Manufactured Uncertainty and 400 ppm – Getting Under the Hood of the Propaganda Machine with Dr. Riley Dunlap

Manufactured Uncertainty and 400 ppm – Getting Under the Hood of the Propaganda Machine with Dr. Riley Dunlap

One of our goals at Climate Access is to provide a bridge from research to action so that leaders engaging the public in addressing climate disruption can develop evidence-based approaches that take advantage of new developments in the social sciences and campaigning techniques. We are fortunate to have leading authorities engaged with the network, including Dr. Riley Dunlap, Regents Professor of Sociology at Oklahoma State University, and editor of a special edition of the American Behavioral Scientist on climate change skepticism and denial.

I interviewed Dunlap earlier this month about the highlights from the ABS symposium and to get his perspective on how reaching the tipping point of 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is shaping the climate conversation.

We spoke in the wake of the tornadoes that hit Oklahoma. Dunlap remarked that the link between the intensity of the tornadoes and climate change is not being made locally, even while it is discussed nationally. This is not surprising given the challenge people have in picking up “accurate stimuli” in their environment to understand temperature changes. Research shows that most of the public is affected by immediacy – if recent winters were cold, they are less likely to believe in climate change – and have difficulty perceiving long-term trends.

Most Americans largely rely on the media for information, which often counteracts climate science. The strategy of “manufactured uncertainty” has been lifted from the Big Tobacco playbook and is being used to create confusion by convincing the public the science isn’t credible or strong. This unfortunately weakens support for policy adoption.

As a result, it is not surprising that reaching the 400 ppm tipping point is being leveraged as part of a manufactured uncertainty strategy as the Cato Institute and others use the news cycle to claim that CO2 is “natural,” good for plant life, and a sign of our progress. Dunlap calls these “zombie arguments,” as they date back to the 1980s and because they have been effective, are used again and again.

So what options are there for forwarding climate conversations considering we have been stuck in the manufactured uncertainty loop for decades? Are we putting too many resources into responding to these claims?

Rather than arguing about the science, Dunlap advises discrediting such sources as outlier voices that serve to profit from attacking the science. While this strategy is valid, I pushed him on this point further, and suggested we might focus on local impacts that are shifting perceptions, such as changes in the growing seasons or extreme storm events, and tie those impacts to solutions. He agreed and offered that there is potential to take a segmented approach with local stakeholders so climate conversations are tailored to their concerns and appropriate incentives for action created. For example, ranchers and farmers in Oklahoma are starting to get involved with carbon sequestration programs because the issue is framed in a way that resonates with their perspective, and financial incentives are included that allow them to overcome barriers to taking new approaches.

The first step in breaking the manufactured uncertainty cycle is understanding the arguments, values, and mechanisms perpetuating it. Check out the recording and hear from Dunlap about the resources available in the ABS special report on climate change skepticism and denial and take advantage of the tips and tools available on Climate Access.