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‘Brutal Logic’ And Climate Communications

By David Roberts

19 December, 2011

In a couple of posts last week -- here and here -- I laid out the brutal logic implied by the latest climate science (with credit to scientist Kevin Anderson for stripping away the rosy assumptions hiding in many of today's common climate scenarios). To sum up: a rise in temperature of 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) will be extremely dangerous; a rise of 4 degrees C (7.2 degrees F) or higher could threaten civilization; the only way to avoid 2 degrees C -- or even 4 degrees C -- is a massive crash program that will likely involve, for the rich, industrialized countries of the world, peaking emissions in 2015 and declining them 10 percent year-on-year after that. Alarming!

In this post I want to take a step back (sideways?) and have a bit of a meta-discussion about messages of alarm/urgency and where they fit into the climate communications landscape.

Reaction to the posts has been interesting. I've gotten a ton of (mostly positive) emails and calls about them, had tons of Twitter and meatspace conversations, but as far as I know, nobody's written about or reacted to them publicly. And I guess that's not surprising. This kind of thing tends to end conversation like flatulence at a cocktail party. That's part of why there's a whole cottage industry devoted to urging climate hawks not to talk like this. What good can it do? Terrifying people just elicits all sorts of defense mechanisms -- denial, disengagement, apathy, system justification, what have you. The forces at work are so colossal, so utterly out of scale with what any individual or group can hope to tackle, that the logical conclusion seems to be, "we're f*cked." Our overwhelming instinct is to ... change the subject.

There's plenty of social psychology work on these kinds of reactions; I've written about it myself. Nonetheless, it seems to me that work has been interpreted in a fairly crude way.

When people are confronted with a message of fear and crisis that sounds apocalyptic and outside the bounds of the status quo, they don't like it! And that's what they tell pollsters and survey takers. Lots of folks have concluded from this that they should avoid the language of fear and crisis.

The 10 percent threshold

I think that's a misunderstanding of how social change works. For one thing, what's relevant is not merely how people react to an out-of-bounds message-of-alarm (I need a handy word for that) at a given point, but how such messages become accepted (or don't) over time. We need to look to more longitudinal studies, historical and anthropological studies, to understand the temporal dynamics of public opinion.

For another thing, what matters is not how such messages are received in isolation, but what role they can play in a larger communications strategy.

Let's start with the first one. There's long been an obsession among climate/energy folks with finding a message that appeals to to the "middle" (about which myths abound, but that's a subject for another time) or the climate undecided/uncommitted/skeptical. Since honest (read: terrifying) talk about the severity of climate change doesn't win over the uncommitted or disinterested, it is deemed unhelpful to that effort and scolded whenever it pops up.

As I've said so many times, though, what drives social change and shifts politics is not broad-based support but intensity. An intensely committed minority can act as a lever that moves larger populations. Scientists at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute did a study on this recently -- "Social consensus through the influence of committed minorities" -- that attempted to determine "the tipping point where a minority belief becomes the majority opinion." They found that that it happens at right around 10 percent. (More precisely, they found that "when p<pc, Tc~exp[α(p)N], whereas for p>pc, Tc~lnN." Which sounds about right.)

"When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority," said SCNARC Director Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer. "Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.”

As an example, the ongoing events in Tunisia and Egypt appear to exhibit a similar process, according to Szymanski. "In those countries, dictators who were in power for decades were suddenly overthrown in just a few weeks."

This is one reason social change tends to be lurching and unpredictable: it's often hard to tell when ideas outside the mainstream are nearing that 10 percent threshold.

It's not necessarily a straightforward thing to transfer this finding on to the climate debate. By one measure -- Yale's "Six Americas" survey -- climate hawks have already got 12 percent "alarmed."

David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist. You can follow his Twitter feed at twitter.com/drgrist.

© 1999-2011 Grist Magazine, Inc.




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