A policy forum piece in the 24 October 2008 issue of Science titled Risk Communication on Climate: Mental Models and Mass Balance explores the disconnect between the scientific consensus on climate change and the the public’s seeming complacency on the matter. Author John D. Sterman argues that an effective response to this challenge will be impossible without active public engagement.
But a Manhattan Project cannot solve the climate problem. The bomb was developed in secret, with no role for the public. In contrast, reducing [greenhouse gas] emissions requires billions of individuals to cut their carbon footprints by, e.g., buying efficient vehicles, insulating their homes, using public transit, and, crucially, supporting legislation implementing emissions abatement policies. Changes in people’s views and votes create the political support elected leaders require to act on the science. Changes in buying behavior create incentives for businesses to transform their products and operations. The public cannot be ignored.
Addressing the public’s inability to appreciate the urgency of the issue at hand, Sterman has a three part prescription for the scientific community that includes issuing scientific findings and policy recommendations in plain language, finding useful analogies and other cognitive tools to help people to understand the implications of climate policies, and improving the communication of science.
[C]limate scientists should partner with psychologists, sociologists, and other social scientists to communicate the science in ways that foster hope and action rather than denial and despair. Doing so does not require scientists to abandon rigor or objectivity. People of good faith can debate the costs and benefits of policies to mitigate the risks of climate change, but policy should not be based on mental models that violate fundamental physical principles.
Matthew Nisbet, commenting on this piece at Framing Science writes:
[T]he problem in waking policymakers and the public up to climate change isn’t an absence of science literacy, as so many scientists (and bloggers) continue to bemoan, but rather simply the nature of human cognition and the realities of our media system.
Unfortunately, though, there is an astounding level of scientific illiteracy in the U.S.A., sustained by a culture of anti-intellectualism and a superficial understanding of the world. The role that can be played by framing science is in demonstrating the relevance of the scientific endeavor beyond the ivory towers of academia. A greater appreciation for the science of climate change can be fostered by discussing it in terms of its public health impacts, economic costs and opportunities, and national security risks. Translating scientific fact into a public call for action will require, too, that this issue be understood in the context of social responsibility and as a cross-generational moral issue. Communicating science, especially when intended as a call to action, requires more than providing a lay abstract – we must be more effective at answering the “so what?” questions for the public.