Will the Public’s Misperceptions About Climate Change Be the Death of Us?

If you came down with a mysterious illness and wanted an understanding of what was making you ill, would you rely on what 97% of the medical community told you or the remaining 3%?

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The question posed above should result in the obvious response that would favor an opinion from 97% of physicians.  And yet when we talk about the health of our planet a 97% consensus rate by the professional “planetary physicians” or climate scientists, seems to be insufficient for the public to get on board with their prognosis.   Why?

“Scientists typically fail to craft simple, clear messages and repeat them often. They commonly overdo the level of detail, and people can have difficulty sorting out what is important. In short, the more you say, the less they hear.”Richard Somerville

According to Richard C. J. Somerville, Professor Emeritus at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, it’s because the scientists have failed to effectively communicate their findings to the average individual in language they can relate to and without a preponderance of information.   In communicating with the public, it’s important that climate scientists begin with the bottom line, as shown in the figure below.

communicatingclimatescience

Somerville has conveyed in his lectures on climate change that though the public respects the scientists, they don’t trust them.  “The most trusted messengers”, he tells us, “are those who share the world view and cultural values of those with whom they are communicating.”   This is why you’ll find the most ardent climate deniers are those who more easily relate to the likes of Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma.  Inhofe has called man-made global warming the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated against the American people.”  Inhofe is a part of those deniers who have been won over by the fossil fuel industry’s perception, for self-serving reasons, that says the climate science isn’t conclusive enough to make any policy changes.  Again this is something that Professor Somerville addresses in his attempt to get the message out to the public.

[There is a] well-organized and well-funded disinformation campaign that has been waged against climate science for decades. As documented in numerous books, the campaign seeks to sow doubts about the science.

Motivations for that campaign range from ideological to financial. Some fear that policies to address climate change will limit individual freedoms and the free market.  Some in the oil and coal industries fear for their short-term profits. Among the purveyors of the disinformation are pubic-relations masters who have succeeded in crafting simple, clear messages and delivering them repeatedly. The public’s failure to perceive the scientific consensus seems to reflect the success of that campaign.

It helps the disinformation campaign that a small number of climate scientists disagree with the widely accepted central findings of the field. That there are a few dissenters is not surprising; all areas of science have outliers. But the main-stream scientific conclusion that climate change is occurring and is mostly human-induced has been endorsed by professional societies and science academies worldwide.

Yet another factor is the way the media handle the topic. They often portray climate change as a controversy, presenting the opposing sides as equally credible. The current crisis in journalism has also resulted in fewer experienced reporters with the requisite expertise, which leads to coverage that can be inept and misleading.      SOURCE

Using our physician example at the top of this post, what if that 3% were also on the dole from the death industry?   People who make a living caring and disposing of the dying and the deceased like morticians and the hospice providers.   The climate denier disinformation campaign, which is often funded by the fossil fuel industry, acts much the same way.  They are generously compensated for weeding through the science and cherry-picking information with the intent of casting doubt on the climate science and thus creating uncertainty for the lay person.

Two examples of this were the discovery of a few errors in the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report and the stolen emails of prominent climate scientists where selected statements of theirs “promptly led to publicized accusations of data tampering and other wrongdoing”.   The IPCC records were rectified and at least three independent reviews of the hacked emails “exonerated the accused researchers. They committed no fraud and no scientific misconduct.”

But the dye had already been cast and as Paul Simon noted in his ballad about The Boxer, “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”.  So when you have a public that relies on the bottom line being conveyed in brief statements from people who they feel share their world views, it becomes difficult for the earth’s physicians to get the right information to humans who need to understand that their actions can have deleterious results for them, their children and grandchildren.

threescenariosThe longer we wait to act the more difficult it becomes to reasonably reduce atmospheric CO2

The public at large is not easily attracted to information unless it conveys the concern about “how does that affect me?”  The serious threat that climate change poses for humans and this planet from our use of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas, may not become apparent in time.   It may already be too late to understand that food shortages from drought and sea water acidification along with demographic changes and job losses, could wound up being the result of a handful of people more interested in distorting the fact that a 97% rating of the planet’s ill-health is better than the 3% uncertainty.

I could give a doomsday assessment of where we stand today hoping to get people motivated to act before it’s too late.  But Ricard Somersville would consider that to be ill-advised, making people feel that all hope is lost so why try.  The fact of the matter is that we can still turn this around, but – and there’s always a but – that window of opportunity is closing fast.  We were able to close the Ozone hole that threatened our planet by reducing the man-made CFCs in the atmosphere back in the 1980’s.   Similarly we can reverse the effects that are the primary cause for global warming today by simply trusting our instincts to those who have made a career of studying climate change.

“When the search for truth is confused with political advocacy, the pursuit of knowledge is reduced to the quest for power” Alston Chase

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POST SCRIPT

If you have any inkling to better understand the climate science and want to be able to share it with that contrarian uncle at Thanksgiving dinner or someone at work who thinks global warming is a farce, here are some useful websites for the layperson that will increase your awareness of this serious issue and enable you to challenge anyone who thinks it isn’t.

climatecommunication.org
realclimate.org
skepticalscience.com

 

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9 responses to “Will the Public’s Misperceptions About Climate Change Be the Death of Us?

  1. Let’s say astromers/NASA discover a gigantic meteor hurtling toward us with a 97% likelihood it will hit us in a year and a half and that will be the end of modern civilization or possibility life on the planet Earth. What difference does it make what the people believe about it? Do we have an obligation to do what we can whether or not the people “believe” in that meteor?

    The problem is not with “the people” but with bought off politicians. Look at what the people are “for:” higher taxes on the rich, stiffer gun controls, a higher minimum wage, etc. See any of them happening? No? I wonder why?

    • I couldn’t agree more Stephen but as Somerville pointed out, people tend to believe those they identify more with and some of these people like Inhofe have engaged in a campaign that has persuaded people to disregard the evidence. We have gone from about a 70% rating of people who believed man-made global warming was real in the 1990’s to somewhere around 50% today.

      We need effective messaging and more of the MSM to pick up that messaging.

  2. “How it affects me” is being felt this summer here in my corner of Brazil. We are still inside a heat-wave that has lasted 8 weeks with daily temperatures between 34 and 36 degrees. Yes, the weather is typically hot here in summer, but never have we had such a sustained stretch of hellishly hot, rain-less weather. This stretch has broken all records, and although we cannot confuse weather for climate, this (like the big wet being experienced in Britain) doesn’t ring well for the long-term changes.

  3. ” and although we cannot confuse weather for climate, this (like the big wet being experienced in Britain) doesn’t ring well for the long-term changes.”

    Correct but most thinking should be ready to start connecting the dots based on the climate science and see that there is a strong correlation between extreme weather and the increasing mean global temperature.

    Did you mean between 94 and 96 degrees? Surely temperatures there should be reflecting that your hemisphere is in it’s summer while we are still in winter up here.

  4. it is like talking to a wall. The mistrust is so great. The crazy corptocracy has done such a good job of making people vote against their own best interests. I wonder if anything less than the actual doom will convince them. and then of course they will blame it on satan rather than our ruinous policies.

  5. Those who claim climate change is a hoax will be the first to cry, “Why wasn’t anything done”, when the ill effects really start kicking in: severe winter storms in the East, drought in the West.

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