Change the climate-change debate

The way we talk about climate change may explain our reluctance to act.

Daily Princetonian writer

In a recent New York Times article, environmental journalist Elisabeth Rosenthal asked, âÄúWhere did global warming go?âÄù It is the question of a confused and frustrated person who was hopeful about climate change mitigation in 2008 but has lately become more pessimistic.

Both politicians and the public seem less concerned with climate change than they were three years ago, and governmental action seems unlikely in the near future. While this can partially be attributed to the powerful fossil-fuel lobby and the recession, I think a large part of the problem is the way we talk about climate change. Climate scientist and Princeton professor Robert Socolow addressed this in an essay published last month.

Socolow is the author of a 2004 paper that argued that it was possible to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions for the next 50 years using technologies we already had. Though no technology was sufficient on its own, we could achieve this goal if we combined seven technologies. (Disclaimer: My thesis advisor, Stephen Pacala, co-authored this paper.)

Here was a precise, doable plan for the next 50 years. Many climate scientists thought the government and the public would take heed. In his more recent essay, Socolow mused on why his paper failed to galvanize action. Mainly he sees this as a failure of communication.

The current rhetoric about climate change is both divisive and alienating. Many skeptics refer to climate advocates (both scientists and activists) as global warming alarmists. Activists, on the other hand, dismiss skeptics as climate deniers and idiots. This is not a productive way to have a conversation.

But both camps are correct. There is uncertainty in the science and as a result, climate models predict a variety of possible future scenarios. These scenarios include both extremes âÄî situations where carbon emissions do not have much environmental impact (for a while, that is) and situations where the world spirals out of control with a 5-meter sea level rise by 2100, massive drought and flooding, human conflict over resources and ultimately massive human mortality. More likely is a middle scenario, with significant harmful effects that are not apocalyptic.

A different approach, as proposed by Socolow, would be to present climate change as a risk rather than as a doomsday prophecy. Climate scientists and activists would seem reasonable and trustworthy rather than extremist. And if we told Americans that there is a small chance that greenhouse gas emissions might have little effect over the next 100 years, an equally small chance that these emissions could be catastrophic and a big chance that these emissions would cause very severe (but not catastrophic) problems, I think most would rather play it safe.

Another part of the communication problem is how we talk about the environment more generally. Climate change and environmentalist rhetoric often puts humans outside of the environment. We must âÄúsaveâÄù the planet. Though dramatic expressions may rouse some, I believe that this strategy  actually seems alienating to many. No one wants to save the planet âÄî or even cute polar bears âÄî if it is at the expense of oneself or oneâÄôs family. No one wants to save the planet by destroying the economy. Skeptics often warn that our focus on climate change distracts attention and resources from alleviating world poverty.

But the truth is, we are part of the system, and our rhetoric and policy should reflect that. Alarmist scenarios are alarming because of how they affect people and societies, not merely because of how they impact animals or plants. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, the problems of the developing world such as drought, hunger, poverty and conflict will only get worse. The world is not only made up of ecosystems, it is made up of social-ecological systems in which we affect the environment and the environment affects us. By saving the planet, we are saving ourselves.