Attitudes toward science and scientists

There is a major disconnect between the attitudes of scientists on climate change (reduce carbon emissions everywhere, reduce US per capita yearly emissions from 5.7 metric tonnes carbon to a quarter tonne — in the next 15 – 40 years would be good, a few decades ago would have been better) and the attitudes of much of the US public.

Many lay people are very concerned about environmental problems like climate change; they work at different levels of activism and witness. Others have wide-ranging beliefs that overlap less well with what those who study the environment have found: climate change is a fabrication of liberal scientists; it’s an issue that the government or industry should address (but not the individual) or that individuals should address but not government; it’s readily solvable, all we need to do is A and B and a little C; it’s important, but not really crucial like …

Scientists worry about keeping atmospheric carbon levels low enough to prevent catastrophes, but the public fights psychologically comfortable battles over judges and social security.

According to the International Climate Change Taskforce in Meeting the Climate Challenge, “Beyond the 2°C level, the risks to human societies and ecosystems grow significantly. It is likely, for example, that average temperature increases larger than this will entail substantial agricultural losses, greatly increased numbers of people at risk of water shortages, and widespread adverse health impacts. Exceeding a global average increase of more than 2°C could also imperil a very high proportion of the world’s coral reefs and cause irreversible damage to important terrestrial ecosystems, including the Amazon rainforest.

“Above the 2°C level, the risks of abrupt, accelerated, or runaway climate change also increase. The possibilities include reaching climatic tipping points leading, for example, to the loss of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets (which, between them, could raise sea levels more than ten meters over the space of a few centuries), the shutdown of the thermohaline ocean circulation (and, with it, the Gulf Stream), and the transformation of the planet’s forests and soils from a net sink of carbon to a net source of carbon.”

For most Americans, a drought is an increase in food prices. For much of the world, a drought means choosing which child dies, or having no choice over how many children die.

This post addresses a few reasons why we who formed our opinions at an early age, and scientists, who are continually challenged to update their understanding, have conflicting pictures of the universe.

We grew up with different images of pollution. For some, pollution is the pipe from industry into a pond. For others, particularly younger people, pollution is the SUV filling up. Scientists’ understanding is more aligned with the picture of the SUV as polluter.

We have different images of how to solve problems: joining the government, protesting the government. Cooperating internationally or going it alone, or through non-governmental organizations. Centralized or decentralized decision-making. Scientists’ understanding of the need to implement policy changes coincides better with the understanding of older people, particularly those whose world view was shaped in part by World War 2 and the aftermath, the United Nations. Small groups of people (including cities, smaller utilities, etc) cannot attain the expertise needed to understand and stay current with technologically challenging field. This is not paternalism, but rather a realistic assessment of how much time and interest people have in studying the details of wind vs nuclear vs natural gas power. After all, one of the big objections to privatizing social security is that most of us don’t want to put in the time.

We have different histories. Older people remember Louis Strauss, not a scientist though head of the Atomic Energy Commission, making a statement that no one in the field agreed with, that nuclear power would be too cheap to meter (Strauss was one of very few people ever rejected for a cabinet position, apparently it wasn’t only physicists who disagreed with him). Older people may remember arrests for failing to participate in silly bomb shelter exercises. My images are of scientists unsuccessfully trying to get the feds to address climate change. Of the feds imposing some smart growth solutions on recalcitrant California cities and counties, but not enough (California has a weak central government that is not protecting our water.) In other words, a more mixed picture of when the federal government is more reluctant or more enthusiastic to embrace good ideas.

Some know that physicists invented the bomb without knowing that after WW2, physicists became passionate about disarmament and other public concerns. Some know that chemists invented DDT without knowing that as a result, they shifted their thinking about public responsibility. The genome project is typical in that 1% of the funding is dedicated to considering the ethics, a new style of ethics consideration.

We have different images of government recommendations, and indeed, different presidencies produce reports of varying qualities. Most people in energy policy approved the recommendations in the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), 1997, report. If people in the field hadn’t like it, they would have criticized it heavily in scientific and policy publications. This government publication differs from the Cheney energy task force. While there are likely some areas of overlap, both Cheney’s methods and results were widely criticized in scientific and policy publications. Not all, not necessarily the same ones that environmentalists attacked, but generally, much of the Cheney results do not reflect the current thinking of people in science and energy policy. In the absence of traditional governmental procedures, asking PCAST for their energy recommendations, a non-governmental group, the National Commission on Energy Policy, has formed to fill this role.

Many people feel renewables are natural and natural is good. Natural doesn’t pollute, etc. This A) is impossible, and B) helps sets up in some people’s mind a false security about solutions. Some renewables are impractical or/and heavily polluting. Others are a critical energy source for today and the future. The word “renewable” is not alone sufficient to tell us which. Renewables such as solar and wind do a little bit of good, and a little bit of harm, and we need to compare these quantities.

My next post will look at some of other emotional and spiritual factors that block people from listening to what scientists are saying.

Comments that go beyond praise and nays Thanks to the people who wrote in about their experience of Peter Trier. His memorial was last Sunday, and many people, especially in the disabled community, talked of Peter’s importance in their lives.

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