Bridging the Perception Gap on Climate Change

Hurricane near Mexico

Hurricane Aletta. Image courtesy of SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE.

The current debate on climate change in the press, on TV talk shows, and in the blogosphere is certainly not moving towards a consensus. If anything the rhetoric continues to escalate through a series of claims and counterclaims.  The public appears dazed and apathetic. Two recent examples bring this home to me.

The National Research Council has just published a series of reports on America’s Climate Change Choices, which—again—documents that “a strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and posses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems.” One of the documents lays out a plan to limit the magnitude of climate change while a third document identifies practical adaptation strategies to respond to the climate changes already occurring. These reports indicate that a sizable segment of society has moved beyond the question of "is it occurring?" to "how must we respond?"

On the other hand, I’ve come across a number of blog postings, videos, and position papers from Americans for Prosperity. This group continues to vigorously dispute the reality of climate change, highlighting a fringe group of scientists who question data, intimate a power grab by the federal bureaucracy, and claim any efforts to limit CO2 will wreck the economy.

Polls show the number of Americans who believe climate change is occurring is actually declining. Ever more data and “experts” don’t seem to be an effective means of communicating the issues to the public. 

Perhaps a way to enlarge the dialogue is to look at the lessons of history in matters of climate. Last week CHF sponsored a conference for historians of science entitled Chemical Weather and Chemical Climate. The conference addressed climate-related issues from historical, sociological, and political perspectives. Speakers presented papers on air pollution in  New York City from 1945 to 1970, regulation of CFCs in Oregon in 1975, the implementation of the EPA CHESS system (Community Health and Environmental Surveillance System), and new methods of determining specific geographies where air quality impacts asthma suffers. Looking through the lens of history can be an effective antidote to the heat of current debate where each side is emotionally invested.

Posted In: History | Policy

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