Sep 01, 2009
A recent day was supposed to be cloudy all
day, but the sun came out, so I hurried a load of laundry out to
the clothesline to avoid using the electric dryer. Weather
predictions are famously unreliable. Is that one reason so many
people remain unconvinced of the sober truths about global
Of Americans surveyed last year by Gallup, 97
percent were familiar with the problems of global warming, but of
that number, only 49 percent believed that rising temperatures
resulted from human activities.
Meteorologists say that one problem with
communicating effectively about climate change is their
preoccupation with just getting day-to-day reporting right.
Long-term global climate patterns are that much harder -- often
being subtle, erratic, and hard to tease from the fluctuations
caused by volcanoes, El Nino and similar weather factors.
It's tempting to respond to doubters with
more of the usual data: The five hottest years since the recording
of climate data started in the 1800s have occurred since 1997, and
the 10 hottest have occurred since 1990.
But that assumes that skeptics are responding
rationally. In fact, the climate debate is about denial, which is
how humans react when we're afraid we can't change something or
fear that change. Fear can be a healthy motivator to protect
oneself from lurking dangers like snakes in the grass, predators
and thugs behind the wall. But irrational fear is different and
What do we fear most -- possible losses due
to climate change or changes to our lifestyle that might be
required to address it? Risk is a combination of factors such as
certainty of danger combined with its extent. Climatologists can't
be certain about the extent of future impacts, but there are some
terrifying scenarios, such as models predicting sea levels rising
between four and 36 inches over the next 100 years -- at the high
end swamping huge populations in the world. Weigh that against the
fear of change in our lifestyles.
Fortunately, in May, a report titled "Climate
Change in the American Mind" analyzed existing survey data and
found that Americans overwhelmingly think that changing our
lifestyle to reduce carbon emissions might actually save us money
or in other ways improve or at least not harm our quality of life.
Another recent Zogby poll shows that 68 percent of likely voters
believe that government policies to address climate change might
increase jobs rather than put them at risk.
While many of us operate within
countervailing fears -- of change in climate versus changes
required of us to address it -- some have already had to take
sides. For farmers, climate change is not a theoretical issue.
Their livelihoods depend on estimating the right planting and
harvesting dates, on adequate rainfall, and dodging severe hail or
flooding. They can't afford denial; they know that the weather has
changed. Responsible policymakers must become similarly
Sun-drying my laundry has benefits -- nice
smelling sheets, for example -- in addition to cutting fossil fuel
use. The Cash for Clunkers program illustrates how policies that
help reduce climate change can also create jobs. As the Senate
considers when and how to address its own climate bill,
synchronicities such as these can remind the public to fear less
change to our lifestyles and focus more on what will happen if
Congress doesn't take meaningful action on climate change very
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