Four years after Al Gore unleashed his army of slide show presenters on the planet in an attempt to spread the word that climate is something we should be worried about, the polls show public opinion has budged hardly at all. If anything, opposition to climate-change mitigation strategies has only hardened. Why?
Some, like Chris Mooney, have turned their attention to the idea that there's a link between political ideology and psychology. There could be something to that, although it's unclear what's the cause and what's the effect. But University of British Columbia geographer Simon Donner has what seems to me to be a more powerful explanation. In a presentation to the American Meteorological Society at a recent conference titled "Making the climate a part of the human world" he argues:
It is unreasonable to expect a lay audience not armed with the same analytical tools [available to professional climatologists] to develop lasting acceptance of a scientific conclusion that runs counter to thousands of years of human belief in a one hour public seminar.
On the one hand, it's most frustrating to learn that people with no scientific training would dismiss the convictions of thousands of scientists who have devoted their entire professional lives to the study of the subject at hand. What hubris! But what Donner is saying is that that's entirely predictable, given how strongly embedded in the fabric of our culture is the idea that changing the climate is beyond the capacity of us mere mortals.
Donner isn't just talking about the Bible. His experience among Pacific Island cultures suggests that this notion -- that climate change is by definition the purview of forces greater than ourslves -- is near universal, predating the Judeo-Christian canon and deeply embedded just about everywhere we go.
He suggests that any communications strategy designed to shift public opinion on global warming literacy "needs to include the full history and development of human thinking about climate."
Great. So culling the collection of 380 slides that Gore painstakingly assembled down to something that fits into a 45-minute show isn't enough. Now I have to add another 100 slides on the religious and cultural forces that shaped our collective consciousness.
Of course, isn't the story of civilization one example of overcoming the biases of tradition after another? Donner likens the challenge of communications climate change to that of evolution, which still faces considerable opposition in this country and elsewhere. (A similarity that has not gone unnoticed by others.) The difference here being that rising global temperature averages imply a unique degree of urgency missing in other battles against historical prejudice. If Donner is right, then we may not have the time we need to overcome the primary obstacle to generating public support for the policy necessary to avert catastrophic climate change.