Photo via Joanneum
What if the world had perfect climate information? If everyone had a perfect understanding of climate science and the threats posed by global warming, would that change most people's limited commitments to individual action and our ability to implement good carbon-cutting policy? This question is a topic of an informal debate between the one-time NY Times climate reporter Andrew Revkin and Climate Progress' Joe Romm, and it's well worth thinking about in order to come to grips with why it is we're so short of perfect climate information right now . . .The debate was sparked when Revkin wrote a piece on why scientists have trouble communicating their ideas (particularly about climate change) to the public. He wondered what sort of shortcomings both the scientific community and the public were experiencing that might keep the gap between the views of each so great. But in his analysis, he made no mention of the groups that actively work to keep that gap great: Primarily, think tanks and other organizations funded by the fossil fuel industry that produce 'experts' which hew doubt over climate science in the public sphere.
Romm fired back with a lengthy piece focused on how you can't have an honest discussion about why the public doesn't understand climate science without taking into account the 'disinformers' as he calls them. Revkin wrote back, essentially saying that sure, disinformers exist, but do you really think things would be all that different if the world had access to perfect climate information? Revkin seems to think not, but Romm writes back in yet another post that of course it would. Read the jumping off point for the debate at Climate Progress.
But the most important thing to take away from the back and forth, in my opinion, is this (and it's a point Romm often makes):
There really is no way you can look at the gulf between the conclusions of a huge body of scientific research and the public understanding of that research without taking into account the powerful industry interests that seek get in the way. There is a massive industry that stands to suffer drastically if the public were to understand climate change properly, and were able to call for action. That's just the way it is, and to ignore that produces a dishonest debate -- there was a reason that the tobacco industry tried so long and hard to produce experts and release contrary reports to fight back the obvious consensus that smoking killed.
But this is especially true now, when conservative think tanks and organizations have a direct line to the conservative media -- climate skeptics appear on Fox as experts because their views fit the ideological narrative of the network, and their work gets disseminated through right-wing blogs. And both occur again and again. Now, large swaths of the public take those 'expert views' as gospel, and feel that climate change has been proven to be a hoax. And then, with so much of the public turned skeptical about climate change, major news organizations feel they must treat the issue with 'fairness', and give credence to those skeptical views even if it means flying in the face of the findings of science.
I would say that these forces -- fossil fuel interests paired with a conservative media that has found a convenient hot-button point that suits its ideology, and the sense of ambiguity they have successfully manufactured around the issue -- are more responsible for the public not understanding climate change than anything. That's the main reason that the quest for 'perfect climate information' will never be completed.