The Peculiar Science of Global Warming…

No, not the physical science.  The social science.

For most scientists, the usual chant from those trying to get politicians to act to slow global warming is “97% of climate scientists say the earth is warming because of human emissions of carbon dioxide.” Frankly, such a pronouncement grates on the ears of most scientists.  Why?  Because it isn’t consensus but evidence that determines what is and is not the best description of how the world works. As scientists, we’d much rather that everybody have a well-informed scientific basis.  As such, we lament the poor understanding of basic climate physics in the general population and think that if only these folks were better educated about this, society would move swiftly to address this problem.

But we are wrong.

GG has mentioned this before, but the more scientifically literate individuals are, the more apt they are to be able to justify a position that seems politically favorable.  So while left-leaning individuals will argue for carbon taxes, right-leaning individuals will find reasons why the science is suspect, because you can always find some effect somewhere that sounds plausibly disastrous. As Yale Law’s Dan Kahan has pointed out, this is quite equivalent to the unending battles over evolution.  He has added the interesting sidelight that in both cases, individuals who are well aware of what climate scientists and biologists/paleontologists observe and infer can still find that don’t “believe” in climate change or evolution. In essence, scientific literacy can be a cudgel to beat back opposition to your “tribe’s” position, regardless of where the scientific community that works in that field thinks.

This is why we see non-climate scientists showing up in things like Climate Hustle or signing petitions to ignore climate change.  Yet few are willing to take up the task of really going through all the data and literature and experiments and models to really be sure that those climate scientists screwed up. It probably doesn’t help that earth sciences use physics and chemistry and biology and mathematics, fields that other scientists have expertise in, but the applications to the climate system might be more complex than at first glance. Scientists are born skeptics, but sometimes it might be wise to shut up if you don’t have a firm grounding in part of the field. We don’t confuse medical professionals in quite the same way.  You don’t expect your GP to fill a cavity and would be insane to ask your dentist about that lump in your armpit.

Anyways, what’s an earth scientist to do? Even though it grates, the 97% argument carries weight: it suggests that experts really are in agreement to the point where action is appropriate, and it helps to underscore who has professional understanding of this (by the ways, the right/left tribal identifications fall away once you get into a professional’s realm of expertise; there are conservative climate scientists who are very concerned about global warming).  Right now, concern over climate change is rising across the political spectrum. Sounds helpful, but given the poor state of science understanding, should there be more science education? Not surprisingly given the discussion above, the answer is no if the only goal is getting folks to act.

Solutions that have been suggested and show signs of making headway in essence try to remove the tribal binary of whether or not humans cause climate change but move in the direction of building bridges between people with differing viewpoints. So one study indicated that getting people to identify climate change as a societal issue became more favorably inclined to contribute to efforts to address it. Another suggested identifying common concerns before wading into a discussion on climate change. Examples Kaban gave in a talk at CU included simply identifying an impact of climate change that required community action as a means of moving past the right/left dog whistles on this topic.

In essence, it seems Americans understand that scientists think we are changing the climate. They might disagree on whether humanity is a prime cause, but are more apt to engage in addressing problems spawned by climate change.

Because some of these approaches work best in getting support for mitigating the damage, the bigger challenge might be in convincing Americans to reduce carbon emissions rather than mitigate the more visible problems. It would be easy to imagine support for geoengineering by, say, putting stuff into the upper atmosphere or orbit to reduce temperatures even though that will do nothing to help with acidification of the oceans. So it might be wise to watch the whole picture rather than totally focusing on just whether we get buy in.


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