One reason the earth is teeming with life is the existence of a natural greenhouse effect. The earth is heated by the sun. After the sun’s rays strike the earth, many of them bounce back into space, and the planet would be much colder if there were not gases in the atmosphere to trap part of the heat from these reflected rays. Since the start of the industrial revolution, changing economic activities have been increasing the concentrations of heat-absorbing greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. Computer-generated climate models suggest that the buildup of these additional GHGs, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning fossil fuels, will warm the earth’s surface. The hypothesis that there will be rising global temperatures from increased human emissions of GHGs and that temperature increases will in turn melt global ice caps, raise sea levels, and increase extreme weather events like hurricanes and floods is what has come to be termed global warming.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—a worldwide network of scientists set up in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the UN Environment Program to report on all aspects of global warming—global average surface temperatures have increased about 1.0° F since the late 19th century. The 10 warmest years of the 20th century all occurred in the last 15 years of that century, with 1998 being the warmest year on record. Globally, sea levels have risen 4 to 8 inches over the past century. These observations appear to be consistent with what climate models predict: increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will act like a heat-trapping blanket and raise global temperatures, the heat will cause the oceans to warm and expand, hurricanes will increase in intensity, and so on.
As a result of this apparent congruence between theoretical expectations and observations, many scientists, policymakers, and environmentalists believe that action to reduce future emissions of temperature-raising GHGs is imperative. Since 1997, more than 150 nations have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which aims to reduce emissions of CO2. The Kyoto Protocol is a first step toward mitigating global warming, but given that it falls far short of the large and costly reductions of GHGs recommended by the IPCC, some warming is seen as inevitable. This will necessitate adaptation strategies to prevent or reduce undesired consequences. Possible adaptations include defenses against rising sea levels and hurricanes, as well as assuring food security. Overall, then, the framing of global warming as a social problem can be deemed a partial success. Its main limitations include the absence of the United States from the Kyoto process, the probable withdrawal of Canada from it, the likelihood that many countries in the European Union will not meet their reduction targets, and the challenge of incorporating China and India into the Kyoto process.
Marketing Social Problems
Conditions like ozone depletion and global warming can exist without much awareness of them. In both cases, it took scientific theorizing and observations to transform the putative condition into a threat seemingly worthy of attention. Scientific warnings that GHG emissions could warm the planet began in the late 1950s and continued sporadically until 1988. For the most part, these warnings were ignored. To transform such warnings into a viable social problem—one that commands considerable political, policy, and public attention with concrete links to action—requires a host of conducive conditions and phenomena. These include a much larger cast of claims makers than just scientists, collaboration by the media, dramatic real-world events to piggyback on, bridging metaphors to the popular culture, and an institutional context and an issue culture that support the social problem. Under ideal circumstances, these factors generate a cultural whirlwind—a rapidly evolving and progressive sequence of dynamic and often surprising events that create a vortex, hurling through a variety of arenas, creating a strong conversational and practical presence around the social problem. Clearly, issue cultures, bridging metaphors, and cultural whirlwinds cannot be concocted at will. Global warming has some real liabilities as a marketable social problem.
Issue Cultures and Real-World Events
Issue cultures are sets of related social problems that become commanding concerns in society. Perhaps the clearest example is anything to do with security in the United States after the 9/11 terror attacks. Another issue culture has developed around the fear of emerging diseases, ranging from Ebola and mad-cow disease to the West Nile virus, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), and avian flu. Scientific findings or real-world events related to these problems are immediately selected for coverage by the media and attention from spokespersons in different public arenas. Social problems that can be linked to an extant issue culture are thus far more likely to attract sustained attention than problems that do not fit or resonate with any current issue culture. Clearly, proponents of a social problem would prefer to hook up with an existing issue culture and thereby garner attention. Such linkages, of course, are not automatic or assured.
Through the 1980s, an issue culture built up around the atmosphere, as a number of social problems from this domain rose in rapid succession. The popular theory that climatic change caused the extinction of the dinosaurs was followed by a furor over the threat of nuclear winter. But the cold war began to wind down after 1985, just in time for the discovery of the ozone hole. Here the timing was remarkable. With the successful negotiation of the Montreal Protocol in 1987, the ozone problem was largely resolved, just in time for climate change to emerge as a celebrity problem. Before the “greenhouse summer” of 1988, claims making about global warming received little attention. But that summer’s severe heat and drought in North America, accompanied by the burning of Yellowstone National Park, put the issue on the map. There were numerous calls for action, and surveys revealed that the public was aware of the threat.
In subsequent years, despite a host of extreme weather events, such as the 1993 Mississippi floods, climate change became a secondary issue in the United States. This is in direct contrast with the European Union, which assumed a leadership role and promoted the Kyoto Protocol. Real-world events were central in Europe, as England had the Great Storm of 1987 and Germany experienced floods and storms that each caused more than a billion U.S. dollars’ worth of damage. German scientists drew an extreme picture of an “impending climatic catastrophe”—a Klima-Katastrophe—and the term gained incredible momentum in political and media discourse. The emerging EU consensus, an effort in part to create a strong and unified international presence for the bloc, was forged in a very different institutional context than found in the United States. The U.S. political system is much more open to outside lobbying interests (such as oil companies), and a few powerful senators heading key environmental committees can block legislation. In addition, a relatively small number of “climate skeptics” who challenged the global warming consensus attracted considerable attention in the United States but were largely absent in the European Union. The electoral success of Green Parties in Europe also led the major political parties to try to preempt green issues. Finally, the precautionary principle has made considerable headway in Europe and serves to promote action under conditions of uncertainty. The United States, in contrast, has stressed the need for further study and opted for voluntary actions.
Bridging Metaphors and Scientific Uncertainty
While the factors outlined in the previous section congealed to create an early consensus and a degree of closure about global warming in the European Union, there was a backlash against the issue in the
United States following the greenhouse summer of 1988. Whereas public pressure made a significant difference in responding to the ozone hole, the U.S. public has a poor understanding of global warming and, indeed, often confuses it with the ozone hole. The latter had a clear advantage as it is linked to a very familiar “penetration” metaphor found in video games and Star Wars. Stated succinctly, the hole leads to the increased bombardment of the earth by lethal rays. It is apparent to anyone that a “hole” is an aberration, something that a protective shield should not have. The greenhouse effect, in contrast, seems like a benign and essential natural phenomenon. Global warming is an extension of this phenomenon, creating the problem of finding the human “fingerprint” amid highly variable and complex natural processes.
Overall then, there are apparently no ready-made metaphors in the popular culture—as with genetically modified “Frankenfoods”—that provide a simple schematic for understanding the science of climate change. Global warming remains a very complex scientific issue, and it is not surprising that research reveals that the public has little knowledge of either the factors that cause it or the possible means of combating it. This is most visible in the surging sales of sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) just as scientists warned of the need to reduce CO2 emissions.
While much of the discussion in North America and England is about global warming, scientists prefer the concept of “climate change,” since computer models predict that some parts of the globe could get cooler as others get warmer. Indeed, it is theorized that melting ice caps could slow the Atlantic conveyor belt—a massive stream of water in the ocean that moderates climate in North America and Europe—and create global cooling. This was the idea behind the Hollywood movie The Day After Tomorrow, though it greatly exaggerated the speed and magnitude of the transformation. Differential predictions about whether the planet might cool or boil in a runaway greenhouse effect—accompanied by huge variations in estimates of phenomena like sea level rise—serve to create confusion, undermine the authority of the science, and provide ammunition for critics challenging the ostensible consensus.
While it is clear that the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere is increasing and that the earth’s temperature has increased about 1.0° F in the past century, both the amount of warming that is likely to occur and the extent to which it can be attributed to human influences remain uncertain. The IPCC, over a number of reports, has asserted with more confidence that the human impact is discernible and significant. But climate models, which ultimately try to link the atmosphere, the oceans, and the earth’s surface, are at once extraordinarily complex and yet primitive. For example, there is great uncertainty about how clouds will affect future temperatures. There is also considerable controversy over how much of the temperature increase can be attributed to changing solar radiation.
In recent years these controversies have become increasingly apparent in public arenas. The IPCC has been challenged both internally and externally, in part for its attempts to create a consensus around issues where debate still prevails. It has also been criticized for too readily creating an icon out of the “hockey stick” graph, which appears to show a sudden and dramatic warming in the past 100 years. Claims making by climate skeptics has also escalated, though the approach of many of those who question the IPCC position can be problematic. Specifically, these critics find and hammer away at a specific fault or puzzle—such as the hockey stick model or research on temperatures in the Medieval period—and foster the impression that the reality of global warming rides or falls with this single concern. Once the issue is “resolved,” they shift to a new “fault” and repeat the process.
The Current Standing of Global Warming
Despite such controversies, global warming has been revitalized as a celebrity issue in the early 21st century. Again, it has piggybacked on real-world events, encompassing heat waves, forest fires, floods, and hurricanes, particularly Katrina. Whereas there is a raging scientific debate over whether hurricanes have become more frequent or more intense, in the public realm Hurricane Katrina is largely accepted as a sign of the dangers of a warming planet. Amid record-breaking costs from extreme weather impacts, insurance companies have been the first to jump on the global warming bandwagon. With a Time magazine cover of April 3, 2006, warning, “Be Worried—Be Very Worried,” and the relative success of Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, global warming is now widely seen as the most significant threat facing humankind.
This revived interest does nothing to resolve disputes about how to respond to the threat. Whereas most countries have signed the Kyoto Protocol, the United States has rejected it. In lieu of federal action, many cities and some states in the United States have formulated their own strategies to cut back on GHG emissions. Defenders of Kyoto argue that it is a first step, although the European experience suggests that it may be quite costly to meet emission reductions. In all of this, almost no attention is being devoted to adaptation strategies. Future Katrinas are likely to become expectable events.
An alternative to mandatory reduction targets comes from the promise of energy efficiency and alternative energy sources. The rapid development of new technologies—along the line of the Manhattan Project perhaps—combined with the rapid application of the best available technologies, appears to be the response of choice at this point. This encompasses everything from using the best available technology for coal-burning plants to the production of fuel-efficient vehicles down to the selection of lightbulbs. Thus Hollywood stars recently have made it trendy to own fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius. Solutions along these lines could help the United States reduce its dependence on foreign oil, which is proving to have a variety of political, military, and economic costs. The extraordinary economic growth found in China and, to a lesser extent, India threatens any possible benefits of Kyoto. Given the conspicuous effects of pollution in both of these countries, it is imperative that they adopt a clean energy path as soon as possible. At the global conference on climate change in Bali, Indonesia, in December 2007, the assembled nations agreed on reducing GHG emissions but set no specific targets to do so.
Proposed solutions to global warming must of course be sold, and claims makers may not have an easy time here. Although there were net savings in costs as a result of energy efficiencies introduced following the large increases in oil prices in the 1970s, this knowledge is largely absent from public discourse. Indeed, there has been an unfortunate tendency to link energy efficiency with a return to the simple life. As fossil fuels lose some of their allure, efforts are being made to revive nuclear energy as the only realistic solution, and this will engender further conflict. Clearly, providing clean, affordable, and secure energy supplies will be an abiding challenge with no simple answers.
- Flannery, Tim. 2005. The Weather Makers: The Past and Future Impact of Climate Change. Melbourne, Australia: CSIRO.
- Houghton, John. 2004. Global Warming: The Complete Briefing. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
- Moser, Susanne C. and Lisa Dilling, eds. 2007. Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
- Ungar, Sheldon. 1998. “Bringing the Issue Back In: Comparing the Marketability of the Ozone Hole and Global Warming.” Social Problems 45:510-27.
- Ungar, Sheldon. 2000. “Knowledge, Ignorance and the Popular Culture: Climate Change versus the Ozone Hole.” Public Understanding of Science 9:297-312.
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