07 June 2011

AGW denial: is it curable?

The Spread of the Disease
A primary difficulty in discussing how to mitigate the future damage of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is the intense disagreement on whether such a thing as AGW even exists in the first place. If we flip back 15 years ago, this disagreement did not exist, and people on either the left or right in the US were both equally certain about the reality of AGW.

The cause of this departure in opinions is pretty easy to figure out: money and attention were given to people who cast doubt, and soon a debate was occurring where none existed before. What was a scientific question (are humans heating the planet) with an easy and verified answer (yes) became, over a decade's time, a partisan arguing point. Until it stops being a litmus test, the rather boring question of "Is there AGW?" will be argued, when the more important question of "How can AGW be mitigated?" will be avoided until it's potentially too late to do a thing about it.
Is there hope for moving past this impasse? Or is the continued easy existence of human civilization going to be thrown away because of our simple need to argue?

Why the Disease Spread
Consensus already existed within the scientific community, so the vital job of scientists who preferred human civilization to continue (this is, at last count, all of us) was to build up consensus within the public. This was difficult for us because we assumed that the public wants us to give them facts. This assumption only works some of the time because some of the public in no way trusts us. Humans, except when pretending to be Vulcans, only accept facts when they are given by people we are willing to believe in the first place.

People don't believe in creationism because they haven't seen a fossil or haven't been told that we share the majority of our genome with chimps. They believe it because they have been told, by people they trust and believe, that scientists be lying. These politicians, pundits, and religious leaders went one step further in their misinformation campaign and tied political and economic ideas that no one likes (carbon offets and the entire lunacy of carbon trading) to the science of climatology, in order to increase polarization. If that didn't work, well, paint Al Gore as being a hypocrite and suddenly they have created another AGW denier.

The Way Forward
The very politicians, pundits, and religious leaders who nowadays see it as their goal to fight against environmental concerns have to become a minority within conservative thinking. The way to do such a thing is to use things besides scientific fact to argue for the reality (and importance of combating) AGW. One useful route is to wrap the argument in a manner in which the Founding Fathers would approve, as is shown here: argue that American government exists to serve the common good and that keeping the planet in the same climate does such a thing. Another positive trend is religious leaders such as the Pope presenting AGW mitigation as a moral choice.

Its possible to change the public debate to a more fruitful one, but facts alone will not cause this change. We need to appeal to the whole human brain, and to the brains of the whole of humanity, in order to stop talking and start doing.

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