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Closing the Gap Between Climate Change Science and Public Opinion

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

The global policy community seems unlikely to take drastic steps with regard to climate change any time soon. Politicians remain hesitant about taking action, although scientific consensus on climate change is overwhelming. It’s happening, it’s happening now, and it will cause massive damage. And it’s mostly caused by humans. Public opinion, on the other hand, is far behind the science. Are politicians unwilling to impose dramatic measures to slow down climate change because the public is unwilling to pay the cost – yet? Are they kicking the can down the road because the people are not yet willing to fully embrace the fact and the consequences of climate change?

Different studies show that over 90% of climate researchers agree that climate change is happening and that it's mostly caused by human behavior. A 2008 survey among climate scientists in 34 different countries shows that about 93% agreed very much or to a large extent that climate change was occurring right now. Close to 84% agreed that the change is caused by humans. A newer study from the US shows an agreement of 97% on rising temperatures and 84% on human causes of climate change. In sharp contrast, only about two thirds of the American public think that global temperatures are indeed rising. Less than half believe that it's our fault.

How can there be such a huge discrepancy between what scientists know and what everybody else believes? Actually, this is not unusual. It tends to happen with most scientific revolutions. As Steven Sherwood points out in an article in Physics Today, the public discussion about climate change is rather similar to another paradigm change that rocked the world and everybody in it: When Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus published his heliocentric model of the solar system in 1543, showing that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way round, he caused a massive backlash from political and religious powers, and from the public. Vested interests, religious and political, as well as public opinion clung to the paradigm that the earth is the center of the universe, as Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus had suggested in the second century. Then, as today with climate change, core beliefs of mankind were being questioned, with massive consequences for the way we live. Now and then, a big part of the paradigm shift is communication.

Comparing the process of scientific understanding and public acceptance of climate change to the Copernican revolution, Sherwood finds rather similar patterns: Empirical observations shake long-held scientific believes. A consensus about a new theory or model forms within the scientific community - that in itself can take a hundred years, give or take. Scientific consensus is greeted with disbelief and even outrage by the public, political, economic, and religious powers. According to Sherwood, it took about 200 years until heliocentrism was accepted broadly by the public and the ruling powers.

Well, global warming was first documented in 1864 by John Tyndall. Scientific consensus has been achieved in the past, say, 10 years or so. Now it's the public's turn - but we don't have another 100 years. This is where communication comes in.

In the same Physics Today edition, Richard Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol argue that the lack of political and public consensus on climate change is partly due to a lack of effective communication of the science. Scientists are used to communicating with their peers, presenting background information first, followed by supporting details, and only then they talk about their results and conclusions. By that time, lay people usually are fast asleep. Scientists also "typically fail to craft simple, clear messages and repeat them often." They are also not definite enough. To say that human activity "contributes" to climate change does not emphasize the urgency of behavior change. When scientists say something is "likely" or "very likely" they are talking about very high levels of confidence, but in the public's ears a "likely" is not a given.

It’s good form to point out that there is much that we don’t know - at academic conferences. In a public forum, this is confusing. We do know that climate change will dramatically change the way we live and already does significant damage. We do know that we bear a large part of the responsibility for all the damage that climate change is causing and will cause. If we don't dramatically change our behavior, our lives will change drastically and we will probably not like it.

Somerville and Hassol suggest that scientists "use metaphors, analogies, and points of reference to make mathematical concepts and numerical results more meaningful". The amount of melt water from the Greenland ice sheet has more than doubled between 1995 and 2005, from 100 to 220 cubic kilometers. So what? The amount of water melted is now more than 200 times as large as the entire city of Los Angeles uses in one year. Oh! Imagine that amount of excess water flowing into your bathtub – what do you think would happen to your home? Ouch! We need to slow down the melting of the ice sheet!

While the belief that the earth is at the center of the universe might not have killed anyone directly, climate change will, and probably already has. We can't afford waiting out another course of scientific revolution and paradigm change. The consequences of accepting the reality of climate change and adjusting our beliefs and behavior accordingly may well be as fundamental as accepting that the earth revolves around the sun.

Communication techniques have advanced some since Copernicus published his heliocentric model in the mid-16th century. We have to make full use of all communication channels, techniques, and tricks that we can think of to hasten public consensus. Development agencies are at the forefront of this challenge - we have the know-how, the means, and the mandate. Now let's do it.


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