A Brief Explanation of why Global Warming is Misunderstood in America

The following article was commissioned by my local PBS station, WCNY, to accompany a program called Arctic Air, broadcast in the fall of 2010. The article was originally published on the WCNY Arctic Air web site.

A brief explanation of why global warming is misunderstood in America, or, will the real climate change controversy please stand up?

by Dr. Mark Meisner

Newsweek cover global warming is a hoax

© Newsweek, August 2007

When central New York Republican congressional candidate Ann Marie Buerkle suggested during a televised debate in mid-October that global warming is a myth, it was yet another illustration of the ideological divide in America over this important issue. But it’s crucial to realize that the divide is one of perception, not one of science. And it is a divide that has been widened with some pretty clever and well-funded communication from those who think they will lose out when America eventually acts to reduce global warming.

Here we are in 2010, over 20 years since NASA’s James Hanson first testified before congress about the existence of global warming, and the American public is still confused about whether or not it exists. To understand this we need to consider a number of different factors, most important of which is the campaign to cultivate the notion of scientific uncertainty in the minds of the public and the policy makers.

American public opinion on global warming is mixed, with many people (mostly Republicans) still not believing it is real. And many of those who believe it is real also believe it is just part of a natural cycle. A research report published out of Yale and George Mason Universities, “Global Warming’s Six Americas,” found that “despite the prevailing scientific agreement that global warming is happening, only a minority of Americans believed that most scientists think that global warming is happening.” And consequently, those Americans, themselves believing that the science is uncertain, doubt the reality of climate change. However, the facts do not support this perception.

The reality is that scientists who actually study climate change are in agreement that global warming is already happening, it is caused by humans, and it will only get worse if nothing is done. Most notably, this means the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), probably the largest exercise in peer-reviewed science ever undertaken. Furthermore, authoritative organizations such as the National Academics of Science (NAS), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and similar organizations around the world have been unequivocal about the existence of human-caused global warming.

So why are scientific reality and public perception so far apart? It is largely a question of how the issue has been communicated (or not) to the public and the media. However, there are also aspects of the issue itself that make it particularly challenging to communicate effectively. Let’s consider those first.

To begin with, the issue and the science behind it are complex. The warming of the atmosphere due to the excessive release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane is relatively straightforward. But predicting how particular concentrations of those gases in the atmosphere will affect things like specific glaciers melting, regional weather patterns, sea level rise, ocean acidification, etc. are more challenging. Scientists from a wide range of disciplines are involved in this work and sophisticated computer models are used to predict future scenarios based on what is known about past relationships between greenhouse gas concentrations, average temperatures, sea level, weather and so on.

Because the science is complex, it’s not easy to communicate to the public in ways they can understand. And the scientific community has done a poor job in that regard. Furthermore, even if the science were being communicated in a clear and accessible way, and even if the public understood it, there is no guarantee that they would choose to act on the basis of that information. Knowledge alone does not necessarily lead to action. Experience, values, and people’s specific situations also greatly affect their choices.

The way people experience environmental issues has a large bearing on what they believe and how they act. If people do not or cannot experience the issues and their consequences directly, they will be less inclined to believe the issues are important or that anything needs to be done about them. And global warming is an issue that is difficult to experience directly on several levels.

First of all, you can’t see greenhouse gases, the pollutants that directly cause global warming; they are invisible to the naked eye. Not seeing is not believing.

Secondly, the effects of climate change on wildlife, water systems, agriculture, human settlements, habitat and weather patterns are (at least for now) happening gradually in most places, so a lot of people are not noticing the changes. With global warming’s most severe effects predicted to be years in the future, it’s hard to get people to care about the issue now when they have more pressing concerns. Time is not on our side.

Related to this is the fact that initially the negative effects of climate change will be felt in other parts of the world most severely, and are therefore less likely to concern Americans (though they should). But if we wait until the issues are literally in our own backyards, it will be far too late to do anything.

The consequences of global warming are unlike those of most other environmental issues in that they are so widespread and so threatening to life as we know it. This too means that the issue is especially unpleasant to have to face up to.

Indeed, last year the American Psychological Association released a fascinating report, Psychology & Global Climate Change, that assessed the mental challenges this issue poses. Among those were the psychological barriers limiting action on climate change, including ignorance, uncertainty, mistrust, and denial. They found that many people “are unaware of the problem, unsure of the facts or what to do, do not trust experts or believe their conclusions, think the problem is elsewhere, are fixed in their ways, believe that others should act, or believe that their actions will make no difference or are unimportant compared to those of others.” Fortunately, they also found that many people are taking action.

All of these aspects of the issue itself have made it difficult for scientists, campaigners and journalists to effectively communicate it to the general public and have therefore contributed to the current public opinion and policy impasse. But the most important reason for this situation is that there has been a deliberate campaign, since the early 1990s, to sow doubt in the minds of the American public about global warming.

This ideologically-driven campaign has been funded by the fossil fuel industry, largely executed by conservative “think tanks,” and facilitated by the media. And it has been going on for almost 20 years now. Essentially, elements of the fossil fuel industry have funneled millions of dollars into the “think tanks” so that they could produce op-eds, publications, websites and other forms of communication that would create an air of uncertainty around global warming. Those communications would either deny the existence of global warming, argue that the scientific evidence of global warming was uncertain, discredit the climate scientists, claim that if there was warming that it was part of a natural cycle, claim that doing anything about global warming would be too costly, claim that it was not possible to do anything anyway, or some combination of the above. This is the real climate change controversy.

This campaign was initially brought to light by investigative journalist Ross Gelbspan and documented in his 1997 book The Heat is On and later in his 2004 book Boiling Point. It has also been described in detail by PR executive James Hoggan in his 2009 book Climate Cover-Up. Numerous other publications, documentary films, and investigative television reports have also covered this story. The prominent role of ExxonMobil in funding this campaign has been documented by Chris Mooney and others in a 2005 Mother Jones special report, “As the World Burns,” as well as by the ExxonSecrets project.

Academics have also documented aspects of the campaign and demonstrated the lack of credibility behind its claims. These include Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap in their article “Challenging global warming as a social problem,”  Stanford’s William Anderegg and his colleagues in “Expert credibility in climate change,” and Peter Jacques of the University of Central Florida and his colleagues in “The organisation of denial: conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism.” Most prominently, Naomi Oreskes of the University of California San Diego has a number of publications, notably “The Scientific Consensus on climate change: How do we know we’re not wrong?,” and a few YouTube videos that refute the claims of the deniers.

What is perhaps most interesting about the campaign of denial is that it doesn’t have to convince everyone that climate change is a hoax. It merely has to keep people debating the issue because that is what keeps the American public thinking that it’s still uncertain. And this is where the media have greatly helped perpetuate this monumental misunderstanding.

Journalists have a professional norm that demands they maintain an “objective” position with respect to the events they are covering. They can’t be seen to be taking sides. In practice, this typically means that they offer up “both sides” of an issue by quoting from people representing opposing perspectives. As documented by Max Boykoff of the University of Colorado and others, in the case of global warming, most journalists have covered the story in this way because they are unable to assess the claims and the evidence for themselves.

So, for example, when a representative from the IPCC is quoted to the effect that global warming is real, the science says so, and we should all get working to address it, the journalist feels the need for a counter argument. And the conservative think tanks are more than happy to give it. The reality is that a huge body of peer-reviewed scientific evidence supports one side while oil company money supports the other. But the journalist doesn’t tell that part of the story, so in the face of this false balance, the reader or viewer is left thinking that there is still a debate. And that’s the whole point of the campaign.

Given all these factors and the effectiveness of the disinformation campaign, it’s no wonder the American people are still confused about climate change. And that confusion means there is a lack of strong public opinion in favor of federal action to address the issue. We have seen this manifest itself in the various attempts to pass federal legislation to address the issue.

Fortunately, a number of states and municipalities around the country are trying to fill at least some of the gap with a variety of energy-saving and greenhouse gas-reducing initiatives. But it won’t be enough. In other countries, climate change is no longer a partisan issue. The same thing has to happen here.

In the end, the American public will also have to change its values and its lifestyle if we are to properly address this and all the other related environmental issues. If we do so, we’ll find we can create communities that are much healthier and more enjoyable to live in.