And so yes, I think we are now seeing events that are once-in-a-thousand-year events, like the Russian heat wave. I mean, Binghamton, New York had a one-in-one-hundred-year rain event in two consecutive years! And so that’s led people like Jeff Masters to say, this is not the atmosphere I grew up with.
CM: If all of this is true, then where is the blockage between all the polling data on the one hand, and the behavior of political candidates on the other?
JR: There’s no question that the Obama team has gotten a misimpression that this is not a winning issue. And that I think is based on some rather questionable analysis done years ago, that basically said, “if you only present the doom and gloom case, you turn some people off.” But nobody really does that—nobody I know does that.
CM: Do we see any candidates who get the message and are campaigning on climate?
JR: I just published an article which showed that at least some Senate candidates, including Angus King, Elizabeth Warren, and Bob Kerrey, have raised this as an issue. And after the 2010 election, I noted there were only two Senate campaigns in which it became an issue. And in both of those, the anti-science candidate got blowback—Carly Fiorina in California and Ken Buck in Colorado. And they lost.
The polling data seems clear: This is a classic wedge issue that separates conservatives not just from progressives, but also from moderates and independents. So you know, we can spend a lot of time being puzzled about why this administration does bizarre messaging. If you talk to communications experts, many will say this administration is not great at it. You can get upset about President Obama not bringing up climate change, but this is not an administration that’s good at communicating—and this is just one of the many areas that they mistakenly downplay.
CM: As someone who does study communication closely, how would you recommend politicians talk about this issue?
JR: It depends on the audience, certainly. As someone who studies communication, I know that the most important thing is knowing who your audience is. And people who read my blog are not the general public.
But I’ve always believed that you should stick as closely to the science as possible. And my biggest advice to reporters has been, if you’re doing a climate story, talk to climate scientists. The best climate stories are done by the people who talk to climate scientists. But I think this notion that you shouldn’t talk about the science, or how dire things might be if we don’t act, that’s silly.
And on moral grounds, I think that if you believe a certain outcome is a very possible outcome, you have an obligation to tell people that. With global warming, the probability of a bad outcome if we stay on our current emission trends is incredibly high. If you know a bad outcome is likely to happen, what right do you have not to communicate that? You go into a doctor’s office, what are they going to do—not tell you the diagnosis?