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The Scientific Debate that Wasn’t: The False Equivalence with Climate Change

Climate Change Glacier

This past Earth Day offered a sad commentary on the current state of environmental concerns and dedication held by the American public. In 1971, a year after the first Earth Day, two surveys were held to examine the environmental attitudes of average Americans. When asked how important it was to work to restore and enhance the natural environment, 63% of Americans in 1971 responded that it was “very important,” 25% that it was “fairly important” and 8 % “not too important.” The same questions were posed in a survey done by the Huffington Post this year, to which only 39% of Americans responded it was “very important,” 41% “fairly important” and 16% “not too important.” Another recent study cites that 3 in 8 Americans believe climate change is a “hoax.”

Has the environment radically improved? Are the low numbers a reflection that we have solved our environmental problems? Hardly. If anything, environmental problems are becoming progressively worse with the once predicted damaging effects of climate change now becoming realities. Various scientific and environmental groups continue to warn particularly wealthy nations we have a small window of time to still make a difference and improve things. Reports indicate we need to reduce greenhouse emissions by 80% at the very least by 2050 in order to prevent global warming from becoming unmanageable. California is said to have only twenty years of drinking water left. And climate scientists report that in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change we must completely stop using coal within 10 years.

Given these incontrovertible facts, what can explain Americans’ apparent apathy when it comes to environmental problems and solving them? The scientific predictions haven’t become more optimistic, policy and regulation hasn’t vastly improved things, so what has changed?

Arguably, what changed is the politics surrounding environmental issues like climate science, not the science itself.  Climate change remains a “controversial topic” in America, despite the fact ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree the climate is changing because of human-created affects. In the 1990s, 2,000 leading climate experts from 70 nations concluded some general points and warnings on climate change.

So what is going on with the American public? Why does this idea persist? What explains our lack of concern? I would attribute it to a few factors:

First, the American media presents a false equivalence regarding the most important environmental issue of our time, climate change. Studies like the ones above find high levels of apathy and denial in America (but not in other developed countries) because news reports on climate change here tend to give equal mention to climate change denial theories. The American media has been found to “significantly understate” the strength of consensus among relevant scientists on this topic. In a survey of 636 articles from four United States newspapers from 1988 to 2002, scholars found most of the articles gave as much time and weight to the relative minority of climate change deniers as to the scientists who agree on the matter. (M.T. Boykoff and J.M Boykoff, 2004).While the intent may be to present a “balanced” story, scientists claim the result is to create the impression in the reader’s mind this is not decided science, the impression that among the scientists themselves climate change is still up for debate. It isn’t; climate denial is overwhelmingly a political reality, not a scientific one. This false equivalence leaves the American public with a confused message. To draw this point out, critics call attention to the fact we don’t equally give mention to both those who still may believe the Earth is flat and to astrophysicists’ claim it is round. Why? Because one position has been thoroughly discredited. To mention it every time Earth science is discussed would be to foster a false debate where one scientifically does not exist. This is not to suggest censorship or the silencing of the disproportionately vocal climate deniers. It is to suggest that responsible and accurate reporting would make mention that there is no scientific support for the climate denier’s position. That is indeed the full truth.

It is worth noting this is uniquely an American problem. The press in foreign countries has not created this impression among their citizens, and the notable low numbers of climate deniers reflect as much. One explanation might be that climate deniers pour millions of dollars into actively creating doubt in the American public’s mind, as Greenpeace reports about the famous Koch brothers (owners of Koch industry, an oil corporation) who have personally spent $67 million towards climate denial. Other vocal deniers also do not have a background in climate science but in the very fossil fuel industries indicted in climate change. In order to clear up this “confusion,” this could simply be a case of leaving the expertise on climate change to the actual experts.

Next, I would attribute our lack of environmental interest and sometimes outright denial to the frog in the frying pan syndrome. As the metaphor goes, if you place a frog in a frying pan over low heat and ever so slightly continue to raise the temperature, it will be so imperceptible to the frog he will not jump out and save his life. There seems a bit of this going on in the American psyche. Climate scientists have told us the effects of climate change have already begun, with examples like the fact spring comes a full 16 days earlier now. We are not talking about the future (as the average citizen might suspect) but right now. Unfortunately these small changes amount to slightly rising the temperature under the frog so he fails to notice the change in any significant way. But this just begs the question: do we really want to end up being the frog cooked in the frying pan because we failed to acknowledge the rising temperature? How hot does it need to get before we’ll chose to start paying attention?

Finally, to acknowledge how bad things are and how worse they will become may make us feel uncomfortable becomes it is a subtle indictment of our greedy, over-consumptive ways. Simply put, people become defensive and scared of facts that imply we must change. Americans would be particularly susceptible to this since we are 5% of the world’s population but are responsible for 25% of carbon emissions. The average American’s carbon footprint is 2000 x that of someone living in the country of Chad. Outright denial means we are able to continue status quo, especially when we notice still beautiful spring days with little obvious “change.” But that’s exactly what the frog in the frying pan said too.

Image Source: Luis Argelich/Flickr

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