: http://www.ebscohost.com

The production and circulation of climate change knowledge: science, expert judgement and the visual image

By Martin Mahony, King’s College London

The recent publication of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC AR5) drew a great deal of interest from journalists, public commentators and the political community. While perhaps not receiving the same level of media attention as previous reports, the AR5 has bolstered the claims of those arguing that time is running out to prevent dangerous climate change.

But what does ‘dangerous’ climate change mean? Whose job should it be to define danger for the entire world? And how much scientific knowledge and certainty do we need about a complicated issue like climate change before we are motivated to act? These are some of the questions I take up in a new article in Transactions of Institute of British Geographers which traces the history of a particular scientific graphic which was designed in the late 1990s to help people come to their own definition of ‘dangerous’ climate change. The image, known colloquially as the ‘burning embers’, has since had a chequered institutional history. Embraced by some as a support for arguments that global warming should be limited to 2°C, the diagram has been challenged by others for being too subjective, and for straying into areas which should be reserved for political – rather than scientific – judgement.

The updated version of the burning embers diagram left out of the IPCC's 2007 report, and eventually published by Smith et al (2009)

The updated version of the burning embers diagram left out of the IPCC’s 2007 report, and eventually published by Smith et al (2009)

I link this story to the history of the notion of scientific objectivity, which historians have shown to vary over time and space. This opens up geographical questions, as the circulation of the ‘burning embers’ diagram saw different questions asked of it in different places, while diverse  expectations of the meaning of objectivity conditioned the spaces around which the diagram travelled. Left out of the 2007 report, the diagram has since made a comeback, with a new colour pallet pointing to the increasing magnitude of risks society is understood to face. The diagram was described as the “key product” and synthesis of the Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability section by Working Group co-Chair Chris Field at a UK Department of Energy and Climate Change event in April this year.

The IPCC plays a crucial role in offering to society visualisations of what a climate-changed future might look like. But despite the institution’s prominence, we know little about IPCC knowledge production as a social process. The paper is an attempt to grow this kind of understanding. As debate about the future shape of the IPCC continues behind the scenes, understanding how, why, and for whom different knowledges are produced and circulate remains a key task for social scientists. As a discipline which straddles conventional boundaries between physical and social science, geography is well placed to contribute to such a project.

About the author: Martin Mahony us a Research Associate within the Department of Geography at King’s College London. Martin’s research interests include the history and geography of climate science, visual cultures of climate and epistemic geographies of the Anthropocene. 

 Martin Mahony, 2014, Climate change and the geographies of objectivity: the case of the IPCC’s burning embers diagram. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, DOI: 10.1111/tran.12064

 Joel B. Smith et al, 2009, Assessing dangerous climate change through an update of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “reasons for concern”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 11, 4133-4137

60-world2 Why 2007 IPCC report lack ‘embers’, Dot Earth Blog, The New York Times, 26 Feb 2009

60-world2 Climate change report ‘should jolt people into action’ says IPCC chief, The Guardian, 31 Mar 2014

60-world2 Will the new IPCC report help climate action? Southern Crossroads blog, The Guardian, 1 Apr 2014

60-world2 Reactions to the IPCC climate change report from business leaders and experts, Guardian Sustainable Business blog, 1 Apr 2014