How do we get climate science into living rooms?

Getting ordinary people to accept scientific advice on something as complex and hard to see as climate change will not be an easy task. Most of all, it will require politicians to be aware of the science and committed to acting on it. [11 March 2008 | Peter Boyer]

Opening speech to Science Panel Debate, Mountain Festival, Peacock Theatre, Salamanca Arts Centre, 11 March 2008 (Other speakers were Prof. Nathan Bindoff, Prof. Graham Harris, Dr. Steve Wilson, Dr John Hunter and Prof. Jamie Kirkpatrick)

Climate awareness came to me gradually, working with Antarctic and Southern Ocean scientists since mid-1980s, around which time many scientists involved with the physics of global systems (by which I mean mainly ice, ocean and atmospheric scientists), along with polar ecologists, were beginning to latch on to the idea of global warming. My job was to write about this and other Antarctic science and get the message out to the wider public.

While the scientific circles in which I moved were showing concern from the late 1980s, nothing much seemed to be sticking in the wider public until the Kyoto Protocol was successfully negotiated in 1997. Then in 2002 we went into another hiatus with Australia’s rejection of the Protocol. About this time I ended my career with the Australian Antarctic Division and went into freelance writing – much of which, I’m glad to say, involved polar science. Then in 2006 I found myself in the thick of the climate debate. Since then I’ve been up to my neck in this, Australia’s fastest-growing field of thought and activity.

I should add at this point that the idea of greenhouse warming isn’t new. Science was first informed about the atmosphere retaining warmth by Joseph Fourier, a French chemist, nearly 200 years ago. An Irishman, John Tyndall, discovered carbon dioxide was an important greenhouse gas a century and a half ago. Svante Arrenhius, a Swedish Nobel Prize-winning scientist, postulated that the planet could be warmed by human activity over 100 years ago, and 70 years ago Guy Callendar, an Englishman, produced the first evidence that human-induced global warming was actually happening. Over half a century ago Gilbert Plass said we’d be in trouble from fossil-fuel burning around the year 2000, and around the same time Roger Revelle and Hans Suess produced evidence that the oceans could not absorb carbon dioxide quickly enough to stop global warming.

But scientists are sceptical and cautious people. We’ve been told otherwise by the ‘contrarians’ – people who don’t or won’t believe there’s a problem with humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions. But believe me, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call them stodgy, these people are undeniably a bunch of doubting Thomases. So when the likes of Nathan Bindoff, John Hunter and the rest of the scientific team here tell you there’s a problem, you’d better take them seriously – and if you’re not prepared and equipped to put in the same sort of mental effort as they have, you’d be well-advised to accept what they say.

In my perambulations around Tasmania over the past year or so I’ve found, fortunately, that most people in my audiences are prepared to believe the science. Who have these people been? I’ve met a number of political players, on both sides of the main political divide. Often together with Sustainable Living Tasmania people (who have been carrying the brunt of delivering practical help to communities on climate change) I’ve spoken to school groups (mostly high school), community and special-interest groups (such as the United Nations Association, the Solar Energy Society and the Australian Plant Society), a handful of business and workplace groups (Cadbury, Deloittes for example), community groups (such as Cygnet, Kingston, Franklin, New Norfolk), and a welter of ‘senior’ groups including University of the Third Age (U3A).

So, the next question is, how are people reacting to this disturbing information? Will they seriously reduce their energy consumption? Cut down on car usage or air travel, reduce electricity usage, stop buying so much?

I think the answer is that unless there’s seen to be a real and present and immediate (personal, family, workplace) threat, most won’t change much of what they do today. A recent US National Academy of Sciences paper looking at how people respond to dire warnings was illuminating. It found that before people will react, (1) they need to be convinced that they and their nearest/dearest will be affected by dangerous climate change, (2) we can’t rely on people to behave rationally but there’s a better chance if fairness and sharing are prominent in solutions, and (3) incentives from authorities for investing in climate protection, probably in conjunction with sanctions against anti-social behaviour, will need to be part of the mix.

I think politicians react much the same as your average citizen. It’s of concern that I’ve never got quite the same sense of engagement with the issue from politicians that I’ve had from other meetings I’ve attended. As Clive Hamilton said, even if every citizen climbs on to the sustainable living bandwagon it won’t do a thing for climate change until the politicians are galvanised into action. I don’t think any politician, of any persuasion, can claim to have given climate change the effort it deserves.

This is a crisis without precedent, where action needs to be immediate and sharply focused, and where there’s no place for spin or idle chatter. This is easy for me to say because I’m not a politician, faced with this demand all the time. But we needed to act 10, 20 years ago, and we didn’t. It isn’t enough for politicians to say we’ve got this policy or that policy in development – we have to have plans in place that can be implemented quickly. We have to have bipartisan – multipartisan – support for this.

Most of all, we need reassurance from all our political representatives in the form of an acknowledgment that climate change is their pre-eminent concern. That it is so important that it demands a coordinating agency of its own, directly reporting to the head of government and with all the clout such an arrangement carries. And that the many actions that governments need to take have priority over all others, such that the world knows that we’re dead serious about this. Nothing less will do.

In Tasmania we’re at last starting to see a realisation of this notion. He still has much to learn, but to his credit Paul Lennon seems to be somewhat aware of the urgency and enormity of the problem (a result, perhaps, of living among farmers in a drought-affected part of Tasmania) and has given instructions for his public servants to get to know the problem and start working on solutions. It’s yet to be tested how far this commitment will extend in ‘difficult’ circumstances – some seriously tricky political issues are involved in forestry and water supply, for instance. But over coming months I and other members of the Climate Project team in Tasmaniall be working with the Climate Change Office and Sustainable Living Tasmania to see they’re exposed to the key facts on climate change, warts and all.

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