Is it a communications failure?
Recent news articles have pointed out that we in the U.S. do not consider global warming a critical threat. Some bloggers have argued that this is the result of a communications failure (e.g., here or here or here).
The decision whether to worry about a looming issue is a value judgment, not a scientific one. You and I could agree entirely on the science of climate change, but disagree about whether it’s something for our society to address.
For example, one argument against us worrying about climate change is that our descendants will be much richer than we are, so they will be better able to address whatever climate change occurs — thus, we should leave the problem for them. At its heart, this is a moral choice.
In any case, one should not blame scientists for this position because it does not involve scientific misunderstanding.
But I don’t think that explains the U.S. public’s position. Rather, I think people are not concerned because they simply don’t recognize the possible impacts of climate change. Why not? Because the Bush administration has made it a goal to obfuscate and downplay the risks and potential harms of climate change.
Consider for a moment the power the president has in determining what people worry about. His administration was able to convince most U.S. citizens that Iraq was a threat so grave we needed to invade immediately. And he was able to get the looming bankruptcy of social security on to the agenda simply by talking about it.
The president has great power to control what the public worries about — and does not worry about. For global warming, he has made it his goal to downplay the risks of climate impacts and emphasize the economic risks of emissions reductions. Given his immense power, is it any wonder the general public is not terribly worried?
Thus, I don’t view the present situation as a failure of communication. This is a highly technical issue, and the forces opposed to action have waged a generally successful disinformation campaign. And the most powerful agenda setter, the president, is doing nothing to raise awareness or concern on the issue.
Given this situation, I am actually hopeful that things will improve in 2009. Most serious presidential candidates from both parties support action on climate change, so I think we will see a change in presidential rhetoric in the next administration.
I expect that will ratchet up the U.S. public’s interest and concern level on this problem.