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This item was posted on March 12, 2009, and it was categorized as Climate, Climate Change, Climate change policy, Environmental journalism, Global Warming, Global warming skeptics, Journalism, carbon sequestration.
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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.


Elizabeth Kolbert

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. 


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This thing has 6 Comments

  1. Steve Bloom
    Posted March 12, 2009 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    You side-stepped Kolbert’s concern somewhat: Of course a strong majority of Americn believe that global warming is happening, but the issue is the relative strength of that belief (and the mismatch with what the science says). Do you really think that giving up on the problem and resorting to a least-common-denominator solution makes sense? Among other things, I’d like to see the media try to clean up their act first. AGW denialism needs to lose its place in polite public discourse.

    “Third, we can reasonably expect to survive the coming disasters more or less unscathed.” Oh, that’ll work. Well, it works *now*. :(

  2. Posted March 12, 2009 at 8:55 pm | Permalink


    I’m not suggesting that we give up on the problem. If I felt that way, I’d stop teaching my science writing course, resign from the CEJ, and go hide in a cave somewhere (at about 9,000 feet, not far from a stream…). My point is that I’ve been hearing different variations on the same argument for 20 years: “If only we could help people understand science better they would make better decisions.” On climate change, I think this is a very simplistic argument. Even if people knew and believed everything you did, they would not necessarily feel the same urgency for action that you feel. I’m sure you know extremely well educated folks who know all about global warming, who care quite a lot about it, and yet they are still driving a hulking SUV. We’ve got legions of them all over Boulder.

    HOLD ON A MINUTE! THIS JUST IN: My son just tuned in to Hannity on Fox News. Some bald, loud-mouthed twerp who sounds like he’s from my old neighborhood is saying that “these tree huggers are all America haters.” (Seriously, I’m not kidding.)

    And you think we’re in this fix because of bad science communication?

  3. Posted March 13, 2009 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    “Among other things, I’d like to see the media try to clean up their act first. AGW denialism needs to lose its place in polite public discourse.”

    I couldn’t agree more.

    For responsible journalists that means investigating those responsible for the disinformation and exposing it for what it is. (And it means not taking blowhards like $5-carbon-tax Pielke at face value, by the way).

    For the general public, it means refusing to invest in companies that support or propagate the disinformation, or using their products. Or the products of their advertisers.

    In Canada (and in the U.S. too I believe), it is possible to donate to think tanks and other groups that spew disinformation about climate change, and receive a tax receipt. Why should public money be subsidizing this garbage?

    How did that “bald, loudmouthed twerp” get on Fox? Who paid for the PR effort to get him there?

    Tom you asked Steve, “And you think we’re in this fix because of bad science communication?” That’s not what Steve is saying. Rather, he’s saying that it’s time to call the phony science debate for what it is: odious propaganda in the service of corporate interests.

    I’m all for freedom of speech. But that’s not a licence to propagate disinformation, and then pretend it’s all just a difference of opinion.

  4. Posted March 14, 2009 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Deep Climate:

    I beg to differ — vociferously: Freedom of speech most definitely IS a license to propagate disinformation, or any other kind of information, as long as it not libelous, or the equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theater, etc. Tell me: Who is going to decide which groups are actually spewing disinformation? Would you have trusted the Bush administration to do this? Are you really suggesting that we trust the government to decide what speech is acceptable and what speech must be suppressed? Are you, in fact, really suggesting that we repeal the First Amendment?

    The antidote to disinformation is reliable information.

  5. Posted March 14, 2009 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    You have misunderstood my point. Nowhere have I suggested that the government regulate the media to stop disinformation and it is highly misleading of you to suggest that I have.

    I would suggest:
    a) There should be a lot more transparency concerning donations to think tanks and support of “astro turf” groups. All donations from corporations and corporate officers to these groups should be disclosed.

    b) There should be 100% transparency in all “directed” donations to specific university projects. (Yes, some universities have such policies, but many do not).

    c) Pseudo-science should not enjoy charitable tax-deductible status. A good example is the University of Calgary climate “research” project, where hundreds of thousands of dollars went to APCO Worldwide to produce and disseminate the Friends of Science propaganda film “Climate Catastrophe Cancelled”. See:

    Other groups enjoying charitable status in Canada include Fraser Institute and Frontier Centre for Public Policy. I’m sure there are many such groups enjoying similar status in the U.S. Such groups purport to provide climate science, but are clearly producing disinformation for political purposes.

    Of course, such groups have the right to put forth their views, no matter how cretinous or ill-founded, but why should the taxpayer subsidize this?

    Are you suggesting that the government should not regulate charitable organizations?

    d) Science journalists have a duty to call a spade a spade and condemn this disinformation. I can’t understand your reluctance to do so. Don’t media outlets have an ethical duty to correct misinformation?

    George Will in Newsweek, numerous columnists in the National Post, CNN’s Glen Beck and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly are among the journalists who have time and time again propagated misinformation on climate change. More often than not the respective media outlets refuse to correct the mistakes, even when they involve egregious factual errors.

    A joint panel of scientific and journalism ethics experts should be convened to examine this entire area. That makes a lot more sense than Joe Barton’s McCarthy-like pursuit of Michael Mann.

    “The antidote to disinformation is reliable information.” I can agree with that. But that reliable information should also include exposure of the sources and motivation of the disinformation.

  6. Posted March 14, 2009 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    I’ve reviewed some of your past columns and maybe I’ve been a bit hard on you.

    I see that you have been following up on the George Will case. Perhaps I should comment on those threads. But in general if a columnist continually distorts the facts, it’s hard to see how his continued employment can be justified. The alternative would appear to be run caveats and corrections along with every column.

    I would say the Washington Post is perhaps an exception insofar as they at least try to do the right thing, although they fell well short in this case. Not so with the National Post and Fox News.

    And the obvious question is this: where is George Will getting this stuff? Is he on Marc Morano’s speed dial perhaps? I’d really like to see you address this issue.

    It’s not enough to say where he *should* get his information – how about exposing where he *did* get his misinformation?

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