"Americans and Climate Change: Closing the Gap Between Science and Action" (PDF) is a report synthesizing the insights of 110 leading thinkers on how to educate and motivate the American public on the subject of global warming. Background on the report here. I’ll be posting a series of excerpts (citations have been removed; see original report). If you’d like to be involved in implementing the report’s recommendations, or learn more, visit the Yale Project on Climate Change website.

Today’s excerpt is long but I love it — it’s one of my favorite bits of the report. It’s about the "four paradoxes of urgency."


The Four Paradoxes of Urgency

A recurring theme among those seeking to create "public will" and action on climate change is that of "urgency."

Urgency is an inherently subjective concept and yet a pivotal one given that it often mediates the connection between intention and behavior. What is it? It is a condition or sensation associated with a "pressing necessity" (American Heritage Dictionary). It is one of those "know it when you see it (or feel it)" concepts. Those who sense the urgency of climate change are impatient for action. Those who don’t sense the urgency don’t get what all the fuss is about. So how "urgent" is the public about climate change?

Steven Kull’s 2005 PIPA poll found that a full 76 percent of Americans believe that global warming is a problem that requires action, with only 21 percent opposing any steps with economic costs. But he also found a significant split on the matter of perceived urgency: 42 percent of the total said the effect of global warming "will be gradual, so we can deal with the problem gradually by taking steps that are low in cost," and 34 percent said the problem is "pressing" and "we should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs."

A June 2005, ABC-Washington Post poll revealed substantially the same findings: "Nearly six in 10 Americans think global warming likely is underway and as many accept that human activities play a significant role. But — like the Bush Administration — most part company with scientists’ calls for prompt action. That lack of urgency stems from perceptions of the hazards: While a vast majority, nearly eight in 10 believe global warming will pose a serious threat to future generations, far fewer — just one-third — think it’ll affect their own lives. The majority who see the risk as a distant one overwhelmingly prefer more study to immediate action." The poll also noted that only 38 percent of Americans view global warming as an "urgent problem that required immediate government action." At least four paradoxes associated with urgency are worth considering.

Paradox #1: How to Be Urgent About the Unknown

A major wild card in society’s calculations on climate change is the potential for non-linear climatic surprises ahead. Scientists broadly agree that the climate system is unpredictable and rife with unknown thresholds, that it can flip like a switch from one state to another in abbreviated periods and that we do not — and probably cannot — develop precise estimates of the likelihood and timing of such events.

One of the most prominent such scenarios is a potential weakening or collapse of the thermohaline circulation that brings warm Gulf water to the North Atlantic and keeps especially Western Europe habitable. But there are many others. Scientists have increasingly expressed surprise about the acceleration of certain events, from the collapse of the massive Larsen B ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula over a 35-day period starting in January 2002 to more recent NASA satellite observations indicating the quickening of the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. In 2005, scientists returning from a massive Siberian peat bog indicated that its permafrost layer was melting rapidly and could release enormous quantities of trapped methane, a potent greenhouse gas (the west Siberian bog alone is estimated to contain approximately 70 billion tons of methane, a quarter of all the methane stored on the land surface worldwide). Other scientists are now assessing how acidification of the oceans from absorption of carbon dioxide may imperil the viability of ocean life.

Some economists argue that we need only take gradual action to reduce emissions since, by their calculations, the marginal costs of investing in near-term emissions mitigation outweigh the present value of net future benefits and costs delivered for that investment. Putting aside intractable debates about the right discount rate, this line of argument typically moves too quickly past the issue of non-linear surprises. Some simply dismiss such scenarios as "not probable." This omits that many of these scenarios are not improbable either. Scientists often refrain from assigning probabilities to non-linear scenarios because probabilistic methods are not appropriate for some of them and the models are not equipped to predict them.

So given all this, we have something of a paradox. It is difficult to create urgency about avoiding something unknown and unknowable — and to craft communications that motivate action on this diffuse basis. And yet, as far as we know, we may be currently and inadvertently crossing thresholds we do not recognize — entraining irreversible consequences.

The "precautionary principle" asserts that we should err on the side of caution in the face of this uncertainty, but this principle has not shown a capacity to galvanize public will to date.

Urgency is difficult enough to generate on any problem characterized by cause-effect time lags, but this challenge is compounded with climate change because the lags are themselves of uncertain duration and the severity of the consequences at intervals along the way still poorly understood.

Conference Recommendation #2 seeks to address the impact of this information limitation, to the extent possible, by urging that research priorities on climate change be reoriented to "be more responsive to society’s information and decision-making needs" including greater emphasis on non-linear consequences and feedbacks that could inform society’s level of urgency on climate change.

Paradox #2: Urgency Is a Relational Function Between Science and Power Plants

Even if potential non-linear impacts could be quantified and projected, this would not complete our equation. That is because urgency, when translated from a sensation to action, is not only about the science but about the timing of investment decisions and the inertia of our capital infrastructure.

The lock-in of investments in long-lived centralized energy infrastructure assets will commit us to decades of rising emissions from those sources, putting aside the unpalatable option of premature retirement of capital down the line. This is obvious to many who work on the climate change issue or in the energy industry. Yet it has been the source of epiphanies for powerful leaders seeking to calculate the relative urgency of action on climate change.

A quick anecdote illuminates the point. One leader in the "carbon finance" arena described a private meeting with an elected official who is active in the legislative maneuvering on climate change. In the course of that conversation, the official had an epiphany that intensified his sense of urgency.

The turning point was the financier’s mention of ongoing plans to construct nearly 120 traditional pulverized coal-fired power plants in the U.S. alone over the coming years (sending U.S. coal use up at least 40 percent over the next twenty-plus years). China reportedly has plans to construct four to five times that number. These plans create a surprisingly narrow window of opportunity to act if one wants to reduce emissions.

Note that this urgency-inducing information is about investment cycles. As such, it is distinct from scientific information about what greenhouse gas concentrations and near-term pathways may be "dangerous." In other words, the urgency equation requires inputs of both kinds to produce an appropriate answer. It is about matches and mismatches between the dictates of science and the dynamics of capital formation and deployment over time.

Some at the Conference reported having heard others in the business community say they’re "deeply concerned" about the climate change issue and "when it starts happening, we’ll address it." This sentiment misses on two scores: it fails to grasp the time-lagged nature of climate change and, just as problematically, the tight relationship of the science to the lock-in problem associated with infrastructure and other inertial drivers of our society’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Paradox #3: Communicating Urgency Explicitly May Diminish Urgency

As discussed earlier, social psychologists have documented how people filter and discount messages they receive based on various attributes of the messenger, such as perceived trustworthiness and knowledgeability, not to mention cultural, gender, attractiveness and other traits. In separate strands of inquiry, scholars study the persuasiveness of the messages themselves, independent of the messenger. Then they explore how the interactive effects between the messenger and the message influence the listener.

At the Conference, we heard anecdotal evidence, pending more rigorous verification, that messages of urgent concern may be even more heavily filtered and discounted than messages lacking that feature, particularly if delivered by distrusted messengers. One religious leader indicated that messages of "urgency" on climate change often provoke a backlash among his constituents. Urgency is especially prone to being discounted as unreasoned alarmism or even passion.

Climate change is an issue that is so grand in its scope and consequences that it can become identity-defining for those most involved in advocating on it. In the aftermath of a 20th century defined by ideological extremism and movements, many Americans today have an understandable suspicion of any and all claims of urgent needs for societal transformations (including to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions), as well as to those who advocate most passionately for them.

What this suggests, paradoxically then, is that the best way to generate urgency may not always be to explicitly or overtly communicate urgency. Urgency may instead be a condition or sensation that people must internally generate. Trying to impose it on them may, at least in some cases, be counterproductive.

This likely varies based on the trustworthiness of the messenger, but at this point we are speculating — further social science research is needed.

Paradox #4: Which Comes First: The Urgency or the Goal?

Should "urgency" drive goal-setting or be derived from the goal once its attendant demands are clear? Urgency is an imprecise and elastic guide to action, one that is difficult to operationalize:

  • urgency can mean that we must get started now on emissions reductions, at whatever stringency level is feasible to negotiate and implement — the key is just to get going.
  • urgency can mean that we must put a binding long-term plan in place now, even if the early-year targets are lenient and the stringent targets do not hit until many years out.
  • urgency can mean that we must, now at last, grasp the true dimension of the climate change challenge and undertake a bold rethinking that will disdain incremental steps and be steadfastly unsatisfied with anything less than substantial emissions reductions commensurate with the science, including a safe margin for error.

The common denominator across these meanings is that something is expected to happen now, but this says little about exactly what that is. Urgency does influence the strategic instruments one will be inclined to favor. For example, those with a sense of urgency will, even if they have not formulated specific goals, tend to favor the Conference recommendations calling for advertising campaigns over slower- burning education initiatives.

Recognizing the catalytic power of a sense of urgency, Conference Recommendation #6 calls for the convening of "one or more dialogues free of economic and political compromises to undertake a fundamental redefinition of the climate change challenge in light of its urgency."

This recommendation implicitly says that we are now boxed into an overly narrow set of concepts, assumptions, and feasibility calculations. By assembling those who have different perspectives on the urgency of climate change and different views about the right next step, new frames of reference could be developed and convergent actions identified.

Such dialogues could be highly useful, as long as they conclude by circling back to the core organizing need of specifying an actionable goal. While our Conference did not seek to attain consensus on appropriate national goals, its recommendations call for fostering a number of venues where disciplined goal-setting could usefully be undertaken with the right stakeholders and processes.

Given its importance, some general points and context on goal-setting will now be provided, distinguishing between emissions-reduction targets and attitudinal targets.