Our planet is warming, and greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas are the biggest culprits. The situation is already grim, and it’s getting worse all the time.
Unprecedented droughts and heat waves, rising seas, and the geographic spread of diseases are harbingers of even greater threats on the horizon. We can debate which solutions to climate disruption offer the greatest benefit, but not whether there is a problem. That case is closed. Yet somehow the false debate rages on.
The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, released in 2014, was the scientific community’s strongest statement to date. It summarizes mountains of climate science studies, finds a changing climate caused by human activity, and lays out its frightening consequences.
Last December, global leaders built on momentum launched by reports such as these and the influential Laudato Si encyclical from Pope Francis at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Paris. For the first time in over two decades of international negotiations, the Paris conference produced a (tentative) binding and universal agreement on climate action. This opportunity is too big, too important to miss.
We are facing a pivotal election season in the United States, one in which a presidential nominee of a major political party has repeatedly called climate change a hoax, echoing the views of a number of leading conservative politicians. Earlier this year Donald Trump vowed to “cancel the Paris Climate Agreement and stop all payments of U.S. tax dollars to U.N. global warming programs.”
How can so many prominent individuals — and a notable fraction of the public — persist in promulgating such damaging viewpoints in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence? The answers to that question are complex and multifaceted. There are, however, some common threads.
Certain origins of the false debate are nefarious. The 2010 book Merchants of Doubt convincingly documents professional deniers planting seeds of doubt in public opinion to hinder efforts to reduce the impact of human carbon emissions. So-called experts are trotted in front of television cameras to claim the science is not settled (it is) or that the costs of reducing emissions would be economically catastrophic (they wouldn’t be).
These efforts are well funded and, unquestionably, effective. Science itself has even faced threats. Some climate scientists have reported pressure from officials to distort or hide scientific results that suggest human activity is to blame for global warming. A stream of spurious investigations and FOIA requests consume researchers’ time and resources. Many scientists have received direct threats to their professional livelihood or even their wellbeing. Intentional seeding of doubt, though, does not explain persistence of the false debate by itself.
We have come to expect that climate change is now a partisan issue, particularly in the United States. To appeal to a right-wing base, politicians will often assume a climate-skeptic position. Since when are scientific findings grounds for opinions among politicians? Are not climate scientists the obvious authorities in their field?
Monday morning quarterbacking is virtually a national pastime whether it be sports or public policy, but when these discussions flout the data and invoke conspiracy theories on a subject of such central and urgent importance, they can safely be classified as reckless. It is morally indefensible to use climate change as a wedge issue.
Beyond the subversion of science and the political posturing, there is another insidious source of the misalignment between climate science and public perception of climate change: humans are simply not good at assessing long-term risk. We routinely underestimate threats that creep up on us. Unless there is an immediate negative consequence, we will often march straight into danger.
The human brain is superbly adapted to respond to abrupt risk from, say, a predator. We have yet to develop similarly effective responses to slow, insidious risks like those presented by a changing climate, even when the subject pervades our 24-hour news culture.
In light of these political and psychological challenges, what can be done? First, the media itself must assume a greater responsibility for curating their sources of scientific information. The noble goal of journalists to present all sides of an issue is only appropriate when the subject remains up for debate. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that our climate is changing and that we are primarily to blame. The time for debating that core conclusion is long past.
It would be far more productive for media outlets to present experts to debate what avenues offer the greatest chance for success in adapting to, and mitigating the hazards of, climate disruption, whether they be technology, policy, or grassroots action. Providing a forum for non-scientific — and often anti-scientific — voices to render opinions on sound science is irresponsible.
A more arduous strategy revolves around education. The importance of improving STEM education has been trumpeted for years, and confusion about climate science would surely fade were students to receive more robust training in the basic principles of science. That said, we simply cannot afford to wait for education reform to take root. Disruption to our climate over the next several decades has the potential for irreversible, devastating impact. Massive changes in how we produce and use energy are needed now. Education not only for students, but also for the public more broadly, is crucial.
Scientists must step out of their laboratories and offices and interface with the public. All who understand the situation we are in, regardless of their formal training, have a responsibility to educate those around them. While intricate details of the confluence of factors affecting our climate remain a subject for active researchers, the basics are as simple as they are important.
The greenhouse effect is very real, and we as a society have inadvertently toyed with our planet’s energy balance by burning fossil fuels on a massive scale. Ramifications of this phenomenon are dire and will be more severe the longer we wait to take action. All of our observations point to this fact. These messages — that evidence and data trump demagoguery, that the science is in fact settled, that we must shift away from carbon-intensive energy sources in a big way, that the lives of future generations are at risk if we fail to act — are possibly the most important of our time.
Seth B. Darling is a scientist at the Argonne National Laboratory, specializing in energy and water. Douglas L. Sisterson is a senior manager at the Argonne National Laboratory. They are the authors of How to Change Minds About Our Changing Climate. See an excerpt here.