Climate-Change Paranoia Hurts the Environment?

February 2nd, 2011

From Freakanomics:

A new study called “Apocalypse Soon?” by the psychologists Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer (summarized by the BPS Research Digest) finds that, for people who implicitly believe the world is fair, dire warnings about climate change may make them more skeptical about the concept.  The researchers had 97 students read two different articles about climate change, one that described “apocalyptic consequences,” and one that “was more upbeat and described potential technological solutions.” Feinberg and Willer found that “[t]hose participants with stronger just-world beliefs were actually made more sceptical about global warming by the more shocking newspaper article. By contrast, the more upbeat article reduced participants’ scepticism regardless of the strength of their just-world beliefs.”  The BPS Research Digest points out that “[t]his is the latest in a string of studies that suggest fear-based messages can backfire if they clash with people’s underlying beliefs.”

Jonathan Adler has made similar points with respect to the failure of Progressives to panic America into accepting massive regulatory agendas:

Hendricks’ effort to scare conservatives into supporting big government now to avoid bigger government later rings particularly hollow.  Why is it that everything requires bigger government?  Climate change is a threat?  Extend government tentacles throughout the economy.  Climate change is already happening?  Ditto.  Adaptation is necessary?  More of the same.  Were climate change not happening at all, I suspect Hendricks would still endorse a substantial expansion in government power.

I share Hendricks’ and Farber’s frustration that more conservatives don’t take climate change or other environmental concerns seriously.  But I also believe some of this is the environmentalist movement’s own doing.  If everything calls for the same big government solution, why does it matter what the problem is?  If progressives really believe climate change is an impending catastrophe — not just a problem worth addressing but a potential apocalypse — and seek to enlist conservatives to their cause, they should pursue consensus efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including efforts to stimulate technological innovation or proposals for revenue-neutral carbon taxes (see, e.g., herehere and here).  Yet Hendricks’colleagues at CAP excoriate any and all who deviate from the progressive climate orthodoxy or espouse anything short of dramatic government intervention throughout the economy.  Environmentalists will be more successful enlisting conservatives (and many moderates) to their cause once they become more focused on solutions, and less insistent on government control.

So maybe we should not fear ManBearPig as much as we do?