Today's dot earth blog in the New York Times features a thoughtful examination about how to get across the news about climate change to the public so that they don't become paralyzed with fear or resignation. Here is an excerpt:
In Science Times this week, I have a story examining the limits of language. Can scientists or anyone else find new words sufficiently potent to inspire action on long-term challenges, like shifting from unfettered use of coal and oil to limit the odds of climate surprises?
I only scratched the surface there and now add a few sobering perspectives here. But I can’t leave it at that. I’ve also challenged people involved in climate science, campaigns or policy to come up with strategies that might help bring not only clarity, but actual real-world change (whichever change they seek). I’ll be posting some of their responses starting Tuesday. I’m asking you to weigh in, as well.
First, more of the bad news. One of the additional hurdles to getting people focused on climate and energy is the distinctly human habit of giving outsize consideration to the here and now, even when looming, well-understood hazards pose serious threats.
This is how Tom Lowe, a research associate at the Center for Risk and Community Safety in Melbourne, Australia, put it in a recent e-mail:
“In the absence of physical evidence that something bad is going to happen, people tend to ‘wait and see.’ Evidence for this can be seen in behavior surrounding natural hazards such as wildfires and volcanoes. In many cases people can receive a warning that something bad is headed their way. They may even be well-educated about the processes and dangers of the approaching hazard. However, without a physical manifestation of the hazard, or evidence seen with their own eyes, people may not necessarily do what you want them to do to mitigate the risk.
“A common reaction to this stand-off is for risk communicators to shout louder, to try and shake some sense into people. This is what I see happening with the climate change message. The public are on the receiving end of an increasingly distraught alarm call. The methods used to grab attention are so striking that people are reaching a state of denial. This is partly because the problem is perceived as being so big that people feel unable to do anything about it, partly because the changes associated with impact reduction are unacceptable and/or unviable to many people and partly because this ‘overselling’ of climate change attracts strong criticism from a vocal and disproportionately publicized few.
“Meanwhile, the public holds the story of climate change in its mind in much the same way as folklore, fairy tales or historical events are retained in the memory. When asked about climate change (research has found), people describe an apocalypse, devastating scenes of flood, disease and drought in a far and distant land. Are they concerned? Hell yes! Is there anything they can do about it? Definitely. Are the going to do something about it? Maybe.
“It is this dislocation that concerns me; as long as the language of chaos continues, it seems the public are faced with a threat which looms so large that it is beyond our focus.”
Another troublesome trait is the tendency to normalize a bad situation. Robert Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University, tutored me through a series of recent e-mails on a body of research showing how bad conditions become unremarkable over time, making it harder to seek change.
The best-known response of society to environmental signals is denial, but a more important one in the long run, perhaps, is accommodation, Dr. Brulle said:
“Basically, I read it that we become used to the environment we live in. Since most of the population has very limited or no access to a relatively unpolluted environment, they take it as normal that you can’t eat the fish in the river, that the air is always dirty, etc.
Interfaith Power and Light is a religious response to global warming with chapters in 25 states and Greater Washington, D.C. Find a link to your local chapter at http://www.theregenerationproject.org/State.
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