It is clear that concern in the United States over global warming is diminishing. In a Washington Whispers editorial, Paul Bedard quotes a Gallup Poll editor as saying Al Gore’s campaign to raise awareness of the “climate crisis” has failed. In one recent Pew Research Center survey, global warming rated at the bottom of a list of 20 domestic issues that Americans are concerned about.
Why is there so much apathy in the U.S. over something that threatens to transform the world by killing off thousands of species, flooding coastal areas, and making the world as much as 10 degrees F hotter? Do we just not care about the environment? Has the global warming message been oversold? Is the public experiencing ‘global warming fatigue’? Does the global warming problem seem so insurmountable to people that they just want to ignore it and hope that it goes away?
From my travels around the country and talking to people, the largest source of apathy is none of these. In my experience, people simply do not believe the ‘scientific consensus’ is correct. Most people do believe the Earth has warmed, but they think that warming has been largely natural. This was recently supported by a Rasmussen Reports poll which showed only 1/3 of American voters now believe global warming is caused by humans.
How can non-experts question the opinion of scientific experts? I believe it is because the public seems to have a better appreciation than the scientists do of a fundamental truth: There are some problems that science does not yet understand. There have been predictions of environmental doom before, and those have all failed. This has made people suspicious of spectacular scientific claims. As I have mentioned before, even Mark Twain over 100 years ago made fun of the predilection scientists have for making grand extrapolations and pronouncements:
“There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture from such a trifling investment of fact.”
-Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (1883)
The scientific community has brought this problem upon themselves by not following their own rules and procedures. Scientists have ‘cried wolf’ too many times, and some day that might end up hurting all of us when some unusual and dangerous scientific concern does arise. I think that people intuitively understand that spectacular scientific claims require spectacular evidence. Just saying something ‘might’ happen ‘if current trends continue’ does not impress the public. They have heard it all before.
The analogy I sometimes think about is our understanding of the human brain. What if there was a group of researchers who built a computer model of how the brain works, and they claimed that they could take some measurements of your brain and tell you what you would be thinking 24 hours from now. Would you believe them?
No, even though you are not an expert regarding the operation of the human mind, you probably would not believe them. From your daily experience you would suspect that those experts were probably overreaching, and claiming they knew more than they really did.
Of course, if the experts had performed such experiments before and succeeded, then you might be more inclined to believe them. But in the climate business, we have no previous forecast successes that are relevant to the theory of manmade global warming. We can’t even forecast natural climate variations, because we do not understand them. Simply forecasting long-term warming probably has a 50/50 chance of being correct just by accident, since it seems to be more common for warming or cooling to occur than for the temperature to remain constant, year after year, decade after decade.
And coming up with possible explanations for what has happened in the past (‘hindcasts’) do not really count, either. It is too easy to happen upon the wrong explanation which can be made to fit the data, a technique scientists call (rather pejoratively) “curve-fitting”.
In weather forecasting, MANY forecasts are required before one can confidently determine, based upon the number of successes and failures, whether those forecasts had any real skill beyond what might be expected just based upon chance. Climate forecasting is nowhere near being able to demonstrate forecast skill to the level of confidence that is routinely discussed in weather forecasting.
So, for those of you in the environmental community who think the global warming message needs to be repackaged, or rephrased, or have a change in terminology …well…I think you are wasting your time. The people have gotten the message, loud and clear: Global warming is manmade, and it is only going to get worse.
The trouble is that the people simply don’t think you know what you are talking about. And if global warming is largely a natural process, cutting down on our greenhouse gas emissions is going to have no measurable effect on future global temperatures.
Now, if you think you might succeed through a different kind of deception of the public…well, that indeed might work.