The greenosphere is in a frenzy about new polls showing that Americans neither understand nor particularly care about climate change — one from Rasmussen, another from Pew. A few semi-coherent thoughts:

Lots of folks seem to be having exactly the wrong reaction to this, which is that enviros need to try even harder to "raise awareness" of climate change and "educate the public" on climate science. Ugh.

The public is already "aware" of climate change. It’s friggin’ everywhere. It gets as much as or more publicity than virtually any other sociopolitical problem outside the economic downturn. Pop stars are writing songs about it fer chrissake. Awareness: check.

As for educating the public on the science, guess what? The public’s kinda ignorant about science. Have you seen the polls on evolution, or ghosts, or aliens, or telepathy? They’re horrifying. There’s a lot to know these days, and most people don’t know most of it. Changing that is impossible a long-term undertaking we don’t have time to wait on.

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So, if people are already "aware," and a renaissance of widespread scientific literacy is unlikely in the next few years, what direction to take from these polls?

You have to start with plausible answers for why so many people refuse to believe in or prioritize climate change.

Start with this question: why don’t you ever see polls on public knowledge of the Standard Model in physics or valence bond theory in chemistry? Because frankly, who cares if the public understands those things. They need to understand science insofar as science impinges on their lives and calls on them to make decisions.

When science does impinge, the public responds based on two basic questions, both of which are just as much emotional as rational:

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  1. Is this a problem that threatens me/my family/my tribe? Is there an imminent threat? Is it an emergency?
  2. Do the proposed solutions to the problem threaten me/my family/my tribe? Am I going to get screwed?

Consider evolution. It poses no real threat in and of itself, but accepting its validity threatens, or seems to threaten, some individuals’ social, emotional, and spiritual commitments, the beliefs by which they conceive of their place in the world and their meaning in it. When that happens, it’s almost always the science that goes, not the commitments. Only safety and survival are prioritized higher. So the public — at least around half the public — rejects evolution.

It’s a similar deal with climate change. Right now, to a large chunk of the public, the answer to the first question is no and the answer to the second is yes. They don’t believe climate change is an imminent threat and they do believe that proposed solutions threaten their security. So they reject the facts and put it out of their mind. It’s not a scientific way of thinking, but it is human nature.

Those two answers are what need changing, and they won’t be changed by scientific reports and data. Two things seem called for:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

That’s what will change the poll results. It pains many geeky progressives to realize it, but science is largely beside the point here. It informs the strategy, but it is not itself a strategy. The relevant realm is sociopolitical, and so the strategy must be values-based, rhetorically savvy, and emotionally resonant. Repeating the facts won’t help.

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