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A Good Spin Trumps Good Science Every Time: How the Climate Debate Got Turned on Its Head

In spite of the overwhelming evidence, a major segment of the public does not take climate change seriously and/or believes the science behind it is flawed. Without a radical change in the way the message is delivered, desperately needed changes in public policy will come too little and too late.

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Among the climatologists who are most active in studying and writing about global warming, 97.4% believe that human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures. Yet somehow in the public debate, it has gotten distorted and positioned as, "Maybe it is, maybe it isn't."  As a result, only 58% of the general public believes that increases in the Earth's temperature over the last century are caused by human activities.


Figure 1 - Responses to the Question "Do you think human activity is a significant
contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?"


As the authors of the above poll stated: "The debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes. The challenge [is] how to effectively communicate this fact to policy makers and to a public that continues to mistakenly perceive debate among scientists."

Public Opinion Headed in the Wrong Direction

Last year, for the first time since Gallup started asking the question in 1985, the public felt that economic growth should be given priority over protection of the environment.


Figure 2 - Public Sentiment on Environment vs. Economy


That sentiment is certainly understandable, given that we were in the middle of the worst recession in 70 years, and are still only slowly crawling out of it.  But it is the long-term decline that is most disturbing. With all of the media attention on global warming over the past decade, you would hope that awareness and concern among people would be on the rise, rather than falling. And it's not just in the U.S. In Britain, the proportion of adults who believe that climate change is "definitely" a reality dropped by 30% over the last year.

Creating Controversy and Doubt is Easy to Do

The so-called "climategate" uproar over hacked emails of contributors to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007 report on climate change has created the appearance of a major issue out of a relatively small set of incidents that really have no impact on the conclusions or scientific consensus.

There are very popular talk shows and websites dedicated to slamming mainstream scientific evidence on climate change, and spreading the impression that the underlying science is unsound.  Since these are complex scientific issues, it is easy for the public to be misled by strident global warming deniers and emotion-evoking arguments. Some say that the IPCC did itself a disservice by trying to over-simplify the data.

Scientists Need Better PR Agents

As a whole, scientists are just not used to playing in the rough and tumble world of politics. They are used to having their public debates based (with enough exceptions of course ) on actual facts as the arguments, even when opinions are heated and divided. Of course in the realm of public opinion, the best PR machine wins, not the best evidence.

Recently the Union of Concerned Scientists offered a vigorous defense of the IPPC's 2007 climate change report, saying "Overall, the IPCC's conclusions remain indisputable: Climate change is happening now and human activity is causing it." 

But that is not nearly enough. What is needed is much better spin, a reframing of the argument and maybe some TV specials similar to the "The Day After" episode, which had a great impact on Ronald Reagan (according to his own diary) and opened his eyes to the dangers of nuclear weapons, leading him ultimately to propose and aggressively pursue the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. We need something similar to spur climate change action among our leaders and the general population!

A Simple Argument for Action

The diagram below is my simple argument for why it's better to take action than to wait and see.1 This is by no means the silver PR bullet I asked for above which is still sorely needed.




















 Figure 3 - Consequences of Waiting Until We Are 100% Certain and Convinced on Climate Change


We know that it won't come easy. As Philip Moeller, one of the five commissioners at the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission (FERC), said recently, "As long as we have been bipeds, we've been looking for the cheapest energy. If you can cut down on energy costs, the rest of your life is better. We're now trying to make energy more expensive so people use less. That is a game changer." And although it won't come easy, it's a change we must make.

1Here's a nod to the no-nonsense version of this concept that served as inspiration for the diagram in Figure 3.

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