Wed May 31st, 2006 at 08:21:17 AM EST
Proposals to reform energy generation and reduce demand are often rejected as excessively Utopian or radical. But at the same time most informed participants in the problem-solving effort admit that such plans fall far short of what is really needed -- even in the versions that are critiqued as excessively radical! Many plan-proposers hope to use a "camel's nose" or "wedge" effect, i.e. get people used to moderate changes of emphasis without violating anyone's comfort zone, and thus create a slow cultural drift towards sustainability.
The problem is urgent. The burning question is one of effectiveness and optimal use of effort in a limited time: is gradualism self-defeating? will it be a case of too little too late? is radicalism self-defeating? will it cause a mulish resistance and denial that wastes more precious time or risks a backlash?
If the public understood the real magnitude of the problem would they be paralysed entirely by fear or despair and unable to act? Should we downplay the various threats of peak oil and climate destab? or is the public jaded and drama-addicted, needing a compelling bleed/lead story line to shake it out of apathy and complacency?
**From the front page - whataboutbob
If we represent the problem in its true magnitude, do we enable action by suggesting "7 Simple and Painless Things You Can Do" (mostly ineffectual but encouraging -- the "baby steps" principle)? Or do we need bold ideas and big ideas to be credible when offering proposed solutions to such an enormous problem?
Is a puzzlement. ET relevance: I and a couple of other folks griped that the Energise America proposal was too timid. Others said that more radical proposals would scare people off. More discussion below the fold.
Here's the truly inconvenient truth: Scientists have long been warning that the world must cut back on greenhouse-gas emissions by as much as 70 percent, as soon as possible, if we're to have a fighting chance of stabilizing the climate. Yet even with full participation by the United States, the controversial Kyoto Protocol -- the only global plan in the works -- would hardly begin to do that. Its goal is to reduce emissions by 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. And so far, the best plan offered by American politicians -- the Climate Stewardship act sponsored by Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman -- has an even more modest goal: it aims to cut emissions in the United States merely to 2000 levels by 2010. And the Senate has rejected it twice.
Turned Off by Global Warming
What we need is something more imaginative and daring. But where's the discussion of anything like that? The "Take Action" page on the Web site for Mr. Gore's movie offers no such vision -- the boldest action it suggests is to back the McCain-Lieberman bill. And when I recently asked David Yarnold, Environmental Defense's executive vice president, why his group wasn't offering solutions more dramatic than Congress has thought up, he replied, "Why would you want to lobby for something that can't get done?"
Last June, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California became one of the few elected politicians with the courage to talk about climate change in the language it requires by promoting a plan to reduce his state's greenhouse-gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2050. But Mr. Schwarzenegger has since warned of the need to move slowly so as not to "scare the business community."
The author appeals to all of us: Well, I for one am very, very worried. As the mother of two young boys, I want to do everything I can to protect their future. But I feel like a shnook buying fluorescent light bulbs -- as Environmental Defense recommends -- when at last count, China, India and the United States were building a total of 850 new coal-fired power plants. Clearly, it's time for some radical ideas about solving global warming. But where's the radical realism when we need it?
Radical Realism. Now there's a phrase to bookmark.
Here I'm gonna jump to Simon Retallack's article 'Ankelohe and Beyond: Communicating Climate Change' from Open Democracy.
More newsprint, broadcast time and web space is being devoted to the issue of climate change than ever before, so it would not be a surprise if journalists were to pat themselves on the back for their efforts. Far from it. On 18-21 May 2006 at a country retreat in northern Germany, journalists and writers from Britain, Germany and the United States will be meeting to discuss where they are going wrong and how they can do better.
Writers taking part in the "Ankelohe Conversations" on the twin problems of climate change and the oil endgame will be asking themselves why - despite all the coverage they are now giving these issues - the public is doing so little to take action.
I will skip over, for the nonce, the painful irony of all these do-good journos flying and driving to a remote country retreat to talk about climate change, rather than teleconferencing. Anyway, I recommend the article in its entirety. To summarise, despite all the media coverage of climate change, actual changes in consumer behaviour are very small. In the UK:
* Less than 1% of the population has switched to an energy company supplying renewably-sourced electricity.
* Under 0.3% has installed a form of renewable micro-generation such as solar PV or thermal panels
* Many people admit to not even trying to use their cars less.
* Purchases of highly-efficient cars represent less than 0.2% of new cars sold.
* Just 2% of people claim to offset their emissions from flying.
Clearly there is a hysteresis, or an outright disconnect between the perception or admission of a problem (leaving the state of denial or ignorance) and actual attempts at mitigation. Now here comes the interesting part.
Research conducted in the United States as part of the Climate Message Project led by the FrameWorks Institute discovered that some of the ways in which climate change is commonly being reported is actually having a counterproductive effect - by immobilizing people.
The FrameWorks Institute conducted a linguistic analysis of elite discourse on climate change in media coverage as well as of environmental groups' own communications on the issue, followed by one-on-one interviews and focus groups with members of the public and a national poll.
What the FrameWorks Institute found was startling. It found that the more people are bombarded with words or images of devastating, quasi-Biblical effects of global warming, the more likely they are to tune out and switch instead into "adaptationist" mode, focusing on protecting themselves and their families, such as by buying large vehicles to secure their safety. [yes, you read that right. scare (some) people enough about global warming and peak oil, and their instinctive kingroup protection response is to go out and buy a gas guzzling polluting SUV.]
FrameWorks found that depicting global warming as being about "scary weather" evokes the weather "frame" which sets up a highly pernicious set of reactions, as weather is something we react to and is outside human control. We do not prevent or change it, we prepare for it, adjust to it or move away from it. Also, focusing on the long timelines and scale of global warming further encourages people to adapt, encouraging people to think "it won't happen in my lifetime" and "there's nothing an individual can do".
As importantly, the FrameWorks Institute found that stressing the large scale of global warming and then telling people they can solve it through small actions like changing a light-bulb evokes a disconnect that undermines credibility and encourages people to think that action is meaningless. The common practice of throwing solutions in at the end of a discussion fails to signal to people that this is a problem that could be solved at all.
These findings were significant because they applied to modes of communication that represented the norm in terms of US news coverage and environmental groups' own communications on the issue. They showed that a typical global warming news story - outlining the scientific proof, stressing the severe consequences of inaction and urging immediate [baby] steps - was causing people to think that preventive action was futile.
Developing more effective ways of communicating on these issues is a huge challenge. Every country is different and will require its own approach. The FrameWorks institute developed proposals for use by US climate communicators in the first few years of the Bush-Cheney administration using a distinctive approach - the strategic frame analysis.
According to this approach, how an issue is "framed" - what words, metaphors, stories and images are used to communicate about it - will determine what frames are triggered, which deeply held worldviews, widely held assumptions or cultural models it will be judged against, and accepted or rejected accordingly. If the facts don't fit the frames that are triggered, it's the facts that are rejected not the frame.
It is that last bolded quote that speaks to the individual writing earlier, But I feel like a shnook buying fluorescent light bulbs # as Environmental Defense recommends # when at last count, China, India and the United States were building a total of 850 new coal-fired power plants. She has been told to undertake an obviously trivial action to counteract an obviously massive crisis.
Based on that understanding, it can be decided whether a cause is best served by repeating or breaking dominant frames of discourse, or reframing an issue using different concepts, language and images, to evoke a different way of thinking, facilitating alternative choices.
Applying this approach to communications on climate change in the United States, the FrameWorks Institute drew several conclusions:
* It recommended placing the issue in the context of higher-level values, such as responsibility, stewardship, competence, vision and ingenuity.
* It proposed that action to prevent climate change should be characterised as being about new thinking, new technologies, planning ahead, smartness, forward-thinking, balanced alternatives, efficiency, prudence and caring.
* Conversely, it proposed that opponents of action be charged with the reverse of these values - irresponsibility, old thinking and inefficiency.
FrameWorks also recommended using a simplifying model, analogy or metaphor to help the public understand how global warming works - a "conceptual hook" to make sense of information about the issue. Instead of the "greenhouse-gas effect", which was found did not perform for most people, FrameWorks recommended talking about the "CO2 blanket" or "heat-trap" to set up appropriate reasoning. This would help, it argued, to refocus communications towards establishing the man-made causes of the problem and the solutions that already exist to address it, suggesting that humans can and should act to prevent the problem now.
The need to evoke the existence and effectiveness of solutions upfront, the FrameWorks research stressed, was paramount. And if the consequences of climate change are cited, the analysis concluded they should not appear extreme in size or scale.
Now this dumps us right back into the issue of professional and scientific integrity in the reportage and policy proposals for climate change and peak oil. The FrameWorks people seem to be a bit schizy themselves on the issue: we need to represent the problem as realistically large in order to justify realistically major adjustments and mitigations, yet if we represent it as too large or too imminent, we may induce despair.
I'm writing this in haste w/o any real editing because Fearless Leader requested some discussion prior to Energise America's debut at YearlyKos, so forgive a certain fragmented or scatty quality. I'm gonna hop back now to the godawful blockbuster "Day After Tomorrow", a proud continuation of the long tradition of modelling really bad physics with really slick CGI. At the time of its release, while deploring the sensationalism and startrek science, many climateers (dunno what else to call "persons deeply concerned about climate destabilisation") said, "Yes it is sensationalistic, but that's what the public needs to wake up and smell tye coffee." But according to FW study above, the doomsday sensationalism might just lead to a disinclination on the part of viewers to take any concrete action in their own lives to reduce their carbon/fossil footprint. Since Corporateland knows everything there is to know about motivation and demotivation and agitprop, is it possible that this might have been the point? that they knew a dose of sensationalism would have only a numbing effect and therefore was nonthreatening to advertisers, financial backers and all the rest of the GiG cult whose cooperation/permission is required to make a major film?
Cultural Inertia is definitely a factor:
Yet while I can't dispute the need for massive improvements in the energy efficiency of our buildings and the necessity to localize food production to deal with our coming energy crisis, the biggest obstacle to change seems to be cultural inertia. Most of us are zooming along blissfully in exactly the wrong direction: building more freeways, more malls, more auto-dependent housing developments, increasingly grotesque and demeaning commercial enterprises sucking the meaning out of our lives and American society as a whole. It's the collective insanity of our society that makes it possible for us to drive, consume and build freeways as though we could go on forever.
It was on that topic that Kunstler delivered his lecture, on what he called the "psychological dimension" of what's needed to get things going on the right track, which he says is "as important as the geological dimension."
I half expected Kunstler to say that the conference was pointless, that there was no hope for a society that needed to change its energy consumption if it were to survive. But while he was merciless in his critique of American society, I left the conference believing he was as optimistic as the rest.
[...]I think Kunstler was dead right - many of the ideas and practices about how we can make other arrangements are already in existence, but there isn't a wide demand for them. There must be a language that competes with the standing fantasies in our consumer society that makes people want to ditch their cars, stop their consumptive impulses, and make our standing commercialized social narratives as appealing as the idea of taking a bath with a corpse.
But I wonder if the winning rhetoric involves direct insults, like calling middle Americans who live in suburbia "craven f---ups" to their face. I wouldn't write it off instantly, given the popularity of serial insult artists like Dr. Phil. Kunstler also emphasized that talking about peak oil and automobile dependency just once to someone isn't going to make any converts. "You're going to have to employ repetition ... to an uncomfortable degree."
I know what I'd do if someone kept telling me I was a craven f---up; I'd react angrily and cling to my way of life all the more desperately. Finding the right rhetoric that makes people want to change is a high art and one of our greatest challenges.
The received wisdom is that you don't insult or confront people if you want to change behaviour; they will just get angry and sulky. OTOH, we praise the work of satirical shows like Sat Night Live and The Spitting Image which insult, mock, and deride in an effort to critique social inertia and government policies. Is there a place for attack-dog humour and journalism in the struggle for a soft landing?
Fiction Writers can have tremendous cultural power, for good or ill. No one I think seriously denies the social-change impact of Dickens' novels or Ibsen's plays. A darned good story well told, with compelling characters (or even a ripsnorting read poorly told with cardboard characters, as in Atlas Shrugged which we all critiqued on another thread) can have tremendous power to inform, to influence, to endure across generations. Crichton has probably singlehandedly done more damage to the "environmental" cause than AEI and Cato and the WSJ oped page put together.
It hardly seems necessary to reiterate the power of narrative and The Myths We Live By... perhaps an opportunity window is opening precisely because many cherished myths are in crisis at present. Could this be the moment to forge some new ones?
"Our most important task at the present moment," wrote Lewis Mumford in 1922, "is to build castles in the air."
I have a bunch more links on this general theme, but this'll have to do for now. In the comments I'll actually try to makes some suggestions, but here is some relatively big thinking cited in the first article quoted above:
While the California governor backpedals, a team of scientists, economists and business executives have put forward a potentially revolutionary plan. Outlined by Ross Gelbspan, a former Boston Globe reporter and editor, in his book "Boiling Point," the so-called Clean Energy Transition would start by turning over an estimated $25 billion in annual federal government payments now supporting the fossil-fuel industry to a new fund for renewable energy investments. It would also create a $300 billion clean-energy fund for developing countries through a tax on international currency transactions, while calling on industry to get in line with a progressive fossil-fuel efficiency standard, forcing greenhouse-gas emitters to immediately work on conservation.
If megaproposals like the Clean Energy Transition, which would get the ball rolling on a global level, still strike us as romantic and implausible, it's only because our politicians, including the well-intentioned Mr. Gore, and smart, well-financed groups like Environmental Defense have denied us the leadership we need to achieve global warming solutions on par with the problem. Lacking such leadership, we're left with little more than our increasing anxiety and that scary, speeding train.
OK, fastest diary on record. Have at it. Typos and all...