By Matthew Nisbet, Northeastern University
Humans have so much influence over the global environment today that we have crossed a major threshold in Earth’s long history, entering a new stage in geological time which some scientists call the Anthropocene – the “Age of Us”.
Experts, journalists, and advocates have warned us about the threats of climate change, ocean acidification, species extinction, and other environmental problems for decades. In most cases, our understanding of these threats, though always evolving, is more than sufficient to inform policy action.
Yet the perceived severity of these threats grows at a rate that far exceeds political efforts to address them, creating intense frustration among scientists, environmentalists, and their allies. A chief factor blamed for inaction has been a lack of public knowledge and concern.
The public not only needs to be made aware of the expert consensus on problems like climate change, argue many advocates and environmentalists, but they also need to be sold on the benefits of action. Only under these conditions are elected officials – facing pressure from their constituents – likely to enact meaningful policy measures.
To generate public demand, environmental organizations and philanthropists are throwing tens of millions of dollars into communication campaigns and social media strategies.
The money race among environmentalists to engage the public began in 2008, when Al Gore announced that he would be launching a three-year program of persuasion to rival that of the oil campaigns. Over the next two years, the Climate Reality Project (formerly the Alliance for Climate Protection) spent $115 million on TV advertising, social media strategies, and related operations to boost public concern and support for policy action.
In the years since, a range of other well-financed communication efforts have been launched. In one example, for the Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously, the producers raised $20 million to support development, filming, marketing, and digital outreach. The goal of the series, according to its science adviser, was to persuade the 40 percent of Americans who are on the fence about the issue.
In the lead up to this November’s elections, billionaire activist Tom Steyer has pledged to spend as much as $50 million of his own money on TV advertising and communication strategies to influence the outcome of a handful of races.
But what if this theory of social change is wrong? What if public opinion in the Anthropocene plays only an indirect role in the policy choices that society makes? What if the focus on boosting public knowledge and concern distracts us from more important factors that drive political decisions?
Does public opinion matter?
Among political scientists, there is intense disagreement over the role public opinion plays in policy decisions generally, or the precise conditions that result in legislative action. A new study published by researchers at Simon Fraser University further complicates our understanding.
Between 2006 and 2009, British Columbia passed North America’s most aggressive climate policies. These measures included a carbon tax, energy efficiency regulations for buildings, a low-carbon vehicle fuel standard, a clean electricity standard, and a carbon neutral government program.
Over the past eight years, the measures have been the subject of considerable political and media debate in the province. Yet when Ekaterina Rhodes, Jonn Axsen, and Mark Jaccard surveyed BC residents in January 2013, most remained unaware of the new climate policies and had little understanding of their possible effectiveness.
To assess public support for the policies, the researchers asked survey respondents to consider each policy as if there were a new provincial referendum up for vote on the matter. After recording their initial opinions, Rhodes and colleagues then provided respondents with projections by experts on the effectiveness of each policy in reducing emissions, and then asked respondents again about their support.
Surprisingly, providing expert information had little direct impact on public support. As Rhodes and colleagues write:
Awareness of policy existence and knowledge of policy effectiveness are not associated with greater citizen support for most climate policies.
They conclude that their findings challenge the assumption that “more public knowledge and support is essential for effective climate policy implementation.”
Their findings suggest that rather than expert advice and knowledge playing a role in shaping policy preferences, public opinion is more likely to be guided by competing values, worldviews, and visions of the “good society,” including cultural beliefs and moral intuitions about nature, risk, progress, authority, and technology.
Their analysis of the British Columbia case also suggests that achieving a specific threshold of public knowledge and concern, contrary to conventional wisdom, is not a necessary condition for policy action. Instead, what may matter more are the less visible, behind the scenes negotiations that occur among key political groups and leaders, the smaller segments of constituents actively following these efforts, and the mix of policy actions and technological solutions that are proposed.
British Columbia’s carbon tax, for example, was passed in 2008 when the Liberal party controlled government, pushed through by an alliance of greens and business leaders. The tax was also linked to cuts in income taxes for provincial businesses and residents, making it difficult for opponents to rally support for reversing the measure; even during the subsequent economic recession.
Similarly, in contrast to the renewable portfolio standards advocated by US environmentalists, British Columbia’s clean electricity standard focused instead on achieving a more inclusive zero-emissions goal. This emphasis on a broader menu of technologies than renewables has catalyzed investment from the fossil fuel sector, which can develop carbon capture and storage as an electricity generation option, note Rhodes and colleagues.
Starting a conversation
In this new column on The Conversation, I will be writing about studies, articles, books, ideas, and trends that shed light on why we disagree so strongly about climate change and other environmental problems.
You will encounter not only my thoughts and ideas but also the voices and arguments of leaders in the fields of communication, journalism, psychology, political science, sociology, and the policy world.
Just as importantly, as readers and commenters, you will be sharing your own thoughts, innovations, and conclusions, challenging my ideas and those of others.
In the Age of Us, political reforms are needed, as is the quest for a more advanced arsenal of technological options, and a reconsideration of our economic goals. But so too is investment in our capacity to learn, discuss, question, and disagree in ways that embrace multiple discourses, ideas, and voices. Let the conversation begin.
Matthew Nisbet does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.