It’s been apparent for some time that the public is not understanding the potential magnitude of the threat of climate change. The percentage of Americans saying it’s even taking place was recently measured at 57 percent, down 14 points since October 2008, according to what appears to be a series of climate stories running this week on National Public Radio. (Recall that we’ve described before how even expert “skeptics” admit the warming is taking place; that big chunks of the public misses that is remarkable.)
So would calling climate change “the climate crisis” make a difference? That’s the contention of cognitive linguist George Lakoff, who was featured on one NPR segment. Lakoff says people think of the “climate” as something positive. And “change” is not bad. “Global warming?” Maybe that’s an even worse term, Lakoff tells host Guy Raz:
Global warming applies to climate, not weather, and most people don’t think of the difference, and so you shouldn’t be talking just about global warming. You should be talking about the climate crisis. That, I think, is very important and then you explain what a crisis is. But the people who are in the environmental movement are very bad at communication, and they haven’t done that.
He said when Americans hear “global warming” they assume “that it applies to every place uniformly on the Earth. That is false too. They are thinking about weather, not about climate.”
Today’s NPR story by Christopher Joyce reviews how climate scientists have shot themselves in the foot by making mistakes, and then failing to respond quickly and effectively to attacks. He quotes greenie Steven Hamburg:
We’ve done a poor job of explaining how these things are done. So how do we make predictions about the future? How do we understand impacts? How much is empirical so it’s direct measurement? How much of it is modeled? How much of it is theoretical?
The message was echoed at a recent American Association of the Advancement of Science conference, where longtime pollster Dan Yankelovich blamed scientists for failing to communicate. According to a press release on his appearance, Yankelovich spoke of a “three-stage process that obliges the public to confront and overcome its own wishful thinking, a process that engages peoples’ deepest emotions and values as well as factual information.” In Yankelovich’s words:
Scientists, like leaders in other fields, have enormous difficulty engaging the public on critical issues like global warming, bioethics, and other challenges that can only be solved when good science, wise public policy and thoughtful public judgment all come together. The American public can grapple with tough problems in a meaningful way, but scientists have to understand how to communicate the non-cognitive aspects of the public’s learning curve.
(A video of Yankelovich’s appearance was supposed to be posted, but isn’t yet. If I find it I’ll link to it here.)
Now, we have to keep in mind that even if only 57 percent of Americans grok that global warming is going on, that’s still up from the 41 percent who felt that way in the same 2006 Pew Research Center poll. The latest update, from October 2009, noted that most Americans haven’t really thought that much about climate change. It went on:
Despite the growing public skepticism about global warming, the survey finds more support than opposition for a policy to set limits on carbon emissions. Half of Americans favor setting limits on carbon emissions and making companies pay for their emissions, even if this may lead to higher energy prices; 39 percent oppose imposing limits on carbon emissions under these circumstances.
That was before the so-called “climategate” e-mail leaks or the failed Copenhagen talks, of course. Wonder what the next set of numbers will show?
Final point on this: Not everyone is going to believe even the most airtight and well-explained scientific case. For a great discussion of how modern Americans have somehow decided they are entitled to their own facts as well as their own opinions, see Farhad Manjoo’s “True Enough: Learning to Live In a Post-fact Society.” (Review here.)
Columnist Leonard Pitts hit on this phenomenon with an interesting column over the weekend recounting how some of his correspondents simply refuse to recognize facts, even uncontroverted fact. In decades past, he writes:
If you and I had an argument and I produced facts from an authoritative source to back me up, you couldn’t just blow that off. You might try to undermine my facts, might counter with facts of your own, but you couldn’t just pretend my facts had no weight or meaning.
That’s all changing, as Pitts describes. His ending:
I submit that any people thus handicapped sow the seeds of their own decline; they respond to the world as they wish it were rather to the world as it is. . . But objective reality does not change because you refuse to accept it. The fact that you refuse to acknowledge a wall does not change the fact that it’s a wall. And you shouldn’t have to hit it to find that out.
— Robert McClure