The water cooler talk today for Climate Nerds (and the Climate Coolsters too) is all about Al Gore’s Rolling Stone critique of President Obama’s failure to lead on climate change issues. Here’s the money quote on the singular agenda-setting power of the American president:
Yet without presidential leadership that focuses intensely on making the public aware of the reality we face, nothing will change. The real power of any president, as Richard Neustadt wrote, is “the power to persuade.” Yet President Obama has never presented to the American people the magnitude of the climate crisis. He has simply not made the case for action. He has not defended the science against the ongoing, withering and dishonest attacks. Nor has he provided a presidential venue for the scientific community — including our own National Academy — to bring the reality of the science before the public.
The point is that the public needs strong leadership on global warming. Otherwise we’re left confused and preoccupied with other pressing concerns. But it also brings up a long-standing question about whether more information is what Americans really actually need to get on board with climate action—in word and in deed.
The New York Times‘ climate expert and DotEarth blogger Andy Revkin weighed in, saying that he agrees with the part about Obama missing the agenda-setting boat. He goes on, however, to lament that Gore’s critique simply “retreads old arguments implying that if the disinformation on this tough issue were swept away, some kind of magical consensus would emerge.” And it does seem that piling on more and more scientific evidence that global warming is happening hasn’t worked so far and likely isn’t going to change people’s minds or get them fired up.
Revkin has been saying for years that the human brain is basically hard-wired to ignore this kind of risk until it hits us in the face. And he wrote a year ago (in one of his habitual climate blogger back and forths with Joe Romm) that even if each and every American had access to “perfect climate information,” our brains would still not be able to adequately process the urgency of the situation. There’s certainly some social and cognitive science backing this up—and I’ve been fascinated by this stuff for a while (and continue to look to studies of the human brain for clues on best practices in climate messaging).
The scientific evidence has been mounting for years; maybe we just don’t have the capacity to worry much about a threat as abstract and seemingly distant as climate change.
But new Yale/George Mason research on climate attitudes tells a somewhat different story. Namely, as Anthony Leiserowitz, who directs the Yale University Project on Climate Change Communication, put in a recent NPR interview, “So far the evidence shows that the more people understand that there is this [scientific] consensus, the more they tend to believe that climate change is happening, the more they understand that humans are a major contributor, and the more worried they are about it.”
(Had to bold that.)
As I reported here recently, for the first time, this poll not only asked citizens what they thought of climate change, it also asked them to give their best estimate about how climate scientists feel about global warming. As it turns out, people do not have a good idea where scientists actually stand on this issue. “Only 13 percent of Americans got the correct answer, which is that in fact about 97 percent of American scientists say that climate change is happening, and about a third of Americans just simply say they don’t know.”
So are Americans simply becoming more anti-science? Leiserowitz says that’s not what his polls show. In fact, “most Americans have overwhelming trust in the science and trust in scientists,” he said. But the public is largely unaware of the consensus on climate change because that’s not what they’re hearing on cable TV or reading in blogs. “They mostly get exposed to a much more conflicted view, and that’s of course not by accident,” he said. That is a sly reference to a relentless multimillion-dollar campaign aimed at discrediting the science of global warming.
So, we do in fact need better information! (It should be noted that Gore also issues a blistering critique of the media’s failure to tell the climate story to the public. For more on that read Joe Romm’s analysis.)
But information alone is probably not the silver bullet.
Another thing is happening as well. It’s what I call the Vicious Cycle of Climate Inaction.
It’s a perpetual stalling mechanism that seems to be built into the system. Here’s how it works: inaction by leaders at the highest levels leads people to think global warming must not be as big a deal as they thought and, in turn, people thinking it’s not as big a deal as they thought maintains a political landscape where inaction by leaders at the highest levels is politically acceptable.
Climate Solutions’ KC Golden summed this up perfectly a while back in a book review of The Boiling Point by Ross Gelbspan that he wrote for Yes! Magazine:
The best antidote to denial is action. We once heard a participant in a Climate Solutions focus group say, “I don’t think global warming is a big problem, because nobody’s doing anything about it.” If it were really as bad as Ross [Gelbspan] says, surely the responsible authorities would be taking action! So action to protect the climate isn’t just the result of greater awareness of the problem, it is a precondition of greater awareness.
It’s an understatement to say that it would be nice if we could break out of that cycle—and Obama’s one person in a pretty darn good position to lead the charge, both by giving it his powerful voice and by truly working to move climate and energy policy forward.
Notably, Yale’s Leiserowitz says that if you drill down a bit (and I wrote about this yesterday in the context of Gallup polling on fossil fuels), the American public actually is not split when you ask them if they’d like to see a gradual transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. All the more reason for Obama to listen to Al Gore and use his bully pulpit to make a clear case for action—and then start walking the talk so that perpetual inaction doesn’t simply lead to more and more evaporation of public concern.