Home / General / More on Our Slow Reaction to Climate Change

More on Our Slow Reaction to Climate Change


Cara Pike at Climate Access has a good run-down of the reasons, outside of the broken legislative process which I think is a relatively small problem in dealing with climate change, why the United States is such a laggard nation in fighting global warming. In brief:

1. Unprecedented risk–we don’t see it every day but it’s scary and we don’t know hot to deal with it and there aren’t a lot of models of this kind of problem to work from.

2. Public is overwhelmed–many voices, they don’t all work together, public is easily confused and don’t know who to listen to.

3. Fatalism–what are you going to do, at least we can play golf in January

4. Opposition–ExxonMobil sucks

5. Scientific Certainty–Scientists never say anything is certain and that opens the door to naysayers

6. Values–these conversations haven’t challenged people’s values of patriotism and duty to save the nation and planet. A moral imperative is needed.

7. The long term–there’s not a long term strategy to deal with this problem over the decades.

I place different emphasis on these things. The opposition is huge. The unwillingness of scientists to just say that global warming is happening and forget about the .000001% chance that maybe it isn’t is a major problem. If scientists aren’t willing to engage the public and media in terms they understand, by which I mean strong statements of certainty, the opposition has already won. The values issues is interesting because my first thought is that it’s a disastrous strategy to focus on it except that in the past environmental reform has been driven by such concerns. Sadly, we think our patriotic duty is to kill brown people and buy another SUV.

Again, I think it’s significant that the opposition is only one of the seven identified problems and that this opposition isn’t split between politicians and corporations. That is a problem, but it’s hardly the only one and we focus on it exclusively at our peril.

I look forward to the upcoming discussions on all 7 of these issues at Climate Access.

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  • ploeg

    Well, global warming isn’t exactly an unprecedented risk, it’s just that we’ve been able to address such problems sensibly in the past.

    It is amusing to see how such precedent makes it harder to do anything about global warming, because the opposition says with a straight face, “You remember the ozone hole? All those scientists had their hair on fire, and nothing came of it!” Well, of course not, because we dealt with the problem with (relatively) minimal fuss.

    • Left_Wing_Fox

      Actually, I think there’s something missed here: It’s not that the risk is unprecedented, but the scope of the required change is unprecedented.

      Modern society is based on fossil fuels, full stop. No other material is as cheap, plentiful, energy-dense, portable, convenient, or versatile as fossil fuel. It has shaped every fundamental need in our lives: The way we grow food, the way we build shelter, the way we transport ourselves, the way we communicate.

      We have so structured our society on fossil fuels that there is no such thing as an easy fix. Every solution will cost money, and likely result in slower economic growth as something even more fundamental to our civilization than food becomes more expensive overall.

      That’s why everyone is reluctant. There is no magic bullet, no easy fix. It has to be done, but it won’t be easy, it won’t be cheap, and it will put a lot of people out of their comfort zones.

  • patrick II

    This country right now is dedicated to free market solutions and the belief that individual choice will entice the invisible hand to create solutions. If the problem is one that the free market can’t solve it is not a problem many are capable of recognizing.

  • Rob

    It’s missing the big one, the costs of global warming aren’t going to be paid by the current ruling class. If you’re currently 50, the costs of global warming in 2080 is zero to you while the costs to prevent it are non zero. Sure technically you may care about your grandchildren’s children, but not that much.

  • Paul Orwin

    I think that list is unfairly harsh on scientists. There is a good reason why scientists always sound mealy-mouthed and unsure when you ask them “how hot will it be in 2100?” They don’t know! It’s not that they have no idea (it will be a lot warmer) but they don’t know if it will be 4 degrees warmer or 10 degrees warmer. Of course, that “uncertainty” is a big deal. It is also the truth. There are limitations to this sort of thing, and it’s better to own up to them and explain them rather than trying to hide them. Describing the physical universe and understanding how it works is not for the faint of heart, and people who can’t tolerate uncertainty and shades of gray should get off this ride immediately. That said, if you want certainty, there’s plenty of it out there, it’s just all wrong. Scientists are not press flacks or pundits, it’s not their job or their inclination (for the most part, obviously). Sometimes you find a a really great scientist who can combine the technical savvy to understand and explain with the communication skills to get these things out there (I’m thinking of Neil Degrasse Tyson here, as an example). That’s great! but its not common, nor should it be expected.

    • strannix

      You’ll have to forgive Erik – “liberal” and “rational” are not always the same thing with this guy.

  • MikeN

    “If scientists aren’t willing to engage the public and media in terms they understand,[b] by which I mean strong statements of certainty,[/b] the opposition has already won.”

    If scientists aren’t willing to stop being scientists and doing science, then the oppposition has won.

  • snarkout

    Thirded on the asinine nature of blaming climate scientists for this. Any number of reputable scientists are perfectly vocal about what’s going on, but as the concerted, international (really, England and Australia were much worse, perhaps because the public in those countries takes climate change more seriously) denialist pushback against the IPCC report indicates, the opposition is better funded and willing to simply lie. But the IPCC report was good science without being mealymouthed.

  • wiley

    From Wikipedia: For example, if you do not know whether it will rain tomorrow, then you have a state of uncertainty.

    Simple. Truthful. Natural. Scientific uncertainty is wisdom. Perhaps schooling that is dominated by multiple choice questions and raise-your-hand-if-you-know-the-answer feedback (rather than encouraging students to ask intelligent questions)it inadvertently leads to the belief that being knowledgeable means “knowing the answer,” and has robbed many of the ability to appreciate the value of uncertainty.

    This also might explain why trivia is so popular and why even academics often don’t appear to know the difference between knowledge and intelligence, at times.

  • Stag Party Palin

    #8 (but it should be #1): 49.99% of the people are below average. 27% are insane. A significant majority are authoritarian (personal opinion; no cites). Therefore, we’re screwed.

  • BradP

    I don’t understand all of the science behind AGW, but the idea that we aren’t making a considerable human imprint on the Earth’s climate seems obvious.

    Of course, this piece doesn’t really apply to people like meThat said, two points that drive my political opinions:

    1. A combination of the first two – unprecedented scope of the problem and the solution is very overwhelming – gives me pause. We are talking about a worldwide system of incentivized behavioral change. When you have the expectations that I have for policy results, combatting climate change would entail a massive investment in cartelization without much payoff.

    2. Other problems and opportunity costs. Climate change is gonna be on the back-burner as long the US is having these economic issues. Even if there were no economic constraints and everything was daisies, there are many, many global projects that could generate far more immediate and certain effects for the level of investment climate change regulation would require.

    There has been insufficient focus on preparing for local impacts—which can create a realistic hope for the future—and the various co-benefits of taking action to address climate are often not made clear.

    What are some examples of “preparing for local impacts” and what sort of meaningful co-benefits can be pointed to?

  • I disagree with this assertion:

    The unwillingness of scientists to just say that global warming is happening and forget about the .000001% chance that maybe it isn’t is a major problem.

    There is more physical evidence for the theory of global climate change than there is for the theory of electromagnetism which has even bigger holes you could punch in it.

    But we’re all sitting used megawatts without a single naysayer going, “Hang on!

    So if scientists are even 90% sure (and they seem to be even more conclusive of this) that GCC is real, then why should they bother to refute idiotic challenges from people who wish it wasn’t so?

    • BradP

      There is more physical evidence for the theory of global climate change than there is for the theory of electromagnetism which has even bigger holes you could punch in it.

      Vast differences in the predictive power of those two, however.

      • To the extent that we haven’t had the opportunity to examine the results, you mean.

        Would you really want to run this experiment in real time?

  • Njorl

    Once scientists start talking in unscientific terms, hacks in the pay of fossil fuel companies will jump on them. They will discredit them as scientists. It would do more harm than good.

    The truth is we need real political leadership. That means we need politicians who are willing to take the very small decrease in their chances of winning. The majority of congressional elections are not seriously contested. Anyone running in one of these races should be symbolically tarred and feathered if they refuse to take up this issue.

    • wiley

      Another great suggestion in the Hart-Ruddman(sp?) report suggesting changes for the structure of our government to adapt to 21st century challenges, was to provide ongoing education for Congresspersons, especially education on issues of and approaches to science. The fact that the House is packed with monkeys who don’t “believe” in evolution or global warming as if objective reality would rise and fall according to their beliefs, gives one pause.

      • Hogan

        Education tends not to have much effect on people who take pride in their ignorance.

    • Lee

      I disagree with this. If there are scientists who wish to be both advocates for doing something about global warming and climate scientists than at times they need to act as advocates. This means that the must stop speaking in scientific terms and talk to the public in away that would impress the urgent need for action on the public. They must make the general public understand what is at stake and what must be done about it. If scientists insist on talking as scientists when acting as advocates than they are very bad advocates. Most people would just turn them off and stop listening.

  • Captain Howdy

    I cannot agree that scientists have to start expressing “certainty” in order to convince the goobers watching the teevee what to think.

    The American Physicists Society used “certain” language in their position on AGW a couple years ago:

    The APS says, “The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring.”

    A small number of the APS object — some because they are climate skeptics; others — notably Ivar Giaever, a Nobel winner — because of the ‘i’ word: a real scientist would never call evidence “incontrovertible,” not for climate science, not for gravity, not for nothing. Some, like Dr Giaever, were so incensed they dropped their APS membership.

    What happened then: Every douche-gobbling news source and blogger followed these defections with the same headline.

    What’s the goober at home thinking now?

  • Many comments are saying “c’mon, it isn’t the scientists’ fault” but I think a restatement clarifies the issue:

    Scientists aren’t speaking English when they think they are.

    Or as Bad Astronomy reently wrote: Scientists are from Mars, the public is from Earth


  • steelpenny

    I can’t believe nobody mentioned the media. In the legitimate media, global warming always gets reduced to a political question in which both sides are treated as equal rather than a scientific question with a right answer. Because they’re afraid of conservatives questioning their objectivity, they won’t point out that one side is right and the other is full of shit. Pretty much the only major media figures willing to call out the right on its bullshit are on Comedy Central. Yeah, we’re fucked.

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