Better understanding of science really is not key to climate action
Yale 360 has published an interview with New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert on climate change in which she takes a rather bleak view of the public’s understanding of the seriousness of climate change, as well as the role the news media have played in delaying the action necessary to prevent a climatic catastrophe:
This is a total system failure, okay? We’re not talking about an isolated little problem, and that’s the problem. It’s a total system failure that we’re in this situation and it’s a total system failure that we can’t seem to steer away even when the evidence is absolutely overwhelming that we better do something.
It gets back to this issue of whether the public believes in science, which, to be honest, we do not. You can still find a lot of people who don’t believe in evolution, okay? So we’re talking about a country that has a very lax relationship to science. And what you need in order to grapple meaningfully with global warming is to believe that this is not a speculative thing. This is the way geophysics work, and we have established that very clearly both in a laboratory setting and on the ground — and we need to take very seriously these predictions.
I hear this refrain all the time, from my scientist colleagues here at the University of Colorado, and even many of my science and environmental journalism colleagues: If only the public would understand science better, we’d finally be able to make progress on climate change. I used to believe this, but no longer.
Matthew Nisbet and Teresa Myers have documented how rising media attention to global warming has been correlated with increasing public awareness of the issue. But they also show that despite the increasing attention and general awareness, public understanding of the complexities is low. Nisbet and Myers also document this: “Although a strong majority of Americans believe that global warming is real, that temperatures are rising, and that the release of carbon dioxide is a cause, the public remains relatively uncertain about whether the majority of scientists agree on the matter.”
Clearly, the political campaign to muddy the scientific waters has played a role, and perhaps some degree of “false balance” in news reporting has as well. But note that a strong majority of Americans believe global warming is real, and we are to blame. So if most people really did not believe in science, writ large, as Kolbert argues, then why would most Americans believe in global warming at all? The real problem, I believe, is that climate change just does not rate very highly on their priority list, especially right now, as we spiral ever more quickly into a global depression.
I think Americans believe more or less strongly in what scientists say depending on the specific issue, what else is occurring in society at the time, and the way that a particular scientific issue impacts them. When an anti-evolutionist is told that he has cancer, and the latest peer-reviewed research suggests that a bone-marrow transplant is his only hope, chances are he’s going to believe in science — despite the fact that his potential cure will come from a scientific paradigm with evolution at its core. But when that person is told that quelling global warming will require significant sacrifice, including substantial costs to his family, chances are high that he’s going to be skeptical of the science, or at least the urgency of action, especially at a time when he’s wondering whether he’s going to be thrown out his home.
What’s the way forward? Further wringing of hands about the public’s lack of faith in science isn’t it. And neither is jumping up and down and shouting that the world is burning down.
I believe Michael Shellenberger may have been on to at least part of the solution back in August, when he wrote this at the Breakthrough Institute’s blog:
Strange as it sounds, reasonable liberals and conservatives can disagree about the seriousness of the problem and still agree on solutions. But first they need to embrace two principles. The first is the Principle of Climate Uncertainty. Whatever action we take must be robust to ecological and economic uncertainty. Said differently, the policies we implement should be justifiable whether climate change results in floods, droughts and food shortages, or merely the need to turn up the air conditioner.
The second is the Principle of Climate Politics. People — whether Americans, Europeans, Chinese, or Brazilians want to do something about global warming; they just don’t want to pay much more for energy to do it. Thus, the world will only reduce emissions to the extent that clean alternatives to fossil fuels are cheap and available, or that there are cheap ways to capture and store emissions, or both.
If we can agree on these two principles, what then? First, we should make clean energy, and the capture and storage of emissions, cheap. Second, we should adapt to a warmer world.
Uh oh, there goes that word reviled by so many climate change activists: “adapt.” My colleague Keith Kloor will have more to say about that in a cross-post from his blog, coming soon.