Americans and Climate Change: The perfect problem
"Americans and Climate Change: Closing the Gap Between Science and Action" (PDF) is a report synthesizing the insights of 110 leading thinkers on how to educate and motivate the American public on the subject of global warming. Background on the report here. I’ll be posting a series of excerpts (citations have been removed; see original report). If you’d like to be involved in implementing the report’s recommendations, or learn more, visit the Yale Project on Climate Change website.
Below the fold is the first half of the introduction to part one, which describes how global warming is a "perfect problem."
Part I: Matching Up to the Perfect Problem
Why has the robust and compelling body of climate change science not had a greater impact on action, especially in the United States?
From the policy-making level down to personal voting and purchasing decisions, our actions as Americans have not been commensurate with the threat as characterized by mainstream science.
Meaningful pockets of entrepreneurial initiative have emerged at the city and state level, in the business sector, and in "civil society" more generally. But we remain far short of undertaking the emissions reductions that scientists say are required if we are to forestall dangerous interference in the climate system on which our civilization depends.
The problem of climate change is almost perfectly designed to test thelimits of any modern society’s capacity for response — one might even call it the "perfect problem" for its uniquely daunting confluence of forces:
- complex and inaccessible scientific content;
- a substantial (and uncertain) time lag between cause and effect;
- inertia in all the key drivers of the problem, from demographic growth to long-lived energy infrastructure to ingrained daily habits at the household level;
- psychological barriers that complicate apprehension and processing of the issue, due in part to its perceived remoteness in time and place;
- partisan, cultural, and other filters that cause social discounting or obfuscation of the threat;
- motivational obstacles, especially the futility associated with what is perhaps the quintessential "collective action problem" of our time;
- mismatches between the global, cross-sectoral scope of the climate change issue and the jurisdiction, focus, and capacity of existing institutions;
- a set of hard-wired incentives, career and otherwise, that inhibit focused attention and action on the issue.
In late 2005, the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies convened 110 leaders and thinkers in Aspen, Colorado, and asked them to develop their own diagnosis of the gap between science and action from the standpoint of their respective societal "domains": Science, News Media, Religion & Ethics, Politics, Entertainment & Advertising, Education, Business & Finance and Environmentalists & Civil Society.
This report discusses the findings reached at that gathering of extraordinary Americans.
Part I is a synthesis essay that describes selected themes from the Conference, each reflecting an informal post hoc grouping of diagnoses and recommendations. Rather than adhere strictly to reporting on ideas generated at the Conference, original commentary is offered on given topics and context is provided for others. In a few instances, caution and further research are advised before undertaking implementation of certain recommendations. The author’s post-Conference vantage point allowed for detection of patterns and themes across the findings (e.g., diffusion of responsibility or the "four paradoxes of urgency"). However, this also means that the reader should not construe sign-off by the Conference participants on any particular points, even though all were inspired in some measure by their various and generous contributions to the dialogue.
Part II of the report is a group-by-group description of the diagnoses and recommendations developed at the Conference, although the approach here, too, remains inescapably interpretive since the source material was rapporteur notes from the deliberations, not tapes or literal transcripts. We refrained from recording the event in order to encourage candid dialogue. The reader should not construe sign-off by the participants on Part II either, though their comments on an earlier draft have been incorporated.
Some readers may prefer to skip past the synthesis essay in Part I and go straight to the meat of the recommendations in Part II, or even to the summary list of recommendations in the back of the report. Others may value the narrative walk-through in Part I as a thematic foundation for the detail in Part II.
Four Contextual Points
First, this report does not review the science of climate change. It begins with the premise that the science is sufficiently sound and concerning to warrant a focus on the next question, which is how society absorbs, interprets, propagates and ultimately acts on that science. For those seeking authoritative reviews and updates on the science, here are a few recommendations:
- The National Academy of Sciences’ Marian Koshland Science Museum website offers an accessible primer on climate change.
- Sir John Houghton’s book, Global Warming: The Complete Briefing, now in its third edition, is a highly regarded review of the science.
- The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) website offers a wealth of authoritative scientific information, including the IPCC’s three major assessment reports, as well as speeches, slide presentations, workshop proceedings, and supporting technical papers.
- The U.S. National Assessment Synthesis team, under the auspices of the U.S. Government’s Global Change Research Program, produced a 2000 report entitled "Climate Change Impacts on the United States."
- Real Climate is a rich and topical website written by working climate scientists for the interested public and journalists that aims "to provide a quick response to developing stories and provide the context sometimes missing in mainstream commentary."
- The Pew Center on Global Climate Change website includes basic and topical information on climate change science, and links to many government agency websites on the issue, including the data-rich website of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Second, this report does not constitute a policy roadmap on climate change in the United States. While the issue of emissions targets and pathways is briefly discussed in the section on goal- setting at the end of Part I, the predominant focus here is on public understanding, will, and motivation as a precursor to policy and other forms of action. Others are doing brilliant and intricate policy work on how we should — if public and political will enables it — create a fair and effective program in the United States to mitigate climate change, whether through a nationwide cap-and-trade system or some other framework.
Third, while we assembled a diverse group at the Conference, the reader should be informed that it was not fully representative of America. Our goal was to generate creative diagnoses and fresh solutions in a reasonably intimate setting, not to fashion a broader societal consensus on site. We had geographic, ethnic, occupational, religious, and sectoral gaps, and therefore in no way presume that our event could be considered a true national summit on climate change. That said, we believe our model for candid cross-domain dialogue could usefully be built upon and expanded in future meetings.
Fourth, we adopted a problem-driven orientation in our Conference as a springboard to creative thinking about new solutions, and that approach is sustained in this report. Accordingly, many pages are devoted to what’s not happening and why, which then leads into discussions about what needs to happen next. This leaves less room for celebrating the considerable progress already underway on climate change in the United States. This should not be read as a defeatist tone. Perhaps the most hopeful sign that we are on the right track is when our society engages in candid, reality-based dialogue about a problem, because that is the best foundation for solutions that will really work. Optimism is more implicit than explicit in this approach — but it is assuredly a critical ingredient.
Get Grist in your inbox