The world’s leaders on science and public policy have begun meeting in Durban, South Africa, to create a framework for dealing with global warming. It is the seventeenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 17). After seventeen meetings, the globe is still warming, and the clock on the Kyoto agreement is about to run out.
Emission of CO2 haven’t been reduced. I reported here earlier this month that the world added an additional 6 percent to the total CO2 load just last year. At that rate it will be impossible for COP 17 to reach its announced goals of holding global warming down to 2 degrees C. A business-as-usual approach will see warming two or three times higher than that. If that happens, things will get ugly. No scientist disagrees with that statement.
A recent University of Illinois research project confirms what a number of other studies have concluded: Nearly all published atmospheric scientists in the world agree that the planet is warming and humans are causing it. However, a recent study by the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University shows that the average American isn’t so sure.
Dr. Edward Maibach is the center’s director and oversaw the research project. He told me: “Two out of three Americans believe there is a lot of debate among the scientists about climate change. Of course, it is known that 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists and experts are in agreement that the world is warming and human activity is driving that change. So, there is a huge disconnect between the actual science and what the American public believes.” Click here for the George Mason research projects.
That disconnect extends to the upper reaches of Congress and the largest portion of the current crop of Republican presidential candidates. That disconnect may explain why the United States, one of the two top emitters of CO2, is not a big player at the COP 17 meetings.
Dr. Maibach told me that the disconnect may be created by the way global warming is communicated to the public. He says that doomsday proclamations don’t work very well.
“People must believe this is a solvable problem,” Maibach said. “They have to believe this is not too big and beyond us. They have to understand that this is not just in God’s hands.”
Maibach told me: “The more research we do, the more I’m convinced that we are way overselling the risk and way underselling the ways we can pursue solutions.”
Solutions vs. frightening scenarios
Dr. Maibach says people respond to solution information better than frightening scenarios. “It is the risk information that tends to drive people away.”
Then Americans should be running for their lives, and toward rejection of the science based on three concurrent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the International Energy Agency (IEA).
The IPCC released a report predicting a greater frequency of extreme weather events caused by global warming. The OECD reported that if global warming isn’t tamed, the world will reach a tipping point after which nothing we can do will set things right. The IEA said much the same thing, pointing out that, based on those fossil-fuel projects already under construction or planned, the planet is poised for irreversible damage in just five years. I haven’t mentioned the frightening takes of the Pentagon and the CIA about different kinds of threats from global warming. Think war, mass immigration, famine and disease. Scary stuff.
Maibach says the reports serve a purpose. “They are helpful in urging us to understand what future scenarios will look like if we don’t take action,” he said.” But, that has a tendency to become the conversation.”
He’s tested different approaches to getting the message across to people.
Maibach’s team at George Mason produced three fake news stories framing global warming in different contexts: national security, human health and as an environmental issue.
“We put these stories before two groups we called ‘doubtful’ and ‘dismissive,'” he said.
Doubtful folks aren’t sure they believe the science, and dismissive folks say the science is a hoax or it is no big deal.
“What we found,” said Maibach, “is that when you talk about the benefits of taking action, particularly the benefits to human health, that’s when you can have a conversation.”
Maibach says the respondents found the information helpful and hopeful — “as opposed to information about risks, which they flat-out reject.”
But what of all the information people are getting from political candidates? I asked him, in particular, the positions taken by many of the GOP presidential candidates and their statements in televised debates.
“It is clear,” Maibach said, “they are trying to capture the Tea Party, which is unified on this issue — dismissing the threat of global warming. But, I think the key message is to not write off the Republicans, not to be condescending to the Republicans. You want to double down. Scientists need to be trusted by the Republicans, because when they trust you, they listen to you.”
There is another study Republicans might consider. It was produced by Dr. Jon Krosnick at Stanford University and demonstrates that voters show a preference for candidates who take positive positions on the environment. It works for Republicans as well as Democrats. Polling shows the vast majority of Americans believe the planet is warming, even though they continue to believe there is still a scientific debate on the effects of CO2. (See report here.)
Maibach reiterates his central point in terms we can all understand: “We all tend to be overly busy, dealing with our most immediate personal concerns. When some distant relative at our Thanksgiving table wants to talk about global warming risks, again, we’re probably going to duck out of that conversation. Conversely, if she wants to talk about climate change as America’s best economic opportunity of the 21st century, that’s a conversation we may want to have.”
Armed with this kind of information about the risks, and the attitudes of the American public, one would think that the United States will take the lead in Durban at the COP 17 meeting. It won’t. Our leaders won’t take the risk.
And that might be the scariest fact of them all.