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The New Hurdle for Climate Scientists: Overcoming Climate Change Apathy

Source: EOS/JoAnna Wendel (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 US) - August 12, 2016 in Featured, Politics

The New Hurdle for Climate Scientists: Overcoming Climate Change Apathy
Photo: Joe Brusky/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Chuck Nobles of Portland, Ore., believes that climate change is real and that humans are causing it. “I think the evidence is clear,” he said.

He’s just not sure what, if anything, should be done about it. “The planet will survive.  Humans will just need to adapt to live under different environmental conditions,” he said. For the 60-year-old Nobles, who works as a senior lecturer in marketing and management at a university in Portland, the issue is a matter of scope. “If you take some of the dramatic actions that the extreme climate people believe in, it may hurt the economy.  We must work hard to understand the trade-offs and be rational.”

Nobles represents a growing fraction of people who accept that anthropogenic climate change is a real, currently occurring phenomenon but aren’t sure that anything can or should be done about it. In a new policy forum paper published today in Science, Paul Stern of the National Research Council and colleagues call this “neoskepticism.”

Neoskeptics aren’t just random venting bloggerspolicy makers and even respected scientists are joining in. They may argue that climate scientists “overblow” the risks or insist that because scientists are still hammering out the details on climate change’s effects on the globe, immediate mitigation is too costly.

How can scientists and educators, many of whom have their hands full combating outright deniers of human-caused climate change, address neoskeptics? It’s all about communicating risk, argue Stern and his colleagues.

The Risk of Climate Change

Scientists assess risk every day, Stern explained. Whether it’s the risk of an earthquake or the spread of an infectious disease, they develop models to help communicate these risks to the public—just like they develop models to understand how climate change may affect the globe.

Consider a medical condition like hypertension, Stern said. Hypertension greatly increases the risk of heart attack or stroke, so doctors might recommend a change in diet or exercise. A doctor cannot predict when a patient might suffer a heart attack or stroke, but there are actions that can reduce the risk.

In the same way, anthropogenic climate change is a progressive phenomenon, Stern said. Although scientists can’t predict precisely its effects on severe weather, sea level rise, or droughts, the longer the world holds off on mitigation, the worse the condition gets.

Uncertainty Fuels Inaction

Unfortunately, in climate science, “there’s been a long history that says that scientific uncertainty is a reason for not taking action,” Stern said. Such delay of action feeds back to fuel neoskepticism.

For example, Nobles believes that there’s somewhere in the middle where societies could arrest the increase of carbon dioxide “a little bit.” But he added that if he were in charge of deciding what needs to be done about climate change, he would stress caution.

“I think you just need to maybe understand ranges of impact a little bit more,” he said. “I think we need to be rational about the range of possible results.”

Stern and his colleagues argue that neoskeptics indeed pose legitimate questions, for example, how much is sea level really going to rise? How much danger do coastal cities like Miami really face? Scientists have these questions too, but some neoskeptics take these uncertainties and conclude that their lack of exact answers means nothing should be done.

The consequences of neoskeptical thinking are to greatly downplay risk, Schmidt explained. “It would be like only insuring one room of your home because that was the minimum damage you project, ignoring completely that the maximum damage could be much worse.”

Approaching Climate Science Through Risks

At a fundamental level, neoskeptics want risk quantifications, so when thinking about climate change, scientists should investigate these questions from the perspective of risk, Stern said. For example, sea level is expected to rise between 0.7 and 2 meters by the end of the century and, when combined with potentially more extreme storms, could inundate coastal cities like Miami. Scientists should calculate mitigation efforts needed to tackle both ends of that spectrum—not just the best-case outcome—to communicate the very real damage that climate change could inflict.

For Nobles, it’s tiresome to hear every effect of climate change put in terms of the worst-case scenario of death and destruction. He’d like to see a middle ground, where scientists investigate the risks and probabilities of many different scenarios before extreme action is taken.

Citation: Wendel, J. (2016), Climate scientists’ new hurdle: Overcoming climate change apathy, Eos, 97,doi:10.1029/2016EO057547. Published on 11 August 2016.

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