Host Daniel Raimi talks with Professor Shahzeen Attari of the Indiana University's O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Daniel and Shahzeen discuss her work on how the personal behavior of climate change communicators can affect the reception of their message. If a climate scientist uses a lot of energy at home or is a frequent flyer, do they lose credibility? It's a really challenging question—one that Shahzeen's work illuminates. The results, and this conversation, can help all of us think critically about our own energy use.
Top of the Stack
References and recommendations made throughout the podcast:
- "Climate Change Communicators’ Carbon Footprints Affect Their Audience’s Policy Support" by by Shahzeen Z. Attari, David H. Krantz, and Elke U. Weber
- "Statements about Climate Researchers’ Carbon Footprints Affect Their Credibility and the Impact of Their Advice" by Shahzeen Z. Attari, David H. Krantz, and Elke U. Weber
- The Overstory by Richard Powers
- New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson
- First Reformed (2018)
- Years and Years (2019)
- Author Ursula K. Le Guin
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. This week, we talk with Professor Shahzeen Attari of the Indiana University's O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. I'll talk with Shahzeen about her work on how the personal behavior of climate change communicators can affect the reception of their message. If a climate scientist uses a lot of energy at home or is a frequent flyer, do they lose credibility? It's a really challenging question, one that Shahzeen's work illuminates. The results, and this conversation, can help all of us think critically about our own energy use. Stay with us. Shahzeen Attari from Indiana University. Thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio.
Shahzeen Attari: My pleasure. I'm really excited to be here.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, so Shahzeen or Shaz, if I can call you Shaz, I know that you often go by that name. Thanks again for joining us. We're going to talk today about your work on how the public perceives climate change communicators in certain contexts. So we're going to talk about that in a second. But first, can you tell us about sort of your background in terms of how you got into the world of working on climate change or other environmental issues?
Shahzeen Attari: Sure. So I actually grew up in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and I got to see how an entire city sort of develops overnight. So overnight it went from being a desert to sort of like Las Vegas of the Middle East if you were to sort of describe it using a metaphor or some type of analogy. And so when I came to the United States, I studied physics at Urbana Champaign and I loved physics and I had these amazing mentors who were super interdisciplinary. And one spring break I actually volunteered for Nature Conservancy and I was hooked on environmental problems. I sort of got to see firsthand the type of impact humans were making, I connected that back to my experiences growing up in Dubai, and I decided that that's really what I wanted to study. And so after I finished my undergrad, I applied to four PhD programs, not knowing much about the environmental policy world. I got into one and I was really lucky and I stuck with it.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's fantastic. And where did you go to grad school? I can't remember.
Shahzeen Attari: So I went to grad school at Carnegie Mellon and I received a PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering and Engineering and Public Policy. And then after that I went to New York City and I was an Earth Institute fellow at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions where I got a lot of training in Psychology and Statistics. So I started off in physics, then engineering, and then psychology.
Daniel Raimi: That's so great, so well rounded.
Shahzeen Attari: So different.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's great. Well it's awesome to bring all those perspectives to bear on such a complex and interdisciplinary problem like climate change. So, let's get into it. We're going to talk about these sort of two papers that you've published. The most recent of which, so people can look it up, is a 2019 paper you published with David Krantz and Elke Weber, the title of which is “Climate change communicators' carbon footprints affect their audience's policy support”. It's in the journal Climatic Change. So people can find it, we'll have a link to it in the show.
So the focus of the paper is really on how the behavior of climate advocates can affect people's perceptions or receptivity to their message that they're trying to communicate. And when this topic came up, the first thing that I thought about was sort of some of the criticisms that get leveled against really high profile environmental advocates like Al Gore, or Leonardo DiCaprio, or people like that who advocate for action on climate change, but who personally might have pretty high carbon footprints. Maybe they fly a lot or whatever. So what got you interested in kind of looking really closely at this topic?
Shahzeen Attari: Sure. So around 2009, I was a postdoc at Columbia University and I was invited to give a talk on my research on how people perceive how much energy different appliances use. And so I gave this talk to sort of a business-like audience, and I ended my talk saying, "Here are some very effective actions that people can take to decrease their personal energy use." At the end of my talk, someone in the audience raised their hand and asked me, "Hey, why should I listen to anything you say, because you flew to this meeting? And since you fly, I mean, that just really does not give you any credibility." And so what was really interesting to me at that point is that here I was presenting a scientific research paper, backed up by my science, and I was being attacked for my own individual personal carbon footprint.
And so after sort of thinking about that, I went back to Dave and Elke who were both my postdoc mentors, and I, sort of together with them, I was thinking, " Alright, you know, when and why do people, do communicators, lose credibility? Would people trust an overweight doctor to give dieting advice? Was this a legitimate attack? When and why would I lose credibility because of my personal behavior? And when and why do these attacks take place and how do we sort of recover from them?" So that's what started off this entire research project because, I mean, it's been a sort of a personal journey for me trying to sort of untangle from myself when and why do these attacks make sense versus not.
But to sort of comment to Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio, I think both of them are climate advocates, but they have multiple goals. So they are public figures, they have a carbon footprint, probably commiserate with the nature of their jobs and their positions, but they're also trying to draw a lot of attention to the problem of climate change. And so my belief is we need a variety of messengers who are able to sort of reach a broad swath of the public, and I think everyone from kids, academics, artists, movie makers, writers, politicians, you name it.
But I also think that there's a problematic discourse that has been growing within the climate change community. And there are some people, some advocates, who basically say, "Individual behavior does not matter at all. All we need is policy support." And I actually disagree with that pretty strongly because I think individual behavior in aggregate can make a huge difference. And I don't think anyone that studies individual behavior will say, "Hey, individual behavior is the way to go." We need policy support, but I think that there's a positive relationship between individual behavior and acting out your sort of beliefs as well as how you support policy and our work shows that.
Daniel Raimi: So I want to ask you more about that as we continue our conversation. Let me ask you first though, just about sort of the specifics of the study, and then go to some of the kind of broader implications about some of these bigger questions about the role of policy versus the role of individual behavior, or to what extent are those things complementary. But just stepping back and looking at the research side of it, can you tell us a little bit, again, not to go into too much detail, but just a little bit about how you sort of try to measure these effects in the papers that you have?
Shahzeen Attari: Sure. So we have two papers right now that have been published and we used online surveys with experimental conditions embedded into those surveys. So we look across participants. So no participant sees multiple experimental conditions. So we look across participants, how do they respond to our experimental vignettes? So we have roughly 36 different experimental vignettes, and over the two papers we have over 10,000 participants that we've studied. And the way we actually go about studying this problem is we varied, through these experimental vignettes, we varied the behavior of the climate communicator by having them be high flyers or low flyers, having a high home energy use or a low home energy use, or buying carbon offsets or not. And so we had these experimental vignettes and then we measured how people respond to these experimental vignettes by asking them, "Given what you've heard from this climate communicator, would you sort of change your own behavior? Would you support this particular de-carbonization policy?"
And then after that we measured how credible they found that climate communicator. And to measure the credibility of the climate communicator, we actually created six separate survey questions that we combined into one, and some example statements included, "I believe that the researcher's advocacy is sincere. I believe that the researcher's behavior's consistent with their advice? Or, I do not trust the researcher's authority with respect to climate science." So we combined their scores on these six separate statements to get one credibility score that was associated with the vignette that the participants read.
Daniel Raimi: So what are some of the kind of headline findings from this research? And I'll just encourage people to look at the full paper to get all of the nuance and richness because there's a whole lot of interesting stuff in both of these papers, but can you just give us some of the top line findings?
Shahzeen Attari: Sure. So in the climate change debate, the personal behavior of the advocate can have an enormous effect on the audience's intention to conserve energy and a substantial effect on the audience's support for climate related public policies. And in specific, some of the surprise findings were that buying carbon offsets does not wipe the slate clean for advocates. So initially when we had gone into the study, we thought buying carbon offsets allows people to sort of have this moral license to go and do whatever they want. But actually it doesn't. It doesn't sort of wipe the slate clean. But we also have some good news. The sex of the climate communicator does not matter. So female and male communicators actually benefit from and suffer equally from their behaviors affecting their advocacy. So that's great news.
And then in further good news, lost credibility can actually be regained and intentions to conserve energy can be restored when the researcher changes his or her behavior. So the researcher is actually judged based on their current behavior as opposed to their past behavior. So what does that mean? So I could have been a past climate sinner, but now if I change my behavior and I talk about that change, I'm actually judged on my new behavior as opposed to my past. And I thought that was really fascinating.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Sorry to interrupt. I was saying I sold my Hummer and I bought an electric vehicle and I run it off the solar panels on my house and so people don't judge me for my Hummer, they judge me for what I'm doing today.
Shahzeen Attari: Exactly. And we were surprised by that as well.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Fascinating. One of the other things that I was really interested in, in the paper is you sort of draw up this distinction between audience members, or people receiving the information, the perceptions of people receiving the information might vary depending on whether or not they actually think that climate change is a problem in the first place. So what do you find when you look at audience members who sort of care about climate change already versus those who may not think it's such a big problem?
Shahzeen Attari: So we find that information about the researcher's personal energy behaviors actually affect both people who are very concerned about climate change as well as those who are not at all concerned despite the large overall differences on perceived researcher credibility for these attitudinal extremes. So what does that mean? We were actually really surprised by this because these vignettes affect both, people who care about the problem as well as people who do not. So thus what we find is that for a wide range of audiences, the advocates of emission reductions matter, I mean, they actually matter when it comes to personal behavior change and they might lose credibility for both audience members based on their own actions and how that relates to their advice.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's so interesting. So if people come into the talk, this hypothetical talk, they come in and they're skeptical about climate science, the individual behavior of the person presenting the research actually could affect their likelihood of maybe engaging in actions to mitigate climate change in the future. Sort of speaks to, I don't know, I can just sort of imagine a curmudgeonly person walking into a climate talk very skeptical, and then they learn the researcher has flown a great distance to be there and then sort of writing them off immediately.
Shahzeen Attari: That's right. And actually you bring up a really interesting point. So I've been asked by people saying, "Oh, you know, when you go to a climate talk, people don't really usually talk about their own carbon footprints. I mean, you know, that's sort of something that's not really discussed." But I think more and more people are starting to engage their audience members with what they themselves are doing to address the problem and what their audience members can do. So I think that this is sort of a pivotal change that's happening, given how challenging the problem is and how quickly we need to act.
Daniel Raimi: So one more question about the paper itself and then I want to talk more about implications. The studies that you've done distinguished these different ways in which the researcher uses energy, flying, home energy use. You talked about offsets a little bit a moment ago. I was really interested to see that the credibility of the researcher takes a bigger hit from high home energy use than it does from being a frequent flyer. Why do you think that dynamic might exist and can you say a little bit more about what you think might be going on there?
Shahzeen Attari: Oh, that's such an interesting question. So there's actually growing evidence that for academics like myself working on this problem, our flying carbon footprint sort of dominates our overall carbon footprint. So it's not our home energy use. It's actually how much we fly. We are among the frequent flyers of academia. So what's really interesting about our findings is that my sense is that people who were our participants or members of the audience might either not realize how much of a frequent flyer we are, and so they are judging us based on home energy use, which actually dominates the carbon footprint for most of audience members. Or alternatively, and this is another hypothesis, they might forgive the carbon use related to flying and attribute it to required for work as opposed to sort of realizing that that's really where most of our carbon emissions lay. And so there are these two competing hypotheses, which I'm not quite sure which one sort of will pan out, but that's a really interesting question that we have not as yet explored.
Daniel Raimi: Right. Are you planning on looking into that question in some future work?
Shahzeen Attari: So not at the moment. And so if anyone listening would like to take all of our materials, all of our materials are available on my website, so you can take anything you'd like and run some studies on this work. We have not looked at that, but we have done a new followup work that looks at do-gooder derogation versus ad hominem. And what do I mean by that? Well, so we're trying to look at whether being too good affects your audience members negatively. Like if you're such a climate saint where the audience member can't even imagine being as good as you are portraying yourself to be, that might have a negative impact on policy uptake. So that's a new paper that we're working on at the moment.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's so interesting. I'll be fascinated to see where that comes out and I hope you've got some, you know, maybe students thinking about what to do their PhD on. Just got a free idea from Shahzeen.
Shahzeen Attari: That's right. Ideas are so free, you can take all of them.
Daniel Raimi: Okay. So, let's talk now a little bit more about the implications of these findings, and you've already touched on a couple of them. We've been talking about flying just for the last couple of minutes, and as you said, a lot of climate researchers and environmental advocates fly a lot. Many of them believe it's necessary to do so for their work, to be at important meetings, to spread their message. Some of those advocates, and you alluded to this earlier, they might take the view that the single most important thing they can do to mitigate climate change is to affect public policy or to have some kind of some broader impact. So, the idea would be that their personal carbon footprint would be swamped by the benefits of that sort of broader climate change mitigation that they can contribute to. So how do you think about that view and you know, I know you've thought about it a lot,, so when people kind of respond in that way to you, what's your reaction?
Shahzeen Attari: So that's a really challenging question to be honest. And I think our research is actually difficult for people to accept as it might incite guilt or shame or in some cases anger. And in my own opinion, I think that there are actually a lot of researchers and advocates that do fly a lot, sometimes unnecessarily. I do that sometimes as well. So I'm victim to my own sort of problem. And there are many instances where I've flown and the benefits to me far outweigh the cost to me, but then I need to really sit back and think about the costs more globally as opposed to just to myself. And this is something that my co-author, Dave Krantz and I have talked a lot about and his viewpoint, he actually thinks that this thinking, this question, is actually suspect because it's very self-serving because anything that's sort of self-serving needs to be examined a little bit more closely and I kind of agree with him.
So I just had a meeting with a friend of mine who's an extreme frequent flyer, he's sort of traveled the globe, came back, and I think there are times we fly where we don't really need to. That said, we have multiple goals and we have to, at the end of the day, really deeply question which of our goals we're trying to meet and why. So giving up flying is really hard. It's a hard sector to decarbonize even though there are researchers working on alternative fuels for aircraft, that still hasn't come to play. And flying overall in terms of carbon emissions, is in the single digits for global CO2 emissions. But in terms of our individual carbon footprints, it dominates. So personally I think telecommuting and teleconferencing technologies are not as great as they need to be to create those sort of deep connections for sharing ideas.
And one of my mentors has actually told me that the joys of going to conferences and meetings are less about the meetings and the talks, but it's more about what happens over the coffees, and beers, and wines, and dinners and the one on one group connections that happen. So it's sort of a very tough balancing act where I'm struggling with the solution to this as well, but I know that they have been a growing number of academics that are working on climate change problem that have given up flying altogether, including folks like Kevin Anderson for example. And so I think it's challenging and I wish there was a better solution. But I think there is a lot of room for us to fly less, and I sort of challenge our community to think about that when we accept or reject requests for travel.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that makes sense. And I think, you know, like you said, one could imagine a pretty easy self-serving answer to this question where you just sort of write it off and say, "Oh, you know, I'm working for the larger good and it's okay so I shouldn't worry about it." But this work definitely has made me think harder about my flying and hope it will also encourage others to think about the way that their energy use affects the way that their messages are received. What would you say in kind of broad terms to researchers who are trying to use these results? Like what practically can we do? You know, we can think harder about making decisions, that's really important. Are there other strategies that you would suggest for using these results?
Daniel Raimi: I mean, one thing that popped into my head as we were just talking was, you know, maybe if you're giving a presentation you could disclose the energy you consumed by flying to whatever the location is or driving or whatever mode of transport you use. Are there other practical steps that you would suggest or that maybe you've taken yourself to kind of wrestle with the implications of this work?
Shahzeen Attari: Sure, great question. So I think in general, especially when I give talks, people want to know what they can do and to be honest, I think there's a lot of pain and grief regarding the future and how to deal with the future, how to deal with climate change, how to deal with sort of inequalities, especially environmental justice issues that have already begun to arise. And so I think one way to deal with this is exactly what you just mentioned, is that we can start talking to our audiences about what we are doing and what they can do to deal with the problem, including political activism, including things like talking to people more about climate change as an issue, including sort of changing their own behavior and trying to support policies and people who are trying very hard to get action on the ground on this issue.
We can also start by practicing what we preach by having a low carbon footprint at home, which is very important as our data shows, because that is primarily what we're being judged on by our audience members, and we can start making other changes as well. So I'm not telling people to, "Hey, stay at home all the time and not fly at all," because I, again, I'm sort of with everyone, all of our audience members who are listening in. I'm with you guys because I'm struggling with these same questions as well.
Like my family lives in Bombay, India and I live in Bloomington, Indiana. Indiana is very far away from India. And I haven't visited my family in many years and it's a challenge for me to try to balance out the benefits and costs for these types of engagements. But I think it's important to talk to our audience members about our pain, about our grief, about our challenging decisions that we're making, and also about how we are dealing with the problem individually because I think that there's a growing rate of sort of an existential crisis about our role in the universe, our role in the environment, and what we can do about it.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Yeah, there's definitely been quite a bit of discussion and a lot of news stories, or maybe opinion pieces, sort of talking about researchers having some guilt or grief for feeling bad about the future. I will just say that when we asked Bob Kopp, who's a really highly regarded expert who works on sea level rise, his answer to this question was not about being dystopian, it was about sort of adapting and being hopeful and being resourceful and I don't know, I'll just put those 2 cents in there, encouraging people to remember that humans are smart, or at least sometimes we're smart, and hopefully we have positive ways to deal with these challenges that we know we have coming at us.
Shahzeen Attari: Sure. You know, we are smart and the alternative viewpoint is sort of, we're smart but we're also sort of a small blip in sort of the history of earth, you know, and I'm not sure whether we can, I mean, I hope we get our shit together, so to speak. Excuse my language there. But I really do hope that, and I've been working on this issue for over, I think, around 19 or 20 years now. But you know, there's a lot of work that remains and so we have little time to act. So I hope the folks listening in sort of take it upon themselves as well as to try to figure out how to act in whatever way they can.
Daniel Raimi: Right. Okay. Yeah, that's good to know. And ending our conversation on a little bit of a metaphysical note, which you know, that happens sometimes with these topics. So that's all good. So, let's close it out now Shaz with ... I'm going to ask you the same question that I ask all of our guests, which is what's at the top of your reading stack, your literal or metaphorical reading stack. So what have you read or watched or heard recently that you'd recommend to our listeners?
And I'll start off with a book that I've actually heard a lot of people talking about in the energy community. It's a book called The Overstory. It's a work of fiction by Richard Powers. It's a book that's sort of about the relationship between a variety of people and trees, different trees in different parts of the United States. And it's a really wonderful book. I'm about three quarters of the way through it. So if you've read it, don't tell me how it ends, but it's just beautifully written and you hear about these complex people and the complex relationships they have with trees and you actually learn a little bit about trees as you go. Certainly a lot of stuff that I didn't know. It's a long book, but it's well worth the read. So if you've got some time this summer, I definitely encourage you to pick up The Overstory. How about you Shaz? What's on the top of your stack?
Shahzeen Attari: I love that you mentioned that. So what's really interesting is I've just started working on a new project funded by the Andrew Carnegie Foundation on how stories change us and how to use stories to motivate action on climate change. And I love stories and actually The Overstory is one of my favorite books so far for the past two years. It's written by Richard Powers and it's this immensely powerful book that talks about systems of connections between trees and people in communities across the world. And as I said, it's like by far one of the most transformational books I've read. And he connects using a piece of toilet paper to the great redwood tree. And you know, it just makes you sort of step back and think about how systems are connected. And what's amazing about that book, and I don't know if you've gotten to this part as yet, but he says in the book, in fact, one of his character says this, that, "The best arguments in the world won't change a person's mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story."
So I'm totally sort of singing your praise. It's an amazing book. I finished it last year. It's phenomenal.
Daniel Raimi: Great. So two votes for The Overstory.
Shahzeen Attari: Yeah, two votes. Highly recommend, two thumbs up. But in terms of like other things that I've been absorbing through this project, and overall, I'll name like sort of a couple of them for you. One is Kim Stanley Robinson, who's a SciFi writer and super brilliant, and he's written this book called New York 2140 which compresses time and makes the reader experience viscerally what New York City will look like after a lot of climate change. And I was just in New York for a meeting and I actually experienced Times Square without electricity for six to seven hours and it was completely mesmerizing to sort of see how both the best of people and the worst of people come out in those types of extreme situations. So that's sort of the first book I'd recommend.
In terms of a movie, I loved Ethan Hawke in First Reformed and it's this beautiful dark movie that talks about crisis of faith in the world and it has a lot of climate change that's stitched in. And the director, Paul Schrader, sort of phenomenally asked questions about capitalism and religion and our role in destroying nature, which is really phenomenal. And then finally, Years and Years, which is a new show on HBO I think, deals with what the future might look like. And it really does a great job of fusing facts and feelings powerfully, but also in a way that's excruciatingly painful. So you get to sort of experience what these futures are like. And my project right now that I'm working on really inspired by a lot of these writers and artists including Ursula Le Guin basically looks at how'd you compress time and space to make people care more about this problem that we're facing today.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Wow. Great. So I hope people have some good vacation time on their hands to absorb all of the recommendations we've just given them, they sound fantastic. And you know, other people have actually recommended New York 2140 on the show before. So, we've got a couple sort of repeat visits here on the top of the stack, but those new suggestions are great and we'll have links to all of them in the show notes for the podcast.
So Shahzeen Attari, Shaz, thank you so much for joining us on Resources Radio, telling us about this work and helping us think about the implications of all of our energy use.
Shahzeen Attari: My pleasure. This was a lot of fun. Thank you, Daniel.
Daniel Raimi: Thank you so much for joining us on Resources Radio. We'd love to hear what you think, so please rate us on iTunes or leave us a review. It helps us spread the word. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes. Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. Learn more about us at rff.org.
The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the participants. They do not necessarily represent the views of Resources for the Future, which does not take institutional positions on public policies. Resources Radio is produced by Kate Petersen with music by Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.