Opinion: Climate change needs us to act now

At a recent dinner at the University of Oxford, a senior researcher in atmospheric physics was telling me about his coming holiday in Thailand.

At a recent dinner at the University of Oxford, a senior researcher in atmospheric physics was telling me about his coming holiday in Thailand. I asked him whether he was concerned that his trip would make a contribution to climate change - we had, after all, just sat through a two-hour presentation on the topic. "Of course," he said blithely. "And I'm sure the government will make long-haul flights illegal at some point."

I had deliberately steered our conversation this way as part of an informal research project that I am conducting - one you are welcome to join. My participants so far include a senior adviser to a leading UK climate policy expert who flies regularly to South Africa ("my offsets help set a price in the carbon market"), a member of the British Antarctic Survey who makes several long-haul skiing trips a year ("my job is stressful"), a national media environment correspondent who took his family to Sri Lanka ("I can't see much hope") and a Greenpeace climate campaigner just back from scuba diving in the Pacific ("it was a great trip!").

Intriguing as their dissonance may be, what is especially revealing is that each has a career predicated on the assumption that information is sufficient to generate change. It is an assumption that a moment's introspection would show them was deeply flawed.

It is now 44 years since US president Lyndon Johnson's scientific advisory council warned that our greenhouse gas emissions could generate "marked changes in climate". That's 44 years of research costing, by one estimate, $3 billion per year, symposia, conferences, documentaries, articles and now 80 million references on the internet.

Despite all this information, opinion polls over the years have shown that 40 per cent of people in the UK and over 50 per cent in the US resolutely refuse to accept that our emissions are changing the climate. Scarcely 10 per cent of Britons regard climate change as a major problem.

I do not accept that this continuing rejection of the science is a reflection of media distortion or scientific illiteracy. Rather, I see it as proof of our society's failure to construct a shared belief in climate change.

I use the word "belief" in full knowledge that climate scientists dislike it. Vicky Pope, head of the Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Change in Exeter, UK, wrote in The Guardian earlier this year: "We are increasingly asked whether we 'believe in climate change'. Quite simply it is not a matter of belief. Our concerns about climate change arise from the scientific evidence."

I could not disagree more. People's attitudes towards climate change, even Pope's, are belief systems constructed through social interactions within peer groups. People then select the storylines that accord best with their personal world view. In Pope's case and in my own this is a world view that respects scientists and empirical evidence.

But listen to what others say. Most regard climate change as an unsettled technical issue still hotly debated by eggheads. Many reject personal responsibility by shifting blame elsewhere - the rich, the poor, the Americans, the Chinese - or they suspect the issue is a Trojan horse built by hair-shirted environmentalists who want to spoil their fun.

Many people regard climate change as a Trojan horse built by hair-shirted environmentalists

The climate specialists in my informal experiment are no less immune to the power of their belief systems. They may be immersed in the scientific evidence, yet they have nonetheless developed ingenious storylines to justify their long-haul holidays.

How, then, should we go about generating a shared belief in the reality of climate change? What should change about the way we present the evidence for climate change?

For one thing, we should become far more concerned about the communicators and how trustworthy they appear. Trustworthiness is a complex bundle of qualities: authority and expertise are among them, but so too are honesty, confidence, charm, humour and outspokenness.

Many of the maverick, self-promoting climate sceptics play this game well, which is one reason they exercise such disproportionate influence over public opinion. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), on the other hand, plays it badly.

Rather than let loose its most presentable participants to tell the world how it achieves consensus on an unprecedented scale, it fails even to provide a list of the people involved in the process. It has no human face at all: the only images on its website are the palace or beach resort where it will hold its next meeting.

Since people tend to put most trust in those who appear to share their values and understand their needs, it is crucial we widen the range of voices speaking on climate change - even if this means climate experts relinquishing some control and encouraging others who are better communicators to speak for them.

Another key to achieving a widely held belief in climate change is collective imagination. We will never fully appreciate the risks unless we can project ourselves into the future - and that requires an appeal to the collective emotional imagination. In the past years I have been delighted to observe a growing partnership between scientists and the creative arts, such as retreats for scientists, artists and writers.

It is clear that the cautious language of science is now inadequate to inspire concerted change, even among scientists. We need a fundamentally different approach. Only then will scientists be in a position to throw down the ultimate challenge to the public: "We've done the work, we believe the results, now when the hell will you wake up?"

This article originally appeared on New Scientist.

George Marshall is founder of the Climate Outreach Information Network in Oxford, UK

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