Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Stopping climate change is not just a good idea, it should be the law!

The Gummi Bears riding their "quick car" in the tunnels of the Gummi Glen. In this animated TV series of the 1980s, the characters were always shown buckling up before riding their quick car. At that time, seat belts laws were not yet commonplace and were often ignored. So, the Gummi bears were enlisted to remind to children that they had to wear seat belts while riding a car. 

Already in the 1960s, crash tests had clearly shown the effectiveness of seat belts in saving lives in traffic accidents. Nevertheless, the introduction of seat belts for passenger cars faced many obstacles. One was with the automotive companies, which often saw seat belts as an extra cost that they didn't like to bear. But customers were probably the most important problem. People knew about the risk of traffic accidents, but still they disliked seat belts, normally not using them even when they were available in their car. People often doubted the usefulness of belts; fearing the risk of remaining trapped in a burning car. Many disliked the feeling of constraint that wearing belts generated. More than all, it was a psychological problem: most drivers felt that they had a certain "power" on their vehicle and disliked the idea of a passive constraint on which they had no control.

Because of these motives, when a seat belt law was enacted in Italy, in the 1980s, it is said that you could buy t-shirts that had a fake seat belt printed on the front side, with the idea of duping traffic officers. If it is true, it is a great example of how weird is the way the human mind works. People would pay money NOT to be safer! (And, if it is a legend, the very fact that it diffused in the media indicates that some people were at least willing to consider it as true). Fortunately, today things have changed and there surely exists a general consensus that seat belts are not just a good idea, they are the law.

The story of seat belt laws has many points in common with that of the climate change problem. The reaction is in many ways the same: people ignore the climate problem, just as people in the 1970s often sat over seat belts rather than wearing them. Unfortunately there is no clear-cut consensus, today, that stopping climate change is not just a good idea, it should be the law.

So, can we learn something from the case of seat belt laws as a "model" for fighting anthropogenic climate change? Of course there are differences but, yes, it is worth examining in some detail seat belt laws as a success story in societal risk management.

A first point is that seat belt laws never were the objective of the kind of widespread denialist campaign that we are seeing today against climate science. That was not for lack of arguments: a 1981 paper by John Adams had found no clear evidence that the introduction of seat belts reduced the total number of traffic fatalities. Had the "Merchants of Doubt" stepped in at this moment to exploit Adam's data, probably we still wouldn't have seat belt laws. But no lobby decided to ride the issue and, without a political support, this view of seat belts remained confined to a tiny minority and it didn't generate the kind of aggressive denial that is typically seen in the debate on climate. Over the years, Adam's paper was disproved by experimental evidence clearly showing that seat belts do save lives and reduce injuries not just in laboratory tests, but also in the real world (see, e.g, this paper).  

Notice how the lack of complete certainty did NOT stop the effort of legislating on the mandatory use of seat belts. Seat belts laws can be seen as a correct application of the precautionary principle: don't wait for absolute certainty, but act when there are sufficient data to establish that a risk exists.

Finally, seat belts were mandated by law much before the public was fully convinced that such laws were necessary - it was sufficient that policy-makers and opinion leaders were convinced. A 1977 poll in the US reported that 80% of respondents strongly opposed seat belt laws. These early data contrast with the present general opinion, which is now opposite. A 2008 poll, reports that "when asked whether they favor front seat belt laws 66 percent of 16- to 20-year-olds said they favor them 'a lot', and 26 percent said they favor them 'some' ". Evidently, the public learned to appreciate seat belts only after being pushed (a little, and sometimes a lot) to use them.

So, the story of seat belt laws shows us the importance of financial lobbies in the decision mechanisms of our society. Today, legislative action against climate change has been stopped by a series of effective propaganda campaigns which have succeeded in politicizing the issue and making it impossible to manage rationally. This is probably the most important stumbling block we are facing nowadays. As long as the denial machine is financed and active, progress with the climate issue can only be very slow.

But it is not impossible to beat even a very powerful lobby: it could be done in the case of the tobacco and the pesticide industries. It takes effort and patience but, if we work on that, eventually we'll succeed. Then, the example of seat belts shows us that absolute certainty is not necessary in order to act on a dangerous problem. The fact that a law may be unpleasant - such as wearing a seat belt every time one rides a car - does not prevent from reaching a general consensus that the law was needed.

We do have sufficient evidence that the problem of climate change is serious and important and, at some moment, we'll arrive to a general consensus that stopping climate change is not only a good idea, it is the law.


  1. Sorry I should insist that WE CANNOT STO CLIMATE CHANGE .. we need to stop the effects of Human behave and interferences on Climate. WE DO NOT HAVE THE POWER TO STOP CLIMATE CHANGE WE CAN STOP OR AT LEAST ALLEVIATE GLOBAL WARMING

    1. You're right Toufic. But talk of us humans would affect the models of society, consumerism and also on the issue of reducing the birth rate, especially in the rich West.

    2. Well, the problem is that we are facing a "hyperobject" - something so big and so complex that we don't even know how to define it. Climate change and global warming are both insufficient. For instance, neither includes such a fundamental effect as ocean acidification. We should say something as "ecosystem disruption" but then nobody would know what we are talking about. Personally, I think that climate change is better than global warming; at least it emphasize the fact that the problem is not just warming.

  2. In theory I agree that "stopping climate change" (though I also agree with Toufic el Asmar above) should become part of the law. Or, more broadly, of "strong and enforced multi-sectoral legal and regulatory frameworks for reform" that will effectively combat global warming.

    The analogy with seat belts is interesting but doesn't necessarily "hold water". The adoption of seat belts makes driving safer and ultimately sells more cars. So sooner or later the relevant laws were going to be passed and adopted. (with the blessing of the automotive and fossil fuel vested interests) Adopting climate legislation may end up selling fewer and more expensive cars. (electric cars as we all know need to re-charge and won't help climate change very much unless the power sources for the electricity change) Not to even mention what would happen to car sales if proper mass transit in urban and suburban areas were installed. So the automotive industry (and all the other industries which depend on it) as well as the fossil fuel industry would fight tooth and nail making the needed legal changes.

    Another problem with relying on the law and legislation is the sorry state of the legislative process in many countries. All one has to do is look at the current legislative process in the U.S. and one readily observes that it is literally run by lobbyists. The same sorts of lobbyists who are part of the very effective climate change denialism campaign. So getting the right laws and regulations passed and enforced becomes an issue of democracy and whether it now works or not. (or is now in the hands of thin vested interests with money). Which western democracies at the moment have legislatures that could pass global warming- related laws and regulations? (certainly not the U.S. and certainly not Italy either)

    But ultimately I would agree: We cannot rely only on the voluntary cooperation of either governments or industries and corporations, or individuals. We need to have reforms and policies.... enshrined in LAWS.

    How to get those laws written, passed and enforced?

    What we have now in the U.S. is also a big disconnect between the "bottom up" pressure and activism approaches of NGO's and the environmental movement on the one hand, and those who are trying to lobby Washington (or State level legislatures) and get various laws and regulations changed, on the other hand.

    They need to connect much better and they need to adopt joint and collaborative strategies. (CONTINUES BELOW)

  3. More broadly I would say that there are two ways to go after global warming and the climate change problem.

    One are a variety of top down approaches and the other are a variety of bottom up approaches. They are not mutually exclusive but complementary. (and one requires the help of the other) (or perhaps one also can think of a “third approach” which would be “lateral” and would try to connect up the preceding two approaches at various levels from international to national to sub-national to local)

    The top down approaches include "institutional and governance reforms and changes" both nationally and internationally. The bottom up approaches include the work of many environmental NGOS and how they can: a) further strengthen and stiffen up that work; b) extend and link up the many efforts of the many NGOs that form the environmental movement.

    It probably comes down to this: What actors exist in modern society? The three main sets of actors are the public sector (governments at their various administrative levels across their typical three branches namely executive, legislative and judicial) the private sector (industries, corporations and enterprises) and the civil society sector (NGOs, political parties, movements, academic institutions and etc.). The preceding are also called -in short- state and non-state actors.

    To effect a transformation (economic and societal) as massive as the one required to (effectively) combat global warming and climate change requires the efforts of all three of these main sets of societal actors as well as their cooperation and collaboration. Getting that mix and collaboration right is what is needed and its is extremely difficult to obtain within the short-term oriented political and corporate systems now in existence. (and within the very short period of time that remains for effective measures and actions to be implemented)

    Laws and legal and regulatory frameworks are one important part of the above.

    Does that mean that I agree with what was said in the above post? “YES.....but ! “

    ....and the “buts” I listed above are quite a few and none are particularly easy to deal with.

  4. Agree with Toufic that writing a law to stop climate change would be a bit like writing a law against earthquakes or hurricanes, and some might also want to write laws to deny claimate change :

    And Alas(or not), in terms of "writable laws", to me the only possible ones are fiscal ones, typically increasing volume based taxes on fossile fuels, and this more in order favorize/accelerate transitions than to increase government budget. Taxes on work can be decreased in parallel, or a direct redistribution schema as proposed by Hansen in (2) below set up :

    And of course this isn't all there is to it, especially regarding communication on the issue, and infrastucture evolution strategy.

    But we should for sure not forget that compared to subsidies, there is a very important difference :
    - subsidies require prior to be set up to decide "what should be done"
    - it is very to get these decisions wrong (corn ethanol would be a perfect example here), and subsidies tend to promote alternative production more than conservation
    - for volume based taxes on fossile fuels, you don't need such decisions, and it "pushes" transitions as well on the conservation as on the alternative production side.

  5. One suggestion is to impose economic sanctions on the worst culprits. I mean, if we can have sanctions against governments that sponsor international terrorism or are developing weapons of mass destruction (whether that is the case is another story) or are oppressing their own people, it would be fair to have economic sanctions against countries that don't do enough. It could also be in the form of protective tarriffs on their goods, as they have unfair trading practices. Not taxing carbon amounts to a subsidy on my view.

    Of course there are many countries that should suffer these sanctions. The US comes to mind as one of them.

  6. I allow myself to expand your analogy. After the seat belts came airbags, anti-lock brakes, crush zones and many other safety features. The major problem, however, is the car use itself. I refer both literally and in terms of the consumerism that causes the emission of GHG.

    No matter how many laws passed, the problem remains to convince people to voluntarily stop driving before the big crash occurs.

    The best I as a layman can do is to objectively inform others about the serious situation. In this regard, there are two advantages of the melting of the Arctic ice: It's fast and easy to explain with pictures and simple graphs that everyone can understand without having to exert themselves. With the Arctic ice loss, it is also easy to show that climate change is actually happening now.

    The difficult part is to make people change their behavior, ie to stop driving. Intense Information can hopefully help people to link their own behavior with Climate Change before TSHTF.

    Thanks for the frog blog.