Why are we so confused about climate change?

If 9 out of 10 of the world’s best medical doctors said you had cancer and needed immediate treatment, what would you do?

Now take a look at this July 2010 abstract from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America:

“Although preliminary estimates from published literature and expert surveys suggest striking agreement among climate scientists on the tenets of anthropogenic climate change (ACC), the American public expresses substantial doubt about both the anthropogenic cause and the level of scientific agreement underpinning ACC…Here, we use an extensive dataset of 1,372 climate researchers and their publication and citation data to show that (i) 97–98%of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field surveyed here support the tenets of ACC outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and (ii) the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.”

Shocking? Yes. News? Well, not really.

Anybody who has been closely following this issue already knows that there is enormous agreement among the experts that humans are causing climate change (It’s even greater than 9 out of 10. It is 97 to 98%). They also know that there is remarkably faint public acceptance of the strong body of scientific evidence that supports their views.

The question is why?

Scientists are trained to be annoyingly skeptical, relentlessly critical, unwilling to accept new ideas without evidence, perpetually questioning. They ceaselessly look for flaws in each others’ work. Yet, amongst the best scientists in the field of climate science (and therefore the most scrupulous), there is an astonishing level of agreement that climate change is human caused and is a big problem. But it appears we don’t care.

This is fascinating to me. It also scares me.

In fact, the real “Climate Gate” might be that in light of what is possibly the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, the media and others have confused the public to the point of complacency. People who are confused do not take action; they do not pressure their elected leaders to take meaningful steps towards mitigating emissions and adapting to climate change. People who are confused are more willing to accept the status quo.

I think it is important to be careful about who I accept advice from. If a lawyer told me I needed a root canal, I would seek a second opinion from somebody who is trained and respected in dentistry, before I let anybody stick a drill in my mouth. So why do journalists often quote non-experts when reporting on climate change? And why are we so willing to accept the dogma of non-experts on this issue?

To answer these questions, I will have to know more about the challenges of journalism, and a lot more about human psychology.

There may still be a small number of scientists who are not convinced of the causes and implications of climate change. But they are a distinct minority.  Moreover, would you put your personal fate into the hands of the one doctor out of ten who said you do not need cancer treatment?

Follow this link to explore the full length article quoted above.

Follow this link if you are legitimately confused about some of the mechanisms of climate change and want to get straight on what the best science is telling us.

5 thoughts on “Why are we so confused about climate change?

  1. Mark

    In simple terms, no one has yet died from Climate Change. Until there is a direct correlation between the concept of climate change (an abstract concept that even climate change insiders only partially understand) and the demise of the things that we hold dear, people will continue to believe the things that re-enforce their current way of life.

    The other problem is that treatment for the cancer of climate change = completely transforming almost every aspect of life that we hold to be normal. Think democracy, economy, family, health care, recreation, travel, worldly pleasures, etc. etc. Almost everything requires change…which is larger than most people can grasp.

    It is unfathomable how far and wide the change is that is needed. Take health care for example. Health Care is one of the most wasteful and carbon producing sectors of our society? Cancer diagnosis and treatment is dependent upon radioactive isotopes of which there is a very limited supply. Some day we will run out and yet we continue to spend that limited resource on extending the life of a 90 year old by 3 years.

    Take travel. One of the most significant causes of climate change is peoples continued use of airplanes and automobiles to make recreational trips around the world. Even David Suzuki flies to Australia regularly to visit family. Who among us would be willing to give up visiting loved ones for the sake of the abstract concept of climate change.

    Finally, think of other times when huge problems have faced humanity. Ozone layer, world wars, economic crises. Who solved the problem? Was it the individual? Nope. Government stepped in and saved the day. When faced with huge problems, people tend to think “If it is such a big deal, then government would be doing something about it”. But governments continue to be unwilling to sacrifice themselves on the political alter to force action that will get us to where we need to go and in fact are incapable of doing so.

    This is just personal opinion, but I am leaning towards the perspective that the only salvation this planet can hope for is that the carrying capacity that sustains humans will force a crash in human civilization before we are able to destroy the potential that this planet has to sustain complex life.

    I know…I am so cheerful!

  2. Sherwin

    Mark, I’m not sure if you’re still following this thread, but I’m just wondering how it is that you know that people haven’t died from climate change?

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