study released the other day compared two recent surveys which asked the same basic questions of two groups: scientists and non-scientists. Some of the questions were general ones about science and society, others were about "beliefs" on specific issues. These got the headlines, because of the difference between the percentage of scientists versus the percentage of non-scientists on what they believe is proven fact on "key scientific issues."
One of the issues that got into news stories was climate change, and predictably, a higher percentage of scientists than other citizens believe it is caused by that nebulous euphemism, "human activity." The very high percentage of scientists (87%, which is about 10 points lower than climate scientists alone) probably is expected, but notable was the size of the gap between them and others, and the low percentage of non-scientists (50%).
One could point out that this means that 75% at least do accept evidence and experience on this topic. But it must raise again the question (which it perhaps answers) of what if any evidence will convince enough people to stop wasting energy and attention on denial, so our society gets into the fast lane of addressing the climate crisis?
There is a lot going on here. Attitudes towards science and scientists is a complex area (or a tangled morass) that would take many words to even approach. Then there is the fear factor of all the implications of the climate crisis that amps up denial, so that the perception of climate change actually intensifies denial of its existence or causes.
All of this bears upon questions that recur in many forms almost constantly. How can the climate crisis be communicated effectively, so that at last society addresses it with the necessary unity and dedication?
Scaring people won't do it, says Dean Ornish, you need a positive approach: "If we are going to find sustainable ways of dealing with global warming, we have to base it on love and feeling good, not fear and loathing. If it’s fun, then it’s sustainable."
Science won't win over climate sceptics, asserts Adam Comer in the Guardian--we need stories. But what kind of stories? Comer also suggests the positive--stories about low-carbon solutions.
admitted in a New York Times oped that she found these more powerful than scientific facts. But will they, as the headline promised, change minds? Maybe, she writes, in combination with factual documentaries and works of fiction that both evoke feeling and offer a broader humanized perspective.
Others agree that negative stories get to people better. But which ones? David Roberts notes that environmentalists have been tearing their hair out trying to figure out what horror will get the attention --drought? Disease? Sea level rise?--that will finally turn the tide (so to speak) and galvanize action. His own candidate in this piece is flooding, some of which happens regularly right now due to sea level rise in several coastal cities.
Or the story doesn't have to even be related to climate, like the man who is walking 3,000 miles across America to increase awareness of the issue, and who gets attention for it by the fact of his walk, and how he relates to people he meets.
Do any of these actually work? Who knows? In a different piece, David Roberts links to some of his posts analyzing the complexity of responses by those he calls conservatives, while debunking claims (desperate claims in some cases) of psychological etc. means to convince them.
summer, in the New York Review of Books) that appeal to believers monitoring the changing situation, while simultaneously organizing activists--particularly young ones--to turn this into the civil rights movement of the age. Presumably, at least until the old denialists die, he's given up on the "emotional consensus" he once called for, though perhaps I'm the only one who remembers these words, which he uttered in an interview or press conference I saw eons ago on C-Span.)
Klein has joined the fight, admittedly late in the game, with her political and economic perspective, and eloquent support for activism as well. Like many, she sees the climate crisis as requiring major change (though few disagree on scale, they don't always agree on the time scale) and the nature of these changes being beneficial in a much wider way than only addressing the climate crisis.
(Elizabeth Kolbert at the New Yorker was skeptical of Klein's prescriptions. Their dialogue is worth a look.)
But the problem remains, so it isn't surprising that it is the headline for a recent Atlantic article: How to Talk About Climate Change So People Will Listen/
Environmentalists warn us that apocalypse awaits. Economists tell us that minimal fixes will get us through. Here's how we can move beyond the impasse. Unfortunately the long piece that follows, a serious analysis with some convincing and unconvincing conclusions, isn't about this. Yet another product perhaps of the articles and the headlines written by two different people, possibly two different species.
But the writer (Charles Mann) does suggest that the issue that might finally galvanize action is the threat of the technological "solution" of geoengineering, which is dangerous in palpably scary ways. So he comes down on the fear factor as the motivator of acceptance.
Let me give the short version of my answer. First, I believe communicating clearly and more effectively on this issue is essential. Second, while I believe that "conservatives" and others suspicious of science and today's scientists raise other issues that ought to be recognized and addressed, and I suspect the increase in total denial is partly due to failures to communicate clearly, I don't believe it all is, and I don't believe evidence, or stories of any kind will convince everybody.
Nevertheless, there is a public out there that's close to (or already is) an effective majority on this issue, though it may take more than that to overcome entrenched power. I support communicating evidence (and repeating it, because what you may lose in attention by repetition you may gain in understanding among nonscientists) and arguing for specific solutions to specific problems (ways of cutting down on carbon pollution, directly and through alternative energy sources)--because there are an awful lot of people who are listening, even if only now and again. I support activism, from demos and creative variations on attention-getting actions, to divestment campaigns. I support positive stories (though Ornish obviously doesn't understand the magnitude of the crisis) and I support negative stories, and I see dangers in both. So in terms of strategy, I'm for all of the above. Because in the end it's individuals at a particular time, so it's serendipity, before it's a politically effective constituency.
Third: what I fear will be a consequence of this stubborn inability to reach "emotional consensus" and common effort. I am afraid that the current complacency riding the undercurrent of denial will suddenly become panic (my guess it will be the result of sky-high food prices, already going in that direction.) And that panic could demand unfortunate reactions.
There are ways to prepare for that, to make it less consequential perhaps, and ultimately overcome it. Our politics now aren't encouraging in this respect. But not everything is politics. I'll have a post (much shorter I hope) on one aspect of that soon.
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