Sunday, September 4, 2016

The power (and the limits) of propaganda

There is a new and very interesting report on the attitudes of the public on Global Warming. It was published on "Environment" on Aug 26, with the title. "The Political Divide on Climate Change: Partisan Polarization Widens in the U.S. It is written by Riley E. Dunlap, Aaron M. McCright and Jerrod H. Yarosh.

The report provides updated data from Gallup polls that basically confirms some interpretations that I had proposed in earlier posts. We seem to be completely stuck with this debate. The percentage of Americans who agree with the scientific interpretation of global warming today is basically the same as it was 10 years ago. You can see it from the figure above; all the data of the report are consistent on this point.  The two camps advance a little and retreat a little, but the front line moves very little.

The figure at the top is also interesting because it provides a long-term assessment of what propaganda can do. You see the remarkable dip in the public belief on the importance of global warming that was originated by the "climategate" psyop that raged in 2009-2010. It is something that will be remembered for centuries as a milestone in the history of propaganda. But look at the data: all the climategate sound and fury had some effect only for a few years. And note how it was most effective on the Republicans, that is the people who were already the most skeptical about climate science. On the democrats, the effect is nearly zero.

We see here both the power and the limits of propaganda. And it tells us something rather chilling. If we ever were able to mount an important information campaign in favor of science, it could hardly be more effective than Climategate was against science. At best, such a campaign would intensify the belief in good science of those who already believe in good science. The debate is stuck: as we keep preaching to the choir, nothing will change.

The reason for this situation is clear from the report - and not just from that. Partisan polarization is increasing in the US and, probably, everywhere in the Western World. And as long as the polarization is so sharp, nothing that can be said by one side will affect the other. And, while we are going nowhere, global warming is marching on.

Is there a way to unlock the situation? Possibly, but it can only be drastic. We know that there is a way to recompact the people of a country and have them fight for a common goal: war. That may be the reason why the West seems to be so much on a war footing nowadays; it is a desperate attempt to recover some kind of national unity while facing a terribly difficult economic situation. But, of course, a major war would spell disaster for all attempts to stop climate change. That is, unless it were to be the right kind of war.....


  1. Some of the dip may have been the great recession in 2009. People moved down maslow's hierarchy till times appeared better. Though I'm not sure what would be more worrying, a global elite controlling us or limits to growth causing us to lose sight Ling term goals.

  2. Concerning the economic situation: it is difficult, but it is not terribly difficult. It is complex, but the general level of per capita product is IMO still good in most of Europe (would be better without the widening income split between the mighty and the rest of us! interjection of my socialist soul).
    Concerning convincing "the other side": my notion is, that the crass polarization is a US-specific phenomenon. There is a lot of tacit resistance over here, beginning with the individual behaviour and not ending with the de-facto-silence in the media about issues like the ETS (emission allowances trading system) and others. But there is not much outright science rejection, both in the politico-sphere and in the media (with the exception of the unbearable antiscience trolls in discussion fora, and may be the countries of the Vyszegrad group, which are blocking progress in european climate legislation).
    The europeans are smarter in this respect, as they talk sweet and continue business as usual (yes, an exaggeration). And as we all know, change of behaviour is much more difficult than change of talking.
    My recipe would be the strategy of mergin islands. Individuals, small, medium and large groups start walking the walk, connect and create facts and role models. And facts have considerable persusasive power.

    1. Perhaps you might ask the proper question, why are the Central and Easter Europeans finally starting to act together and challenge at least some of the craziness out of the "European super state" ..

      In fact, on closer look these countries are very diverse. The Czech Republic, Slovenia and Slovakia are technologically savvy to run national nuclear power program, these countries are more or less quasi-appendix of the west for thousand of years. Others like for example Poland have in contrast very different history of empire like grandeur (Poles ones ruled over Ukraine and large part of Russia) and opposite extreme in time periods of insignificance and true periphery to the west. That to some extent holds true also for Hungary, but I'd say they managed to heal these complexes of past grandeur way better than Poles to this point of time.

      Now, to your Vyszegrad countries club only, increasingly they are on many policy issue being joined by some of the Baltics and Balkan countries as well, and surprisingly in recent months also by Austria, and the Bavarians would gladly subscribe too, notably on the migration wave escapades of the Berlin-Paris-Brussels water boys of global capital.

      Sorry, the tide has turned, I guess it was great plan for the decades while it lasted for the French and Germans to rule over the whole continent, repatriating profits, enjoying the spoils for generations living on the high heel. Not any more. It has to change, the problem now is that both of these core countries face sever internal contradictions, not mentioning the inability to have strong leaders again, like de Gaulle, who had the guts to kick US out of France, which the Germans as still occupied mentality never had.

      The union has to reform profoundly or dissolve.

  3. Dominik
    Do we have data for Europe that is comparable with the US report that Udo links to?

    1. Phil, I personally don't know of any. I only see the difference in the utterances of the politicians. Over here we have a much more complex political landscape, there are no 2 big parties anymore, the followers of which one could poll.
      When you go to and look at the full report there, page 15 ff, we see that 91 % of all europeans consider climate change as a 'very' or 'fairly' serious problem, with the lions share of those tending to 'very'. This is not exactly the same question as put in the poll Ugo cited, but shows nevetheless, that there seems to be no comparable entrenchment and division in Europe.

    2. Thanks Dominik
      I found the individual country pdf files interesting: Germany in particular. UK maybe suffers a bit from sharing a language with the big Anglophone. Ugo seems to have done a good job in Italy! Smile.
      (Sorry Ugo for my earlier typo.)

    3. Here ( ) you hear Obama saying, that one of the achievements of his presidency is, that to make the majority of average (US) americans consider climate change as a real threat is one of the major achievements of his presidency (with some "pockets of resistance", though).
      I don't know whether he has some statistics different from the gallup poll cited above, of if he said this just "hand waiving", but Obama paints definitively a better picture of the awareness situation in the US.

  4. On the contrary, I think war would put a dent on emissions as it causes the economy to slow further. I read Mckibben's article on starting a war on climate change. Ramping up the transition to renewables on the scale and pace he advocates would probably necessitate an INCREASE in fossil fuel usage, ironically.

  5. I wonder how much was, and is being, spent to delude USAers over the evident interlude. Somewhere there's a dollar-per-individual-delusion influence measure at play here. I wonder if the profits per mass delusion created can continue to pay off the pied pipers leading our childish sides away from science. Can we coalesce an equivalent-sized funding stream to counter this?

  6. I think focusing on the reality of propaganda and counterpropaganda misses an important underlying issue.
    There exists a "camp" that believes the science is settled and another camp which believes the science is not settled. These differences cannot be resolved by more propaganda and the further politicization of science. But I have no doubt that it will continue to be attempted both in this blog and in many other more important venues. The G-20 in China being only the latest .

  7. A reality exists out there independent of public opinion, which has probably always lagged behind evidence. I don’t expect consensus on the subject of climate change to arrive until most of Florida is underwater and/or California reverts to desert despite our best interventions. The resulting diaspora will then trigger public awareness. Until that event or some equivalent, the public is unreachable by reason, only rhetoric, most of which is misguided.

    1. Reality typically does not lag behind all evidence . Propaganda often does or gets ahead of it and science sometimes does. Typically public consensus emerges around observable evidence and it has in this instance too. Few deny observable climatic changes. What some question is the evidence and the science for or against various scientific hypotheses that try to explain the observable evidence over time and space. Consensus also can emerge around propaganda and typically continues and is sustained as long as the propaganda continues. It also emerges around science and scientific hypotheses when the science is done correctly . What is reason and what is rhetoric and what is science is not settled by assertions or authority. Finally, the public collectively is not as dumb or as impervious to reason or evidence as one self appointed segment of it may wish to believe who thinks it knows better than the rest and will save it from catastrophes they imagine and predict and proclaim. Key words and concepts in play: science, propaganda, evidence, reality, consensus, settled, the public, authority, assertions, hypotheses, predictions, catastrophes, interests, rhetoric, reason, politics, interests . Just to mention a few. Fifty other posts and comments to discuss each of them and their interplay properly and more or less agree about what they mean conceptually and operationally? Naturally by then Florida may be underwater or at least will have been won by Hillary Clinton.

    2. The above was deliberately written so it can be read either way so that everybody will be happy.
      Maybe some will have noticed it and will try to read it also in the ways they don't agree with.
      Always a healthy exercise and "thought experiment" .

  8. If we want to know what we are talking about, it is vital to define our terms concisely and to agree among ourselves what they mean. This rarely happens in the global warming/climate change debate, where a "climate denier" can be anyone who disagrees with such mantras as "the science is settled" and "there's a 97% consensus". Scientists deliberately try to be concise and dispassionate, while politicians and propagandists find it expedient to be vague as well as emotive.

    The fact that the global warming debate is raging emotively, that Republicans and Democrats are split on the issue, and that the Pope, the Secretary-General of the UN and the President of the United States are all involved on the same side, is a strong indication that what we are witnessing is a political debate.

    One more point, the people of the "red states" of the US hinterland experience much greater variations in weather during the course of a normal year or a normal decade than those on the "blue states" of the east and west coasts do. It is often said that there is nothing but barbed wire fencing between Texas and the North Pole. Weather systems from the Arctic and the Caribbean are able to sweep north and south across the flat central corridor of North America without the hinderance that similar weather systems face in Eurasia from the East-West mountain ranges such as the Alps, the Zagros and the Himalayas. Thus these mainly Rebublican voters already live day-by-day with harsher climate than the one that the more alarmist of the warmists are warning the rest of us about.

    1. That's exactly the problem. The last stand of deniers is to say that climate change is a political problem, and that it should be dealt with politically.

      But this is NOT a political debate anymore. It is an emergency. And you don't deal with emergencies by debating about what's going on. When you see thick black smoke coming out from somewhere in the building, you don't call for a meeting of the residents to decide whether it is a fire or not. You call the firemen.

      Once an emergency is declared by the authorities, there is no debate. The matter is handled by the police, the firemen, the army, or whatever needed. And the climate emergency has been already declared. No more talks, we need to act.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)