Why on Earth Do We Listen to Those Who Cry Wolf?

July 28, 2011 - 7:02pm
Why on Earth Do We Listen to Those Who Cry Wolf?

By George Black. Posted on OnEarth.org. July 28, 2011.

If you’re tired of beating your head against the wall of climate denial, try something simple: hard facts.

Amid the white noise of cyberspace, here’s a new website that’s really worth looking at:  www.crywolfproject.org. I’ll get to the particulars in a moment, but what I especially like about the project is that it helps cut through the confusion about why we appear to be losing ground in the fight for public concern about climate change.

Or do I mean global warming? No, that’s too alarmist. Climate change, then. No, that’s just a euphemism. Well, let’s say climate disruption; that’s more accurate. But no one knows what the phrase means. On the other hand...

These arguments about semantics say a lot about the sticky spider’s web we’ve woven around ourselves in our debate about language, messaging, audiences, teachable moments, and so forth. Meanwhile, the skeptics and deniers coast along cheerfully on the back of what the Republican messaging guru Frank Luntz calls "the phrase that persuades." Think death panel. Or big government. Or pro-life. Or, in the case of climate change, It’s just a theory, cap-and-tax, Climategate.

I’m not saying that responding to this is easy, in large part because of our disgust with the idea of stooping to this crass and cynical phrasemaking. But the bottom line is that public opinion has changed, and we don’t quite know what to do about it.

The most complete summary of recent opinion polls I’ve seen was published in May by the Social Capital Project of the Resource Innovation Group (TRIG), based at Willamette University in Oregon. This reviewed 94 different polls and studies, with data gathered between 2008 and 2010. It shows a consistently negative trend on virtually every core question: Is it happening? Do scientists agree that it is happening? Is it caused by humans? Does it affect me personally? Should the government do anything about it?

The difficulty lies not in showing the trend but in deciphering the underlying reasons. Is it because one of our two major political parties is dominated by climate deniers, or because the president has been too passive on the subject? Because the problem is so big that we despair of fixing it, or because the problem is so abstract and remote that we don’t pay attention to it? Because Americans don’t trust scientists, or because we trust scientists so much that we’re confident they’ll find a solution? Because people are turned off by warnings of catastrophe, or because our warnings have not been sufficiently dramatic? Social scientists can cite data to support all of these propositions.

The more optimistic analysts, like Jon Krosnick of the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, believe that the problem is only temporary, the product of passing circumstances. Krosnick cites the bitter winter of 2009, for instance, when Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma suggested that Al Gore should build an igloo outside the Capitol, coupled with the fact that people don’t understand the difference between climate and weather. But if that theory is correct, the pendulum will presumably swing back in response to this crazy summer of record heat, massive wildfires, and endless drought. Personally, I’m not holding my breath.

Of all the competing theories, the one that seems most persuasive to me is that people have a "finite pool of worry," and that this dismal season of economic distress and unemployment has driven all other anxieties to the margins. Which brings us back to the utility of the Cry Wolf Project.

Since 1984, the most influential of all our national polls, Gallup, has been posing an absolutely fallacious choice to its respondents: which do you think is more important, environmental protection or economic growth? In 2009, for the first time ever, a majority said economic growth. Opponents of federal action on the environment have thrived for decades on the Gallup fallacy, asserting that regulation will harm the economy. The Cry Wolf website is ingeniously designed to refute this. Its search engine allows you to choose from a menu of a dozen environmental issues, select a specific federal or state law from a list of about 140, and then, if you wish, add a further filter that isolates a particular rhetorical theme -- "bad for business," "job killer," "prices will rise," and so on.

There are hundreds of gems, with constant updates promised. (You can add your own.) Let’s just take three typical Cassandra predictions, spaced at 20-year intervals.

"This bill could prevent continued production of automobiles… [and] is a threat to the entire American economy and to every person." – Lee Iacocca, executive vice president of the Ford Motor Company, on the 1970 Clean Air Act.

"[There is] little doubt that a minimum of 200,000 jobs will be quickly lost" and that this number "could easily exceed one million jobs -- and even two million jobs." -- The U.S. Business Roundtable, on the 1990 amendments to the act.

"[It] is nothing more than a tax on electricity, a tax on our residents and on businesses with no discernible effect on our environment." – New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, on the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, 2011.

No one should have believed them then; so why believe them now?

In addition to the quote-finder, Cry Wolf’s blog posts dismember particular claims with hard empirical data. The latest one by project director Donald Cohen, for example, reviews the impact of the Clean Air Act. What actually happened was that a few thousand existing jobs were lost and a greater number of new ones were created. Cleaner gasoline did end up costing a few cents more at the pump, but consumers quickly got used to that as a fair trade-off for cleaner air. Electricity rates did not soar as predicted; in most states they declined, in some cases by as much as 64 percent.

The real beauty of this fact-based approach is that it can address people’s most deep-seated economic anxieties, not with the debatable opinions of behavioral psychologists and poll analysts but with actual data on jobs, costs, and savings -- not to mention tangible environmental and public health benefits. And who can be reached with the message that government environmental regulation actually works, and at an acceptable cost? True believers, fence-sitters, the sincerely confused, and those adversaries who are still open to reason. Pretty much everyone, in fact, but the hard-core "rejecters," as Frank Luntz calls them. ("Forget the rejecters," Luntz says, "because there’s nothing you can do to influence them.")

Cry Wolf can’t reach all these audiences directly, of course, and nor can full-time environmental advocates. But our highest elected officials can, all the way up to the president. So perhaps we should start by figuring out how to persuade them of the virtues of empirical data, clearly presented, and urge them in turn to convey it to those who need to hear the facts. Who knows, our current president might even discover that there is still such a thing as the bully pulpit. In fact, in refuting the endless scare tactics of the climate skeptics and opponents of environmental regulation, he might even borrow a line from that master of "the phrase that persuades," Ronald Reagan: There you go again.

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.