And Now for Something Completely Different – Part II

svobodaOnce again, we have a post by University Writing Professor and passionate environmentalist, Michael Svoboda.  This is the second part of his response to a recent post by Dr. Entman, Extra! Extra! Read All About It? Part I of And Now for Something Completely Different appeared on August 22.

Pt. 2 – Two Monty Pythonesque Aspects of the U.S. Discussion of Climate Change

In last week’s post, I suggested that media coverage of climate change in the U.S., while not always compelling, has been fairly consistent; it’s the context for the discussion that has changed. This week, to complete my response to Prof. Entman’s August 6th essay—“Extra, Extra, Read All About It”—I highlight two special, and somewhat absurd, opportunities and challenges that lie ahead: one psychological, the other political.

Climate change is a psychological problem?

In actuality—that is, as it must be worked out in the real world—climate change, in addition to being a problem of energy production and atmospheric science, is also a psychological problem, a sociological problem, a political problem, an economic problem, and a cultural problem.

The mainstream media have provided glimpses of these other aspects of climate change, but it is in the emerging climate media—the blogs, the newsletters, the journals, and the websites—that one now finds the best coverage of the American Psychological Association’s major review of the literature on the social-psychological dimensions of climate change,[i] or of recent efforts to recruit more social scientists for national and international climate change projects and studies.[ii] For these researchers, the coverage of climate change in the mainstream media is symptomatic of the social-psychological problems that must be addressed if we are to respond effectively to the physical scientific and technological challenges of climate change.

Recent media responses to the string of months without recording-breaking highs in the U.S.—like last week’s story by McClatchy newspaper reporter Robert S. Boyd[iii]—illustrate three such problems: the confusion of weather and climate, a narrow national focus, and an attenuated attention span. Readers can turn to several sources for detailed rebuttals of claims that the world is cooling,[iv] but we’re still left with the simple social fact, noted in my previous post, that the public is more receptive to discussions of global warming when the weather is hot (or at least warmer than usual).

Well, nature may soon oblige.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently announced that the global ocean-atmospheric system appears to be shifting from La Nina to El Nino conditions. This will enhance rather than offset the effects of rising CO2 levels, and so it will increase the odds that new records will soon be set for warmest months and even warmest years.[v] When this happens, science journalists and climate policymakers will have a much easier time assembling a coherent and compelling narrative for climate change. But they must be ready to seize that moment. Skeptics have been painting themselves into the “cooling” corner for more than a year; we’ll need to snap those embarrassing pictures before they shift positions. Absurd as this fundamental confusion of weather and climate may be, when you find yourself in a comedy, it’s wise to work on your timing.

But this will not be enough. A generic, even if coherent, message to the general American public will not get the necessary legislation passed in the Senate. The bitter partisanship noted by Prof. Entman is all too real, but it’s the ability of partisans to entrench themselves in regional strongholds that poses the more difficult problem. Getting more than 66% of Americans to agree that mainstream media coverage underestimates the importance and challenge of climate change may prove much easier than getting at least 60 senators to allow a vote on a bill. Only an absurdly small proportion of the American electorate is required to assemble a filibustering minority of 41 senators.

Here I am taking some cues from Larry J. Sabato’s A More Perfect Constitution. Although we have all been taught to revere the U.S. Constitution as an unparalleled work of political genius, Sabato argues that it enshrines political compromises that gave pause at the time and should be reconsidered today. Among these are the formation and rules of the Senate. As he points out, the 21 least populous states comprise only 11.2% of the population; hypothetically then, just 11.2% of the U.S. population could block a measure supported by 88.8% of the American public[vi]. In fact, this understates the problem. Only a bare majority of the percentage of the population that actually votes is required to form this blocking minority, and in non-presidential elections this can be far, far less than 51% of the state’s electorate. In other words, less than 5.6% of the U.S. population could elect a blocking minority of 41 senators.

But this is just hypothetical, right?

As an experiment, let’s remove Hawaii and the small states from the Northeast from this first list of 21 since they all are now blue (or blue-leaning) states whose senators are more likely to support action on climate change. The new list of 21, from which, for the same reasons, I’ve excluded Oregon, now comprises 18% of the U.S. population. All of these states are in the South, Midwest, or West. Many have economies that rely heavily on natural resources or commodities: agricultural products (especially corn), oil, natural gas, or coal. Of these 21 states,[vii] 17 were red states in the 2008 election. Perhaps that’s why the American Petroleum Institute made plans to fund “Energy Citizen” rallies, to oppose climate change legislation, in 11 of these 21 states.[viii] Is it possible that entrenched interests are trying to engineer the small electoral majorities required to lock 41 of these states’ 42 senators into an effective block? If so, Tom Friedman’s foreign-relations analysis of petropolitics may have domestic applications he didn’t consider.

No matter what you think of this absurd speculation, I hope I have demonstrated that action on climate change will not be achieved simply by persuading, through generic messages in the mainstream national media, a significant majority of the American public, the equivalent of winning the national popular vote. Effective action on climate change will only occur if those in favor achieve an “electoral victory” as well. The challenge is not one of crafting a coherent and consistent narrative that serves to shape national perception; rather it is the challenge of crafting narratives that will change votes in Arkansas, Kansas, New Mexico, or West Virginia.

A coherent and consistent national narrative on climate change may help in the crafting of these regional, electoral, appeals. And the opportunities provided by a new round of record high temperatures might help in the crafting of that narrative. But by itself the national narrative will not be enough; it could easily be dismissed by the electoral majorities in these states as the product of “the Eastern liberal establishment.” Absurd as it may seem, promoting action on global climate change will require the crafting of coherent regional narratives that are cognizant of narrow regional interests and circumstances.

With that conclusion, it really is time, finally, for something different—if not completely.


[i] Cho, R. 2009. Psychologists Delve into the Paradox of U.S. Concern but Inaction on Climate Change. Solve Climate 23 Aug 2009. Accessed 23 Aug 2009. http://solveclimate.com/blog/20090823/psychologists-delve-paradox-u-s-concern-inaction-climate-change. Cho’s article provides a link to Psychology and Global Climate Change: Addressing a Multi-faceted Phenomenon and Set of Challenges, the report of the APA task force head by Janet Swim. (See also http://www.apa.org/releases/climate-change.pdf.)

[ii] Smith, K. 2009. The Wisdom of Crowds. Nature Reports Climate Change August 2009. Accessed 23 Aug 2009 http://www.nature.com/climate/2009/0908/pdf/climate.2009.73.pdf

[iii] Boyd, R. 2009. Drop in World Temperatures Fuels Global Warming Debate. McClatchy Newspapers 19 Aug 2009. Accessed 23 Aug 2009 http://www.mcclatchydc.com/homepage/story/74019.html

[iv] Plumer, B. 2009. El Nino, 1998, and “Global Cooling” Revisited. The Vine / The New Republic Online 29 July 2009. Accessed 26 Aug 2009. http://blogs.tnr.com/tnr/blogs/environmentandenergy/archive/2009/07/29/el-nino-1998-and-quot-global-cooling-quot-revisited.aspx Within this piece, note the reference to a recent peer-reviewed study—Lean, J. and D. Rind. 2009. How will Earth’s surface temperature change in coming decades. Geophysical Research Letters 36, 15 Aug 2009—and to its write up in the Guardian (UK): Clark, Duncan. 2009. World will warm faster than predicted in next five years, study warns. Guardian 27 July 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/jul/27/world-warming-faster-study

[v] See commentary, with links to original NOAA and NASA sources, by Romm. (Romm, J. 2009. Breaking: NOAA puts out “El Niño Watch,” so record temperatures are coming and this will be the hottest decade on record. Climate Progress 4 June 2009. Accessed 19 July 2009 http://climateprogress.org/2009/06/04/noaa-puts-out-el-nino-watch/

[vi] Sabato, L. 2007. A More Perfect Constitution: 23 Proposals to Revitalize Our Constitution and Make America a Fairer Country. New York: Walker & Company. p. 25.

[vii] From most to least populous, these 21 states are Colorado, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Iowa, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kansas, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, West Virginia, Nebraska, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, and Wyoming.

[viii] Sturgis, S. 2009. Power Politics: Big Oil Holding “Town Halls” on Climate Bill. Institute of Southern Studies 13 Aug 2009. Accessed 26 Aug 2009. http://www.southernstudies.org/2009/08/power-politics-big-oil-holding-town-halls-on-climate-bill.html

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One Response

  1. Thank you for bringing to light the often forgotten elements of climate change. As you said, it’s not just about the science, but about the psychology and sociology associated with understanding the impacts climate change will have on all populations. The political impacts are interesting as well – a small majority being able to derail climate change action in the US is disappointing to see.

    But to leave things on a high note, remember that you can ensure your Congressmen represent your opinions by contacting them by phone or email and expressing your opinion on any matter and voting them out of office if they do not perform as expected- that’s the beauty of our democracy.

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