Al Gore, the Peace Prize, the Partisan Divide, and Communicating Science.

As you are undoubtedly aware, this year's Nobel Peace Prize is being split between the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore, in recognition of "their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change."

Like almost everybody else here at Scienceblogs, I think this is absolutely fantastic. Gore has worked his butt off over the last few years. He's been tireless in his efforts to focus attention on climate change, and he's made a real difference. The potential effects of human-driven climate change do represent a real threat to everyone on the planet, and Gore has done more than his part to make sure that people - and not just policy makers - understand that.

As I just said, almost everyone here has nothing but praise and congratulations. But it's not quite unanimous. Matt Nisbet seems to have a few concerns about Gore's effect on the differences in the way Democrats and Republicans perceive global warming. Emphasizing the potential dangers, Matt believes, makes it easier for people to dismiss him as an "alarmist," and makes it harder to convince some people that there's a problem - particularly when the science is uncertain.

Personally, I think that Matt sees a problem when he looks at the very different levels of concern about global warming seen in Democrats and Republicans. There is definitely a problem there. I'm just not sure that it's the one he's identified.

In his post, Matt presents a graph that shows that 85% of Democrats worry "a great deal" about global warming, while only 46% of Republicans share that concern. Matt goes on to explain his view of this difference by providing a quote of himself from an NPR interview:

And so, what's going on here? It's because several Democratic leaders, like Al Gore, and even some scientists are really adopting what I call the catastrophe frame or the Pandora's Box frame, really focusing in on specific climate impacts that might be scary or frightening, such as the possibility of more intense hurricanes.

When you move in that direction, where the science is still uncertain, you open yourself up to the counter argument that this is just simply alarmism. It's very easy for the public, then, to simply rely on their partisanship to make up their minds, and that's why you have this two Americas of public perception.

After listening to his own view of the problem, Matt suggests a possible solution:

Gore says he plans to donate 100% of the Nobel prize money to changing public opinion on climate change, but if he is going to be successful, he needs to promote alternative frames and interpretations of the issue and pair these messages with less partisan appearing opinion leaders. In fact, Gore should take note of E.O. Wilson's message and efforts at working with Evangelical leaders.

Despite Gore's success, there's still a lot more research and work to be done in figuring out alternative meanings of global warming that go beyond just a focus on crisis and that can activate key segments of the American public.

Personally, I think there are some other sets of numbers that Matt should have looked at before suggesting alternative courses of action.

  • Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to "believe in" evolution.
  • Two thirds of Democrats support stem cell research, while less than half of Republicans do.
  • 69% of Republicans, and 36% of Democrats, favor oil exploration in ANWR.
  • 58% of Republicans, and 6% of Democrats, approve of the way President Bush is handling Iraq.
  • More than half of Republicans still approve of President Bush's job performance overall. He's in single digits with Democrats.

Climate change is hardly the only area where there's a partisan divide in this country. Suggesting that Gore is a major factor in the divide is, at best, disingenuous - particularly when there are a huge number of extraordinarily loud voices on the right who continue to claim that global warming is nothing more than a hoax that's being perpetuated on the public by the evil liberals. Seriously, people: raise your hand if you think that Jim Inhofe would stop trying to intimidate federal scientists, or refrain from comparing environmentalists to the Third Reich, or the EPA to the Gestapo, if only Gore wouldn't be so "alarmist." Anyone? Didn't think so.

The partisan divide on this - and so many other issues - has absolutely nothing to do with how Al Gore, or the "new atheists", or the crowd choose to present their issues. They may or may not be doing everything possible to eliminate the divide, but they certainly didn't cause it. The partisan divide stems in part from a Republican party that has made the denial of reality a central plank in their platform, and in part from a media that approaches politics from the perspective of a giant sports event. ("Go team! Go team! Yea team!")

Matt can put scare quotes around the words "climate crisis," and can deride Gore's efforts as a "Pandora's Box" frame all he wants, but the reality is that there is a real crisis out there. There are legitimate grounds for wondering if all of the things that Gore presents as possible effects are likely to happen. There are legitimate grounds for wondering if the timeframe he presents is correct. But there are no longer legitimate grounds for wondering if climate change is happening, or if climate change will have real (and serious) effects on humans over the next several decades.

Gore might be focusing attention on the worst-case possibilities, but someone needs to do just that. If more people don't pay attention to the worst case, we're going to be in a hell of a lot more trouble if it turns out to be the actual course of events. It's also worth noting that by focusing attention on the worst case scenario, Al Gore has done a great deal to shift the debate from "is anything going to happen" to "how bad will it be" and "what should we be doing now." For that alone, he deserves the honor he received today.

17 responses so far

  • IanR says:

    I think you're right. And my feeling is that, rather than alienating people from global warming, Gore is more likely to alienate people from the Republican party. When Gore spoke here in Oklahoma, he attracted a record crowd. And it was by no means only Dems. Even in the US, most younger people seem to see the reality of climate change, and the danger it poses. I think if Republicans want to make it into a partisan issue, they lose in the long run.

  • bigTom says:

    I wouldn't go so far to to say the partisan divide on GW has nothing to do with Gore. Peoples opinion formation about subjects are not completely orthogonal to their opinions of leading public figures identified with a position on the issue. That said I think only a small part of the difference is due to this effect. More interesting to me is the high degree of clustering of opinions on various subjects that we see in the right/left divide. I've always thought it strange that there is such a high correlation between a given persons views on seemingly independent issues. It looks like most people are identifying with one block or another, and largely adopting that block's cluster of opinions.

  • While it is undeniably true that Gore is a terrible candidate to choose to try to sell anything to Republicans, the fact remains that there are very few Republican-friendly candidates who would be interested in the job of taking the climate change message to their partisan colleagues.
    So saying Gore is part of the problem is kind of missing the point. Not that I know how to reach Republicans who have this bizarre hatred for Gore, but criticizing Gore seems misguided to me.

  • Scott Simmons says:

    Oddly, I heard exactly this same criticism of Gore this morning on a right-wing talk radio show. So it must be true!
    (Really, I did! It's kind of freaky to read this, now, actually. Maybe the wingnut pundits are taking their marching orders from Nisbet these days ...)

  • Michael X says:

    So I'm sitting here with my girlfriend and we're wondering what justifications are used to deny global warming. Is it simply because it's being told to us by evil atheistic scientists/liberals, thus it must be wrong? Is it a scare tactic? If it's a scare tactic, what is the goal of such a tactic? To scare us into doing what? Buying better lightbulbs? Maybe the restriction of captialism? (Jesus was a capitalist you know)
    All we can come up with is the restriction of capitalism = socailism canard, but there must be something better than that. Right?

  • I had the exact same thoughts when reading Nisbet's post, to which I will add that I think he is reinforcing the "alarmist" frame - one created by denialists to begin with. As you say, Gore is simply discussing the range of quite plausible probabilities - which scientists are often more reticent to do. In reinforcing the alarmist frame, Nisbet also ignores the national security frame, and the moral imperative frame. The Nobel prize was presented to Gore because of its connections to national security, which is what we should be discussing.

  • matt says:

    @bigTom: I think there are several things going on here, but the most obvious and probably most significant is that opinions correlate within social groups simply as a result of exposure. That is, it's more a matter of proximity than anything else.
    There is a macroscopic tendency among conservatives to dismiss global warming fears consequent on (a) their general individualistic disavowal of any hint of collective responsibility; and (b) local associations between prominent rightwingers and GW-implicated industries, in particular the petrochemicals. If your peer group consists of people who are ideologically or economically in denial about the reality of global warming then it's pretty likely your own position will lean towards GW scepticism simply as a result of osmotic pressure.
    Gore is barely relevant in this regard. The tribal leaders pick on him as a fetish and their followers fall into line. He's an Emmanuel Goldstein, a convenient totem -- "Don't you hate that patrician motherfucker? He claims to have invented the internet, and what a cesspool that is!" -- but they'd find another in his absence.

  • gary says:

    I think global warming is definately a serious problem, but I am not a big fan of AL Gore. I see him as an opportunist who was looking for an issue to ride. He did the same thing when he was just Senator Gore from Tennessee. Back then, though, his big issue was trying to clean up dirty song lyrics. His wife Tipper was national chairperson of some pro-censorship group. Altough that played very well in conservative Tennessee, when Gore decided to run for president, Al and Tipper dropped it like a hot potato and looked around for another issue to ride. He picked a good one, and in my opinion it is a big part of why he got the Democtratic VP selection.
    I guess what I'm saying is that I wish the person most closely identified with this issue were not a politician. Maybe that's hoping for too much.

  • Matt Penfold says:

    The problem I have with Matt Nisbett is that he sees everything from a US centric viewpoint. Of course he is American but that does not explain why he cannot or will not understand that his arguments about framing may simply not be relavent elsehwhere. For a person who claims to be an expert on communcation he is incredibly poor at it.

  • What Matt, are you suggesting that the Nobel Peace Prize committee make decisions without regards to narrow US internal political divides? Preposterous!

  • Matt Penfold says:

    I know you only jest but I really do suspect Nisbett thinks only in terms of how the likes of Gore and Dawkins impact on issues within the US whilst willfully ignoring the fact both men are clear that they are talking to a far bigger constituancy. One time I raised that issue with him was in regards to his criticism of Dawkins and how he thought it made the job of defeating attempts to have ID/Creationism taught as science harder in the US. His reply was that his research concentrated on the US which is not really an excuse at all but an admission of ignorance.

  • I agree that Nisbet is indeed very America-centric - something bot Torbjörn Larsson, Larry Moran, and I have also object to in the past. Nisbet says that he is focusing on US issues, which is very fine, but when it comes to the subjects he is talking about (science communicating and global warming), we are talking global issues - and not only does he disregard non-US issues, his suggested 'framing' could actually cause problems on an international level. If all scientists focuses on communicating to evangelists (which is Nisbet's pet issue), then they are not communicating very well with the rest of us.
    He has focused on two very competent communicators, Dawkins and Gore, and told us they are failures because they cannot sell to specific audiences, which they don't focus on. Had they tried to sell their messages to those audiences, then Nisbet would be right, and they could be considered failures, but given the fact that they didn't, and that their messages have influenced not only public debate, but to a certain degree policy (especially in the case of Gore), it's quite astonishingly clueless to consider then failures at communication.
    All in all, this is a long-winded way of agreeing with you (it's no coincidence that Orac is one of my blog-fathers).

  • Matt Penfold says:

    Thank you for saying what I have been trying to say for a long time but failing miserably. In my defence I can only say I do not lay claim to be a professor of communications.

  • J. J. Ramsey says:

    Considering that the U.S. is one of the biggest laggards on the global issues of science communicating and global warming, I'd say focusing on the U.S. makes a lot of sense.

  • Matt Penfold says:

    JJ Ramsey,
    Last time I checked Oslo was not in the US.
    I suggest that like Nisbett you learn most of the world is not American.

  • Danny Bloom says:

    QUOTE: " We're seeing the collapse of the Arctic sea ice. This year
    alone, planet Earth lost an area of Arctic sea ice twice the size of
    British Columbia. The impact on the entire global climate system will
    be enormous -- the Arctic sea ice is the canary in the coal mine, and
    the canary is almost dead. "
    -- Dr. Michael Byers, a professor of politics and international law at
    the University of British Columbia,

  • Danny Bloom says:

    btw, see my blog on "polar cities" or google the term or Wiki it....we might them by year 2500