To the Editors:
In her article “How Climate Science Could Lead to Action” (January–February), Samantha Jo Fried goes into ideas for how to engage the public in environmental issues. I have some additional ideas.
One problem we have is that many people don’t believe in science unless it has a direct and immediate effect on them—for instance, improving computers and smart phones. The problem is that the effects of global warming seem quite remote—in location and time—to people living in places that are not immediately dealing with its effects, including many people who contribute most to greenhouse gas emissions.
One common problem is that some people make such statements as, “What do you mean we have global warming? It was unusually cold here this past winter.” People don’t understand the difference between climate and weather, and that global warming doesn’t mean everywhere right now. Making things hotter here and colder there is one of the effects, but people don’t know this fact. We have to explain this fact.
Another problem is that some people make such statements as, “What do you mean the carbon dioxide we add to the atmosphere is causing global warming? We’re adding only a small amount compared to what’s already there.” One way to counter this contention is to give an example of a large, almost full, glass of water. We have to add only a relatively small amount of water to make it overflow.
The science behind the issue is, of course, important. But we have to deal with irrationality, as well as remoteness in time and location. If it won’t directly affect my kids and grandchildren, so what? Most people can’t think about things that are a long time from now.
Berkeley Heights, NJ
Dr. Fried responds:
I think we share two underlying convictions: (1) that climate change is real, and a major existential threat to us; and (2) that we ought to take some kind of collective action to allay its effects. Your response cuts to the core of this second point, regarding how we might change hearts and minds of those who do not recognize the first point.
I worry that pointing out folks’ irrationality about climate—meaning clarifying the difference between climate and weather, or explaining collective carbon footprints—will backfire as a strategy. As you suggest, the information is out there, but some are actively choosing not to invest in that knowledge. Why is that? How have you and I come to know that a cold winter is not a sign that we can shed our wariness about climate? I’m skeptical of the convenient answer: “Because we are rational.” We cannot discount our life experiences, our education, our mentors, and our previous positive associations with environmental knowledge. Through these, we have developed a trust in environmental science that not everyone has. And if we really believe that a path to change involves more widespread investment in these scientific ways of knowing, then it’s our duty to listen to people who don’t trust climate science. It’s our responsibility to figure out what life experiences they’ve had, why alternative information is more appealing to them, and what we can do to gain their trust.
It’s also a reality that we can’t win everyone, and that we need to cast a wider net in our rhetoric about climate change: one that goes beyond trying to sway the most stubborn. An even more winning strategy, then, involves having conversations with people who are ambivalent, or who understand the existential threat but don’t yet know what to do about it (and most of us fall into this category). If we really believe that a path to change involves more widespread investment in acting on these scientific ways of knowing, then it’s our duty to have conversations about conservation as a social movement, and not just as information that one can either believe in or reject.