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Should We Be Optimistic About Climate Change? October 20, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, ethics of care.
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A new study from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has some good news and bad news for the planet. NY Times reporter, Felicity Barringer points to the ignorance revealed by the report — for instance, over two-thirds of the public think aerosol sprays contribute to climate change. (It is the ozone layer that is damaged by aerosols, not the climate.)  But on a more positive note, most people accept the fact that the climate is changing although they know little about why it is changing. And even more positive is the finding that they trust scientists to provide them with the information they lack.

Americans’ most trusted sources of information about global warming are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (78%), the National Science Foundation (74%), scientists (72%), science programs on television (72%), natural history museums (73%), and science museums (72%).

This suggests that the relentless right-wing campaign of obfuscation hasn’t worked.

But David Roberts at Grist argues that misinformation is not the real problem.

Insofar as lack of public engagement is the problem, the cause is not misinformation, it’s the lack of affective information — information that is meaningful, that speaks to core fears and aspirations. The main problem is apathy. People just don’t care much. Green journos and pundits tend to wildly overestimate the significance of accurate knowledge and wildly underestimate the significance of emotional resonance.

Those trying to spread the word on climate change have the advantage in numbers. The majority of Americans accept that climate change is happening and almost three-quarters get a passing grade — C or above — on Yale’s scale of knowledge. Where the denialists have the overwhelming advantage is in intensity. As rejection of climate science and climate solutions has become an ideological litmus test on the right, millions of Republicans have come to believe that climate science is not just incorrect but a hoax meant to further U.N. world government. They are pissed.

Very few of those who correctly believe that climate change is happening are pissed about it. More like “concerned,” the way people are concerned about homelessness or poverty in Africa, like, y’know, somebody (else) should really do something about that. Few write letters to legislators or hassle them about it in town halls. Almost no one will change their vote over it. No legislator stands to be primaried or driven from office over it.

In other words, all the intensity, and thus all the political risk, is on one side. For the political landscape to change in coming years, what’s needed is not a massive education campaign — though it certainly couldn’t hurt! — but a shift in the balance of intensity. The question is how to reduce the intensity of denialists and increase the intensity of climate hawks.

Roberts is optimistic about the future.

The backlash against cap-and-trade — not even the policy, the grotesque caricature of it painted by its opponents — won’t hold back the low-carbon tide forever. Voters already love clean energy; they think fossil fuels should be subsidized less and renewables more. The EPA is moving, states are moving, cities are moving, businesses are moving. As such efforts touch more and more lives, the issue will become less abstract. As people integrate clean energy into their worldview, intensity against climate science will fade and intensity behind reforms will increase.

Y’all know I’m not exactly a glass-half-full kind of guy, but I really think the death of the climate bill is a “darkest before the dawn” kind of moment. The larger forces of history are moving in the right direction. There’s only so long America’s peculiar, dysfunctional political system can resist.

I’m not quite so optimistic, not because of the persuasive power of right-wing politics but because of the peculiarities of climate change and the inherent difficulties in seeing climate change as a moral issue. I think it is a serious moral issue, but it requires a substantial re-conceptualization of ethics to see it as such.

I will have more to say about this over the next few days.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com



1. Nina Rosenstand - October 21, 2010

Very interesting. I actually don’t know if it is an inherently good thing to trust scientists; it certainly depends on the context,the individual scientists, and the nature of their evidence. Let’s not forget Habermas’s dismantling of the notion that science is value-free; while most scientists may have their primary loyalty and integrity directed toward research and analysis of facts, there’s ideology and personal interest present in the scientific community, too. (I know you’re not saying that all scientists can be trusted, but it is worth taking into consideration that there’s so much involved in terms of power, influence and the rise of entire new industries that we can’t assume we’re always getting completely objective reporting.)

Perhaps that’s what is the ground cause of the “apathy” mentioned by Roberts–and I think he is mistaken. Some people really couldn’t care less, yes. But I think Roberts overlooks that some “denialists” may not actually question the phenomenon of global climate changes, they are just adamantly opposed to being targeted by what they perceive as relentless, politically driven fear mongering. Refusal to join in the hand-wringing may seem like apathy to Roberts; to those “denialists” it is common sense prevailing. In other words, changing the “intensity” level will probably have the opposite effect. Nobody likes to be yelled at, and “denialists” will like a stepped-up level of intensity even less.

2. Is Climate Change an Ethical Issue? « Philosophy On The Mesa - October 28, 2010

[…] week I linked to an article by David Roberts at Grist who argued that although the majority of Americans think […]

3. Is Climate Change an Ethical Issue? | Rants & Reasons - October 28, 2010

[…] week I linked to an article by David Roberts at Grist who argued that although the majority of Americans think […]

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