I’ve been thinking lately about the disconnect between the available climate science, which strongly indicates that global warming is happening and is dangerous, and the many people who still believe and proclaim that global warming is an environmentalist conspiracy.
The Washington Post recently had an excellent article about the public’s relationship with the science of global warming – it’s a long one but definitely worth a read. And it’s a common theme at the RealClimate climate science blog.
Obviously there’s a lot of reasons (Vincenze suggests a few) but I just want to look at one today: the incentives many people have to engineer – or at least overstate – conflict.
Imagine you’re a climate scientist. Lucky you: you’re an expert in one of the most important fields for the future of this planet. But there are thousands of other scientists just like you and you want to stand out and be known and respected for your ideas. You’re 99% sure that global warming is happening and likely to get worse – because 99% of the data you’ve seen and papers you’ve read point in that direction. But you think there’s a 1% chance that everyone’s wrong. Isn’t it your duty to test the majority thinking? If it is true, it will stand up to some scrutiny. And maybe - just maybe - it’s all wrong. Or at least a bit wrong. You could be boring and go along with everyone else. You could be one of the many faces at a climate conference. Or you could be controversial. And interesting. Maybe a little infamous even. And have journalists seek out your unorthodox views. And maybe be the person getting flown to those conferences to give the wacky dissenting talk.
Now imagine you’re a journalist. You’re writing a story about climate science. You want to be accurate but you also need to be entertaining. So you want some conflict. You also want to be balanced. You could interview two climate scientists from the 99.9% that agree that global warming is a serious threat. That’s a bit dull. Or you could interview one scientist from the majority and one wacky contrarian. That will spice things up. And you’re being balanced by getting all the opposing viewpoints, right?
Now imagine you’re a government Minister. You could accept and publicise the global warming threat. You could introduce measures that will cost taxpayers and industry to reduce a danger that will mostly affect people who haven’t yet been born or live in other countries. Or you could downplay the global warming threat and suggest that the jury is still out. After all, it’s irresponsible to hit taxpayers and industry when we’re not even totally, absolutely 100% certain that there’s even a problem, right? Then you could reduce taxes and spend your revenue on more popular things like new roads.
Now imagine you’re having dinner with some friends. They’re all blah blah-ing about climate change. "It’s so important". It’s so terrible". It’s so boring. You could just go along with them all and nod seriously. Or you could liven things up a bit. You could point out that while everyone’s talking about ice caps melting, snowfall has increased in central Antarctica over the past decade. You could mention that everyone was worried about global cooling in the 1970s. You could make insightful sociological observations: environmental worries are a lot like fashion – it’s a constant obsession but the environmental fad of the day is always changing.
Now imagine you’re concerned about climate change. You want to find out more and you want to do your bit. You read the newspaper and notice that the two scientists interviewed disagree on whether it’s happening and how bad it will be. You watch the news and notice the politicians disagree on whether it’s happening and what if anything to do about it. You go to dinner with your friends and one of them makes some interesting arguments about Antarctica getting snowier and environmental worries always being there and never amounting to anything. You weigh up the information you have and – well, the debate seems pretty evenly balanced – doesn’t it? It seems like the jury is still out.