For those of us in the environmental sciences community, there are few frustrations that get to us more than the ongoing “debate” about the existence and cause of climate change. With an overwhelming majority of climate researchers agreeing that the recent trend in global warming is most likely caused by human activity, why is it that so many reasonable, educated people (more than half of the American public, according to a new study in Nature) continue to distrust the science?
It certainly isn’t for lack of evidence. The lines of proof asserting the reality of climate change have been building since the early 1980s and now span virtually every discipline of environmental science. But those outside the realm of climate change research are typically not going to sit down and read through one, let alone the mountains of scientific literature that comprise the current body of knowledge on the subject. Instead, we depend on two things. We depend on our intuitions and on the people and organizations we trust to give us the truth.
When I say intuition, think about that feeling you have when you see or hear something that causes an immediate emotional reaction without even having to think about it. Intuitions play a significant role in our moral judgments on a daily basis. For example, imagine that your neighbors had a pet dog that was hit by a car and rather than burying it, the family decided to cook and eat it for dinner that night. Now if you’re like me, you probably mentally recoiled a bit thinking about that. That’s your moral intuition telling you that something about that family is crazy. But if I were to ask you what’s actually wrong with them doing that, there isn’t really any practical reason why they shouldn’t.
What I’m getting at is that this same sort of intuition has an influence on how people react to discussion about climate change. Intuitions are a product of personal experiences and societal judgment. Using myself as an example, since middle school I’ve grown up alongside people who share my interest in science and conservation (in a high school environmental sciences program, majoring in college, etc.). Natural sciences has been a major part of the last decade of my life, so my intuition will always tend towards environmental stewardship. Within the community here at UNC Marine Sciences, this view is widely accepted. But someone who has grown up in a small West Virginia mining town may have a different intuition about climate change discussions that is accepted by the people around them. Humans are social creatures by nature and while it may seem a little teenage angsty, we are all still influenced by the judgment of those around us. If everyone else thinks one way, people are generally less inclined to voice an opposing viewpoint.
In a similar way, our way of thinking is profoundly influenced by the opinions of people that we trust. In the research community, we tend to put a lot of faith into fellow scientists and research organizations (like the IPCC and NOAA) because we are accustomed to the rigor of the scientific method and peer-review process. Many others, however, may trust certain news media outlets (like CNN, FoxNews, The Daily Show, The Onion, etc.) to provide accurate information on world issues. Unfortunately, as is often the case with climate change, the media is able to skew the reality of the issue by giving the comparably few climate change deniers equal attention as those who support the science. By presenting it as an evenly balanced debate, the media belittles the enormous majority of scientists and the decades of data analysis that support the urgency of climate change.
So what is there to do? In the last several years, there has been a push to develop more effective strategies to help scientists share their findings with those outside the research community. In fact, many of these communication strategies are highlighted here on this blog, under the “Science and Communication” tab above. But as with any major societal movement, this is not a battle that can be won overnight. Progress is being made (a prime example being President Obama’s call to action during his most recent State of the Union address), and as evidence continues to build, naysayers will continue to see their arguments dissolve. In the words of the ever-astute Taylor Swift, “It’s hard to fight when the fight ain’t fair.”
This post was inspired by a recently published article in National Geographic magazine. See it http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/03/science-doubters/achenbach-text for more information.