Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Do We Need to Promote the 'Fine Points' of Global Warming?

Very interesting post up at RealClimate today responding to a Zogby Poll released Monday. The poll showed that a sizable majority of Americans are connecting recent severe weather events, ranging from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to this summer's heat wave, to global warming. According to the Zogby release,
Nearly three of every four --– 74% -- are more convinced today that global warming is a reality than they were two years ago, the survey shows. Dramatically, it is a sentiment shared by a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and political independents. While many more Democrats believe in global warming (87%), 56% of Republicans concur. Among independents, 82% think we are experiencing the effects of global warming. These numbers indicate a shift in the momentum of global warming believers.

Asked what influence global warming has had on specific weather events, 65% said they believe it had an influence on this summer'’s heat wave that baked the U.S., and 68% said they think it was a factor in development of more intense hurricanes like Katrina. Similar numbers are seen for other weather phenomenon including droughts, wildfires and snowfall.
The kicker here is that this perception held by so many is, in strict scientific terms, inaccurate. RealClimate raises the question of whether scientists should worry about that:
This begs the question whether people's experience of severe weather has convinced them that climate change occurringing. Televangelist Pat Robertson, for instance, said very recently that it was the latest heat wave that finally convinced him. I think this is likely to be true for most of the public who are not following the issue very carefully (which is most of them of course!). The most significant single event in this context was probably Katrina, regardless of how much climate change can or can't be associated with Katrina the Hurricane (let alone Katrina the Disaster!).

I would guess that this is likely to be a very common way for public opinion to be formed across a whole number of issues. That is, when a dominant theme is very prevalent across a wide spectra of media, everyday occurrences or new information are often processed with that in mind, and given our extraordinary ability to see patterns in noisy data, we often end up associating the theme with our own experiences. Other examples surely abound in medical or political contexts.

Given that pattern, it is probably overly optimistic to expect scientists, who continually stress that single weather events can't in general be attributed to climate change but that changes in statistics might be, to have much success in conveying these finer points to the public directly. Instead, their skills are probably best used in clarifying these points to those (e.g. journalists, policy-makers) that set the dominant themes in the first place.
At a purely practical level, I think RC is probably right: most people simply aren't interested in the fine points, and draw their conclusions based primarily on their own experience. Of course, there are ethical considerations here: do we simply allow the average person to hold onto these connections if they point them towards the correct conclusion that global warming is real and is occurring? Does that end up giving ammunition to climate change skeptics? To further complicate matters, would those same skeptics have to acknowledge the facts of global warming in order to paint supporters of action on global warming as smarmy elitists who won't tell the truth?

I am tempted to say that it's better for an ill-informed public to come to the right conclusion through faulty understanding of the issues than to allow the waters to continue to be muddied by skeptics bought and paid for by the fossil fuels companies. If people are connecting severe weather to global warming, the skeptics now have to offer an alternative explanation, and this poll shows they're starting from behind. At the same time, I know no one likes feeling like they're being played for a fool -- are we taking that risk by not attempting to present a more accurate picture?

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