The New Yorker will be running a three-part series on climate change by Elizabeth Kolbert, starting in this week’s issue. It’s not available online (yet?), but don’t miss this interview with Kolbert. A choice bit:
How good is the science? We often hear it said, at least in this country, that there are conflicting views.
There is a very broad consensus in the scientific community that global warming is under way. To the extent that there are conflicting views, they are usually over how exactly the process will play out. This is understandable. The climate affects just about every natural system on earth, and these systems in turn affect the climate. So making predictions is very complicated. Meanwhile, we have only one planet, so it’s impossible to run a controlled experiment. To focus on the degree of disagreement, rather than on the degree of consensus, is, I think, fundamentally misguided. If ten people told you your house was on fire, you would call the fire department. You wouldn’t really care whether some of them thought that the place would be incinerated in an hour and some of them thought it would take a whole day.
One disturbing thing about your article is just how alarmed many seemingly sober-minded scientists are. What sort of a gap is there between expert and lay opinion on climate change?
That’s a good question. I think there is a surprisingly large—you might even say frighteningly large—gap between the scientific community and the lay community’s opinions on global warming. As you point out, I spoke to many very sober-minded, coolly analytical scientists who, in essence, warned of the end of the world as we know it. I think there are a few reasons why their message hasn’t really got out. One is that scientists tend, as a group, to interact more with each other than with the general public. Another is that there has been a very well-financed disinformation campaign designed to convince people that there is still scientific disagreement about the problem, when, as I mentioned before, there really is quite broad agreement. And third, the climate operates on its own timetable. It will take several decades for the warming that is already inevitable to be felt. People tend to focus on the here and now. The problem is that, once global warming is something that most people can feel in the course of their daily lives, it will be too late to prevent much larger, potentially catastrophic changes.