The limits of evidence based marketing and climate science

Despite the millions spent by the Brothers Koch to convince us that climate science is a conspiracy, I often wonder why so many people call themselves skeptics.  After all, climate change denialists seem to be playing a game of Whack-a-Mole, where no matter how many times you disprove their critiques, they offer them again and again.  Seth Godin talks about the limits of evidence-based marketing in his blog, offering a vision of how the tide may end up turning against the Flat Earth society.  Godin infers that at this point, there is nothing that scientists can do to convince a hardened skeptic:

“Here’s the conversation that needs to happen before we invest a lot of time in evidence-based marketing in the face of skepticism: ‘What evidence would you need to see in order to change your mind?’  If the honest answer is, “well, actually, there’s nothing you could show me that would change my mind,” you’ve just saved everyone a lot of time. Please don’t bother having endless fact-based discussions…What would you have to show someone who believes men never walked on the moon? What evidence would you have to proffer in order to change the mind of someone who is certain the Earth is only 5,000 years old? If they’re being truthful with you, there’s nothing they haven’t been exposed to that would do the trick.”

Instead, Godin writes that the best tactic to convince skeptics is a necessarily slow, painful process: eventually enough of the right opinion-makers will be convinced:

“Of course, evidence isn’t the only marketing tactic that is effective. In fact, it’s often not the best tactic. What would change his mind, what would change the mind of many people resistant to evidence is a series of eager testimonials from other tribe members who have changed their minds. When people who are respected in a social or professional circle clearly and loudly proclaim that they’ve changed their minds, a ripple effect starts. First, peer pressure tries to repress these flip-flopping outliers. But if they persist in their new mindset, over time others may come along. Soon, the majority flips. It’s not easy or fast, but it happens.”

Where does that leave us?  It means that we should appreciate conservatives that do have sensible views of climate science; it means that birthers and climate science denialists will make a lot of noise, but ultimately will not be swayed by reason; it means that we should continue to use reason, but expect that it will get us nowhere with certain people.  It means that for the immediate future, America will continue to have a very complicated presence in climate negotiations.

Is climate policy like prohibition?

Walter Russel Mead, the Henry Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy for the Council on Foreign Relations, and a professor at Yale University, just wrote an unconventional and thought provoking analysis on the state of climate policy.

Mead, a Democrat who voted for President Obama in 2008, says, “the Big Green Lie is falling apart:”

“And it’s not about Climategate and Glaciergate.  It’s not about the science.  It’s not even about public confidence in the integrity of the green movement — although this confidence is unlikely to regain the levels of 2009.  Humpty Dumpty has fallen from the walls, and all the establishment commissions and investigations in Europe cannot glue him together again… Both the greens and their opponents need to understand that the reason that the Great Global Green Dream is melting lies in the sad truth that whatever the scientific facts of the matter, the global green movement is so blind and inept when it comes to policy and process that it has deeply damaged the causes it cares most about.”

Mead compares environmentalists to anti-alcohol activists before Prohibition:

“Who convinced Americans that the problem of alcohol abuse was real, destructive, and likely to get worse unless addressed.  These farsighted activists were absolutely correct: with the introduction of the motorcar alcohol was more destructive than ever; with more than 500,000 alcohol related highway deaths between 1982 and 2008, more Americans have been killed on our roads as a result of drunk driving since 1915 than have died in our wars. The problem is that the remedy proposed, Prohibition, not only failed to solve the problem — it made the problem of alcohol abuse worse, and it also reduced respect for the law and led to the rise of organized crime in the United States on an unprecedented scale.

The Prohibitionists were brilliantly, scientifically correct about the problem: they were foolishly and destructively blind about how to deal with it.”

Mead also compares environmentalists to Peace Activists who predicted World War II and tried to outlaw war to prevent it.  He also brings up comparisons to the Nuclear Freeze movement in the 1980s.  Mead views the sum of Green policy prescriptions as Malthusian panic attacks, with anti-growth policies and corporate resentment sprinkled on top.  He acknowledges that Global Warming is a problem, but what does he think we should do about it?

Mead proposes that we simply “nudge” the economy towards energy efficiency, and lower

Walter Russel Mead compares Green policies to Prohibition.

taxes.  Mead proposes local solutions that will not be organized under one grand agreement, but rather be aimed to work on local problems; he brings up the example of the Indian government pushing to end fuel subsidies.  But will “relatively small steps, or larger steps often undertaken for reasons that have little directly to do with the climate” work?

Mead blithely describes criticism of neo-classical unending growth as “Malthusian fantasies” He ignores the real and growing evidence that the Earth has a limited carrying capacity, and we are creeping towards Earth’s limits.  By comparing environmentalists to an alarm clock “making shrill and irrational noise,” one wonders if he truly understands what it will take to create a sustainable world.  He prescribes, above all, serious attention and careful thought to the question of how to create that sustainable world.  He pines for a humanity that leads “richer, fuller lives in a cleaner, sustainable world.”  The mystery for me is how we will be able to continue this unending growth without reaching the Earth’s limits.  Ecological economists like Herman Daly and Robert Costanza are creating a new economics that boldly goes beyond the Copenhagen policies.  Certainly, environmentalists would be well served to carefully consider what steps need to be taken.  I agree that we will not solve our problems with one global treaty.  However, we cannot simply rely on the whims of laissez-faire economics to deliver us to the sustainable future that Mead hopes for.