Denial fueling debate: The social context of climate science

The problem with climate change science is not the science. The methods are not revolutionary and the results are not falsified. The controversy lies in the fact that climate scientists are producing a quantitative assessment of a lifestyle. Ppms and ˚C are the units of critique and modeling results recommend cultural change.

There is scientific consensus on human-induced climate change. A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in 2010 found >97 percent of the 1,372 climate researchers interviewed agreed that we are impacting climate. So why is the public’s concern about global warming decreasing and the percentage of Americans who think it will never happen on the rise?

Nothing makes a culture dig in its heels like a paradigm shift. The thing about paradigm shifts though, is that their acceptance has a pattern. Steven Sherwood, author of Science controversies past and present, shows how society’s reaction, particularly in the U.S., to climate change science mimics its reaction to other major shifts. This is an open source article in the October 2011 issue of Physics Today and I recommend the six-page read. It draws parallels between acceptance of Copernicus’s sun-centric solar system, Einstein’s general relativity, and climate change tenants.

In the case of climate change, Sherwood lays out a quick timeline:

  • 1864–> John Tyndall introduces the paradigm-shifting idea that changing atmospheric gas concentrations can change climate
  • 1896–> Nobel laureate Svante Arrhenius quantitatively predicts climate warming due to future coal burning
  • 1930s–> Guy Callendar tests and validates Arrhenius’ predictions
  • 1970s–> Scientific acceptance of climate change science
  • 2011–> More than 95 percent of climate scientists agree on evidence of atmospheric gas induced warming of the earth
  • To be determined–> Public acceptance of climate change science

Paradigm shifts are adopted slowly within science and much slower within the public sphere. Sherwood shows that scientific acceptance of both climate change and a sun-centric solar system took a century. Copernicus’ revolution took an additional 100 years for public acceptance. If the reality of climate change takes just as long to sink in, we have about 60 years to go.

The problem with changing a paradigm, Sherwood states, is that people felt safe living by the old ideas.  Before a shift is accepted, often a compromise theory blending old and new information is popularized. For example, if we were struggling to accept climate change, a compromise theory might look like this: people believe greenhouse gases are altering the climate but think the impact of CO2 fluctuations is exaggerated by scientists. As it turns out, that is exactly what 43 percent of Americans believe.Sherwood points out that fear and denial of a new paradigm results in emotional rather than rational thinking. In periods of shifting ideas, scientists get painted with a broad and ugly brush by deniers. The attempt to negate the climate change shift prompted a new, digital-age tactic: email theft. Deniers hacked climate scientist correspondence, though nothing damning was found.

The patterns continue. Pushing the public to act on a new scientific understanding often results in sharp political backlash Sherwood states. Indeed, some U.S. politicians currently campaign as “anti-climate change science”. Fear of the new climate change paradigm is part of their platform.

A national decision to accept and prevent climate change is slowed by more than just fear. Another open source article in this month’s issue of Physics Today accuses scientists of sharing their message poorly. In “Communicating the science of climate change,” Richard Somerville and Susan Hassol explain that part of the reason people are confused is because the presentation of science is often unintelligible and/or boring for the non-scientist. They discuss additional factors influencing public opinion on climate change including the misinformation campaign on the loose and that people are more likely to reject science during an economic downturn.

The scientific debate around increasing temperatures is all but finished.  But Sherwood acknowledges that, unfortunately, “…because contrarian proposals reinforce traditional beliefs, they enjoy a prolonged period of public popularity even as their currency among successive generations of experts approaches zero.”

Acceptance is the first step to action, so let’s hurry up and realize the truth of climate science. What sort of atmosphere will we have if it takes 60 more years for people to believe they’re changing the earth’s temperature?(Cartoon by Clay Bennett for The Christian Science Monitor, found here)


One thought on “Denial fueling debate: The social context of climate science

  1. Your sentence, “so why is the public….decreasing” expresses our thoughts exactly!

    I have been able to compare the life style of the villagers in India who truly live a sustainable lifestyle and are well – fed and content with perfect teeth. Their life style produces no garbage – they recycle everything. Even the cow manure is used as cooking fuel; they have a local name which translates as “cake”. You get the point.

    In comparison, the average American creates shiploads of non-recyclable garbage that even a foreign country refuses to accept with payment. The plastic bags, bottles and boxes and packaging material itself is choking our planet.

    Now, tissue paper: I would encourage you to study the tissue paper habits of the undeveloped world. It is easy. They do not use it. What do they use? The answer will save enough trees to save our planet for a few more years. However, this paradigm shift (your term) will be impossible to enforce.

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