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Why Climate Change Continues to Be a Tough Sell

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A photo taken at San Francisco's flooded Embarcadero on January 22, 2016 during the seasonal king tides. (Chris Martin/flickr)

So, 2016 goes down in the books as the warmest year on record, globally. And a new report affirms that a “pause” in global warming, often cited by climate science contrarians, never happened. So that should settle this climate thing once and for all, right?

“Wrong,” seems to be the view of many Americans.

The question of how people make up their minds about climate change turns out to be complicated, which helps explain figures due to be released next week by Yale and George Mason Universities as part of the ongoing Six Americas study of climate attitudes. The project’s most recent survey shows that while seven in 10 U.S. adults believe that the planet is heating up, only about half (53 percent) will concede that human activity is driving it, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to that effect.

“We’re ideally objective when we think and decide, but that isn’t what we actually do,” Ohio State University decision sciences expert Ellen Peters told NPR’s Science Friday. In matters as potentially disruptive as the course of the climate, “We tend to seek out, interpret and weigh information according to what we wanted to believe ahead of time,” said Peters. That would apply, of course, to those on both sides of the argument.

This is a nut that Naomi Oreskes has been trying to crack for more than a decade. One of the nation’s most notable science historians, Oreskes has written extensively about the tactics of climate science deniers and their motives. In December, the Commonwealth Club of California’s Climate One program gave Oreskes its annual Stephen H. Schneider Award for achievement in climate science communication.


Six years ago, Oreskes and co-author Erik Conway wrote Merchants of Doubt, which detailed how the fossil fuel industry co-opted scientists and bankrolled “disinformation” campaigns to counter warnings about global warming and hamstring government efforts to engage on the climate front.

But Oreskes agrees that the disinclination to accept climate science can be traced to more than a corporate conspiracy.  Other factors in the complex matrix of climate attitudes:

“Government is the Problem”

The impulse to reject climate science goes to the heart of American culture.

“We have a long history of being suspicious about government,” says Oreskes, and for better or worse, the most meaningful countermeasures to climate change require some level of government intervention, such as regulating and taxing carbon emissions.

“I think our version of it dates to Ronald Reagan (“Government is the problem”) but it’s a really deep element in American society if you think about it. Our government was set up so that the federal government would be weak, so that it wouldn’t concentrate too much power in Washington D.C.”

Ask Not What You Can Do for Your Country

Some Americans have also come to see potential climate solutions as a threat to their lifestyle. A survey by the Pew Research Center last summer found that six in 10 Americans believed they’d have to make “major changes to their way of life” to address climate change.

“There’s also sort of the idea that the American way of life is a life of plenty,” says Oreskes. “Many people, if you try to talk to them about climate change, what they hear you saying is, ‘You’re a bad person—the way you live is bad,'” explains Oreskes. “You’re doing this terrible thing which is going to kill people in Bangladesh.”

Oreskes cautions against using the “language of sacrifice.”

“I think the key challenge for us is to figure out how we shift our energy systems in ways that protect our prosperity rather than ways that cause us to be poor,” she says. “And this is really crucial because a lot of people want to imply that if we do something about climate change, it’s going to cost us a ton of money.”

Often held up as proof to the contrary is California, which has seen its economy grow steadily despite having the nation’s most aggressive policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Blame it on the Media

Why not? We deserve it. After all, not a single question about climate was raised throughout the series of televised presidential debates during the 2016 campaign.

“There is fundamentally a climate silence in America today,” says Ed Maibach, who directs the George Mason half of the Six Americas project. He says most respondents to their surveys say they “rarely hear about it in the media,” nor do they often hear people discussing climate or have conversations about it themselves.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck situation,” says Maibach. “We need all voices in America talking about climate change and throwing their support behind climate solutions.”

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