There aren’t that many skeptics left, and they aren’t the problem
Coby Beck has an entertaining and informative series of posts called "How to Talk to a Global Warming Skeptic," if you’re into that sort of thing.
But let me hazard an assertion: Maybe it doesn’t matter all that much how to convince a global warming skeptic. Why? Because there aren’t that many.
Head over to ES&T and read about a series of surveys done in four countries — the U.S., U.K., Sweden, and Japan — on climate change and related subjects. The way it’s written up is a bit opaque, to say the least, but there are a few clear results (FYI: I’ve also got a copy of the original paper, which is behind a subscription wall).
Acceptance that global warming is a real problem is above 90% in all four countries.
The U.S. does have a small, hard core of skeptics — around 7%, compared to 3% max for other countries. But I don’t see why that 7% should be the focus of so much attention.
Here’s a more important finding:
Global warming was ranked as the one of the top two environmental problems facing their country by 55% in the Swedish survey and 49% in the British survey, far ahead of any other environmental problems. In the U.S., however, global warming was only ranked fifth at 21% after water pollution, ecosystem destruction, overpopulation, and toxic waste.
Now, one way to react to this might be to say: Sure, Americans accept that global warming is a problem, but they don’t understand how bad a problem it is. So the solution is … more facts!
Human beings are not rational creatures. We make decisions, set priorities, establish habits based on a whole range of factors: personal history, peer groups, identity, taste, serotonin levels, whatever.
My guess is that Americans place a lower priority on global warming than folks in other countries because in those other countries they’ve been having a very public dialogue about it, much of which has been about solutions, ways to address the problem. We can debate whether the solutions are adequate, but in those countries they’re familiar with the push for wind power, emissions cuts, energy efficiency, and the rest. The problem has been absorbed into the civic dialogue and the public policy process. It’s being digested.
In the U.S., it hasn’t. It’s still sort of hanging there, on the fringe. Everybody’s aware of it, but few people are forthrightly discussing it. Most people, I suspect, view it with a kind of flat fatalism. It’s the apocalypse. It’s coming. We’re screwed. But … what? The only response that ever gets discussed is Kyoto, which has become just another token in the culture wars. It’s widely agreed that Kyoto wouldn’t solve shit — but we’re arguing about whether we should have adopted it anyway. Beyond that … what?
It’s not approachable. There’s nothing for people to sink their hooks into, to get some sense of control. We haven’t gotten our arms around it.
An issue like that, no matter how objectively important when rationally assessed, is just not going to be a priority. People are engaged by problems that they believe have solutions.
So I think greens, rather than obsessing endlessly about the few outright skeptics left, rather than obsessing about the latest scientific study, should start thinking more about how to integrate discussion of climate change into the civic and political spheres. That’s a delicate task — much "framing" will be involved — but just repeating the facts won’t accomplish it.