Climate scientists and those working in associated fields have established a clear picture of human-caused climate change and what it is likely to mean in the future. The basic information is readily understandable. It’s alarming in what it portends and a rational human society would by now be well on its way to the change of direction which would reduce the need for alarm. But we are not well on the way and there’s little urgency in our approach to the issue. Wide public alarm is rarely even voiced, let alone a stimulus to determined action. The science may be clear, but its appropriation by society at large is obviously no straightforward matter.
Can the social sciences help us? I was attracted by the title of a recently published book, Engaging the Public with Climate Change: Behaviour Change and Communication, edited by three academics, Lorraine Whitmarsh, Saffron O’Neill and Irene Lorenzoni. In its twelve chapters a couple of dozen social researchers and practitioners look at how climate change can be constructively woven into public perception and action. The writers are clear about the urgent need to tackle climate change, but the book doesn’t offer strong advocacy so much as close investigation of the dynamics at work in obtaining and supporting positive public engagement.
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At risk of further accusation of being over-impressed by politicians’ words I welcome what Ed Miliband is reported as saying in today’s leading articlein the Observer. He declared a “battle” against the “siren voices” who denied global warming was real or caused by humans, or that there was a need to cut carbon emissions to tackle it.
His interview with the Observer is described as his first response to University of East Anglia scientists being accused of witholding information and to the IPCC Himalayan glacier error. He said it would be wrong to use a mistake to somehow undermine the overwhelming picture that’s there. He described in broad terms the basic physics and the observed effects that point to the existence of human-made climate change, pointing out that “that’s what the vast majority of scientists tell us”. He cited the thousands of pages of evidence in the IPCC report and was adamant that the IPCC was on the right track.
The danger of climate scepticism was that it would undermine public support for unpopular decisions needed to curb carbon emissions, including the likelihood of higher energy bills for households, and issues such as the visual impact of wind turbines. Miliband is energy secretary as well as climate secretary.
“There are a whole variety of people who are sceptical, but who they are is less important than what they are saying, and what they are saying is profoundly dangerous… to take what the sceptics say seriously would be a profound risk.”
That strikes me as plain speaking from a politician. It would surprise the New Zealand populace if s senior minister here spoke in such terms.
Miliband also went on to acknowledge the “disappointment” of Copenhagen, though noting that there were also achievements including the agreement by countries responsible for 80% of emissions to set domestic carbon targets by today. I liked what he added: “There’s a message for people who take these things seriously: don’t mourn, organise.” He has previously called for a Make Poverty History-style mass public campaign to pressure politicians into cutting emissions.
Meanwhile back here in New Zealand yesterday’s Herald provided an example of how readily wild accusations levelled at IPCC scientists can make it into the journalistic canon. I wrote a few days ago about the UK Sunday Times’ untruthful article on the IPCC and predicted it would be reported uncritically by other newspapers. Right on cue a Herald writer, reporting on the NIWA decision to put its temperature data on the web, at the end of her report listed the Sunday Times article as one of three items under the heading “IPCC’s Intemperate Year in the Headlines”.