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Turbulence and shifting gusts of hot air: the forecast for perceptions of "scientific consensus" in response to NAS geoengineering reports

They aren’t the first National Academy of Sciences Reports to call for stepping up research on geoengineering, but the ones the Academy issued Tuesday are definitely raising both the volume and intensity of this recommendation.

In response, I predict an interesting counter-reaction by many of the advocacy groups involved in promoting graeater public engagement with climate science. 

A prominent if not dominant stance among such groups, I’m guessing, will be to dismiss geoengineering as impractical, dangerous, futile, etc.

And impolitic as well: triggering an outcome referred to as "moral hazard" (an inapt label, given the established meaning of this term in economics), talk of geoengineering, it is asserted, will lull people into believing climate change can be met w/o significant changes in their lifestyle, thereby dissipating the groundswell of popular support (?!) for restrictions on use of carbon-emitting greenhouse gasses.

I’m guessing that we'll see this reaction, first, because that’s already how many climate-policy advocates have reacted whenever anyone mentions geoengineering.

And I’m guessing this is what we'll see, second, b/c such a reaction would be in keeping with dynamics of cultural cognition generally and with studies of geoengineering and perceptions of “scientific consensus” in particular.

Just the day before yesterday (we take seriously our commitment to our 14 billion regular blog subscribers to be as topical as possible!), CCP’s study "Geoengineering and Climate Change Polarization: Testing a Two-Channel Model of Science Communication" was published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

It reports the results of a two-nation—US and England—experiment that found that subjects who learned of scientist’ call for research into geoengineering were in fact less cultural polarized in their subsequent assessment of the strength of the evidence of human-caused climate change than were subjects who first learned of scientists’ ‘call for more carbon emission limits. 

The latter were in fact more polarized than subjects in a control group, who considered the evidence of human-caused climate change without any information on carbon-emission limit or geoengineering-research proposals.

This finding was consistent with the hypothesis that learning that geoengineering, a pro-technology response, was being given serious consideration would reduce the defensive biases of citizens culturally predisposed to discount evidence of human-caused climate change insofar as accepting it implies limits on markets, commerce, and industry—activities that individuals with this cultural orientation value, symbolically as well as materially.

Contrary to the often-asserted "moral hazard" claim, telling people about geoengineering research did not reduce concern about climate change risks. 

On the contrary, the subjects who learned about the proposal for such research were more concerned, presumably because the ones most prone to skepticism reacted much more open-mindedly to evidence of global warming.

The second study that predicts that many climate-change policy advocates will react dismissively to the NAS (and Royal Society) recommendations to research geoengineering is the CCP study on cultural cognition of scientific consensus.

That one found that individuals tend to credit or discredit representations of scientific consensus on risk and related facts in a selective pattern that reflects their cultural worldviews. 

Egalitarian, communitarian individuals credit the expertise of scientists who assert that climate change and nuclear power pose huge environmental risks and dismiss the expertise of scientists—ones with exactly the same credentials—who assert otherwise.

The pattern is reversed in hierarchic, individualistic subjects.

If that's how people process information about "scientific consensus" in the real world, than people with these opposing outlooks will end up forming opposingly skewed understandings of what scientific consensus is on these and other issues. And in fact, that’s what surveys show to be the case.

So here we can expect egalitarian communitarians—who readily perceive scientific consensus in favor of human-caused climate change—to dispute that there is "really" scientific consensus in favor of investigating the contribution geoengineering can make to counteracting climate-change risks.

They’ll either dismiss the NAS and Royal Society reports or construe them as saying the opposite of what they say (that more research is indeed warranted) because the suggestion that one response to climate change is more innovation, more technology—not less of all of those things—disappoints their cultural worldview, which is exactly what motivates a good many of them to exhuberantly embrace evidence of climate change.

Geoengineering is “liposuction,” when what capitalism really needs to do is go on a “diet,” as one commentator poetically put it.

Identity-protective reasoning doesn't discriminate on the basis worldview.  

Its reason-eviscerating effects are symmetric across the ideological spectrum.  We are all vulnerable.  

And the reactions to geoengineering might help us to see that; or it might not, precisely because it's in the nature of the disease to discern its effects only in those who belong to an opposing cultural group and never in the members of one's own....

Anyway, that’s my prediction about how people will react to the new NAS reports.

Guess we'll find out.    

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Reader Comments (11)

As promised, here and here are examples of the same sort of hostility towards geo-engineering as expressed by Anthony Watts, but from the opposite extreme of the climate debate spectrum.

Some have suggested that the concept of geoengineering the climate presents a moral hazard because it could reduce political and public pressure for emissions reduction.[15] Groups such as ETC Group[16] and individuals such as Raymond Pierrehumbert have called for a moratorium on deployment and out-of-doors testing of geoengineering techniques for climate control.[17][18]

The organisation [ETC] has taken a public campaigning stance against geoengineering,[4] including a campaign called "Hands off Mother Earth!", which was launched in April 2010.[5] In October 2010 a comprehensive report titled "Geopiracy - The Case Against Geoengineering" was published,[6] covering proposed technologies, governance discussions, geoengineering key players and the roles and interests of military and corporations.

Diana Bronson, of the ETC Group, stated global warming was caused by "the scientific, corporate and political establishment of developed countries", to now think those same people will correct the climate crisis and the biosphere is little bit naïve.

February 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

Dan -

==> "In response, I predict an interesting counter-reaction by many of the advocacy groups involved in promoting graeater public engagement with climate science.

A prominent if not dominant stance among such groups, I’m guessing, will be to dismiss geoengineering as impractical, dangerous, futile, etc."

How are you going to measure the prevalence of the reaction? How will you identify what groups comprise your category? I wonder if you aren't greasing the track here a bit.

And w/r/t Glenn's comment - it seems kind of odd that you're so focused on predicting what will happen with one group when you already have some direct evidence of what's happening with another group....interestingly,, evidence that the concept of geoengineering exacerbates polarization <srong>from the other side of the great climate change divide.

As for that direct evidence we already have, it is notable that the real-world context for how the information is communicated is very different than the experimental condition of your study. Which makes me wonder about the applicability of your study, in a practical sense, to the real world.

February 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Dan -

Also interesting, w/r/t your prediction, is this

February 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@ Dan Kahan said:

So here we can expect egalitarian communitarians—who readily perceive scientific consensus in favor of human-caused climate change—to dispute that there is "really" scientific consensus in favor of investigating the contribution geoengineering can make to counteracting climate-change risks.

They’ll either dismiss the NAS and Royal Society reports or construe them as saying the opposite of what they say (that more research is indeed warranted) because the suggestion that one response to climate change is more innovation, more technology—not less of all of those things—disappoints their cultural worldview, which is exactly what motivates a good many of them to exhuberantly embrace evidence of climate change.

I've not found that everyone on the left is a "nattering nabob of negativism," as Rush Limbaugh branded them with his oft-repeated saying (which he borrowed from Spiro T. Agnew).

Sure, there are some, whether their motivation be realism, Malthusianism, self-flagellation, asceticism, post-materialism, or whatever.

But there's a long tradition of futurism on the left too.

"This Promethean element is particularly evident in a Bolshevik pamphlet of 1906 which argued that man is destined to 'take possession of the universe and extend his species into distant cosmic regions, taking over the whole solar system'," Michael Allen Gillespie explains in Nihilism Before Nietzsche. "Human beings will become immortal," the pamphlet gushes on.

"The most extreme Prometheans were probably the Cosmist and Blacksmith groups," Gillespie adds, "who spoke of the imminent transformation of the entire cosmos: 'We shall arrange the stars in rows and put reins on the moon. We shall erect upon the canals of Mars the palace of World Freedom.' In a similar vein, the futurist opera Victory over the Sun proclaimed freedom from all traditional order in the world."

Engels prophesied an idyllic state with "no soldiers, no gendarmes, no policemen, prefects or judges, no prisons, laws or lawsuits."

More recently we see this futurist vision reappear in the left's sustainable energy Utopia. Here's how Dennis Meadows describes it:

When I use the term sustainable development—which I consider to be an oxymoron actually—I am trying to capture the meaning that most people seem to have. In so far as I can tell, people who use the term mean, essentially, that this would be a phase of development where they get to keep what they have but all the poor people can catch up. Or, they get to keep doing what they’ve been doing, but through the magic of technology they are going to cause less damage to the environment and use fewer resources.

February 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

@Joshua & @Glenn

I think you guys have got me here .... In any case, I certainly will be doing a pretty lame job "testing" my "prediction" if I only collect examples of what I'm looking for w/o figuring out how to look for & collect examples of (a) the absence of what my prediction says I should expect to see and (b) the existence of things that my prediction implies I shouldn't expect to see (or see nearly as often as I see what I predicted)

the CCP research group already did a study -- the first one I mention in this post -- that I think had all the cells of the 2x2 contingency table nessary for a valid infernece, but about the impact of info on geoengineering on information-processing on evidence of climate change. It fits the pattern I describe.

But counting things on the internet is a different matter. First b/c of the sampling difficult that @Joshua alluded too. And 2d b/c of the selection bias of being someone who bothers to post things on the internet. Or in any case, if we are trying to gauge how members of the public think genreally, the expressions of opinion one can find on the internet is clearly not a valid sample, since people who bother to post things on line are 10^89 more interested in politics etc than the average member of society

Not much of an excuse, but I guess I meant the idea of "predicting" in this post to be more of a rhetorical device. I'm expeting to see a lot of awkward back peddling and unseemly mischaracterizations on part of many egalitarian-communicatarian niche-occupying advocates who now have to somehow deal w/ NAS not taking a positoin congenial to their worldview (per what the AAAPSS study finds about the geoengineering/climat change cocktail)

Really, though, it won't be any different from what we see when the professional supplier of EC-congenial evidence has to deal w/ NAS positions on, say, capital punishment vs. concealed carry laws..

And of coruse all of this goes for HC-, EI-, & HI-niche professional supplies of culturally congenial evidence, when one can find the right sets of conditions.

It's all symmetrical.

But you are making me see that it might be the case that in the "real world," the NAS's position on geoengineering isn't viewed by the HI professional suppliers as something their consumers will get all that much satisfaction out of.

could be!

But if you will allow me, I'll modify my hypothesis: just as we see professional suppliers of EC-congenial evidence feeling awkward about NAS reports, we'll likely see professional HI-congenial-evidence suppliers supplying their consumers with the spectacle of EC suppliers enduring that awkwardness. That is, we'll see the conflict entrepreneurs latching onto geoengineering as instance of "left is anti-science"! when they play the boring, ignorant, anti-liberal "mine-is-bigger[smaller]-than-yours/who-is-more-anti-science" game.

February 12, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

It seems to me that we now need a study of the studies. We started with what seemed to be a neutral playing field of relative ignorance, within which the pubic, as queried by Dan Kahan, was willing to consider geoengineering and in so doing to consider global climate change and be more accepting of that premise.

Then, just a couple of days later the National Academy of Science releases its report. And now it seems to be Polarization: Game On.

From their website main page this is accessed by clicking on:
" Proposed Climate Intervention Techniques Not Ready for Wide-Scale Deployment"

Which takes one to a press release, headlined:
"Climate Intervention Is Not a Replacement for Reducing Carbon Emissions;
Proposed Intervention Techniques Not Ready for Wide-Scale Deployment

With a first paragraph of:
"There is no substitute for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the negative consequences of climate change, a National Research Council committee concluded in a two-volume evaluation of proposed climate-intervention techniques. Strategies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are limited by cost and technological immaturity, but they could contribute to a broader portfolio of climate change responses with further research and development. Albedo-modification technologies, which aim to increase the ability of Earth or clouds to reflect incoming sunlight, pose considerable risks and should not be deployed at this time."

I think that it is interesting to note that they seem to be concerned that "geoengineering" is an already polarizing term, and want to substitute "climate intervention":
"Carbon dioxide removal and albedo-modification techniques have been grouped up until now under the common term “geoengineering,” but they vary widely with respect to environmental risks, socio-economic impacts, cost, and research needs. Carbon dioxide removal addresses the root cause of climate change -- high concentrations of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere -- and generally have well-understood benefits and risks, but current technologies would take decades to achieve moderate results and be cost-prohibitive at scales large enough to have a sizeable impact. By contrast, albedo-modification techniques would only temporarily mask the warming effect caused by high CO2 concentrations, and present serious known and possible unknown environmental, social, and political risks, including the possibility of being deployed unilaterally."
"These differences led the committee to evaluate the two types of approaches separately in companion reports, a distinction it hopes carries over to future scientific and policy discussions. In addition, the committee believes that these approaches are more accurately described as “climate intervention” strategies -- purposeful actions intended to curb the negative impacts of climate change -- rather than engineering strategies that imply precise control over the climate."

I've downloaded the two reports, Climate Intervention: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration and Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth, although I have yet to read them in their entirety. But from what I have read from the first chapters of both documents, I believe that the NAS is doing its science-y best to stress the need for carbon emissions reduction and mitigation and to distance itself from the most risky and controversial topics like iron fertilization.

However, as with most political speeches, which most people never hear, just as they will never read these reports, it is what the "spin doctors" say that really matters.

I think one of the important things to study here is whether or not people's own internal sense of cultural identity drives their assimilation of information on new topics, or those of accepted sources who intend to drive public opinion and deliberately package this new information in a manner designed to fit in with what they perceive to be the existing cultural biases of those they are trying to reach.

Then,the problem would be how reports such as these by the NAS can be distributed in a manner that gets around the spin doctors.

February 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

Dan -

The problem of definition of terms, I think, surfaces here. Just read a post at Revkin's crib where he presents folks arguing that investigating geoengineering is likely to be counterproductive, and very, very unlikely to produce helpful results, but yet think that it is complicated to argue that geoengieering shouldn't be investigated. Even the Slate article, while ridiculing of geoengineering, seems to have a similar message. And certainly the WUWT post shows ridicule towards geoengineering from "skeptics" on their own right, not just ridiculing "consensus advocates" for being anti-science for ridiculing geoengineering.

So I think that we'd need to have clear definitions of who is or isn't an "advocate" or what type of advocate they are. Way too complex, IMO, to be of much value.

The value I see here is to look at the geoengineering study from more of a bird's-eye view. IMO, the issue of geoengineering per se is kind of beside the point. What does that study tell us more generally about communication in a polarized context where people are highly identified along ideological pathways? I think it tells us that communication vehicles that are non-threatening to identity tend to not stimulate identity-defense and identity-aggression, relative to communication vehicles that are identity-threatening. Not exactly shocking, I'd say. In an experimental framework,, you can control the context to make the topic of geogengineering non-threatening. But in the real world the problem with geoengineering, as with any of myriad other climate science related scientific concepts, is that the framework for making communication about geoengineering identity-threatening is already in place

I think that in the real world, the existing channels for any science communication that is even remotely connected to the topic of climate change will stimulate identity threat reactions. For example, that's why I think that whether you call "skeptics" deniers or not doesn't have much impact because while yes, it does stimulate identity-threat reactions, it doesn't matter how someone they consider to be the "other" refers to them - they will react with identity-aggressive/identity-defensive behaviors regardless.

February 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


I agree with you.

Whatever the study teaches anyone about the "2 channel model" is 10^6 x more important than anything it has to say about the impact of geoneneering on discussion of climate change.

I think when we did the study I thought "2 channel model" was 10^2 x more important.

It is a sign of how poor the judgment of certain policy advocates is that they'd react so dismissively to a simple proposal to do research on an alternative to carbon limits insofar as it so predictably confirms in the eyes of those who distrust them that proponents of climate-change policymaking are only opportunistically committed to science. But the incremental addition of toxicity to the reservoir of poison that pervades the deliberative atmosphere is so small that it certainly is of no real consequence.

The only reason to point it out is to help the few who want something better & who still haven't gotten the message to see how foolish it is to continue relying on those whose bad judgment is on display here.

February 13, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

My perspective is a bit different. Life has been geoengineering since its conception. I expect humans will do geoengineering the same way they are presently doing it: do it until harm is measured. We have done that for land use, groundwater contamination, water contamination, and are now doing it for air and ocean contamination. Typically humans use three strategies. One is to clean up, another is to re-use or change, the third is to avoid, quarantine. The scale has changed for humans with our utilization of energy and by our numbers.

February 14, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F Pittman

A very late response
My concern is that biggest impacts of climate change are the destabilization of the delicate balance whose shifting has caused broad areas to be temporary in one era but become deserts for the next 1000 years or so. Geoengineering to counteract changes in the average global temperature is plausible but might simply add more random permutations of climate rather than put things back the way they were. Also any major bioengineering will change climate in countries not party to the decision to deploy it and will make things worse in some cases .. apt to result in international deadlock.

December 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHal Morris


Could be. But of course we are already geoengineering, right? And having exactly those effects? There's no "neutral baseline" at this point

December 28, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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