… the think tanks and institutes that deny the reality or severity of climate change, or promote distrust of climate science, do so out of self-interest, ideological conviction or both. Some groups, like the fossil fuel industry, have an obvious self-interest in the continued use of fossil fuels. Others fear that if we accept the reality of climate change, we will be forced to acknowledge the failures of free-market capitalism. Still others worry that if we allow the government to intervene in the marketplace to stop climate change, it will lead to further expansion of government power that will threaten our broader freedoms.
But most Americans do not work for the fossil fuel industry, and most Americans accept that there is an appropriate role for government to protect human and environmental health. So why has the denial of climate change achieved so much traction?
In my travels, I have met many, many people who have told me that they are not in denial about climate change; they simply don’t know enough to decide. It strikes me that these people aren’t unlike my fellow jurors at the start of jury selection. They are trying to keep an open mind, something that we are routinely enjoined to do in many other aspects of daily life.
But just as open-mindedness can be the wrong answer in jurisprudence, it can also be the wrong answer in science and public policy. Since the mid-1990s, there has been clear-cut evidence that the climate is changing because of human activities: burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests. For the last decade or so it has been increasingly clear that these changes are accelerating, and worrisome.
Yet many Americans cling to the idea that it is reasonable to maintain an open mind. It isn’t, at least not to scientists who study the matter. They have been saying for some time that the case for the reality and gravity of climate change has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. But there’s the rub. The public seems to view scientists as the equivalent of the prosecuting attorney trying to prove a case. The think tanks, institutes and fossil fuel corporations take on the mantle of the defense.
We have to get over that flawed notion. Scientists don’t play the role of prosecutor trying to prove a case. Rather, they are the jury trying to evaluate the evidence. And they have rendered their verdict. The problem is not that scientists have become advocates, as some have claimed. The problem is that there is no judge, no recognized authority giving us instructions we accept, and no recognized authority to accept the scientists’ verdict and declare it final.
A healthy bite of Naomi Oreskes' recent piece in the Los Angeles Times, 'The Verdict is in on Climate Change'. Oreskes is a science historian, professor at the University of California San Diego, and author ('Merchants of Doubt'). If you’re interested, you can check out a couple of her recent presentations here and here.
(Graphic credit: NASA)
(Image credit: Johns Hopkins Public Health)