The hardest climate science problem

Water is one of the biggest reasons to care about climate change in Florida. Today’s “Climate Science & Solutions Summit” in St. Petersburg features a wide range of speakers, including the climate scientists who met recently with Governor Scott. The purpose is to “clearly articulate the very real threats that Florida faces, and to shine a light on the dozens of powerful solutions within our reach.” That effort can build on the 2008 Florida Energy & Climate Change Action Plan (large PDF) and last week’s “Sixth Annual Southeast Florida Regional Climate Leadership Summit.”

Scientific evidence of climate change threats is overwhelming. Why, then, are the physical facts often ignored? This may be the most pressing climate change question of all and the hardest climate science problem. As David Victor puts it, “Why Do Smart People Disagree About Facts? Some Perspectives on Climate Denialism.” He classifies climate denialists into three camps. There are “shillers” who are paid to fight against climate change action. In his view, these exist but are much less powerful than many think. There are also “climate skeptics,” who are temperamentally inclined to be doubters or who dispute the feasibility of countermeasures. The third and biggest group of denialists are “hobbyists” looking for a way to be relevant.

Denialists are not suffering from a lack of information. (Even correct information can sometimes produce a “backfire effect” that strengthens the original incorrect view.) More “science” won’t change the views of many denialists but they continue to be very influential in public policy. Victor believes that their primary power is derived from aligning themselves with pre-existing political dispositions. He observes that “lack of belief in climate change correlates highly with political party and with faith in government.” It is not about the evidence. “The denialists “won’t go away just because we speak more loudly, more often, or with bigger decks of slides.”

A new science of climate persuasion is needed but may never be adequate to overcome ingrained resistance. If the minds of denialists can’t be changed, there still are two other paths to changing climate policy: the ballot box and judicial chambers.

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