We live in strange times. The most comprehensive scientific assessment to date has announced that the evidence for human disruption of the climate system is close to certain. Yet there is widespread evidence that the proportion of people in the UK and elsewhere who are skeptical of climate change is on the rise. Why is this happening and what might be done about it?
It is important for the climate-science community to understand what lies behind this disbelief and to counter dissenting voices when the evidence shows that they are wrong.
A good starting point would be to take council from social scientists and psychologists about why gainsayers believe as they do. It is well-established that people are capable of believing almost anything, and rationalize and vigorously defend their convictions in the face of opposition. In general, though, such insights are unknown to climate scientists, who find themselves struggling to keep up with the sheer volume of new material within their own specialisms.
This is a problem that needs to be tackled. Climate science is more than simply the exercise of curiosity about some small piece of the real world. Synthesis is necessary to draw together meaning from the vast array of fragments of new knowledge, as is the need for clear exposition of what has been found and its significance. The facts will not explain themselves. There is a necessity to work with the gamut of policy-makers, with the media and with the public, so that society can evaluate what has been discovered, and can develop a reasoned set of responses. The range of skills and experience required for these roles extends well beyond those traditionally taught to natural scientists, who often find themselves floundering and disadvantaged as a result. Street fighting in the messy world of politics is rarely their forté.
How, then, to combat head-in-sand resistance to the fact that climate change is a real and present risk? First and foremost is the need to recognise that the message raises unpleasant emotions of anxiety, guilt, loss and helplessness, and can challenge deeply held ideological beliefs and values. It is natural for people to grasp at straws to alleviate their distress. Hence the effectiveness of the climate-dismissers in attacking the science (it’s not us, it’s the sun), the scientists (dishonest hoaxers, seeking funding and influence), or the solutions (not affordable, or the cure worse than the cause). Add in the technical nature of the evidence, the lag between commitment and its realisation, the real difficulties of transforming the modern world to a climate-friendly state, and the campaign to sow doubt by well-organised and well-funded group of vested interests, and it is easy to understand why engaging the public positively is such a challenge.
However, the news is not all bad. The Science Museum in London tailored its “atmosphere” gallery on climate science to engage, to inform and to leave people to make up their own minds. More than 1.7 million people have visited the gallery, and visitor feedback has been very positive – even apparently from those who entered with with a dismissive mind-set.
By allowing people to learn through play, and by engaging people in constructive and respectful dialogue, rather than the destructive combat of debate, there is hope that humanity can rally its collective knowledge, wisdom and enterprise to navigate a path to a better future, sustainable in the long term. The risks to our wellbeing of not doing so would be reckless to ignore.
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Author: Professor Chris Rapley, who chairs UCL’s Policy Commission on Communicating Climate Science, is professor of climate science at the university’s Department of Earth Sciences, and was previously Director of the Science Museum, and Director of the British Antarctic Survey.
Image: The Sheldon Glacier with Mount Barre in the background, is seen from Ryder Bay near Rothera Research Station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica, in this NASA/British Antarctic Survey handout photo released on July 15, 2013. REUTERS/NASA/British Antarctic Survey/Handout via Reuters