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How to Get the Message Across on Climate Change

As the science of climate change gets clearer, the public gets more confused

Published: Monday, December 5, 2011 - 15:19

For many scientists working in the field of climate research, one of the most alarming trends has nothing to do with the climate itself: It’s the poll numbers showing that even as scientific projections of global climate change get ever more certain, public perceptions about climate change are getting ever more skeptical.

Why is there such a huge—and growing—disconnect? John Sterman, the Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, says there are specific characteristics of climate change that make it unusually difficult for people to grasp. But the good news, he says, is that there are approaches that can help bridge that gap in understanding.

For example, Sterman’s group has developed climate simulators to help policymakers, business leaders, the media, and the public learn about the dynamics of climate change and the consequences of the choices we must make.

“When experimentation is impossible, when the consequences of our decisions unfold over decades and centuries,” Sterman says, “simulation becomes the main—perhaps the only—way we can discover for ourselves how complex systems work, what the impact of different policies might be, and thus integrate science into decision making.”

Sterman’s analysis was published in October 2011 in a special issue of the journal Climatic Change devoted to the subject of how to improve the communication of climate science to the public, the media, business leaders, and lawmakers.

Scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), among others, have made an ever-clearer case “that climate change is real, that it’s happening now, and that much of it is caused by human activity,” Sterman says. And yet, “in the United States, at least, more and more people disagree with the science. Despite the enormous efforts and success of the IPCC and scientific community in assessing climate change and the risks it poses, their efforts to communicate those results are not working.”

Sterman says that more research on the scientific specifics of climate change, while important, is “not going to solve the problem.” While some scientists suggest that public resistance to efforts to control emissions has to do with worries over the weak economy, Sterman says that “the poll results show something much more troubling: People increasingly deny that climate change is happening.”

“These are not disagreements about how we should respond to the risks of climate change,” he says. “This is denial of the scientific facts. Political ideology, not science, increasingly determines what people believe to be true about the physical world. If you believe that responding to climate change will hurt your industry or increase government control over your life, one way out is to construct a worldview in which it’s not happening.”

It’s possible for people to cling to such views, he says, partly because “the scientific community has done a poor job of communicating.” Some scientists think the answer is more research to narrow the uncertainties, and more public education on subjects such as how the carbon cycle works. “That just doesn’t work,” Sterman says. “Telling people facts doesn’t change their beliefs.”

Research on risk communication, Sterman says, shows that “you have to start where people are, with how people see the world.” The issue of climate change, by its nature, creates “a perfect storm of public confusion,” he says. That’s because the climate is “a complex system, global in extent, and involves long time frames compared to what people ordinarily think about. The climate is affected by the actions of every individual and every nation, and what we do now will affect the world we leave to our children.”

In addition, with climate change, “you have very powerful vested interests seeking to confuse the public, for ideological and pecuniary reasons,” he says.

Sterman’s research also delves into specific aspects of climate change that add to public confusion. One common misunderstanding, he says, is the difference between emissions and accumulations of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2). “Most people think if we stabilize emissions, we’ll stabilize the climate,” he says. “But that’s wrong. If we stabilize emissions today, atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations will continue to grow.”

To explain why, Sterman uses the analogy of a bathtub: Greenhouse gas emissions are water flowing into the tub, and natural sinks—such as forests and oceans, which absorb CO2 from the air—are the drain. As long as the water pours in faster than it drains out, the water level continues to rise.

But today’s emissions are about twice as large as the flow out, so merely stabilizing emissions means the level of water in the tub will keep rising. In Sterman’s research, more than 80 percent of people surveyed made this error in understanding.

Andrew Hoffman, a professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan who was not involved in this research, says this study is important because “too much of the attention so far has been on only the scientific part” of climate change. By studying the economic, social, and political dimensions as Sterman has done, he says, “we’ll start to understand this a lot better.”

Article by David L. Chandler. Reprinted with permission by MITnews.


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Why ? Because its a scam !

"Why is there such a huge—and growing—disconnect?"

The answer is obvious ... because man caused global warming is a blatant billion dollar scam !

Models are meaningless.  They can give any answer the programmer wants.  There is not a single piece of actual evidence to support the claims of the IPCC.  If you think there is, I'm sure the IPCC would love to hear about it.

There has been no warming for the past 15 years (according to Dr Phil Jones, the man responsible for IPCC data) and the IPCC now claims there will be no warming for the next 20-30 years, just when man's CO2 emissions are highest.


So the global consensus of climate scientists is a vast conspiracy?  Or are you not a climate scientist, ADB, but an ideologue who denies scientific data and analysis in defense of a political agenda?

Climate change is not a scam but cap and trade is.

The scam is not the proposition that climate change happens (geologic evidence proves unequivocally that it does) or even that carbon dioxide emissions may contribute to it. The scam is the proposition that the displacement of hundreds of billions of dollars in economic resources, with a large share falling into the pockets of General Electric, Goldman Sachs, and J.P. Morgan Chase--Senator Kirsten Gillibrand named the latter two as explicit beneficiaries of cap and trade mandates--will prevent or even mitigate the climate change. The scam is the proposition that the benefits of cap and trade will exceed or even equal the costs. King Canute's futile command that the tide not come in is highly instructive.

Cap and trade advocates say we have to pay now or pay later. Discounted cash flow analysis says that "pay later" is generally best. Suppose for example that rising sea levels will submerge the Maldives a hundred years ago. If every person in the industrialized world were to put aside a few coins--less than a dollar--today in some kind of international aid fund, more then enough money would be available to evacuate the Maldives and buy new homes for its inhabitants should this become necessary 100 years from now. However, the likes of Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan Chase, the Climate Action Partnership, and the late but unlamented Enron and Lehman Brothers can't make any money off of this.

The bottom line is that adaptation to climate change (as humans have done ever since there have been humans) will almost certainly be cheaper and more effective than costly and quite likely futile efforts to prevent it. We therefore need to separate climate science from public policy decisions that seek to use climate science for self-enrichment.