Photo: thewritingzone, Flickr/CC BY-SA
NASA's James Hansen, perhaps the world's foremost climate scientist, said that "climate contrarians ... have been winning the argument for several years, even though the science has become clearer." He made the remarks yesterday at a briefing at the Royal Society in London, and went on to expound upon why scientists (and common sense) have been losing out to misinformation -- and what he thinks can turn the conversation around. The Independent reports:
"There's been a very strong campaign by those who want to continue fossil fuel 'business as usual', and the scientific story has not been powerful enough to offset that push." Part of the problem, he said, was that the climate sceptic lobby employed communications professionals, whereas "scientists are just barely competent at communicating with the public and don't have the wherewithal to do it."Hansen is right. But the problem is even more fundamental in nature. The 'climate skeptic' lobby is employed by some of the richest and most powerful corporations in the world, and there's an obvious incentive to delay any action that would force polluting corporations to pay for their emissions.
The result was, he said, that in recent years "a gap has opened between what is understood about global warming by the relevant scientific community, and what's known by the people who need to know - and that's the public. However there's nothing that has happened to reduce our scientific conclusion that we are pushing the system into very dangerous territory, in fact that conclusion has become stronger over that same time period."
But there's no comparable force bent on accurately communicating the latest findings of the climate science community. There are few on the pro-science side with that kind of capital, and there's no comparably powerful industry with a vested interest in seeing less carbon emissions.
So it comes down to a relatively mundane problem of cash flow. The fossil fuel industry -- and the skeptics they employ or encourage -- has the benefit of capital. Scientists researching at universities don't. Climate scientists don't have the power, connections, or resources to bombard the media with talking points about their latest research, but fossil fuel-funded think tanks and front groups can disseminate their skeptical misinformation on outlets like Fox News with ease. Skeptic-backers can organize front groups and get their talking points into Tea Party meetings, even though the information isn't factual.
So what can turn the conversation around? Hansen's answer is a little grim: "Mother Nature. In places like Texas this year, Moscow last year, and Europe in 2003, the climate change is so big that they are undeniable. Within 10 to 15 years they're going to occur over 15 to 20 per cent of the planet, so people have to notice that the climate is changing."
One would hope so.