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Apocalypse Not: Study Says Cool Down the Climate Message

Image from an Envrionmental Defense Fund TV campaign

Remember that TV ad that represented climate change as an oncoming train? Polar bears falling from the sky and spattering on the sidewalk? If a new study from sociologists at UC Berkeley is any indication, they probably backfired.

Sociology Professor Rob Willer says more than two years of testing with college students and subjects recruited over the Internet reveal that if projections of severe climate impacts clash with a person’s fundamental view of a safe and stable world, that person is less likely to act on it.

“When you underscore potential ways out of the problem,” says Willer, “Then you can communicate the facts of climate change without threatening people so much that they deny the problem.

Willer says that repeatedly exposing subjects to “negative” messages about climate change affected more than their personal motivation to address it; their belief in the science behind the message was actually eroded. And he says that people in the study tended to be put off by “scary” messages, regardless of their politics.

As part of the negative messaging, Willer showed subjects the “train” spot produced by the Environmental Defense Fund. Willer says it was not a motivator in his study, even though it ends with the message “There’s still time.”

The study’s conclusions came as no surprise to “messaging” experts at the Behavior, Energy and Climate Change conference, wrapping up today in Sacramento.

Anne Dougherty, Manager of Social & Behavioral Research at Oakland-based Opinion Dynamics Corporation, says that motivational messaging in general should steer clear of tones that are bleak, catastrophic, punitive or scary. “There is this tendency to disassociate with messaging when the messaging is bleak,” said Dougherty. “People, in order to be inspired to take action, need to feel a bit optimistic about what they’re going to be doing.”

Dougherty’s company has been involved in developing energy conservation campaigns in California, such as “Flex Your Power” and the upcoming “Engage 360” campaign, sponsored by the California Public Utilities Commission.

Willer says his study focused on personal actions, not what the government should do about global warming. His work will appear in the journal Psychological Science early next year.

Meanwhile, what motivates you? What doesn’t?

Another Climate Change Impact: Smog

Los Angeles cloaked in smog shortly after sunrise. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

Air pollution, already a problem for much of central and southern California, will get worse as temperatures warm, according to a new report from scientists at UC Davis and UC Berkeley.

By mid-century, trouble spots like the Central Valley and Los Angeles could experience between six and 30 more days per year when ozone concentrations exceed federal clean-air standards, depending on how much temperatures rise, and assuming that pollutant emissions in the state remain at current levels, the scientists project. Continue reading

The Other Greenhouse Gases

Carbon dioxide is the 900-pound gorilla of greenhouse gases. There’s little doubt of that, whether you’re tracking news coverage or policy measures.

But lately, some of the other beasts are getting more scrutiny. Reuters published a story last week that focused on nitrogen triflouride, a by-product of semiconductor manufacturing and a key ingredient in flat-screen TVs.

Researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego have been tracking the gas, which goes by the shorthand NF3, and concluded that the atmospheric load of the stuff is growing at 11% a year. What makes that a little scary is that NF3 is said to be 17,000 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, though over all it’s still a much smaller factor in global warming.

At the same time, Kirk Smith of UC Berkeley is taking his show on the road, with a lecture he calls “CO2 on Steroids.” It’s about the role that methane plays in the warming equation and what he believes are the opportunities to make relatively fast headway against global warming by attacking methane emissions. Smith will present his findings at the state air board’s Chair’s seminar series in Sacramento. You can watch a webcast of his lecture on November 10.

I interviewed Smith for an upcoming Climate Watch radio feature on the methane issue in California. Listen for it on The California Report in mid-November.

400,000 Jobs or Bust. Or Both.

There’s an interesting juxtaposition nowadays between the grim economic/public funding forecasts and the eye-popping estimates of job growth in the “green-collar” economy…at least in the ever-optimistic Golden State.

Given the current meltdown in the capital markets, there is understandable fear that investment in renewable energy and carbon-reducing technology will be nipped in the bud. Recent articles in the New York Times and Times of London reflect the new angst.

But against this backdrop of doom, predictions are popping out all over about the coming economic boom, if we can somehow stay the course toward a low-carbon economy. This week number-crunchers at UC Berkeley issued the bold declaration that through energy efficiency alone, California can add 403,000 new jobs. David Roland-Holst and his colleagues assume a scant 1% annual improvement in overall energy efficiency, in order to get there. And by the way, they say, you can pencil an extra $76 billion in gross state product into the bargain. We’ll be spending so much less to light, heat, cool, and move us around, that it will free up billions of dollars and an outbreak of general prosperity will ensue. Sound like Pollyanna gone wild? The authors say we’ve done it before.

A recent economic analysis by the California Air Resources Board predicted that full implementation of the sweeping Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (CA AB-32) would add 100,000 jobs by 2020. The astute reader might wonder how, since energy efficiency is just one facet of AB-32, can the Berkeley number be so much higher. The answer, according to Roland-Holst, is that the Air Board estimate is “innovation-neutral.” In other words, it assumes that nothing new is invented on the efficiency front.

Hear more details as KQED’s Peter Jon Shuler speaks with  Roland-Holst about his methodology.