In the comments, Nanana_Ana writes (I’ve excerpted; check out the full thing as it is very eloquent):
I’m sure Will’s column resonates (by design) with many who think the environmental movement has no credibility. And I think they have a point, sadly. For some reason, more often than not, we communicate environmental issues to the public in the form of “raising the alarm”, and we offer apocalyptic predictions all of the time–about the need for clean air and water (otherwise our community will get cancer and die, our children being the first to go) for example, and now, climate change, which is the biggest biggie of all (after floods and hurricanes, droughts and famine, we will kill mother earth)…
Our knowledge is evolving, of course, so there is a danger of having a marketplace of ideas that is simply too crowded during the “discovery” phase, like what we see in the realm of public health–take this vitamin; never mind, avoid that vitamin; don’t take vitamins at all–where we’re left not knowing what to believe and decide at some point to tune everything out….
I’ve been trying to figure out if there’s a better way…can’t we find some way to convey these kinds of messages that would be more effective, that would make them harder to dismiss? …I want desperately to find a way to communicate environmental issues in a way that “non-environmentalists” respect and that influences their decisions. The strategies we’ve employed to date haven’t been able to do that very well.
The divide between how many earth scientists believe in global warming, and how many at-large citizens believe in global warming is still staggering: A University of Illinois poll released in late January of 3,146 scientists listed in the American Geological Union’s Directory of Geoscience Departments showed that 90% of geoscientists believe in a global warming trend, and 82% believe that it is chiefly man-made. 97% of those scientists “who study and publish on climate science” believe that climate change is man-made. On the other hand, a Rasmussen poll released on Jan 19, 2009 shows that only 41% of Americans believe that climate change is man-made (as opposed to 41% who claim, with professorial authority, that it is due to “long-term planetary trends”); Gallup has it at 57% in March 2008. All the while, a National Journal poll from June 2008 of Congressional Reps pegs only 26% of Republicans as believers in man-made global warming.
Clearly, as Nanana_Ana points out, there is a big message problem. The people who have devoted entire careers to studying the climate are saying almost unanimously that man has had an effect on it, average Americans are not too convinced, and Republicans (as can be expected) are totally at odds with prevailing scientific theories. I feel that a major reason that about half of Americans surveyed believed in man-made climate change is the production of a “debate” around this topic by the media, bloggers, and politicians, when you can see that there really isn’t much “debate” over the issue in the scientific community. This is a someone common phenomenon: see the “debates” on torture and evolution for some other explanations. But in this case I’m a little more surprised. I can see that conservative hawkishness and pecking-order chauvenism drive the “debate” about whether waterboarding is torture, and religion certainly informs anti-evolution stances, but why attack really solid data that the globe is warming, and has been warming much more since humans started hugely changing the composition of the atmosphere? Coming from the right as it is, I can only venture to guess that the “skepticism” is based on fears that environmental regulation will not be good for big businesses, and it’s just trickled down to the conservative base (as usual, probably paradoxically as far as that demographic’s socioeconomic status). Any other ideas? Am I missing something obvious (I’m feeling like I am).
There is some good news, though. After all, Yglesias, Silver, Klein, Sullivan, and recently Hilzoy (in an awesome note slamming the Washington Post’s lame refusal to retract anything Will published – worth a read), all got in their shots. If George Will published this column 10 years ago, it may have merited a response in another newspaper or magazine, but maybe not. But today’s “crowded marketplace of ideas” was able to come through and make Will’s mistakes the talk of the blogosphere, if only for a short time. Which isn’t bad, considering that more and more people are finding their news on the internet. On the other hand, people who still read the WaPo are stuck with having read lies presented as fact, and thousands of conservative bloggers will perpetuate the lies without checking them any further than Will did. It’s a tenous balance, but Will’s reputation, at the least, has certainly taken a hit. And if nothing else, maybe his reach will diminish and decrease his ability to further spread lies. This is just a baby step, but it is on the road to what we need more of (as Nanana_Ana points out in her post): clarity and thoughtfulness.