How best to pitch the climate change message?
Mike Hulme of the UK’s Tyndall Centre says — yet again — that the language of "catastrophe" and "disaster" used by climate-change scientists and advocates is having the opposite of its intended effect: it’s making people numb and apathetic.
I more or less buy this — I did, after all, write a five-part series arguing that fear is no friend of greens. But the conclusion Tim Haab draws from it is so spectacularly, diametrically wrong I can only shake my head:
In other words, report the facts without the embellishment. … Factual representation of the science is more likely to result in acceptance and action.
Baffling. This runs counter not only to common sense and experience but to a huge, growing, and widely publicized body of research. How on earth can anyone still think that unembellished recitations of facts are going to lead to “acceptance and action” on climate change? What more contrary evidence could possibly be required at this point? After all, there’s a reason campaigners started ratcheting up the warnings in the first place: “factual representation of the science” wasn’t working.
I went on and on about this subject here, so I won’t do it again. Instead I’ll draw your attention to "How Democrats Should Talk," a new piece by Mike Tomasky in the New York Review of Books. It discusses three new books — The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina, by Frank Rich; Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, by Frank Luntz; and The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, by Drew Westen — all of which, in one way or another, discuss the extraordinarily successful conservative message machine and what the left can do to improve its own messaging.
It’s Westen’s book that is most directly relevant here. Tomasky quotes from it:
Republicans understand what the philosopher David Hume recognized three centuries ago: that reason is a slave to emotion, not the other way around. With the exception of the Clinton era, Democratic strategists for the last three decades have instead clung tenaciously to the dispassionate view of the mind and to the campaign strategy that logically follows from it, namely one that focuses on facts, figures, policy statements, costs, and benefits, and appeals to intellect and expertise.
This, Westen says, has prevented Dems from presenting their affirmative case in compelling terms and from responding effectively to attacks. In particular, they’ve responded horribly to the macho swagger and fear mongering:
In a perceptive section on terrorism and the Bush administration’s manipulation of fear after September 11, Westen draws on research showing that intimations of mortality shift most people’s reactions to the right politically, and he demonstrates how Democrats, in trying to sound as “tough” as Bush, were unwittingly reinforcing Bush’s worldview.
This is a crucial point.
Technically, what fear does is move people toward the authoritarian end of the personality spectrum. But as Jonathan Weiler and Marc J. Hetherington argued in their criminally overlooked piece “Authoritarianism and the American Political Divide,” as a matter of contingent historical fact, in the last few decades authoritarianism and conservatism have come to overlap almost entirely. Thus …
… Republicans always benefit from increasing public fears, whether about gays, terrorism, illegal immigration, or anything that activates authoritarianism. It makes people who only have a little authoritarianism share the preferences of those who have a lot.
Or as Kevin Drum puts it: “Fear is the conservative’s friend, never the liberal’s.”
What’s this got to do with global warming? I think we can draw two conclusions, one shallow and one somewhat deeper:
- Beating the fear drum activates instincts and personality traits that make people more likely to gravitate to the Republican party, which has shown no inclination to do anything about climate change.
- More importantly, fear triggers authoritarianism, which according to the National Election Study favors "respect for elders", "obedience", "good manners", and being "well behaved" over "independence", "self-reliance", "curiosity", and "being considerate." Does that sound like a public well-suited to undertake the multi-generational project of adjusting human culture to climate change?
The failure of fear to motivate the public on climate change should not, contra Haab, lead us to conclude that dry, emotionless presentations of facts and statistics will work. What will work is not lack of emotion but appeals to other emotions, emotions more suited to the progressive project: compassion and hope, confidence and curiosity, and above all the yearning in every human heart to create a better life for our children.