Reacting to Zhao et al

This is a reaction to readings in ENR 8150 Advanced Environment, Risk, and Decision Making. The reading was Zhao, X., Rolfe-Redding, J., and Kotcher, J. E., Partisan differences in the relationship between newspaper coverage and concern over global warming (Public Understanding of Science, 2014).

This week’s readings fall directly into my area of interest for this class and research on climate change communication more generally. I’ve written two term papers on topics related to motivated reasoning about climate change, and still find the topic fascinating. I also can’t seem to stay out of a climate change debate group on Facebook where you can see it in action. It’s a living laboratory for these concepts if there ever was one.


First, a few criticisms / observations about the Zhao study. Zhao mentions this at the end, but by limiting the media analysis to four mainstream newspapers, that misses a lot. Part of his thesis is that people are selective in the media they seek out so that it reinforces opinions they already hold. I have absolutely found this to be the case with climate change.

Last semester in Eric Toman’s class, one assignment was to interview three people on their opinions about climate change, much as if we were researchers doing a study like this. I interviewed three people at a cafeteria where I often go to eat. One woman was an absolute denier who thinks climate change is a hoax, and I talked with her for over an hour. She ended up showing me all the sources where she gets her news. She said that if you weren’t online, then you were missing everything, and all her sources were highly partisan news sites. Forget Fox News or WSJ – I hadn’t even heard of most of the sites she showed me, but they were clearly very popular among climate deniers. I’ve found similar results in the climate change debate group. The deniers won’t accept certain news sources at all — for example, that hate hate hate Skeptical Science, but they love Breitbart, Watts Up With That, and other partisan outlets.

The point is that there is a whole world of partisan news sources on the denier side, and maybe equally as many on the climate side, though it is hard for me to treat the two sides as equal, since one has the weight of science behind it and the other does not. However, there are lots of pro-climate science sites such as Climate Progress, Climate Reality, Skeptical Science, etc. I wouldn’t know how to do a study that took all these various outlets into account unless you picked a few to represent each side, or you simply asked people what they read online. However, online news is certainly worth looking at regarding an issue that has become as politically polarized as climate change, as both sides tend to seek out more detailed news online than they will ever get from mainstream media.

Another observation I had about the Zhao study is that it was of news coverage and public opinion on climate change in 2006, which is almost 10 years ago now, and a LOT has happened since then. For one thing, the countermovement of front groups and foundations didn’t really kick into full gear until 2009 when the cap and trade proposal was in front of the U.S. Congress — and since then they have been spending $1 billion a year in climate change denial, most of it in untraceable dark money (Brulle, 2013). If things were partisan back in 2006, imagine how partisan they are now!

A third point has to do with how the study measured concern about climage change. All the questions in the GSS survey were about what is happening in the Arctic region to polar bears and such. But as this class has repeatedly demonstrated, the distance affect is very real, and it’s hard for peole to get excited about something so far away. That alone could skew results about how concerned people are about climate change.

More news, less concern

Now, regarding Zhao’s findings. One thing he finds is that as news coverage increases, concern with climate change increases among Democrats but decreases among Republicans. That is very interesting and goes along with Kahan’s cultural cognition findings that deniers and dismissives actually know as much or more about climate change as people who are concerned. It’s counterintuitive, but these findings are pretty consistent.

The question is, what do we do about it? News outlets can’t exactly stop covering climate change in the hopes that the deniers will come around. They won’t. On the contrary, mainstream news outlets do not cover climate change enough. If we want to talk about agenda setting, the lack of coverage of climate change as opposed to issues like ISIS, immigration, and Obamacare may be part of why most middle Americans don’t see it as important.

This finding can help people who want to communicate the importance of climate change to a broad audience in one way, however. Several times in this class we have talked about how people can couch climate change in other issues such as public health, jobs creation, or national security. This finding reinforces that point. Climate change is multi-dimensional and affects everything, so we can talk about those specific affects more than whether climate change is happening and if it is caused by humans.

I’ve come to several points of agreement with members of the opposition in the debate group in this manner, even if we have different reasons for agreeing. For example, one guy and I agreed that it’s useful for the military to employ solar power, even if I said they are doing it because they take the threat of climate change seriously while he said they are doing it to become less vulnerable to attacks on oil caravans in conflict zones. There is no reason both of these statements can’t be true.

Another very interesting finding in the Zhao study is that people on both sides became more concerned when presented with stories that discussed scientific uncertainty and did not refute it. How can this be? My guess is, people like certainty, but for different reasons. Some people like to be told what to think, while others like to rebel against accepted opinion. Being told scientific opinion is uncertain makes people want to pin it down, which causes them to get engaged in the issue.

Responding to opposition

A third finding that I thought was interesting was about when partisans swung into action to get their side across. Zhao et al found this happened when they thought opposition news sources were publishing too many stories about climate change. The content of those stories didn’t matter — it was the fact that a news outlet on the other side had published them at all, and partisans felt this meant the stories had to be countered.

I am sure this effect is real because I’ve been in groups where this happened and people were asked to go make comments on the story or social media post in question. The point wasn’t so much what the story said, though it usually actually is slanted in the way people think it will be from simple heuristics. However, this pheonomen is another reason for looking at outlets beyond mainstream media that are truly partisan about climate change.

One reason I think debate groups like the climate change one I’ve been participating in and other such groups are popular is that people feel the need to get their points of view out. They don’t expect to convince the other side of anything, but they do think if someone who is undecided or less partisan is reading, then the “correct” point of view needs to be visible. This is also why some vested interests actually hire people to make comments on news stories and social media posts. They want to steer the conversation in a certain way, and they are willing to pay for it. The phenomenon is so prevalent that it has its own vocabulary: astroturfing by sockpuppets. (More here, here and here.)

I would love to see an update of the Zhao study that takes internet news sources into account, as well as the conversation among people who engage in comments on news stories and social media. We are beyond passive intake of newspapers and into an era where just as much if not more of the action happens online. In the climate change debate group, someone makes a post, usually a news story or blog entry that showcases their own opinion, probably once every 10 minutes, and most posts get dozens if not hundreds of comments. We can dismiss all of this as so much noise, but it’s also indicative of the conversation, a living laboratory. Why not take advantage of it?

Affect, availability and climate change

This is a reaction to readings in ENR 8150 Advanced Environment, Risk, and Decision Making.  The readings were Ch. 10 and 11, pp. 107-130, in Plous, S., The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making (McGraw Hill, 1993), and Keller, C, Siegrist, M, Gutscher, H., The role of the affect and availability heuristics in risk communication (Risk Analysis, 2006, 26(3), pp. 631-639).

Continuing with the theme of trying to apply these readings to climate change communication … surveys repeatedly show that most people perceive the risk of climate change as much lower than scientists say it is.  Plous had some good explanations for this in his discussion of the availability heuristic.

One element was imagination: conditions that are easy to imagine were rated as riskier than conditions that are hard to imagine.  Climate change falls into the hard to imagine camp for several reasons.

First, it is unprecedented, so it’s not something that has happened to many people.  Not many people have told stories of living through climate change, unless you count stories of living through major floods or storms, and those aren’t so much directly caused by climate change as made worse by climate change.  There is debate about this.  What we haven’t seen yet is large scale migration of populations due to water sources drying up, for example.  Once we have more stories of people having to cope with climate change, maybe it will become more concrete.  However, of course then it will be too late to do much about it.

Second is how scientists talk about climate change.  Usually it is in abstract terms like “desertification,” “acidification,” or my favorite, “dustbowlification.”  I mean, who comes up with these words??  They also tend to use a lot of probabilities.  The IPCC reports constantly refer to 95% certainty, high confidence, etc. for the findings they are presenting and predictions they are making.  Although this is important to how statistically significant the findings are, this kind of language doesn’t make much sense to the average reader.  It doesn’t stick.

Related to imagination is vividness.  The more concrete and vivid a scenario is, the more people will see it as a high risk.  Yet scientists write in such a way as to wipe out practically any vestige of vividness.  Take this conclusion from a study on impacts of ocean acidification on marine life: “Sufficient information exists to state with certainty that deleterious impacts on some marine species are unavoidable, and that substantial alteration of marine ecosystems is likely over the next century.”  Wouldn’t it be a lot more vivid to say that if ocean pH levels continue to fall at the current rate, the shelled plankton that make up the base of the food web for all life on earth are likely to dissolve by 2100?  This kind of vividness is the strategy used by lawyers to win trials, yet it would be practically sacrilege for a scientist to do the same.

Keller’s study illustrates and develops several of Plous’s concepts, and shows why the availability heuristic works: because it attaches to affect.  Affect as we’ve seen before is what grabs people because it is processed first through the autonomic system and influences cognition.  Affect, not cognition, is what brings about action, and the Keller paper explores several ways to do this.

One lesson from Keller’s findings is that frequencies trump probabilities, unless they are very low. For example, people rated the 100-year flood motif as lower risk than a 33% probability in 40 years — yet discussion of extreme weather events almost always frames them as 100-year floods now occurring more often.  Perhaps it would be better to frame them in terms of a strong likelihood in 40 years, which is a number in most adults’ living memory.

Past experience was also found to have a significant effect on perceptions of risk from flooding.  However, as mentioned previously, very few people have directly experienced climate change in a way that’s as tangible as a flood, so this won’t really work there.  What could work, based on Keller’s research, is photos and vivid graphics.  The graphics would have to be much more vivid than the simply pie charts that Keller’s experiment presented, as those actually decreased risk perception.  Good photos could also work.

Here are some examples that I think do a pretty good job:

  • NASA posted two videos this week showing what we can expect over the next century for drought in the Western United States and Mexico under a business as usual vs moderate emissions scenario.  The moderate scenario is bad enough, but business as usual emissions would pretty much wipe out all life in these regions.
  • A recent story on new satellite measurements of ocean acidification included a global map that showed acidification pretty vividly.  Satellite measurements are new and allow us to see whole swaths of the ocean rather than taking readings at a few specific points.
  • Last summer, several news outlets ran some incredible before and after photos of how lakes in California have been affected by drought.  I don’t see how anyone could look at these and dismiss the possibility of climate change.

Kleindorfer and environmental policy

This is a reaction to readings in ENR 8150 Advanced Environment, Risk, and Decision Making.  The reading was Kleindorfer, P.R. Chap. 2, pp. 37-56 in Sexton, K., A. A. Marcus, K. W. Easter, and T. D. Burkhardt, eds, Better Environmental Decisions: Strategies for governments, businesses, and communities (Island Press, 1999).

I liked this article in that it made an attempt to systematically apply some of the decision-making concepts we have been looking at to the environmental arena.  Kleindorfer listed five special aspects of environmental decision-making:

  1. The relatively insignificant effect that individuals have on the environment, along with the perception that the individual bears the costs but society gets the benefits
  2. The perception that the problem is with industry or government
  3. The cost of environmental protections, and the difficulty of weighing costs against benefits
  4. Long term effects of environmental improvement are hard to weigh against near term costs
  5. Lack of scientific proof of causality between action and outcome

Kleindorfer looks at some strategies for addressing some of these issues. For example, if costs are perceived as high and benefits as low, regulation and an appeal to ethics is needed.  If costs are low and benefits high, we need to make sure people understand the benefits.  If costs and benefits are both high, people need to be convinced the problem is unacceptable and there is an alternative.

Kleindorfer classifies environmental problems into four types:

  • Easy, which the market or simple regulations can solve
  • Commons dilemmas, which require regulations and standards along with an appeal to ethics
  • Information problems, which require providing information and seeking participation and consensus
  • Tough problems, which require pretty much all of the above

Kleindorfer ends by arguing that an appeal to self interest won’t work to get people to take action on environmental problems.  He thinks you have to appeal to social responsibility or a sense of ethics.  This is what he calls legitimation, and he says it’s the foundation of all environmental decision making.

Individual vs collective

Since my main interest in this class is climate change communication, I want to explore how Kleindorfer’s concepts apply to this problem.  First, I can see how all five of Kleindorfer’s characteristics of environmental deicison making apply to this issue.  I’m especially interested in #2, because I don’t think it’s just a perception but a very valid concern.  We cannot address climate change simply by individual actions.  There have to be major structural changes in how dependent our society is on fossil fuels and on the realistic options offered to individuals, industries, and government to reduce their use.  People cannot use public transit if there isn’t any in their area or if taking the bus would add a two-hour commute each way to work.  Most people realistically don’t have time to grow all their own food.  Most people don’t have $20,000 lying around to use for installing solar panels.

There are things individuals can do such as using energy-saving light bulbs and eating less meat.  But it will take major structural changes before our society can kick its dependence on fossil fuels, and furthermore the fossil fuel interests are going to do everything in their power to delay this or keep it from happening.  That’s where climate change becomes a real public policy issue, because without policies that encourage growth of renewable energy industries, we might never get beyond the talking stages.

To make public policy happen, we do have to be able to explain the other points of Kleindorfer’s environmental decision making tree, namely how benefits outweigh costs, how benefits will accrue now and not just into the future, and how action is scientifically linked to outcome.

The costs and benefits of averting climate change are both high — though the cost of doing nothing is no less than the extinction of humans and all other species.  One of our best bets may be to argue that the costs of *not* addressing climate change are unaffordable, along with showing the solutions.  Those may be investment in renewable energy and taxing carbon as a way to internalize the externalized costs of fossil fuels.

So far as the four types of environmental problems, climate change is pretty clearly in the “tough” camp.  It’s going to require pretty much every tool to address — regulations, standards, incentives, subsidies, taxes, etc.

Social responsibility

Kleindorfer’s notion that environmental issues must be argued from social responsibilty rather than self-interest is interesting, but I am not sure I agree.  On the one hand, more companies than ever have social responsibility units and want to portray what they are doing as good for society and the responsible thing to do.  Animal protection groups have had a lot of success getting companies to sign onto animal welfare standards using this line of reasoning.  On the other hand, most of those companies wouldn’t do it if they didn’t think their customers cared about such standards and that it wasn’t good for their bottom lines.

The same is true of environemental standards, maybe even more so.  Most people care about clean air and clean water, and companies active use green programs as part of their advertising, to the point that “green washing” has become a term for companies that talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.  Again, these companies would not be appealing to the consumer’s sense of environmental ethics if they didn’t think it would help their bottom line.  For example, hotels that give you the opportunity not to wash your towels every day also save a ton of money in water, heating and detergent bills.

Such concerns, however, don’t really translate to the individual who isn’t trying to sell you something or get you to do something.  They are going to be motivated much more by self interest.  If we could have gotten farmers to stop applying so much manure to their fields in Northwest Ohio simply by appealing to a sense of the greater good, Toledo’s water supply never would have been in danger.

Regardless of what motivates a company, government, or individual to do the right thing, it’s good when they do it.  But we do have to know what motivates them in order to set up the right public policy programs to elicit the type of behavior we want, and to explain to them why they should support these policies.


This week in class we looked at a video produced by EARTH University about biodigesters. We will be helping to install biodigesters on area farms as part of the service learning component of the Costa Rica trip, so I was very curious to see what they looked like.

To my surprise, the way they make biodigesters in Costa Rica is by using large spools of heavy plastic. The plastic is double wrapped, with a release valve installed on top. All the photos of biodigesters I had seen in the United States show hard plastic chambers or even wood, and they can be quite expensive. But these biodigesters will be much cheaper, easier to make on site, and more flexible.

Basically what a biodigester does is act like a stomach to digest waste, creating natural gas that people can use for cooking or heating. This is useful in developing countries for two reasons: one, they have a place to put waste such as animal manure besides rivers and streams, and two, the gas produced on site means they don’t have to buy and bring in propane from the outside.

Anaerobic digestion, or digestion in the absence of oxygen, happens in four stages of chemical reactions:

• Hydrolysis
• Acidogenesis
• Acetogenesis
• Methanogenesis


In hydrolosis, bacteria break down large organic molecules from manure or other waste into soluble solutions that other bacteria can use. Those bacteria then convert the sugar and amino acids into carbon dioxide, hydrogen, ammonia, and other organic acids. Next, still more bacteria convert these substances into acetic acid along with more ammonia, hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Finally, it is converted into methane and carbon dioxide, which can be used as a form of energy for cooking and heating.

Here’s a YouTube video that shows what the biodigesters that we will be making look like. I am looking forward to it!

Brain, emotions, and repetition

This is a reaction to readings in ENR 8150 Advanced Environment, Risk, and Decision Making.  The readings were Forgas, J.P. Ch. 1 (Introduction) and Zajonc, R.B. Ch. 2 (Feeling and Thinking) pp. 1- 58 in Feeling and thinking: The role of affect in social cognition, ed. by Joseph P. Forgas. (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Brain structures

These chapters both made the case that cognition (memory, learning, recognition) is a separate process from affect (emotions, attitudes, preferences).  I get that, but they certainly do seem to work together and influence each other a lot.  Zajonc argues that the physical structures of the brain show they are separate processes, since emotions originate in the amygdala while cognition originates in the hippocampus.

Zajonc points out that the amygdala is closer than the hippocampus to the thalamus, which is the organ that relays sensations, thoughts and feelings to the appropriate place in the neocortex for processing and response.  That is true, but it also looks like the amygdala and hippocampus are literally right next to each other in the brain.  Who’s to say there aren’t connections between these two structures that cause cogniton and emotions to influence each other before either one reaches the thalamus?

I have also long been intrigued by the similarities and differences between the brains of humans and other animals.  Mammals all have a similar limbic system to humans, which means they likely feel similar emotions.  This system was developed during evolution and has gone through many species to us.  Where we differ is in the much larger frontal lobes where we do a lot of thinking, analyzing, and planning.

So my question is, is activity in the frontal lobes different from cognition?  Are the frontal lobes where the thalamus sends cognitive information from the hippocampus, whereas emotional information goes somewhere else?  And if so, why is emotion so much more powerful in the sense that it can move you to act, whereas simple cognitive information cannot?  It would seem that if the frontal lobes are so much bigger in people, they would be more powerful than the tiny amygdala.  Yet again and again we see emotions are more powerful.

Note: This site was helpful in trying to understand the functions of the different parts of the brain that Zajonc discussed.

Emotion and action

Continuing with the emotion and action idea … Emotions are what precipitates action, which is why campaigns to get people to DO something — sign a petition, vote for a candidate, write a letter to their senator, recycle, turn out the lights, pass legislation to address climate change — must have an emotional hook.  Here is a great campaign that has helped to curtail consumption of shark fin soup in China.

On another thread I posted a link to a story about the most powerful political ads of all time.  Ads like Johnson’s “Daisy Girl” or Reagan’s “Morning in America” are pretty much purely based on emotion.  This is something the most effective designers of political ads understand.  Are they manipulative?  Yes.  Do they work?  Absolutely yes.  Is it ethical?  In my opinion, it depends.

If the cognitive substance that the ad is conveying through emotion is true, then yes it is ethical.  “This is your brain on drugs” is iconic — and a pretty good representation of what actually happens to the brains of drug addicts.  However, the “Swift Boat” ad that derailed the candidacy of John Kerry was not ethical because only one of the 13 men in the ad who claimed to have served with Kerry actually did, and by all accounts Kerry’s service in Vietnam was exemplary, the opposite of what the ad conveyed.

So what does this mean for environmental issues today?  In short, the lesson seems to be, climate science needs an effective ad agency.  Complex material can be communicated through emotion, imagery, and storylines, and there is nothing wrong with doing so, as long as you do not misrepresent the subject you are communicating.

Some scientists seem to find this conclusion — and this type of communication in general — to be appalling.  Last week I followed a protacted Twitter discussion between Richard Betts, a senior climate scientist in Britain, with Dana Nuccitelli, a blogger for The Guardian and one of the science communicators behind the Skeptical Science website. Betts took exception to this headline, arguing that it was sensationalist.  He went on to say most science journalism was sensationalist, then compared Nuccitelli’s column to the work of David Rose, a columnist at the Daily Mail who often attacks climate science (here for example), and questioned the motives of Nuccitelli in writing it.  Of course Nuccitelli was pretty offended by all this, and several people jumped into the debate on both sides.

My point is, if climate science is going to use the scientific information we are learning about in this class, it will have to deal with attitudes of people like Betts, who seem to think using any reference to emotion is sensationalist and manipulative.  Sometimes scientists can be their own worst enemies!

On the other side of the scale, however, is a climate scientist like Katharine Hayhoe, who gets it.  She has long called for communicating climate science not through technical details but through values and emotion.  Here is her 30-second “elevator pitch” for how to communicate climate science.  She may not know about all the research we are reading about in this class that backs up her approach, but she is demonstrating it.

Repetition, repetition, repetition

I wasn’t sure what to make of many of the Zajonc experiments showing that simple repetition makes people like something more, even if that item is competely unrelated to anything else in their lives.  What this made me think of was the idea, often attributed to the Nazis, that if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.

Then add in the subconscious priming with smiley faces and frowns, and talk about manipulation!  I am pretty sure such manipulation (for example, inserting a few frames of a smiley face or frowny face just before or in the middle of an ad or TV show) is illegal.  But that wouldn’t stop a lot of political advertisers, and it would be practically impossible to track or enforce in the internet age.

Perhaps Zajonc’s findings apply mainly to things people have not had previous exposure to or don’t know much about.  If they had already been exposed to something long enough to form an opinion, then maybe this type of repetition and priming wouldn’t have an effect.

Regarding climate change, that’s where the fossil fuel interests and free market fundamentalists beat scientists to the punch.  By funding a series of front group campaigns to paint concern about climate change as alarmist and climate change itself as a hoax — all of this before most people have had any exposure to what climate science is or how the climate even works — they have already “primed” much of public opinion.  Just look at the comments to any news story about climate change to see that.

Communicating something as complex as climate change is already challenging because the science is complex, and because some scientists think so much with their hippocampus that they don’t understand the importance of the amygdala.  But now we’ve also got to deal with a public primed against climate science.  It will take a special talent — maybe the “emotional giant” that Zajonc doesn’t think exists — to figure out how to overcome all this.