"Americans' Problem With Global Warming "1
Few environmental issues stir as much fuss as the prospect of a steamier, stormier planet. Almost everyone seems to have heard experts predict something like that, a variant on Hell freezing over or an Old Testament plague. Even calming voices concede that the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere (at least on average, near ground level) is on the rise. “Science” itself confirms it. Clincher factoids tumble from mountains of measurements around the world. They are assembled from patterns in tree rings, fossils, and satellite photos. They are transmitted from instrument-laden balloons high over Oklahoma and extracted from dust deep in Nordic glaciers. Together, they credit popular belief that something called “global warming” is a problem.
But folks are more reluctant to embrace any particular estimate of its dimensions and significance. When confronted with harsh forecasts, jokes about them, news of Kyoto maneuvers, an Arctic melt, or just an abrupt turn in the local weather, people dispute:
Decades of sophisticated research, monographs, press releases, and broadcast warnings do not seem to have instilled a precise lesson at-large. Diverse local conditions as well as practical and political considerations intervene. People seem to agree less about what will occur or ought to be done, than about what could be wrong in what has been done.2
From that perspective—one of tentative but widespread concern—recent increases in global, greenhouse-gas concentrations do not bode well. When viewed with extreme optimism, their effect may be negligible. But by every other estimate, it is bad, maybe colossally so. Likewise, the prospects for future increases in emissions would seem to range only from yet more of a sorry status quo to catastrophe. The distribution of reasonable responses, then, is skewed to the negative, ranging from denial or resignation to outrage or despair. Affirmation of existing human/atmosphere relations is barely imaginable, at least for anyone who cares about life as we know it.
Hence, countries that meet two conditions—that produce a large share of emissions and that can best afford to change—would seem ready targets for a reform campaign. Because the United States is at the top of most lists on both scores, environmentalists around the world figure that responsibility for initiating change lies there. After all, in hosting only a small proportion of humanity (less than 5 percent), this superpower is responsible for a giant share of greenhouse-gas production (about a third of the world’s total, more than any other country).3 So Americans should be among the first to cut emissions and thereby their contribution to global warming and its attendant risks. Even if they doubt that the risks are all that bad, shouldn’t they be ready to reduce the possibility of making matters worse? Apparently Americans are not, or at least are less so than citizens of other industrial nations.4
This essay aims to explain how that reluctance should be understood. The evidence comes from Americans’ discussions of climate change—in everyday conversation, popular science and lore, history, journalism, opinion research, interviews, and ethnographic fieldwork (2000-2002). Recent publications on global warming are read in the light of older, touchstone disputes. Commonalities are then pursued in the more particular experiences and institutions of sundry “stakeholders”—people whose livelihood depends on the weather in obvious ways. They include Midwestern farmers and their suppliers, bankers, insurers, climate scientists, broadcast meteorologists, dealers in agricultural commodities, and their professional consultants.
The aim here is less to advance one solution over another (say, a particular carbon-credit scheme) than to clarify the social and cultural conditions that seem ever to stand in the way.5 On street corners and in shops overseas, strangers stop me to ask, “What’s wrong with you Americans, anyway? Why the cowboys in-charge and gas-guzzling cars? Don’t you understand ecology or value nature?”
Although I am also no fan of U.S. energy policy or Texas-style officialdom, I tend to get a bit defensive. After all, environmentalism has about as deep a history in the United States as anywhere, and nature has at times bordered on a fetish. When it comes to global warming (among other things), the charge that the United States is uniquely irresponsible or insensitive to environmental issues could use more precision and evidence. But in this case, Americans themselves seem only to choose sides. They rarely challenge the holier-than-thou quality of the debate itself. Instead they argue about who or what among them deserves the blame. Is it too little or too much science? Public prissiness or sloth? Tree-hugger hysteria or government/industry intrigue? The only obvious consensus is that something or someone else is to blame.
American studies has generally responded to such disputes by identifying a divide—usually portrayed as large and foundational—between the way things (such as gender, race, the pastoral or, here, climate change) have been understood and the way they ought to be understood, at least in the critic’s own estimation. The following extends that tradition in several directions. First, rather than seeking only to locate the peaks of the divide (hegemony vs. resistance, neé myth vs. reality), it also identifies practical, dynamic connections. In the course of everyday events, how do positions on climate change arise, interact, and persist? Second, it pushes the usual interdisciplinary program beyond history, language, literature, and popular arts to the natural sciences, business, ethnography, and public policy, particularly the practical as well as expressive links between commerce and politics. And third, rather than claiming a privileged viewpoint entirely of its own, it marshals the insights of Americans who draw upon diverse, intimate experiences with the subject. They help make sense of the meaning of global warming in America.6
Much of the range of responses to the problem of climate change is prefigured in the variety of definitions of “the problem” itself. Basically, the broader the definition, the more disagreement it occasions.
First and probably least controversial is a definition that begins and ends with observation. At issue are merely a few brute indicators of change, stripped of implication or explanation. “Global warming,” from this vantage, is more like a syndrome than a disease. It is just a long-term series of increases in temperature and other heat-sensitive conditions.
The current round of warming began during the industrial revolution and has been accelerating (with short-term exceptions) ever since. Over the course of millennia, prior comparable climbs—some more and some less extreme—have also been documented. But nearly all earth scientists now agree that recent indicators, even if contestable in their details, converge in their trajectory: The Earth is getting warmer fast. Extrapolating from existing data, climate modelers figure that over the next century the average temperature will increase by two to twelve degrees Celsius. But even if the actual rise is only half that much, the change in related conditions could be radical: melting glaciers, rising seas, more frequent and severe droughts, storms, and attendant loss of life and habitat. Hence, warming, even in this narrow sense, is a “problem.”
Second, the definition of the problem can be expanded to include the syndrome’s most frequently credited “cause”—an increase in fossil-fueled emissions along with a decline in vegetation that digests them. “Global warming,” from this vantage, is like an environmental disease.
Under healthy conditions, greenhouse gases (chiefly CO2 but also water vapor and methane) help sustain the planet’s climate. They allow heat from the sun’s rays to reach the surface of the Earth, but they also absorb and retain heat that accumulates at the surface, thereby moderating swings in the weather. In concentrations that have accompanied most of human evolution, these gases have helped make the climate hospitable, but higher concentrations could turn it hostile. Since the number of tailpipes and factory stacks is unlikely to decline, their contribution to overheating is a concern. Normally, too, through photosynthesis (converting CO2 to oxygen and growth) green plants help control greenhouse-gas accumulation. They “store” carbon; they cycle it from the atmosphere back to the earth, the site from which it was mined and combusted. Most scientists agree that there is more than a coincidence here—in particular, that increases in CO2 emission and declines in vegetation are among the causes of the recent rise in the Earth’s average surface temperature.
But the importance of this effect is still debatable. Almost every factoid has its friends and foes. Positions become more polarized and passionate with greater distance between the persons doing the arguing and the social circle of state-of-the-art atmospheric science. Latter-day animists (e.g., in the loin-girding phase of “direct environmental action”) tend to presume a simple, doomsday connection, as if warming were God’s way of warning the world: “Don’t mess with mother nature.”7 Laissez-faire business boosters, though, see little more than nature’s “natural” variability. In climates as with markets, they trust, “the bull follows the bear.” Representatives of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, for example, insist that the greenhouse effect remains a Chicken-Little proposition.8 But even The Weather Channel (TWC), in its coolly “objective” posts to the World Wide Web, has clung to a more tentative estimate of the severity of the problem than academic or governmental organs of science. TWC does so, they say, not because there is much doubt about the current temperature trend, but because they are more reluctant to credit predictions that treat the trend’s alleged cause (the greenhouse effect) as if it were a well-understood part of the problem itself.9
Third, and yet more controversial, is the assertion that “the problem” includes not only a syndrome and a cause but also an unmet responsibility to “do something about it,” to find a cure. Presumably, humans have not only a capacity for understanding the environment but also a duty to apply it altruistically. For that reason, targeting potential sources of harm (say, doing something about those tailpipes and stacks) need not wait until all of the data are in. Well before the cost of inaction can be tallied, “stewards of the earth” err on the safe side: “If you are not part of the solution, then you a part of the problem.”
Predictably, even if less fervently than other self-styled stewards, climate scientists often appeal to this sensibility. It is featured, for example, in their laboratory press releases and in the “importance-of-research” section of their grant proposals. When they construe the problem as including both a known cause and an imperative to respond, their research “must be” part of the solution. Therein also lies an implied threat: An agency that fails to fund their research risks becoming part of the problem, in effect enlarging it, as well.10
But many scientists also admit—especially when grants are not at stake—that the time may have passed for further research so easily to matter. The momentum of climate change—the size and speed of the trend and the resilience of its causes—may be too great to imagine that remedies will work anytime soon. Although the rate of global warming might be slowed, no one alive today can reasonably expect to see its direction reversed. Nevertheless, lay environmentalists (citing natural scientists who may or may not agree) often appeal to this ethically charged sense of the problem to promote rapid reduction in emissions and protection of vegetation, as if the climate will cool accordingly. Or, they despair that it is just too late. Then, “addressing the problem” entails scurrying to acquire habitats that will better endure heat and storms of the future. “Doing something” will come by way of jeremiads from cooler, higher ground.
American Public Opinion
Since the 1970s, focus groups, telephone interviews, and pencil-and-paper surveys have yielded a wealth of evidence of environmental opinion in the United States. In the late 1980s, pollsters turned their attention to global warming in particular. Research on its public perception intensified greatly in 1992, when 182 nations signed the Rio Climate Change Treaty, establishing a diplomatic framework for greenhouse gas reduction.11 Pollsters shifted into even higher gear from 1995 to 1997, when the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced a scientific consensus (that global warming truly is a problem, in a broad sense of the word) and when President Bill Clinton heralded “the Kyoto process” (the follow-up to Rio).12 The same trail has been well scouted ever since. Pollsters ask: How do Americans (that is, adults in the United States) perceive the prospect of climate change? How do they form and evaluate that impression, and how are they inclined to use it?
As one might expect, summary statistics vary not only over the years and across groups but also from study to study. Nevertheless, they converge on a few basic points:13
In general, then, opinion research suggests that Americans’ concern about global warming is widespread but shallow. U.S. politicians could well infer—and most obviously have—that support for reform is just too soft among the electorate to count on it, come election season. President George W. Bush can safely downplay (the Union of Concerned Scientists says, “distort or suppress”) alarming evidence of the greenhouse effect.15 Even avowed environmentalists such as Al Gore dare not be “out front” of a populace whose sympathies look more stylistic than substantive.
There are also, though, good reasons to question the findings that figure in this conclusion.
Perhaps engagement is not as broad as it seems. For example, some of the popular support for the Kyoto Protocol may be attributable to ignorance of its basic points. Among proponents who have been polled, strikingly few realize that the treaty would compel industrial nations like the United States by 2010 to reduce their emissions by 7 percent, not from present levels, but from what they were in 1990. Since they harbor bogus assumptions about the sacrifice required, it is hard to put much stock in the large number of people who say they would accept it.16 Likewise, we can doubt that Americans will respond as graciously to actual cost increases as they have to hypothetical ones.
On the other hand, perhaps researchers underestimate the depth of popular engagement. How is it to be sounded, anyway? People who trade in subtle distinctions—like earth scientists and public-opinion analysts—might be a bit too impressed by their disregard at-large. For that matter, just about everyone looks for “deficiencies” of understanding when others disagree. Folks on one side are apt to credit their vantage by claiming moral or perceptual gifts that their opponents just so happen to lack. And when the point of contest can be construed as technically as climate, talk about technicalities can pass for wisdom. Your perspective is “deep” if you readily cite scientific details, and “shallow” if you don’t. Certainly, this way of calibrating depth is contestable. It entails both a rhetorical preference and a social prejudice.
But public knowledge does appear to be distinctly flawed in the case of the greenhouse effect, a crucial ingredient of all but the narrowest sense of the problem. Non-scientists, for example, regularly confuse old stories about the ozone layer—e.g., about the danger of fluorocarbon spray-can propellants that the U.S. Congress actually banned back in 1978—with those about contemporary carbon-dioxide emissions.17 They also usually underestimate the cumulative atmospheric impact of all the engines in the cars and buses in which they ride, quite apart from anything that big business or government does. Whatever affinity Americans may claim they have for the environment, many of their stories about it, including their own role in it, do not pass elementary scientific muster.
Amidst the polls, too, there is reason to believe that schooling matters. For example, Americans with more years of formal education tend to be more in favor of the Kyoto Protocol and its approach. In this respect opinion research offers encouragement to environmentalist scientists. In effect, it says, “People who have a clue agree with you.” From this perspective, the main problem with global warming (in the broad sense) is a clueless or callous American public. To solve it, promote research and scientific literacy—“transfer knowledge.”
People in or around the education business, who publish or read articles like this one, might be expected to agree. No matter who is discussing climate change, wouldn’t a dose of cutting-edge climatology be better than ignorance? On the other hand, the quality of recent discussion in the United States seems to have little to do with anything cutting-edge. Much of its shape and style can be found in well-worn, generically Western as well as recent, American precedent. “Knowledge” is both moving and staying put in persistent forms.
Far from pollsters, discussion moves to climate change under widely variable circumstances, with many modes and purposes. People often cite something relevant (say, from last-night’s broadcast news) in taking a conversational turn, but their point—why they brought it up or how it matters—requires interpretation.
A single sentence (e.g., “Did you hear about that Polar melt?”) might signal that folks are eager to talk about global warming or just to change the subject, that they are up on the latest or tired of it, that they are revved for debate or segue to a joke. In any of these cases, they might be aiming to embrace or to estrange someone else’s sensibility. That someone could be a friend within earshot, a figure in the news, or a figment of local imagination. Often, too, people struggle just to avoid an offensive position. They step toward that harmless, featureless ground that talk of weather seems to conjure.
So interpretation is required, but it is not necessarily difficult. If you know the circumstances and participants, you probably also instantly know what they mean. Shreds of global-warming lore can even telegraph messages among strangers. Bits and tones of conversation intimate familiar stories. There—in the tales that details presumably fit—meanings become clear.
Maybe, then, climate discussion is so polymorphous precisely because its allusions are not. The large variety of jokes, debates, and whatnot can be considered riffs on a small number of possibilities. When almost everyone knows that few normal or credible tales about the climate “can” be told, it becomes easier—in just a phrase—not only to invoke one of them but also to declare one’s disposition, pro or con, or to concoct a variant. The novelty comes in refiguring “facts” that gained their meaning in stories so tried-and-true that they can be presumed. A mere fragment is ready for discussion precisely because “everyone knows” its corresponding whole.
So even humble, climatological detail can imply a full-grown tale—a rendering of some supposedly common sense. Each includes a chain of relevant events, hopes, regrets, and a lesson to be learned.18
Three types of stories seem particularly prevalent in the United States.19
In these ways, factoids seem to come with ready-made implications. They sort themselves—multiple-choice—even when no one actually says how or why. So simple conversation—say, about drought a hemisphere away—may start out pedestrian but seems ever on the verge of going high-horse. It saddles one of a few parables that trot well-worn trails.
Especially if you speak earnestly or flippantly, someone is apt to infer that you “must also” have a certain stake in that huge grab bag of things that, Americans say, “everyone” either loves or hates. For example, people who rally around the Kyoto process will be expected also to support an array of allegedly progressive causes and lifestyles, the organic section of the local grocery, public education, arms control, reproductive and gay rights, single moms, and foreign aid. People who oppose the Kyoto process will be expected to favor market forces, steak, SUVs, “family values,” and prayer in public school. Of course, individuals regularly defy these expectations, but they had better be prepared to deal with them. The story types define the terrain: “Now don’t get me wrong: Even though I’m skeptical about that drought, I recycle plastic and vote Democratic.” In other words, positions on climate change slide on broad, slippery slopes. They strikingly resemble the flanks and fronts of “the culture war” that Pat Buchanan declared about a decade ago.21
In substance these three tale types—realist, liberal, and progressive—are well arrayed from contemporary “cultural right” to “left.” That is for the most part the way they are now told and heard in the United States. For example, although support for the Kyoto Protocol is related to many of the usual demographics—gender, income, age, ethnicity, religion, education, region, etc.—the single best predictor is the combination of these variables that also predicts a person’s position on a roughly bipolar political spectrum. Like voters for George W. Bush in 2000, Americans who are wary of Kyoto tend to be Republicans from Southern, Rocky Mountain, or Plains states, to reside in suburban or rural areas, and to be more evangelical Protestant, white, wealthy, and male than Kyoto boosters. Sociologically as well as substantively, then, Americans are wise to treat references to climate change as if they were codes of subcultural loyalty.22
Surely, that is among the reasons that cutting-edge science is a bit beside the point. Americans might, say, “uptake” the latest data on the relationship between power-plant design and El Niño, yet feel no obligation to reassess their favorite pre-uptake tale. If new data “fit,” they can be used to lend yet more support to the same old story; if they don’t, they can be discounted, rendered “trivial” or “misleading.” Regardless, the configuration of tales and tellers remains. Such conservatism suggests that there are more than a few facts (or, for that matter, platitudes about realism, liberality, and progress) at stake. At issue are people’s common sense, their way of life, and the sort of person they become in living it.
We should expect, then, that their disposition toward global warming depends very little or indirectly on the “knowledge” that scientists, activists, and educators “transfer.” Popular discussions are apt to cite bits of that knowledge, but their hold and meaning lie elsewhere. If changing American hearts and minds is the aim, it is hard to imagine a climatological clincher that would suffice. If doubt remains, just ask 20th-Century Fox about the over-the-top look and cost of special effects in The Day After Tomorrow.
Roots and Branches
There is also good reason, however, to doubt that this process is unique to the United States or to the moment. “American” responses to climate change include strategies that theologians and scholars have long considered universal. For just about everyone, common sense is hitched to stories that lie in wait, ready for recall. Their sensibility is social as well as logical and empirical. Nearly everyone’s first response to “cognitive dissonance” is conservative. Just about everywhere, some folks are more attuned to the voice of authority or change than others, and they distinguish themselves accordingly.
It is also worth emphasizing that key ingredients of Americans’ climate-change lore have circulated in many societies for a long time.23 The first scholarly papers on something like the greenhouse effect appeared in France in the 1820s.24 Leading researchers subsequently came from elsewhere in northern Europe. The idea of using photos of glacial melts to sensationalize the subject can be traced to Sweden more than a half-century ago.25 For that matter, the notion that people can change the weather occurred to ancient Mediterraneans. Among the first to forecast global warming (albeit as a good thing) was a philosopher who knew Plato and Aristotle personally. About 2,300 years ago Theophrastus argued that, in clearing forest and draining wetlands, farmers magnified the long-term impact of the sun. Folks around the world still joke that it’s cloud-free because they remembered an umbrella or rainy because they hung out the wash.26
As James Rodger Fleming explains, in the West full-fledged “climate determinism”—faith that humans make their climatic fortune—is at least three or four centuries old.27 DuBos, Montesquieu, and Hume were among the many “modern” Europeans who asserted that improving the land, moderating the atmosphere, and fostering genius were aspects of a single Enlightenment project. Since “better” people presumably take better care of the land (which in turn improves both nature and culture), agriculture links soil, produce, climate, and mind in a synergistic relation . . . that just so happened to place their own, mid-eighteenth century Europe (a.k.a. “Civilization”) near the peak of possibility. Contemporary historians and philosophers trusted that they had achieved a superior atmospheric no less than spiritual condition.28
Many of these same Europeans were alarmed then to hear of cold and stormy weather in the northern “New World.” They considered the presence of “savage” people there both a sign and an explanation of natural challenges to the spread of Civilization. The climate (and the people who “failed” to alter it) figured heavily among them. So for colonists, clearing forests or marshes and planting crops had a compound purpose. They sought not only the actual produce of their husbandry but also its presumed byproducts: the subjection of Indians and of the climate. So charting the fruit of these labors became a republican pastime. Diarists compulsed thermometer readings and storm sightings. Budding scientists like Benjamin Franklin hyped temperature trends as proof that agriculture was making North America more temperate (like Europe), thereby making it also friendlier to the advance of European (vs. aboriginal) society. Thomas Jefferson reviewed journal entries to prophesy a similar nexus: more acres of cultivation and fewer of wilderness, more moderate weather, a decline of Indians, and an increase in colonial fortunes.29
Meteorology and climatology in the United States grew from these republican roots. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as instruments and records improved, scientists evaluated both climate determinism and its vain American application. They usually found both wanting. But both have also been reappearing ever since.30 Today, for example, Ellsworth Huntington may be recalled as a crackpot, Harvard and Yale reject, but his ethnocentric and racist version of climate determinism—“the pulsatory hypothesis”—had a huge public following in the United States through the 1910s and 1920s. His most popular book, Civilization and Climate, argued that levels of human achievement rise and fall with “climatic energy.” According to Huntington, they also just happened to peak in his own Anglo-Saxon environs.31
A temptation, then, is to treat the current brouhaha over climate change as a blast from the distant past. Once again, the worry is immoderate weather. Once again, both diagnosis and remedy entail climate determinism. Once again, records are reviewed in self-righteous and self-serving ways. Once again, thermometers, storms, and glaciers are consulted to flatter or condemn a people.
Gauging Human Consequences
Nevertheless, there are some respects in which the current brouhaha remains distinct. An important difference can be found in the way that human impacts are assessed. In prior publications, for example, European and American elites generally trusted that people (at least of their own sort, going about their daily business) had a neutral or beneficial effect on the climate. In the current round, though, stress is on the negative. At least since the mid-1980s, unlike their predecessors, Americans have been indicting business-as-usual for degrading the weather.
That change makes sense when we recall that for most of Western history the most worrisome prospect was actually global cooling. Long after the Age of the Enlightenment and Exploration, warming was considered both a natural byproduct of Civilization (via farms or factories) and a force in its favor. In 1906, for example, Svante August Arrhenius, the Swedish chemist who is credited with first calculating the role of carbon compounds in global warming, observed:
Like most twentieth-century earth scientists, though, Arrhenius usually marked time in vastly longer increments than any stage of human experience. Most experts figured that the great bulk of atmospheric CO2 came from volcanic activity when the Earth was new. They mainly wondered how Ice Ages came and went (2-800 million years ago) and how to anticipate the next one. So, insofar as “anthropogenic” influence mattered at all (say, from a century or two of industry), it seemed a benign flash in the pan.33
In the late 1940s and early 1950s—at the end of an unbroken 40-year warming trend—news of the trend and fears of the effects of nuclear testing combined to spark worry that humanity might, indeed, be producing too much of a good thing.34 But that particular alarm—the one most like today’s—lasted only a short time. Up-and-coming climatologists promoted cyclical theories of climate change just as, in fact, average global temperatures began to fall (ca. 1960-75). This change in circumstance and science buttressed new public concerns that particulates (e.g., ash in urban pollution or dust raised in a thermonuclear explosion) might block the sun’s rays. Hence, the ancestors of today’s progressives worried more about “nuclear winter” than endless summer. For example, in 1958 (one year after circulating the survey that inspired The Feminine Mystique) union journalist and feminist Betty Friedan titled her jeremiad on climate change, “The Coming Ice Age.”35
Among the unique features of the current moment, then, is a shift in the object of concern (from too much cold to too much heat) and in the evaluation of its source (from industry as minor blessing to major curse).36
Gauging Good Intentions
The confidence in science and technology that Kyoto requires (assuming people can “correct” the planet’s atmosphere) could also be considered distinct—an instance of the sort of megalomania that people around the world often take to be typically “Western” and acutely “American.” Who else would assume that it is possible to refashion God’s Earth as handlers and cosmetic surgeons might a Hollywood star?
During the Cold War, for example, the Pentagon strategized sci-fi scale climate-sabotage scenarios. Just in case the Soviet Union dammed the Bering Strait (in an evil plot to overheat the Pacific), the United States studied earthcooling countermeasures: rounds of underground nuclear explosions, mass sterilizations, chemically manufactured weather fronts, and square miles of mirrors launched into orbit. Can anyone imagine India, France, or Brazil concocting such a scheme?37
A classic, climatic precedent for this “distinctly American” and “scientific” hubris can be found amidst the heady nationalism of the early nineteenth century and in the figure of its premier meteorologist, James Pollard Espy. He is usually remembered for establishing a prototype of the U.S. Weather Bureau and the first decent thermodynamic theory of storms (considered moments in a cycle of convection, driven by temperature and pressure gradients overhead). By the mid 1830s, Espy (a.k.a. “the storm king”) reputedly knew more about weather than anyone else. He was a darling of the American public and its intellectual elite, transcendentalists like Thoreau and Hawthorne as well as scientists like Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. But in the late 1830s, Espy’s faith in convection cycles took a bizarre, applied turn. He proposed that the federal government maintain a massive timber reserve from the Great Lakes to the Pacific, purely for weather-control contingencies: If there should be a desire for rain or cooling in the East, set the West ablaze.
In this case—as in many others, when science and common sense openly compete—science lost. Espy’s stock plummeted. For the rest of his life he was the subject of scorn and ridicule. Some (especially Southern Senators) objected that, if the program were implemented, blazes would be set to the benefit of one region over another. Others figured that he had just lost his mind. In 1842, Philadelphia writer Eliza Leslie memorialized the whole episode in a farce that projected Espy’s plan into the twentieth century—a slapstick American version of Prometheus or Frankenstein.38
International stereotypes and U.S. foreign policies to the contrary, for most of U.S. history most Americans have considered such megalomania outlandish, particularly when the environment was the target. (Consider the long list of schemes dubbed “So-and-so’s Folly.”) They became occasions to reaffirm the fallibility of humankind and the sublimity of nature—an entity that by definition (“by nature”) was beyond human capacity fully to comprehend, much less to improve. Americans often remember nature’s most powerful manipulators as its worst. They were men drunk with power. They were totalitarian scientists and industrialists who treated God’s creation as merely a “resource”—an object to be analyzed, processed, rearranged, or otherwise diminished for their own short-term gain.39
Perhaps, then, what is unique to the current climate-change debate in the United States is less its constituents than their priority and alignment. “Liberals” and “progressives” remain faithful toward nature and skeptical toward industry, but now they are more confident that nature is comprehensible, even manageable, and that science is on their side. Just about everyone who endorses Kyoto, for example, can cite a supporting factoid. They are confident that the IPCC got it right and that citizens can and should implement planetary improvements that scientists recommend. It is the “realist” opponents of Kyoto who must discount mainstream science as a fallible or biased “special interest.”40 In this respect, even with its familiar, universal or Western ingredients, the current brouhaha is not just a blast from the past. Its configuration is in important ways distinctive of the United States and the moment.
Even as the ongoing “culture war” so mediates engagement, it is striking, then, that nature and science still matter to so many citizens, maybe now more than ever. Despite tired tales, political posturing, and cluelessness at-large, both climate and climatology obviously count. This pattern in U.S. responses to global warming poses a puzzle:
In other words, when it comes to global warming, where is the disconnect between Americans’ environmentalist disposition and action? Where is the breakdown in conviction or communication?41
Stakeholders in the heartland of the United States—people whose livelihood is clearly hitched to the climate—suggest some places to look.
Weather would seem to be among nature’s most accessible elements. A feel for it is a benchmark of human intelligence. (Either you do or you don’t know enough to get out of the rain.) It is especially important among people whose livelihood requires the “right” atmospheric conditions. The rhythm of sun and rain can make or break a crop and thereby fortunes up and down the chain of agricultural inputs and outputs, supplies, finance, marketing, and processing. Ignore it at great peril. Likewise, the date that a river freezes or thaws can determine the return on a year’s worth of shipping contracts. So people “in the business” talk about it a lot. But even in places like Palm Springs—where the climate is basically a lifestyle amenity, and one day’s forecast might as well be the next—weathercasts have a loyal following. They spew conversation starters.“Hot ‘nough for you?” works just about as well in Boston as in Biloxi, in January as in June.
That may be part of the problem. Weather is too ubiquitous and amorphous a topic—talk about it, too “soft,” too much like “chatter”—to move “hard” investment or production decisions. Furthermore, “everyone” recalls the time broadcasters warned of a storm that arrived long after its estimated time of arrival or that never came at all. Farmers, commodity traders, shippers, and their consultants may be loyal forecast fans, but they also describe forecasters as just another party heard from: “Their guess is as good as mine.” In other words, the subject of their predictions is “by nature” too rambunctious to corral. Who would start reorienting a business because “some weather guy” forecasts Armageddon? (In this context the funds that were squandered over-preparing PCs for Y2K come to mind. And in that case, experts could at least agree when to expect the worst.)
Part of what is missing here is sensitivity to the difference—sacred in meteorology and climatology—between “weather” and “climate,” between short-term, small-scale, often volatile conditions and long-term, large-scale, quite orderly ones. In fact, when I told scientists of my aim to survey stakeholders, they insisted that I first teach everyone the difference, “to be sure they’re really talking about climate” rather than the weather. They assumed—as I did not—both that “stakeholders” meant other people and that they had a corner on correct lingo. I insisted on letting people use whatever terms seemed relevant in their workaday world, “wrong” or hybrid though they might be from someone else’s point of view. In fact, most of the people had to be led to the distinction.42 When they were, they remained reluctant to credit the relevant science enough to use it on the job. They suspected that refocusing the target (from weather or from a mix of climate and weather to strictly climate) would, if anything, increase uncertainty: “If they can’t tell me when—in the next couple of weeks—the soil on our side of the county will get up to 50° [ready to plant], how could they possibly know that it’ll be 52° or whatever a hundred years from now?” (Such skepticism also figures in farmers’ resistance to “precision agriculture,” with its presumption that consultants can render nature sufficiently more predictable to justify their fees.)
No doubt, such skepticism betrays some misunderstanding of climate models. They speak to probable trends over large zones, not exact temperatures on somebody’s field. Forecasts can easily be excellent at one while poor at the other. But there are also ways that climate—itself, as a subject—invites such confusion.
Scientists well know that people are unlikely to respond to models until predictions engage, not planetary averages, but the more particular time and place that inhabitants call their own.
But so far, “downscaling” of climate models to answer such questions has proven extremely difficult. Trimming the size of the target (say, from a country in the current century to a county next year) comes at the expense of “levels of confidence” that predictions warrant; maybe unavoidably so. In general, the smaller the sector of the earth’s surface being modeled, the more likely predictions will fail because of developments far from it.43
Of course, climate scientists well understand the tradeoff. Their everyday experience, monitoring and modeling the atmosphere, confirms the interdependence of its dimensions (across the surface of the earth, above and beneath it, over time) and the cost of slighting any one of them. A well-trained eye never loses sight of the big picture. But other folks must act in a tight, specific frame. If they bet on a change, it had better pay off—not just someplace, on average, over the long haul—but when and where they wagered. So, they regularly face a mismatch between climate predictions and day-to-day reality. Despite experts’ warnings, every cold snap challenges conviction to “do something” about global warming. The scale of the subject and its distance from ordinary experience (for all but scientists) makes it tough to rally around.44
Stakeholders also detect problems in the way information has been gathered. With a bit of prompting, experts themselves confess that some of the data on climate change are weak. Standard records of temperature, pressure, wind, and precipitation, for example, tend to be low in geographic resolution. For the past century most systematic observations have been distributed on a grid system with considerably larger cells than any stakeholder would actually hold. This feature of the data deepens the challenge of downsizing models enough to touch the public.45
Although the archive maintained by the U.S. National Weather Service (NWS) is likely the best in the world, it also has some gaps. For example, long-term data (the kind that modelers prefer) are relatively crude on snow and cloud cover, two key factors in atmospheric dynamics. And although modelers have made great strides in working around such gaps, some may be getting worse.
Many of the NWS data-recording sites are staffed by volunteers who enrolled early in the Cold War. More and more of them are ready to retire from service. An implication was brought home to me one memorable afternoon, spent with an NWS archivist as he massaged the numbers that old-timers posted to a central computer:
It is more than a little daunting to discover that climate-change evidence has such an improvisational chain of custody. And George and Mildred’s replacement may be worse. The common variety is an automated observation station. Although less forgetful, it cannot assess clouds overhead or snow on the ground.
And then there is the challenge of processing all of these data, making them “say something.” Even supposedly definitive, headline-grabbing reports are laced with caveats that are difficult for a novice to decode. Imagine the sophistication required for an ordinary person to be moved by the drift in verb phrases from the UN IPCC and the U.S. National Academy of Science (NAS) over the past decade:
All this hedging and hair splitting leaves not just confusion but also controversy in its wake. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any conclusion or data set, no matter how immaculate in origin, that would win everyone’s confidence, once and for all.
Broadly speaking, scientists are as disputatious as trial lawyers. And the more conventional the wisdom, the greater the effort to overturn it. Convictions—especially popular ones—are supposed to be questioned. Scientists with integrity do their damnedest to disprove them. As long as tests continue, common sense is “speculation,” and skeptics get the benefit of the doubt. Fame and funding come to those who advance novel interpretations, with extra credit for slain sacred cows. So, whatever their particular merits, new convictions (as for climate change and its cause or cure) are bound to be questioned.47
Nevertheless American onlookers tend to treat scientific dispute as itself discrediting: “Why should I change the way I do business [e.g., engineer for lower CO2 emissions] when even experts can’t agree on what’s happening?”
Such questions suggest important differences between Americans’ scientific and civic cultures. Science thrives on argument among experts, but citizens are reluctant to act in its presence. It doesn’t help that journalists feel obliged—in the name of “balance”—to feature controversy even when next to none exists. Even if there are only one or two scientists on one side and hundreds on the other, the lone rangers will be quoted in paragraph three or howl about “media bias” if they are not. Facing the threat of Kyoto-style regulation and being no fools, energy companies are sure to have a few dissident scientists on contract to feed journalists’ hunger. These are among the reasons that some climatologists, though devoutly environmentalist, regret that Kyoto proponents tethered their credibility to science. If the public awaits consensus, scientists are among the last folks likely to deliver it.48
Lay stakeholders are also generally suspicious of experts’ dependence on lots of cash. Critics on the cultural left charge that anti-Kyoto scientists are hacks, losers underwritten by polluters who put an industry-friendly spin on their findings. Conversely, critics on the cultural right charge that pro-Kyoto scientists are chasing handouts from privileged primitivists, tree huggers, and hempsters.
Suspicions are also chalked up to the peculiar privilege that some scientific institutions enjoy over others. For example, in U.S. forecasting the NWS Storm Prediction Center (SPC) hones the cutting edge. Because Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle desperately need tornado warnings, that is where the center is located and NWS artistry supreme. SPC staff are obviously good at an important job. But the models that they develop can be less reliable when applied, as they are, elsewhere in the United States and around the world. For example, their calculations have generally discounted “northwesterly flow events” that do not much matter in Oklahoma. But they sure do on the Northern Plains. Some major-league failures in climate forecasts have resulted, and the stakeholders who banked on them suffered huge losses. So, clearly experts are as vulnerable as other folks to quirks of nature, geography, and history, even if other folks are the ones who pay the price.49
For many Americans, science appears to be an alien monopoly power, concentrated in anything but disinterested or down-home institutions. For example, the basic ingredients for nearly every local broadcast of the weather in the United States come from one of three for-profit companies (Kavorus, Weather Central, and Weather Services Incorporated). A quick glance at the graphics in the paper or on television in any U.S. city, and you can tell which of the three is under contract. And nearly all of the actual numbers that go in those snazzy graphics come from a single source: the National Weather Service, a bureau of the behemoth National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
This public monopoly has its virtues. Despite popular cynicism, short-term forecasts like the ones that Americans tune in every day are quite accurate. Flaws and all, it is hard to imagine better data than those that a U.S. government agency provides everyone—ordinary citizens no less than corporate moguls—on time without charge. And its large measure of independence from the private sector has some obvious benefits. Imagine, for example, if one of the airlines or a port authority (vs. NWS) regulated airports. As hostile weather approaches, could they be as trusted to err on the safe side? To close their own hub before someone else’s?
But this public monopoly also poses problems. Tort standards provide government agencies like NOAA with much more limited liability than private contractors. Furthermore, when information is published (for general consumption vs. for a particular client pursuant to a specific decision), courts have determined that the provider has absolutely no liability for its errors. Even cases of astounding negligence have been rebuffed (e.g., as in claims on behalf of mariners who died in a storm that the NWS marine forecasters failed to note, because of remote sensors that, NWS confessed, they knew were critical and defective but that they decided not to fix).50
In this environment, it is actually quite remarkable that so much agreement among and around climate science has emerged. But from the point of view of many non-scientists, the heat and complexity of the global warming debate signal that the jury is still out. And under no circumstances—no matter how carefully you attend, how much you risk, or how bogus the expertise—will legal protection exceed “let the buyer beware.” Since the experts who counsel greenhouse gas reduction are so unaccountable for their advice, why would an investor flout everyday experience to follow it? In such ways, the style and structure of American science undercut conviction.
Among the most striking features of climate communication is the small number of channels on which Americans rely. They get the basics of barometric pressure, cloud types, cyclones, and whatnot in grade school. Temperature and precipitation trends attract coverage in stakeholders’ trade publications (e.g., Wallace’s Farmer or Soy Bean News). And NWS data are readily available at a large number of Internet sites. But none of these sources are frequently cited. Instead, just about everyone credits their knowledge of the atmosphere to the latest weathercast on a local major-network television affiliate.51
Drawing viewers to weathercasts has long been among the strategies for building station profits. It is a fairly simple, well-known formula:
It is easy to understand, then, why most stations begin the news with a teaser about tomorrow’s temperature and why the weather report itself spans the quarter hour. By beginning the report just before the quarter hour and continuing just after it, broadcasters increase their chance of being picked up, not just once but twice in Nielsen ratings. In major markets Nielsen samples audience share every fifteen minutes.
For those who bemoan scientific illiteracy at-large, this economic incentive could bode well. After all, there is probably more science in weather reports—measurements, maps, technical symbols, and deductions—than anywhere else in U.S. mass media. Furthermore, contrary to my expectation, broadcast meteorologists do not seem to be the bimbos that novels or films like To Die For invoke.52 At least the ones whom I met were confirmed “weather weenies,” the sorts of people who were once earnest officers of their grade-school science club. They are pleased to celebrate their craft on the radio and in newspapers as well as TV. They are trained, certified, and committed to spreading appreciation of meteorology, including its value in understanding climate change.
But they also lament their inability to do much more than please an audience. Given their importance to station profitability, management keeps them on a short leash. They become, in effect, company mascots or clowns. By standard contract, the bulk of their workweek is reserved for public appearances that showcase a market-targeted “personality” and “community involvement” of the backslapping, booster sort. They can’t leave their homes without clothes that sport station logos. They are supposed to smile and shake hands with every yahoo who recognizes them in the grocery store. (You can imagine how long it takes to shop.) As with Ronald McDonald or the village pastor, station contracts normally include a “morals clause.” No matter what their expertise or ambition, they had better not offend the most narrow-minded viewer. Furthermore, since theirs is usually the least scripted portion of the news, they are the ones whose on-air time is grabbed for late-breaking stories. When I asked one star weather guy how he and his peers engaged the public, he answered, “We’re whores, man. We’re whores!”
TV weathercasts simply share the well-known constraints of broadcast (vs. face-to-face or print) communication. To fit standard time slots, there are fewer words and ideas per story. Presentations are littered with distractions. Their focus is ever on the verge of a shift or a break for commercial. Topics that lend themselves to sensational video displace everything slow or subtle. Isolated but photogenic flash floods will get more coverage than whole seas on the rise. As they say, “If it bleeds, it leads.” At the same time, the fluid, “friendly” style of presentation inhibits critical reception. Hence, for at least 30 years, media scholars (only occasionally over objections from producers themselves) have agreed that television news provides a poorer learning environment than just about any other medium. Tests of the knowledge that consumers gain through different media consistently confirm the point.53
If a station meteorologist pushes for innovation—say, to better educate viewers—management must beware. They dare not estrange their audience. If the weathercaster persists, management is apt to bring in a consultant whose research is aimed to “let viewers decide.”54 For example, one local weathercaster—a trusted source among Midwestern farmers—recalled his disappointment, trying to change a standard broadcast measure of humidity (for farmers, “drying conditions”). Rather than good ol’ relative humidity, he wanted to introduce dew point, which is more informative for many purposes, more independent of temperature or time of day. Even though few viewers know what either measurement means, consultants settled the matter: Polls “proved” audiences prefer relative humidity, and that’s what they will get, muddled, archaic, or meaningless as it may be. In such ways, as primed as weathercasts might seem, say, to deliver the “literacy” and “knowledge” that Kyoto boosters miss, the medium is bound to disappoint.
Of course, nearly all of the obstacles here blamed on the subject, the science, or the media can instead be blamed on the way that Americans use them. People in the United States could improve their understanding of the climate and of its complex relationship to the weather that they happen to experience. They could make science less alien and support its advance, even as they better understand its limits. They could develop and consult more media of communication that challenge as well as entertain. They could take more responsibility for their own role in global warming. They could better address the causes and prepare for the consequences.55
But as I hope the foregoing has also made clear, there are formidable material institutional impediments. If Americans seem clueless or callous toward global warming, the problem is not just their attitude. Until U.S. institutions as well as minds are changed, the public is apt to remain unmoved.56
Furthermore, even if scientists succeed in “transferring knowledge” about global warming and its causes, the public may well disagree about how to use it. Stakeholders’ “stakes” are far from obvious or uniform. In fact, among the first lessons they provide is how diverse their attitudes are. A hint can be found in the way relevant insurance tends to be financed. Normally, to prepare for perils, insurers research and amortize the risk. They set premiums to cover the damage claims that, they calculate, are most likely to occur over the life of a contract. They bet against a worst-case outcome, often advising or even pressuring clients to reduce their exposure. But climate-change insurance (e.g., to cover losses if global warming continues) is more often financed through the sale of “derivatives.” Rather than wagering on one outcome, the insurer builds a balanced pool of premium payers who will lose and gain from a temperature shift. No matter what actually happens—whether warmer, cooler, or the same—bets cover each other. No one’s definition of risk prevails; “attitudes” are irrelevant.57
Such dodges are possible and desirable because global warming can be of such radically different import to different folks. On the ledger, for example, glacial melts and deeper seas might be great for shippers but awful for fishermen. A wave of winter heat might deflate profits on a ski slope but also inflate them around an otherwise chilly beach. Heavy late-summer rain might save a corn crop but spoil the hay. On the other hand, a large share of the American public considers weather an amenity. Change of any sort is a nuisance. The more that their outdoors resembles the indoors of a mall, the better. Alter the climate, and they expect thermostats to provide relief. So, convincing more and more people to expect global warming will not necessarily yield a convergent response.
There are also, though, conditions in the United States that encourage common attitudes toward the climate. Most stakeholders, for example, recall that earth science was relegated to relatively early grades, a “kid’s subject.” Biology, chemistry, and physics were the more prestigious, grown-up, college-bound sciences in high school. And most people recall that relations between their occupation and the environment were treated in training as charitable considerations, the sort of issue you address, only if and when you can afford to. No wonder, then, atmospheric science and public sentiment operate on different wavelengths.
There is also widespread resistance to believing that everyday comforts, like driving to work, can be so monstrous in their collective impact. Insofar as Americans consider private transit “a right” and emissions properly assessed one tailpipe at a time, responsibility will continue to be displaced onto the biggest one around, likely a factory stack. Compared to other industrial nations, the United States simply has fewer policy devices for making both individuals and corporations absorb the ongoing environmental costs of their normal way of life. So as long as pollution stays within regulated extremes, environmental costs are “externalized,” that is, shifted to someone else and future generations.
Whatever their occupation or point of view, most stakeholders claim that their focus must remain on this month’s bottom line. Many wish they could act with greater commitment to the long haul and the public good, but they cannot afford to be the only ones in their business who do so.
Furthermore, nearly everyone asserts that they are, as a practical matter, unable to decide, say, to reduce the contribution of their work to greenhouse gases. Someone else makes such decisions, even when, as in family farming, they would seem to be the boss. They speak of competitive pressures to cut short-term costs—say, by using more fossil fuels or defoliating fencerows—even when they see the social and environmental damage. As often as not, they say, their financial institution, supplier, or buyer will insist on such expediency. To qualify for spring loans, for example, many farmers have to agree to plant according to their lenders’ instructions. And likewise, many lenders say they have little choice. Margins are small and default risks great. Agricultural finance is already too close to charity to imagine volunteering to absorb costs that can be avoided, at least for the moment.
Why should any of these people be eager to “uptake” climate information when they are so incapable of applying what they learn? Or when the experts who are selling uptake seem (even if unfairly) so irresponsible, ignorant, and disrespectful of other stakeholders’ positions? To an awful lot of people, it barely makes sense to listen. The jeremiads just remind you how powerless you are to do what you might easily believe to be the right thing.58
In short, American institutions seem insufficient for the sort of coordinated action that would make a difference, even if the will to act existed. Systems of finance, transportation, and regulation undercut the incentive of people to learn, to mobilize, or to make sacrifices, even when they are individually predisposed to do so.
Part of Americans’ problem with global warming, in the large sense, can be attributed to the inhuman scale and staggering complexity of the subject. Public understanding is mired in conceptual confusion and a persistent culture war. Much of the data are partial, uneven, or simply weak, and their implications (e.g., for the priority of policies aimed at ameliorating long-term causes vs. consequences of warming) are highly contestable on ethical no less than empirical grounds. Scientific discourse thrives on discord, while “moving” the public awaits consensus that is unlikely to come.59
As diverse Americans well know, many obstacles are purely institutional. For example, legally speaking, for most practical purposes, climate scientists (unlike other stakeholders) are generally protected from liability for the actions that they counsel. Furthermore, climate science reaches the public most often by way of compromising media. Interviews with broadcast meteorologists and consultants confirm published concerns that entertainment (or “viewer preference”) can trump science when the two compete.
For-profit enterprises (including media industries) are driven by a bottomline that limits the capacity for messengers to be “out front” of conventional consumer pleasures. For example, broadcast media (which are particularly important for information about the atmosphere) are not particularly good at inspiring informed, collective action. Public investments in basic science, data collection, and education are declining. The division of labor, liability, and responsibility separates the sensitivity of scientists and non-scientists, creating suspicion and mistrust. Individuals have a limited capacity to see and affect connections to large institutions.
Perhaps most important in obstructing public “uptake” is a widespread sense of powerlessness. Interviews with people who have an obvious, direct stake in climate change—Midwesterners engaged in agriculture and its affiliated industries—confirm that many people feel as if there is simply no point in following the relevant science, that they are not in the position to apply whatever they might learn. They well recognize that their actions—e.g., how they plow or plant or with whom they contract—will have profound personal and (when considered collectively) environmental consequences. They insist that they want to do the right thing. But they also feel as if they simply “must” conform to the dictates of more powerful, distant institutions and economic “reality.”
So, yes, there are obstacles to communication between climate scientists and non-scientists despite common interest in a single subject. More precise science and more diverse, intense discussions of its implications could help. At least people might have more articulate warrants for their responses to global warming. But this research also suggests that there are broader cultural and institutional obstacles to collective action. In particular, members of the public seem to long for more evidence that talk about the climate—provisional as it may be—matters. The mere fact that people who have a lifetime of experience dealing with the climate can be construed as relatively passive “stakeholders”—as more or less skilled in receiving information that experts produce or as more or less entertained watchers of weathercasts—may be as much a cause as a consequence of miscommunication. Responses to global warming might well improve with more emphasis on the ways that specific, large economic, political, and scientific institutions can be more responsive to the public.
In the short run, scientists and other stakeholders might learn to work better together, to “downsize” models—connect to reality and to respect differing relations to it—in ways that are more faithful to both global ideals and workaday traditions. I hope environmentalists can help not only to clarify the problem that is global warming but also to increase the chances that American institutions and culture become a greater resource in doing something about it.