This David Roberts post, over at Gristmill, discusses the relationships between public awareness of climatic science and the need to take action on climate change. In short, it concludes that the general public will not understand climatic science in the foreseeable future. The critical task is not to make them do so. Rather, what is critical is altering the answers they reach when they ask themselves the two questions through which they evaluate potential problems:
- “Is this a problem that threatens me/my family/my tribe? Is there an imminent threat? Is it an emergency?”
- “Do the proposed solutions to the problem threaten me/my family/my tribe? Am I going to get screwed?”
It goes on to argue that scientific reports and data will not change how people answer these questions. Rather, to get action on climate change, the following must be done:
- “Greens, politicians, and other communicators need to get serious about calling climate change the impending catastrophe it is, with serious, dire consequences for people now living, certainly for their children. That means risking being called “hysterics” by conservatives and their dupes in the media.”
- “The same folks need to get better at showing the public the opportunities and benefits of action. It’s about expanding the winner’s circle and making damn sure everybody in it, or potentially in it, knows about it.” (emphasis in original)
This is a strategy quite different from climate change mitigation by stealth, but it does seek to respond to the same fundamental problems of selfishness and misunderstanding.
The critical flaw in thinking we can achieve a technocratic solution to climate change is a failure to appreciate the influence of those who will be harmed by effective climate change mitigation efforts (such as coal and oil sands producers), as well as their willingness to manipulate the public into demanding inaction. In order to counter the influence of such status quo powers, there does need to be a political constituency for effective climate change action. I think Roberts is basically correct in asserting that it will be through changing the public perception of risk and opportunity that such a constituency might best be constructed.