Climate Change Messaging in the United States

Climate change communication in the US has always been poor.  The media has repeatedly shied away from covering this rather topical issue, and when it does turn its attention to climate change, it is usually under the influence of someone with an agenda.  This deficiency in appropriate issue consideration has become increasingly dangerous over time, as the risks associated with continued greenhouse gas dumping have only been growing in size and significance.  Without a reliable, unbiased forum for information delivery, United States citizens cannot make educated decisions about their nation’s climate actions.  And, as one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world, this country has the responsibility of taking well-informed climate action.  To do so, however, information must be disseminated responsibly.

Intentionally Skewed Information Presentation

Despite the fact that climate change has been scientifically proven, the issue remains under political debate—particularly, in the United States.  As previously mentioned, certain groups—countermovement organizations—highlight model uncertainty to foster doubt about climate change.  Those unfamiliar with the fundamental science behind climate forcing may process this uncertainty as valid evidence against the phenomenon’s integrity.  Denial tactics such as this have been used by certain political groups, whose ideologies do not align with the types of changes that would accompany a commitment to aggressive greenhouse gas reduction strategies.

In late 2013, a report was released that detailed the amount of money being invested in the propagation of climate change denial.  The breakdown of funding—both to recipients and from donators—showed that this effort is primarily supported through money from conservative organizations.  In essence, as the report reads, “the foundations that play a major role in funding the CCCM are all well-known and prominent conservative funders…thus it is clear that the most prominent funding foundations and the organizations receiving this funding are identical to those constituting the larger conservative movement.”   The intentional miscommunication of information regarding climate change is coming from a source with a clear exogenous agenda in mind, and this culturally (politically)-fueled movement has had a significant negative effect, as we have seen, on climate change perceptions in the United States.

Considering Risks Appropriately

Additionally, the communication of climate science itself to the general public is inherently difficult (as is the case with relaying any type of specialized information to the masses).  Because climate change is such a large and complex issue, and because forecasting models are essentially attempting to predict the future, there is of course a great deal of uncertainty and, therefore, variation in scientists’ findings.  For one to understand why the trends play out as they do and what this implies, one must at the very least have a general understanding of statistics.  As Kerry Emanuel has pointed out on the Yale Climate Media Forum, to properly assess risk one must consider not only the probability of a scenario playing out but also the “outcome function” and cost of mitigating this outcome.  With so many variants factoring into the equation, it is easy for one to emphasize certain factors while disregarding others—and this, in turn, presents biased causes for action (or inaction).  As shown in Figure 12, one model’s data indicates a 90% chance that warming will be somewhere between a 1.83 and 4.64 Degree Fahrenheit increase from current average temperatures.  While this 90% seems like quite favorable odds in a manageable temperature range, the impact of the tail risk to the right must be appropriately considered.  While there is a much lower probability of temperature rise above about 4.5°F, the possible consequences of such a change would be catastrophic, and this fact should influence how we as a nation (and a planet) adjust our behaviors, build infrastructure and develop societal resiliency.

Discussing the catastrophic risks that accompany the “tail” scenarios obviously raises in one a sense of fear or even alarm.  This reaction has been exploited by climate deniers, who claim that discussing such situations is a scare tactic used to frighten the audience into backing climate change mitigation policies.  The deniers twist the low-probability argument to bend in their favor, by focusing on how little a chance these devastating events have of occurring.  Again, because the science behind climate change can be so variant, deniers can gloss over the macro-scale trends (e.g. warming will occur) and use model-based uncertainty to drive anti-climate policy agendas.  This is presently occurring in the United States, as mentioned above, and it is a very large barrier to moving U.S. climate policy forward.

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