climate science is not a short-cut to cultural change
Roger Pielke Jr. has an important post up that I would encourage each and every enviro to read. He references this letter (PDF, registration required) in the current issue of Nature. It’s from reps of several green organizations. An excerpt:
The science of climate change is under attack; an attack that is coordinated, well-funded and given constant play in the media. The stronger the scientific consensus on climate change becomes, the more the media suggest that the science is uncertain… The impression created in the public mind is that climate scientists are deeply divided, and action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions would be premature. Yet the consensus among climatologists, glaciologists and atmospheric physicists; that anthropogenic climate change is a reality; is as robust as is likely to be found on any scientific issue. As environmental campaigners, we would like to ask climate scientists everywhere: why are we being left to carry the can?
We’re not asking you to become campaigners or to compromise your independence. But we wish you would defend your profession as any other professionals would. This includes training people in media relations, sending eminent delegations to meet editors and senior journalists, writing letters to the papers to correct misleading articles and seeking every opportunity to put the record straight. Isn’t it time you started fighting for your science?
Pielke responds by citing pretty conclusive evidence that Americans do, in fact, believe that global warming is happening, that the science is settled, and that it’s a very bad thing. In other words, the scientists have done their job. The basic argument is won. What remains is the cultural and political work of marshalling support for measures to address the problem.
There are inherent difficulties attempting to organize collective action around a problem that is slow, incremental, diffuse, and whose worst effects will likely be felt after the current generation is dead. Right now Americans are presented with two basic choices: top-down measures, usually meaning government legislation and regulation, and bottom-up measures, usually meaning individual action (driving less, etc.).
I think the tide will begin to turn when top-down and bottom-up meet somewhere in the middle. What’s needed is cultural momentum, a sense by individuals that they are participating in something larger than themselves. Right now making individual changes feels a bit futile, like spitting in the wind, and legislative and regulatory battles (particularly at the federal level) feel abstract and distant. Part of why the hybrid car market is taking off so quick is that people who buy them not only feel like they are making some small individual contribution, but that they are participating in a large and significant cultural shift.
How to make this kind of stuff happen is a tough issue, and it’s up to all of us. Part of what’s needed is for the green movement — and greens themselves — to make a more concerted effort to engage with the culture at large. Legislation, regulation, and litigation are important but they are not all-important And science is not a silver bullet.