J4.4 Making climate part of the human world

Wednesday, 26 January 2011: 11:15 AM
609 (Washington State Convention Center)
Simon D. Donner, University of British Colombia, Vancouver, BC, Canada

The academic community often struggles to communicate the evidence for climate change and the rationale for mitigation and adaptation to policymakers and the general public. Despite repeated statements by leading scientific organizations and panels of leading scientists about the reality and potential gravity of anthropogenic climate change, doubts and uncertainty persists among the public. These doubts have been blamed on poor framing of issues by the scientific community, the quality of science education or public science literacy, disinformation campaigns by representatives of the coal and gas industry, individual resistance to behavioral change, and the hyperactive nature of the modern information culture. The root cause, however, may simply be that the weather and climate is traditionally viewed as outside of human influence.

This presentation documents how long-standing human beliefs in divine control of the sky – and, in turn, the weather and climate – is limiting public acceptance of the evidence for anthropogenic climate change, as well as support for a policy response. The belief in divine control of the climate can be traced back to the challenges faced by hunter-gatherers and early agricultural societies. Over time, the separation between earth as the domain of humans and the sky as the domain of the gods became enshrined in cultures and religions around the world. This pernicious belief can be found in the discourse on climate change in both indigenous communities in the developing world (e.g. Pacific Islands of Fiji, Kiribati, Tuvalu) as well as in developed nations like the U.S. and Canada. It can lead to outright rejection of scientific evidence for climate change (“climate skepticism”) or, conversely, apocalyptic framing of climate change, as well as a milder distrust of climate change predictions and a lack of urgency for mitigation and adaptation activities.

Science communicators need to understand how culture can affect the way an audience receives scientific information. It is unreasonable to expect a lay audience not armed with analytical tools to quickly develop lasting acceptance of a scientific conclusion that runs counters to thousands of years of human belief. Scientists and educators must be willing to directly address the issue of pre-existing beliefs, drawing upon insights from or partnering with religious scholars or historians, in order to create understanding of the effect of human activity on the climate that persists through the next cold winter or the next economic meltdown. Specific examples of successful communication strategies include interactive forums and literature prepared with assistance of religious leaders and communications experts.

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