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Image courtesy NOAA

Global warming “undeniable” – so why are so many still in denial?

by Kevin Eisenmann
July 29, 2010


Image courtesy NOAA

Recent studies suggest that the oceans are absorbing much of the manmade greenhouse gases. This has not come without cost, however, and may begin to alter entire ocean ecosystems.


Photo courtesy Chicago Council on Science and Technology

Alan Schriesheim, director emeritus of Argonne National Laboratory, helped found the Chicago Council on Science and Technology to help citizens learn more about complex and controversial science topics of the day.

One of the coldest winters on record didn’t help. Maybe one of the hottest summers on record will.  

Scientists released a recent report showing that higher temperatures and less snow and ice covering Earth’s surface demonstrates that global warming is “undeniable.”  

Reviewing the last decade of climate data, researchers concluded that our feverish planet has been steadily warming since the mid-20th century, with each decade since the 1980s getting hotter than the last. Reliable record keeping started in the 1880s.  

This year is also shaping up to be the hottest or near-hottest year on record, the fault of greenhouse gas effects combined with El Nino, an ocean warming event that occurs as ocean currents and atmospheric temperatures interact. El Nino triggers tumultuous weather across the globe. Seasonal extremes, with headlines blaring “Snowpacolypse” last winter and “Baking the Big Apple” this summer, may move beyond the exception and become the rule.  

These reports, released by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, did not address why the temperature changes were occurring. But scientists at the National Academy of Sciences released the most recent battery of reports linking climate change to human activities.

Following their reports, they found that 97 percent of the 1,372 scientific experts polled agreed human-driven greenhouse gases are responsible for the warming. Furthermore, the 3 percent of scientists who disagreed with the human impact on warming have far less expertise in climate research fields, according to a Stanford University study.

Will these latest reports end the debate on climate change? Unlikely. Early this summer, a Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 40 percent of likely U.S. voters believed climate change was primarily caused by human activity. Compare that to 44 percent who believe natural, long-term planetary trends are to blame for the warming, according to the Rasmussen poll.  

"At a time of concerted effort by those concerned about climate change to raise Americans’ consciousness about its existence and dire potential consequences, American public opinion on the issue has moved in the exact opposite direction,” wrote Frank Newport, editor-in-chief at The Gallop Poll, in a New York Times op-ed this June.  

Many Americans remain skeptical, in particular about the human connection, that the gasoline-guzzling, carbon dioxide-laden Industrial Age has had any effect on the planet’s temperature.   

“There are parts of the world where you can see the direct effects of a warming planet,” said Alan Schriesheim, director emeritus of the Argonne National Laboratory and founder of the Chicago Council on Science and Technology. “But it’s not yet happening in our backyard.”  

Schriesheim helped found the Chicago-based science outreach council in 2006 when it became apparent that society “needed to achieve a functional level of scientific literacy to deal with issues” ranging from climate change to pandemics, according to their website.  

The City of Chicago has also formed a task force, the Chicago Climate Action Plan. Concerned about the consequences of extreme Midwestern heat waves, more heavy rain storms, growing flood risks, crop damage and threats to the city's economy, plan authors outline five strategic areas of focus.

These include an effort to make energy-guzzling buildings more efficient, identifying clean and renewable energy sources, improving transportation, reducing waste and industrial pollution, and adaptation (managing the impacts of any temperature changes). Convincing political leaders and consumers to change their habits, however, is proving more difficult. The Field Museum is hosting an exhibition on climate change through November in an attempt to help a larger portion of the public to understand natural evidence for the temperature changes. 

And while Chicagoans may not be witnessing glacial shrinkage or mega-droughts from their kitchen windows, that's not the only problem. In November 2009, computer data from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in England was hacked and thousands of documents found their way to the media. The documents included emails that appeared to suggest scientists were manipulating climate data.

Despite three subsequent, independent inquiries clearing the scientists and organization from any wrongdoing, skepticism remained.

“As soon as you hear that a scientist may have manipulated the truth or left out some data, you put all that data into question,” said public relations expert David Politis, founder and president of Utah-based Politis Communications. “It’s no wonder it was a big controversy.”  

It’s often difficult enough to change people’s minds with just facts, Politis says. And when it comes to human nature, facts often backfire.  

“When shopping for a refrigerator, a consumer will normally just weigh pros and cons,” said Jason Reifler, assistant professor of political science at Georgia State University. “But the ability to weigh pros and cons of actual fridge models gets more complex if someone starts the process convinced that one brand is superior to another.”  

This strong psychological resistance revealed itself in another recent study conducted by Reifler and Brendan Nyhan, a Robert Wood Johnson Scholar in Health Policy Research, at University of Michigan.   

They plan to publish their findings about how people reinforce their beliefs despite new information. Study subjects rejected facts that contradicted a strongly held belief--for example, whether Iraq ever possessed weapons of mass destruction. Those facts were rejected relative to how much the subject cared about the topic. Furthermore, the subject responded with an even more fervent belief that they were correct in the first place. It didn't matter if they held liberal or conservative ideals. The human default response allowed them to dismiss new knowledge.  

“People filter almost all information through this ideological sieve,” Reifler said. “Their basic belief about how the economy should be structured or the role government should play—it’s a major factor even when making even the most inconsequential decision.”  

Seemingly, one of the only ways to mitigate this head-in-the-sand reaction is to inflate the self-esteem of consumers before they make a decision (think back to all of the compliments you received on sales floors). This may sound counter-intuitive—one would think that a more self-assured person would be less inclined to change their minds—but just by acknowledging the person's concerns contribute to a rise in their feeling of self-worth and esteem.  

Science journalist and author Chris Mooney suggested that, “If scientists want to educate the public, they should start by listening. [They should]…work closely with social scientists and specialists in public opinion to determine how to defuse controversies by addressing their fundamental causes.” His comments appeared in a recent Washington Post op-ed piece.    

Don Lincoln, an experimental physicist at Fermi National Laboratory, takes such public outreach to heart. Growing up rural and poor, his family and initial teachers didn’t have any science background.   

“Somewhere out there, in the middle of rural South Dakota or Alabama is some kid who really wants to know,” Lincoln said. “I write for him or her.”  

Organizations across the globe are also exploring creative ways to engage the public on less intimidating footing. Guerilla Science is a London-based group of educators and performers who put on demonstrations at music festivals—a setting in which you’d least expect to confront scientists.

And the tradition of science festivals—once unique to Europe—has grown in popularity in the U.S. thanks to coordinated efforts on behalf of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After several successful science festivals were hosted in San Diego, the National Science Foundation charged MIT with helping other communities build similar events.  

“We don’t want these sites to adopt a single brand or format that’s controlled by us,” said Ben Wiehe, program manager for MIT’s Science Festival Alliance. “Communities are encouraged to invest their own identities and researchers into the festivals."  

This fall, Washington, D.C., will host the inaugural Science and Engineering Festival, sponsored in part by Lockheed Martin and the Science Channel. Kicking off on October 10th, the two-week festival will feature 750 different organizations, 50 stage shows and 30 satellite events across 18 states.  

“As a nation, we have to reinvigorate the interest of young people in science,” said event coordinator Larry Bock. “The festival is a fight against the lack of students looking into advanced science.” He explains that they aren't meant as a substitute for year-round engagement, but simply a pinnacle moment where families can come together around and discuss the important topics of the day.  

Locally, the Chicago Council on Science and Technology and other organizations including the Illinois Science Council and Project Exploration are reaching out to specific and under-served audiences as well as providing more general programs. C2ST recently organized “Street Corner Science” in which Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman camped out under the Wrigley Building on a hot summer day to answer pedestrians’ questions on nature and the universe.  

 "Our organization exists so that Chicagoans can have access to scientists who know answers to the critical science issues of today,” said Schriesheim. “We work to humanize science."