Some Environmental Advocates Not Helping The Cause, Climate Scientist Says

Environmental advocates who sound alarmist about climate change may be fomenting divisiveness in public discourse, a leading climate scientist said in Chicago Monday.
"I think environmental advocates have done a disservice by trying to amplify heat by saying we're going to be alarmists, we're going to scare you into agreeing. People don't scare into agreeing," said Elisabeth Moyer, a University of Chicago climate scientist who co-directs the Center for Robust Decision Making on Climate and Energy Policy.
"The only way we can do this is back off, get some perspective, start talking about solutions and get away from that sort of sense of fear that's driving people into whatever their comfortable preset positions."
At an Earth Day forum at DePaul University, Moyer was asked how she, a scientist equipped with data on climate change, responds to climate-change deniers who simply refuse to accept that climate change is occuring.
Moyer referred to studies in recent years by behavioral scientists who found that people are not persuaded by increased knowledge when they self-identify with political stances on certain divisive issues, especially climate change. An abstract from one such study, published in 2012, outlines the problem:
The deficit-model of science communication assumes increased communication about science issues will move public opinion toward the scientific consensus. However, in the case of climate change, public polarization about the issue has increased in recent years, not diminished. In this study, we draw from theories of motivated reasoning, social identity, and persuasion to examine how science-based messages may increase public polarization on controversial science issues such as climate change.
Equipped with data from behavioral science, Moyer does not find fault with deniers alone. In the public debate on climate policy, both sides cherry-pick facts from the data, she said, to support entrenched positions.
"We've sort of come out of a realm where we can talk to each other rationally about this, and we've become sort of irrational people grabbing at things that support our preexisting opinions," she said.
"Somehow climate change has become tied up in this whole question of how do we work as a society, and are we allowed to plan for the future, and do we have big government, and are you trying to oppress me, and are you changing my lifestyle. It has somehow become tied up in all that."
If people want to turn the heat down on the planet, Moyer said, they should turn the heat down in debate.
And one way to do that, the Depaul forum concluded, may be to turn to historians for perspective—although the historians present did little to muffle the alarm.
The DePaul forum focused on the work of Geoffrey Parker, a British historian whose book, "Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century," analyzes the impacts on human populations of a Little Ice Age that occurred from 1618 to the 1680s.
Sun-spot activity dropped drastically during that time, reducing solar radiation reaching the earth. The cooling that followed corresponded with an era of crop loss around the globe, a collapse in population in some regions, drought, relentless war, revolution, and infanticide that was not only unprecedented, said Parker, but "agonizingly widespread."
St. Vincent DePaul, who lived at that time and eventually lent his name to the university hosting Monday's event, described his own lifetime as an era of "war, pestilence and famine."
Moyer pointed out that the Little Ice Age was caused by a drop in average global temperatures of about a half degree Celsius. The world is currently on path, she said, to warm by 9º C.
"Geologically the changes of the Little Ice Age are really quite small," she said. "We're facing something that's more than 10 times as great as what has happened in the past."
Moyer was invited to the forum to describe the expected effects of global warming, but she declined to do that.
"I'm not going to tell you about them," she said, "because we don't know."
Although there is scientific consensus that warming is occurring, there's not a consistent theory of the impending effects that warming will have on people, she said, and scientists are just beginning to do the work necessary to figure that out.
Another historian on the panel, DePaul's Rev. Edward Udovic, noted another similarity between the 17th Century and the present moment. In the 17th Century, he said, many people interpreted the hostile environment as punishment from an angry God for humanity's immoral behavior.
"If you take away the religious fundamentalism and the religious worldview, if we look at how we can explain what the world is facing in 2015, we are facing punishment, not necessarily from God but by nature, for what human beings have decided to do and not to do in terms of the environment."
What should human beings do to avoid that punishment?
Moyer calculates that devoting 10 percent of the earth's land area to the collection of solar energy, using current technology, will supply enough clean energy to meet humanity's needs without cutting down forests or depriving developing nations of development. Such an accomplishment would require an effort on the scale of the Industrial Revolution, she said.
"We have to be motivated to manage a process that we have no precedent for in history," she said. "I don't believe you need the scientists anymore. This has now become a problem of human institutions and human will power to move forward."
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