As John M. Broder put it in his front-page article in yesterday’s New York Times:
. . . the volume of criticism and the depth of doubt have only grown, and many scientists now realize they are facing a crisis of public confidence and have to fight back. Tentatively and grudgingly, they are beginning to engage their critics, admit mistakes, open up their data and reshape the way they conduct their work.
One unstated assumption here is that if climate scientists can improve how they interact with the public, not only will some trust be restored but more forceful policy action will follow. But there’s another view, expressed cogently by Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, in this column published online yesterday in the journal Nature. I think every journalist who covers climate change should read it.
Here’s Sarewitz’s nutgraf:
The problem? Science has been called on to do something beyond its purview: not just improve people’s understanding of the world, but compel people to act in a particular way. For nearly twenty years, researchers, policy-makers and activists have claimed that climate science requires a global policy agenda of top-down, United-Nations-sponsored international agreements; targets and timetables for emissions reductions; and the creation of carbon markets. But this agenda was guaranteed to be politically divisive because it entails short-term political and economic costs in return for benefits that are long term and highly uncertain.
That last part crystallizes the issue: People are being asked to pay costs right now to prevent problems that most of them don’t yet experience — and at a time when people are confronting very real economic problems.
The crucial point here is that no amount of reform of the IPCC, or rooting out of bad science — or of scientists behaving badly — will begin to correct the flaws in the dominant approach to climate policy. Rehabilitation of climate policy is a matter not of getting the science right, but of getting the politics right.
Just what is the problem with the politics?
The problem doesn’t appear to be primarily that a large majority of people are implacably opposed to action on climate change. The truth is that a majority of people in most polls still say climate change is happening and that we humans are mostly to blame. To offer just two examples (culled from an aggregation of climate change polls on Pollingreport.com):
- In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted in mid-December, 74 percent of respondents said global warming is caused more by human actions than natural forces, whereas only 20% said it is caused primarily by natural forces.
- In a Fox/Opinion Dynamics Poll also conducted in December, 63 percent of respondents answered ‘yes’ when asked whether they believed that global warming exists, whereas only 33 percent answered ‘no.’ In the same poll, 53 percent said they believed warming was the result of people’s behaviors, whereas just 17 percent said it was caused by “normal climate patterns.” (Another 29 percent said warming was the result of both human and natural factors.)
You might not know this based on journalistic coverage of climate politics, where the imperative to focus on conflict and drama tends to result in a very low signal-to-noise ratio.
Of course, despite public opinion about climate change not being as out of synch with the science as some people seem to assume, we obviously haven’t seen much policy action on climate change. So again, what’s wrong with the politics? The polling data (available on Pollingreport.com) provide some clues:
- In a USA Today/Gallup Poll in December 85 percent of respondents said improving the economy should be a higher priority for the Obama administration right now than taking major steps to reduce global warming.
- In the same poll, 19 percent said they believed that new environmental and energy laws designed to reduce global warming would definitely hurt the economy, whereas only 9 percent said it would definitely help.
As Sarewitz argues in his commentary, the dominant policy approaches emphasize short-term costs for distant, uncertain gains. And from the polling results, we can see that even though a majority of people believe climate change probably requires action, it is not a terribly high priority — perhaps because they naturally focus on those short-term costs and cannot see concrete short-term benefits.
Even if there were a groundswell of public support for accepting those costs at a time of great economic distress, the political dynamics might still not be right. Because of the 60-vote requirement for most things to pass in the Senate, a small number of representatives from states that would bear a disproportionate share of those costs (think coal states like West Virginia, and the old industrial states of the Midwest) could easily block legislation.
What’s the solution?
There is no magic formula, but a few general principles seem apparent. A successful climate policy regime will match short-term costs with the real potential of short-term gains. These gains can come from reducing vulnerabilities to climate impacts, and increasing security and wealth generation from energy-technology innovation. Both paths call on the government to do things that most people see as appropriate: to provide public goods and promote innovation. Both paths also allow climate change to be understood not as impending doom that requires deep sacrifice to ensure survival, but as an opportunity to continually improve society.
I believe Sarewitz’s argument should prompt us to reassess how we report on climate change. We should avoid focusing excessively on the “yes or no” framing of climate science (is it happening?; are we to blame?) and pay closer attention to emerging vulnerabilities and impacts in our own communities. For example, here in the West we have been in the midst of a decade-long drought that has drained lakes Powell and Mead, the two main storage reservoirs along the Colorado, to about half of their capacities. Going forward, how should communities grapple with the likelihood of increasing drought at the same time that demands on water resources will increase as populations rise? (This issue isn’t unique to the West.) These issues aren’t far off in the future. They’re here, right now.
We should also take a hint from 20 years of climate policy failure. There has been no lack of science suggesting the need for action during this time, yet the targets and timetables approach embodied by cap-and-trade, the Kyoto Protocol, and the failed effort at Copenhagen have not led to nearly enough action to rein in climate change. That alone should prompt us to break out of the box and investigate other possible approaches — including Sarewitz’s prescription for a policy emphasizing energy-technology innovation.
I’m not saying we should advocate for this approach in our coverage. But right now, we aren’t paying much attention to it at all. Of course we still have to cover what’s being debated in Congress, and in international venues. But whatever happened to good old fashioned enterprise reporting?
[UPDATE: Roger Pielke, Jr. has written a post on the column by Sarewitz. His conclusion is well worth considering:
Can climate policy be reframed? I’m not sure. There is a lot of vested interest in the current framing that has science as the battleground between the right and the left. If history is any guide that ideological battle won’t be won anytime soon. But maybe if we look beyond waging ideological battles through science we just might make better progress on reducing vulnerabilities and increasing security and wealth. Those are goals that we all can agree on, regardless of our views on climate science or political orientation, and can offer a starting point for progress.