Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The ClimateShift Controversy

It is the end of term and I'm weighted down by a pile of papers. So, not much time for the blog. That said, the world has thrown a pitch right down the middle of the plate and I can't just stand there looking. I have to swing .....

A couple days ago, Climate Progress released a pre-publication draft of a report authored by Matthew Nisbet ClimateShift: Clear Vision for the Next Decade of Debate along with a scathing attack on the report by Joe Romm. According to Romm:
The 99-page report’s two central, but ridiculous, claims are:

  1. The environmental movement outspent opponents during the climate bill debate.
  2. Media coverage of climate change has become balanced and was not a factor in the defeat of the cap-and-trade bill.
There are two basic problems with this representation. First, from my quick reading of the report, these supposed "central claims" are minor subthemes rather than major pillars of the report's argument. The report is basically an argument for what it terms a "deeper reconsideration" of the strategy for climate change advocacy. Simply put, the report argues that climate change advocates need a new strategy because the current one isn't working. The counting up of dollars spent by both sides is meant to buttress this argument by showing that the current message has been widely distributed. Thus, advocates can't claim they have failed because they haven't been heard.

Romm's piece gleefully notes that several reviewers have issues with the way the advocacy dollars have been counted in the report and have refused to have any further involvement with it. At heart, this appears to be a theoretical debate about how media affect opinion dressed up in the guise of an argument over facts. The simple rendition treats the public as dupes -- the more something is repeated, the more likely the public is to believe it. If you take this view, then volume matters. The guy with the big megaphone -- read the Koch brothers -- wins. Thus, the amount of money spent is important. The more complex rendition treats the public as interpreters rather than passive recipients or media content. People have predispositions and cognitive tendencies that result in selective perception. Thus, for example, liberals read Stephen Colbert as sarcastic while conservatives tend to take his proclamations more literally. The same phenomena was famously documented in relation to people's interpretation of Archie Bunker in the 1970's -- conservatives thought Archie won the arguments while liberals viewed Mike and Gloria as the sensible ones (See Archie Bunker’s Bigotry: A Study in Selective Perception and Exposure by Neil Vidmar and Milton Rokeach). But, as the report notes in Chapter 4, the distribution of such predispositions is not stable within the population. Attitudes are embedded in context and affected by things like the state of the economy. I'm not saying that the volume with which a message is repeated is irrelevant, but just because someone is shouting something doesn't make me accept it.

This brings me to my second, and more fundamental, objection to Romm's piece: it stirs up a controversy that takes away from a discussion of the real issues raised by the report. Keith Kloor has hit this nail directly on the head. It is tidy and simplistic to feel that there are powerful forces out there that are corrupting the public's view. The reality is much more complex. Unfortunately, Romm has drug the discussion down to a focus on simplistic and, if not irrelevant at least secondary, concerns. If the climate change advocacy community dwells exclusively on these matters and fails to address the need for serious attention to the content of their message and the way it is framed, Romm will have won the battle while helping lose the war.

Now ... back to marking.

No comments:

Post a Comment