The IPCC Report is a Wake Up Call for Scholars, Advocates, and Philanthropists

by Matthew Nisbet

October 10, 2018

We have focused too heavily on public mobilization and exposing denial, ignoring other strategies likely to accelerate societal change.

More than 170 countries pledged as part of the 2015 United Nations climate treaty to keep global temperature rise this century to lower than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to strive to remain below 1.5C.

At the time, a diversity of experts voiced doubts about the UN’s framing of climate change “success” in terms of overly ambitious temperature targets. For these experts, wrote Nature magazine, even the Paris treaty’s proposed 2C goal was “so optimistic and detached from current political realities that they verge on the farcical.”

When the UN followed the Paris meetings by asking the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to evaluate the goals set out by the agreement, the same experts worried that scientists risked their credibility if they were to paint an overly rosy picture of what it would take to achieve the agreed upon targets.

Yet the IPCC report released this week is the exact opposite of sugar coating, revealing instead that the temperature targets established by the 2015 UN Paris treaty are tragically more aspirational than realistic.

For countries to achieve the 1.5C goal, concludes IPCC scientists, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would need to be cut 50% by 2030 and entirely by 2050.

In 2017, CO2 emissions worldwide rose by nearly 2 percent and are on track to rise again this year. At this rate, estimate IPCC scientists, the world will pass the 1.5C threshold sometime around 2040, risking trillions of dollars more in damages and millions more lives lost from climate change impacts.

News coverage of the IPCC report has been nothing less than dystopian, warning of a runaway monster. “We have 12 years to limit catastrophe, UN warns,” was the headline at The Guardian. “The world has just over a decade to get climate change under control, U.N. scientists say,” echoed the Washington Post.

These apocalyptic headlines come as new Yale/GMU polling shows that although a strong majority of Americans are increasingly worried about climate change, they are also expressing diminishing hope that something can be done.

For those of us who study climate change politics and communication, and for advocates and philanthropists who have relied on our advice to inform strategy, the latest IPCC report is reason for deep introspection about the current state of research and the need for bold, new thinking.

For too long, as scholars, we have focused narrowly on general public attitudes, evaluating by way of opinion polls or experiments strategies to more effectively communicate climate change risks.

Like many environmentalists and philanthropists, our research has been motivated by a desire to create a sense of public urgency, believing that intensifying voter pressure on elected officials was the key to policy change.

But in doing so, we have never adequately articulated the conditions by which public mobilization might translate into effective public policy action.

Nor have we examined closely the process by which political elites, those in the best position to make decisions about our collective future, might come to agree on the same effective policy approaches but for different reasons.

As scholars, our unhealthy obsession with the psychology and communication strategies of “deniers” has also reinforced a bunker mentality among climate advocates that is highly resistant to legitimate criticism or alternative ideas.

The result is a discourse culture that substantially reduces opportunities for developing effective policy and technology approaches on climate change that broker support among not only liberals, but also moderates and conservatives.


Blinded by denial

But one of the limits to open discussion about novel paths forward is that as a scholarly community we have become obsessed with research intended to expose the faults in conservative psychology, the duplicitous nature of fossil fuel companies, and the many ways in which Fox News and right-wing think tanks seed “denial,” and engage in a “war on science.”

This research has in turn infected mainstream journalism and commentary, in which readers at outlets like The Guardian and The Washington Post are consistently left with the impression that “anti-science,” “denier” Republicans may in fact be cognitively incapable of reason or compromise on behalf of clean energy policy, similar in nature to Holocaust deniers.

It’s difficult to imagine today, but a decade ago, scholars were actually debating the wisdom of calling those who oppose action on climate change “deniers.”

In a 2008 interview with PRI The World, I suggested that the term “denier” was counter-productive. Resorting to extreme language and name calling in the climate debate not only inflames tensions among opponents, I argued, but for decision-makers on the center-right struggling to come to terms with climate change as a societal priority, resorting to “denier” rhetoric misses the opportunity to more persuasively connect the issue to commonly shared values, or to fashion compromise around policy approaches.

“A perennial topic with no end in sight, the debate over such language can quickly turn into name-calling over name-calling,” observed journalist John Wihbey in 2012, creating “an inward-gazing meta-discourse changing no one’s views or practices, and perhaps only solidifying them.”

That year geographers Max Boykoff and Saffron O’Neil in a letter to the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences (PNAS) raised concern about an earlier study at the journal which had divided experts into “convinced” and “unconvinced” camps, interchangeably using the terms “deniers,” “skeptic,” and “contrarians” to refer to the unconvinced.

“Continued indiscriminate use of the terms will further polarize views on climate change,” warned Boykoff and O’Neill, “reduce media coverage to tit-for-tat finger-pointing, and do little to advance the unsteady relationship among climate science, society, and policy. Read more …

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