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 warming?
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 paralyzing.
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 realistic.
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 soon.