3/21/19

Climate change and left attempts to discourse-game public opinion

Geoengineering approaches to climate change have been met with significant skepticism on the left. Some of it is perfectly reasonable: a few of the more radical proposals on the table need much more research and development before they are at all viable, and there are good reasons to believe that some of them will never be safe and effective. It's entirely possible that we will never come up with a good way to do stuff like stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI), which is a reason why anyone who is concerned about the future of our planet needs to pursue other approaches as well.

Among these more credible lines of skepticism, however, I've often encountered one that's far more dubious: the appeal to moral hazard. Advocates for geoengineering aren't just calling for an approach that is potentially flawed; in so doing, they are actively taking away support from climate change mitigation plans that are far more credible!

This may seem like a modest assessment on its face, but it's actually a fairly ambitious theory about how our political discourse works. Different proposals about how to deal with climate change exist in a kind of zero-sum economy with each other, competing for public support in a kind of intellectual rivalry - a "marketplace of ideas", if you will. Because some activists see the discourse this way, they are worried that support for geoengineering means that their preferred approaches will lose; it just goes without saying for them that people will reason through the possibilities a certain way, and decide that we can do either one thing or the other.

Anyway, this isn't just an extremely elaborate theory of how our discourse works - it's also, it turns out, empirically incorrect:
In a large-scale framed field experiment with more than 650 participants, we provide evidence that people do not back-pedal on mitigation when they are told that the climate change problem could be partly addressed via SAI. Instead, we observe that people who have been informed about SAI mitigate more than people who have not.
Set aside our armchair speculation about how people are thinking about climate change, and about how they react to certain ideas and proposals that emerge in the discourse - set these theories aside and look at what people actually do when you talk to them about geoengineering, and the evidence is quite clear. What happens is that people become more supportive of geoengineering and mitigation. Ironically, this means that even if geoengineering is not a good way to address climate change, simply talking about it seems to increase support in approaches that are productive.

In any case, the general lesson here goes well beyond climate change. Political discourse is often about persuasion, and in our efforts to persuade the left often becomes invested in extremely ambitious theories about how the discourse works. These theories are rarely put explicitly, much less defended, but they are the basis of all kinds of strategies and just-so proclamations about Overton window shifting, argument framing, tactical word choice, and so on.

As a matter of fact, however, we really know very little about how the discourse works, or about how certain arguments and narratives ultimately prevail. Often, the most you can really do is say things seem true; when it comes to ultra-savvy rhetorical manipulation and discourse-gaming schemes, leave that to the hypnotists and pickup artists.