Sunday, September 06, 2009

Communicating climate change in an unscientific world

Greenfyre's has a new post reminding people to take reports of public skepticism about climate change into context, like public literacy on other scientific issues. This is one theme of Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum's new book "Unscientific America".

Those of us communicating about climate change with the public tend to forget that the very notion that humans can change the climate is a major paradigm shift. For thousands of years, we believed that climate (or weather, in general, the sky) was something controlled by gods. So to believe that human activity is changing the climate requires a real paradigm shift. This was the subject of an essay of mine in Climatic Change a couple years ago.

One hundred and fifty years after Darwin published the Origin of the Species, many people are still struggling to accept the theory of evolution. The figure above, taken from a recent presentation of mine, shows the fraction of Americans who believe in Darwin's theory is only slightly greater than the fraction that believes in ghosts. The point of showing this in a presentation is not that North Americans are scientifically illiterate - though that may be in fact be the case - but that changing fundamental beliefs can take time. From Climatic Change:

From Galileo to Darwin, science is full of examples where new discoveries challenged traditional beliefs. If history is a guide, it can take decades or centuries for the new science to become the new orthodoxy. The battle over public acceptance of natural selection is still being fought 150 years after the publication of the Darwin’s The Origin of Species. The potential for human-induced climate change may not belong on a list of the most fundamental scientific discoveries of last 500 years. Like those discoveries, however, it does challenge a belief held by virtually all religions and cultures worldwide for thousands of years. This long view of history needs to be reflected in campaigns to educate the public, who do not have the benefit of years of graduate training in atmospheric science, about the science of climate change.

The mistake that's often made in climate change communication is assuming that the science should just intuitively make sense to people. What can help is to acknowledge, really address it, not spend thirty seconds, right off the bat in every presentation, that what we are saying may be hard to "believe" in part because if challenges traditional ways of thinking. That's why we use science to carefully examine whether humans are changing the climate, and the results are conclusive [ed's note: original post mistakenly had "inconclusive"!]

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