The past few years have seen a decline in the percentage of Americans who believe what scientists say about climate science.
The science community shares some of the blame, obviously; the IPCC made rookie errors in its recent assessment and even intentionally included non-science results as data, and the so-called "Climategate" emails showed scientists weren't always out to promote science as much as they were out to stick it to opponents, behavior just like every other field where humans work.
But human fallibility is what it is and we didn't stop driving cars because executives at car manufacturers once buried knowledge of defects. The physics truth is that more greenhouse gases means more warming yet still much of the public, both in America and increasingly worldwide, remains unconvinced.
Writing from the Climate, Mind and Behavior conference at the Garrison Institute in New York, which sounds as goofy as 'a conference for environmentalists, psychologists and sociologists to sell global warming better' but is a lot shorter to write, TIME's Bryan Walsh says it all comes down to making more fun of Republicans and 'framing' the debate - the two things which got environmentalists and climate scientists into credibility trouble.
Well, there is something to be said for understanding why people are sometimes skeptical (supposedly a positive quality in science unless the public is skeptical about your job) even long after the science is accepted. I mean, really, more emissions won't cause problems? Seriously???
But even if people know that on an intellectual level, if they don't trust the motivations of the people saying it, that instills doubt. Hey, Al Gore and environmentalists loved ethanol until a Republican Congress and a Republican President mandated and subsidized it. Then they figured out it had to be wrong, which everyone except environmentalists and Al Gore knew all along.
Cognitive biases throw sound decision-making out the window, as Walsh notes. But that occurs on both sides. The Kyoto attempt to blame American cars for global warming and exempt Chinese, Mexican and Indian cars was crazy to anyone without cognitive bias. Loss aversion is also a concern. Presenting people with tangible losses in return for intangible gains is always a tough sell. A recent analysis showed contented citizens vote against change. Well, why wouldn't they? In France, Kyoto was readily acceptable because they had switched to more nuclear power after the 1990 target date anyway, making CO2 targets easy to achieve. But try and privatize the power industry in France to save money and government employees shut off the electricity to the Presidential palace. That is loss aversion at work.
So Americans may get promised some wealth of new green jobs but, even in California, which has shown no weakness when it comes to subsidizing green technology even in a disastrous financial situation, the green jobs are few for the money spent. Americans aren't buying that it will happen if green promises are nationwide and don't want to lose what they have.
Walsh tries to infer that group identification is another reason for climate skepticism - Republicans who side with other Republicans about other things are going to believe less in global warming if other Republicans do - but it is a silly assertion. Do all Democrats believe vaccines cause autism just because almost all anti-vaccine people are Democrats? President Obama and a Democratic bullet-proof majority in Congress gutted NASA's Constellation program, not Republicans. Do Democratic Senators deny the science benefits of GMO corn because their constituents in the Democratic party do?
No, and Republicans don't deny particle physics - but particle physics requires 5 standard deviations to be considered accurate. Climate science is, by comparison, still in its infancy and less scientifically accurate than a public opinion poll so statements like "the science is settled" make people concerned. It may be settled but it is unscientific to say so in this instance and when activists in science then have to issue statements like, "Have we learned a great deal since the IPCC 2001 report? I would say yes, we have. Climate science, like any other field, is a constantly evolving field and we are always learning" it looks bad.
So it isn't that Republicans are anti-science, perhaps they are too scientific? Republicans overwhelmingly accept climate change yet are skeptical about global warming. Actually, that turned out to be accurate. 'Global warming' was always a cringe-inducing term but science journalists and climate scientists felt the need to 'frame' the issue for a public audience they seem to think is rather stupid.
As Walsh rightly notes, people, including Americans, when it came to issues like Iraq and Afghanistan or recently to protesters in Libya, Algeria and Egypt, will act against their own personal best interests if they believe in a higher cause. But in America, some were skeptical when the debate over Iraq was framed as 'we have to invade or the terrorists win' so it shouldn't be a surprise that similar skepticism is in play when the interests of the few claim to represent the interests of the many, but their actions say otherwise.
Science journalists, get back to asking the awkward questions about studies and methodology, like you would if Exxon was denying global warming exists at all, and the public will trust you again. Climate scientists, get back to being trusted guides by not framing the message the way the attendees at that conference suggested you do. Unless you note that terrorist-supporting dictators control a lot of OPEC oil so alternative energy would stick it to them. That's pretty smart.
But the data are there. The physics answer is there. Use those, and conferences on convincing an increasingly skeptical public will no longer be needed.
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