That “Deficit Model” Model Again

A New York Times op-ed argues (again) against informing its readers on matters of substance.

As usual on such exasperating celebrations of the incompetence of the press, Matt Nisbet is quoted.

Research also suggests public health is an effective frame: few people care passionately about polar bears, but if you argue that closing coal-burning plants will reduce problems like asthma, youโ€™re more likely to find a receptive audience, says the American University communications professor Matthew Nisbet.

Trying again: please assign reporters who do understand the situation, and run their stories prominently until people are exposed to the truth of the matter. Don’t claim that the truth doesn’t work until you’ve tried it. And spare us the half-baked lab studies, please. That way lies New Coke.

Obviously people are swayed by mood and recent incidents. But on serious matters, a reasonably complete understanding of the situation might actually be important. If you don’t think so, please get off the beat.


  1. Indeed. Until I see climate change, and, more broadly, sustainability, being discussed in the media in the same depth and with the same prominance as economics and finance I'm not going to be convinced that communicating the full consequences of our current actions is a failing strategy. It's not so much about assigning better reporters to this issue, rather it's about making sure that everyone involved understands how these issues are intertwined with everything they write about.

    But then I suppose if you think threats to polar bears is the most significant direct impact of climate change the argument is understandable.

  2. Mike,

    You seem to have missed the whole point of the article ๐Ÿ™

    It is about "Simply presenting climate science more clearly is unlikely to change attitudes. But a better understanding of our mindsโ€™ strange workings may help save us from ourselves". It is not about saving polar bears!

    "Sometimes, when forming our opinions, we grasp at whatever information presents itself, no matter how irrelevant." That seems to be what you have done here, picking on a reference to polar bears as an excuse to disparage an intelligent article about how to get the message about climate change across to the general public.

    Of course that does not fit with your agenda: that the public should be educated with more facts, that "a reasonably complete understanding of the situation might actually be important". You are missing the point that most people in democracies are not all capable of understanding matters that are elementary to PhD graduates. What is required to persuade them are the more sophisticated methods that are now being explored in the laboratories of the social sciences.

    The "scientific community" seems to think that more information such as that which will be contained in the Fifth IPCC report can change peoples' minds. Einstein is reputed to have said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. The next IPCC report will not result in America and China taking action on global warming any more than the four previous reports did.

    But what is even more discouraging is that the sceptic think tanks are well aware of this. They don't waste their time with the science. They just use destructive propaganda which they know is far more effective than the truth. They slander their opponents to cast doubt on their science well aware that mud will stick.

    Until the IPCC realises that they are fighting a war against the sceptics, and that there are no rules in war but there is a science of war, then they are going to lose the battle for the hearts ad minds of the people, which is what this is all about.

    Cheers, Alastair.

  3. Hmm, sadly the social science/propaganda stuff isn't working either. OTOH scientists have a chance of making a difference if they're ready with clear explanations when people start looking for them, i.e. when the problem starts to bite so badly it can no longer be ignored. What scientists are presently doing may be seen as a credibility-gaining exercise for when the rubber hits the road. I predict it will be them vs. more or less the current denial machine, who will have switched from arguing about the science and impacts to advocating geo-engineering over mitigation.

  4. I believe the frustration with not using the deficit model is no other suggestions actually solves the problem. Look at the suggestions in the story.

    1) Mention geo-engineering. Great. Which geo-engineering technology tool is ready, economical, somewhat ethical? If climate change as a regulatory problem doesn't work for individualists, I'm afraid climate change as a technology problem doesn't work for realists.

    2)Using public health as a frame. Another great suggestion if it actually dealt with the problem as a whole. In fact, environmentalists have made great headway in preventing more coal plants using this frame. But that has only left us with the fracking revolution, which has its own, less visible health issues, and even if the methane leakage is a small problem, really only buys us small reductions. Unfortunately it keep our infrastructure fossil fuel dependent. People cheering drops in US carbon emissions due to fracking will quickly need to tack left before its too late.

    3) Telling heavy energy users how much less power their neighbors consumed. Oh please.

    But the main issue is that these frames lead to serious credibility issues when we realize we need to tell people what the real risks are. How do we move from frack away to #holyshitstopfrackingnow? How do move from 'air quality is not optimal' to 'we've destroyed major ecosystems that we all depend on'?

    Funny all the "good" frames need to speak to conservative power systems while leaving the humanists impotent and apathetic.

  5. I don't disagree with what Nisbet is saying here. How much do we really care about polar bears? I mean really care. Do we care enough to fundamentally change our energy infrastructure?

    No we probably don't (and if I had to guess I would say I probably care more about polar bears than most people).

    So even though we might not want polar bears to go extinct, we aren't willing to endure the costs of saving them.

    But there are, of course, plenty of non-polar bear reasons why climate change is worth doing something about. In short we need to find the reasons that get people to care enough about the problem to think doing something about it is worth while.

    But more to the point, most of the discussions about the deficit model tend to miss the point. The question shouldn't be does the deficit model work? And then implying that anyone trying to reduce information density is wasting their time. That is obviously incorrect and when followed to it's logical conclusions leads us away from evidence based decision making which is somewhere I don't want to go.

    To re-purpose a phrase from real climate: Reducing information deficits is necessary but not sufficient in order to get people to act. That is a much more useful way of thinking about the deficit model.

  6. Also I should point out that I am aware of the short falls that come from the whole "framing" issue.

    Energy independence might get some people to care about fossil fuels but once you go down that route how to you oppose the tar sands or coal mining while maintaining coherence?

  7. It's also worth pointing out that, in some places with governments willing and able to legislate 'paternally', what people actually think doesn't matter as much. The couple of examples mentioned to me recently: seatbelts and, in many parts of the world now, banning smoking in public places. No-one was clamouring for it, many were whinging about it, and many governments legislated on it anyway because of the severity of the public health risk.

    The telling part about that: how quickly these became an accepted part of existing culture pretty much overnight. I'm not saying that public awareness or backing isn't necessary - it's just not as necessary as we perhaps think it is.

  8. Steve,

    By social science/propaganda stuff I mean that we cannot rely on truth to win the argument. In science truth does win out eventually but in real life and science it can take some time which we do not have. If we wait until "the problem starts to bite so badly it can no longer be ignored" it will be too late! Scientists may think that what they doing is a credibility-gaining exercise but that is precisely the war they are losing. Climategate was a decisive victory for the current denial machine, undeservedly destroying the the credibility of the scientists.

    Mitigation will not bring down the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Only geo-engineering can save us how. But that seems unlikely - we are all doomed ๐Ÿ™

    Cheers, Alastair.

  9. It is not a small quibble to point out that aggressive mitigation WOULD reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere below present amounts. Hansen's goal of 350 is based on this idea - a very rapid reduction in emissions would allow the ocean to draw atmospheric concentrations down. That this carbon does go into the ocean does not make the ocean acidification pulse any worse, because that much and more will go into the ocean under business-as-usual.

    Secondly, it is important to realize that we don't have a clear handle on the level that causes doom, although we already are at a level that, in combination with other stresses, causes ecological decline.

  10. I think that was the original expectation in the early days of the Rio agreement. But the situation changes once a topic is successfully politicized.

    Once public opinion is engaged, and once political postures are polarized, you have a much more difficult situation.

    It is my opinion that the crucial issue is reaching those who self-identify as conservative, to explain to them how their allies have been misled. I am not, at this point, optimistic. There is a lot of money to be made, and now some of that money is in smallish holdings in rural areas in the US. The chances of overcoming the polarization were not good even before this windfall started falling. But that is nevertheless out task. And we can only do this by relying on the evidence at hand, not by weak association with proxy issues.

    We are taking enormous risks with the future, risks which grow daily. To say otherwise to win some minor political skirmish is at best ineffective.

    I think the main issue is that we are being advised by people experienced in advertising and in politics. Our only hope is in the long game, and the sustained cultural shift. We have lost the decade already; by driving the world to the edge of economic chaos the Bush administration settled it for us. We need to recover the prosperity of the 90s before we take another run at major infrastructure and policy change. The new energy supplies will make this relatively easy.

    Meanwhile we have to build a world which understands what is going on. Before there is deeper understanding (and more international trust) there will be no significant progress.

    There's obviously a huge climate risk here. But I'm not sure there is another strategy with any hope attached to it.

  11. To begin, let's all agree that "We're all climate-change idiots" was a lousy headline.

    Joe Romm seems to have read the article as if it were an attack on him and an attempt to apportion blame. Romm, in response, blames the: 1)The Senate super-majority rules; 2)The GOP's ruthless tactics; 3) Anti-science, pro-pollution ideologues fund by fossil fuel companies; 4) The media.

    As if the problem was an exclusively American one, as if we would be home clear if cap-and-trade had passed. Not that I disagree with his lists of blame-worthy obstacles, it just doesn't include the important ones raised in the NYT article, the psychological and moral limitations that we have in accepting and dealing with a problem of this nature.

    We can blame our failure on the ruthless tactics of the enemy and the unfavourable nature of the terrain. Sun Tzu would doubtless have had some harsh words for generals whose analysis stopped there and who didn't want to listen to to advice on new tactics, even if some of those tactics do appear to be based on "half-baked" studies.

  12. Mike Michael,

    Even cutting CO2 emissions to zero would do little to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels. CO2 flows into the oceans because the atmospheric concentration is higher than the partial pressure in the oceans. But if we stop adding CO2 to the atmosphere then the flow will end because the oceanic partial pressure will soon equalise with the atmosphere. Moreover, the oceans have warmed and so are emitting more CO2 to the atmsophere, and the ventilation of CO2 in the Arctic into the deep ocean will soon cease with the melting of the sea ice.

    Unless scientist face the facts and start telling the scary stories there will be no mitigation. The truth is we are now up a creek without a paddle. If the scientists continue to avoid that truth then we are all doomed!

    Cheers, Alastair.

  13. You are in disagreement, first of all, with Jim Hansen, whom few would accuse of mincing words about the climate problem.

    The way that carbon flows through the ocean system is complicated, as an investigation into the ocean acidification problem will reveal. It is true that the ocean will not draw carbon back to 290 ppmv, but it is expected that with rapid cutbacks it could draw carbon back to 350 or so.

    I am not especially optimistic about the way things are going. That is not because no solutions exist, but because they will not be implemented. McKibben's Rolling Stone piece explains exactly why humanity is continuing its immensely stupid blunder.

    Science is of no use if scientists overstate or understate anything. Each of us must balance what to stress and how to say it. Honest disagreements will persist. But no scientist, professional or amateur, should be expected to say anything about science that they don't believe to be true.

  14. Michael,

    Sorry about addressing you as Mike. Dr Robert Grumbine prefers Bob, but then we are all different!

    It is true that Jim (should that be James ๐Ÿ™‚ Hansen's views are closer to mine than any other scientist that I am aware of, but that does not mean that I have to agree with him on every point. Accepting every word he says is to commit the fallacy of appealing to authority.

    I am not advocating that scientist should lie or even exaggerate the dangers. What I am saying is that unless the scientists have the courage to face up to the truth that we are heading for a catastrophe, and are willing to say that out loud despite the cries of Alarmist! then that catastrophe is inevitable.

    Perhaps I should add in their defence that the conventional wisdom states that geological processes like climate change are linear and slow. But this principle of Uniformitarianism that was at the heart of the thinking of Charles Darwin is now being shown to be false. Climate can warm abruptly, as it did on entry to the Bolling-Allerod and to the Holocene. There is no guarantee that the climate will match the sensitivity that has been calculated using sophisticated mathematical techniques. The Credit Crunch is an example of the failure relying too much on the maths.

    So my final point is that economics and climate are both dynamical systems and they can collapse without waning. Climate scientists should face up to that fact and warn the public.

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