Getting past climate denial

This has been a seminal week both in the readings for this class and climate-related activities outside of class.  With everything said and done, I’m starting to sort all these experiences into two camps: The climate denial problem, and possible solutions.

The climate denial problem is well covered in papers by McCright, Boykoff, and Freudenberg.  I was most interested in the McCright paper, which uses concept from the study of social movements – framing, mobilizing, and political opportunity structure – to analyze the success of the climate countermovement in stopping the Kyoto protocol in 1994.  This paper is from 2003 and looks at conservative think tanks, congressional hearings, and news media coverage from 1990-97.  I did not realize until I read this how far back the roots of this countermovement go.

McCright makes a great case about how these conservative think tanks used the political opportunity of the Republican Congress elected in 1994 to mobilize the countermovement and neutralize the problem of climate change that scientists had already reached consensus on.  In short, in a direct contest between climate science and ideology, science got its pants beat off.

I feel like only now are scientists, with the help of social scientists and communicators, starting to get their footing to fight back.  This is where the solutions come in, and the paper by Groffman et al describe how to communicate science in a way people will understand.  It is not a question of a knowledge deficit – that has been clearly established by both research and events.  It is a question of framing, public engagement, and appealing to an innate sense of purpose and meaning.  The Groffman paper gives some good ways to do that, but we need more.

Personally, I am fascinated by the story of how corporate interests managed to frame and manipulate information so as to win such a long delay on climate action.  Oreskes and Conway demonstrate in Merchants of Doubt that these tactics trace back to the tobacco wars and have been going ever since.  But simply being aware of this manipulation is not enough.  We have to get beyond it to get to climate solutions, and we don’t have much time.  So we need solutions, and we need them now.  Framing climate change as an energy problem that provides an opportunity for economic growth, as a public health issue, as a national security concern, and as a question of morality and ethics of environmental stewardship are all good options.

This week on campus I saw Katharine Hayhoe speak Sunday night.  I asked her what to do about the political polarization that has come to define this issue.  She thinks climate denial is not based on the science but on fear – fear of the solutions.  That goes along with the conservative think tanks (and my climate denier at MCL) afraid of big government programs to address climate change.  But big government doesn’t have to be the solution.  Fueling economic growth, reducing risks to public health, and not propping up foreign oil regimes ought to be things that all Americans can agree on.  And Katharine pointed out that if we let the climate get to a crisis point, that is when big government will intervene, and we end up with what we fear most.

This week we also have an event tomorrow on climate change and national security, and we saw the release of another report from the Pentagon stating that climate change is an immediate national security threat.  Yet on Friday we have coming to campus the granddaddy of climate change denial himself, S. Fred Singer.  I hope to squeeze in that event between all my other obligations this week to see how it goes.  Last time he was on campus, he got a hostile reception.  I hope this time it’s either hostile or completely ignored.  It’s way past time for people like Singer to get off the stage.  We need solutions, not more misinformation and dithering.

Social science and natural science

This week we read several articles about social sciences and how they can work with natural sciences to enact successful policy outcomes.  I was very glad to read the editorial in Conservation Biology that called for integrating and mainstreaming social sciences into natural science research and communication.

Such an integration may not be as easy as it might appear.  In reading that editorial and the chapter from Contemporary Sociological Theory, along with the readings from the IPCC our first week, one big cultural divide is apparent.  While natural sciences like to be as certain as possibly in data analysis – even to the point of quantifying the level of uncertainty as was done in the IPCC report – social sciences do not do the same thing.  Instead, they take an approach based on various schools of thought, and using them as lenses to make sense of observations, as the sociology chapter discusses functionalism, conflict theory, symbolic interactionism, etc.

One reason for this difference in approach may be that social sciences typically study humans, while natural sciences study the natural world.  Natural sciences have traditionally broken that world down into parts in an effort to gain an understanding of how they work, while social sciences, while focusing on different spheres such as micro and macro, do not typically practice such reductionism.  For one thing, that might require experiments on humans that are unethical and would never pass the Institutional Review Board, such as the Stanford prison experiment.  Yet, even natural scientists are starting to move away from reductionism to take a more systems approach, looking at how all the pieces work together, and to their surprise, they are finding emergent properties showing that the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.

I think it would be interesting to the two fields to try each other’s approach.  Are there broad camps or approaches that can be identified within natural sciences, much as we see functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism?  Are there ethical ways research on humans could be broken down to quantify the pieces of each part of the experiment?  Vaske aned Donnelly tried to do this in their research on values, attitudes, and behaviors, and perhaps I didn’t understand the statistics, but I really didn’t see how their conclusions told us anything we don’t already know – that values shape attitudes and both shape behavior.

It may be that each area of science has its own subject of study and methodology, but that the two can work together to help shape policy.  Science about human behavior can tell us how to best shape policy and communication to get people to lower carbon emissions, preserve wild spaces, and stop polluting, which science about natural systems can tell us if these efforts are actually working or not, and how efforts in one part of the ecosystem affect other parts.  Both approaches will be vital to preserving ecosystems that are increasingly under threat.