Weekend update: geoengineering and the expanding confabulation frontier of the "climate communication" debate
Despite its astonishingly long run in grounding just-so story telling about public risk perceptions and science communication (e.g., the Rasputin "bounded rationality" account of public apathy), the "climate debate" at some point has to get the benefit of an infusion of new material or else the players will ultimately die out from terminal boredom.
Critics took the early lead in the "science communication confabulation game" by proclaiming with absurd overconfidence that the technology could never work: climate is a classic "chaotic system" and thus too unpredictable to admit of self-conscious management (where have I heard that before?), and even talking about it will lull the public into a narcotic state of complacency that will undermine the political will necessary to curb the selfish ethos of consumption that is the root of the problem.
But as anyone who has played the confabulation game knows, even players of modest imagination can effectively counter any move by concocting a story of equal (im)plausibility that supports the opposite conclusion.
So now we are being bombarded with a torrent of speculations on the positive effects geoengineering is likely to have on public engagement with climate science: that talk of it will scare people into taking mitigation seriously; that foreclosing its development will increse demand for adaptation alternatives that will be even more productive of action-dissipating false confidence; that implementation of geoengineering will avert the economic deadweight losses associated with mitigation, generating a social surplus that can be invested in new, lower-carbon energy sources, etc. etc etc
At least some of the issues about how geoengineering research might affect public risk perceptions can be investigated empirically, of course.
In one study, CCP researchers found that exposing subjects (members of nationally representative US and English samples) to information about geoengineering offset motivated resistance among individuals culturally predisposed to resist evidence of climate change. Accordingly, on the whole, individuals exposed to this information were more likely to credit evidence on the risks of human-caused climate change than ones exposed to information about mitigation strategies.
But just as the "knowledge deficit" theory doesn't explain the nature of public opinion on climate change, so "knowledge deficit" can't explain the nature of climate-change advocacy. If furnishing advocates facts about the dynamics of science communication were sufficient to ward them off their self-defeating styles of engaging the public, it would have worked by now. Evidence that doesn't suit their predispositions on how to advocate is simply ignored, and evidence-free claims that do support it embraced with unreasoning enthusiasm.
But it's important to realize that the spectacle of the "climate debate" is just a game.
Actually dealing with climate change isn't. All over the place, real-world decisionmakers--from local govts to insurance companies to utilities to investors to educators formal & informal--are making decisions in anticipation of how climate change impacts and how to minimize them.
Many of these actors are using the best available evidence, not just on climate change but on climate-science communication. And they are ignoring the game that non-actors engaged in confabulatory story-telling are engaged in.
If this were not the case--if the only game in town were the one being played by those for whom science communication is just expressive politics by other means-- the scientific study of science communication would indeed be pointless.