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Voicing values and climate change

Posted on 9 February 2011 by Mark Edwards

A short piece for the general audience of RTR radio, Perth, Australia.
(listen to the original audio podcast)

There is a fundamental fault line that runs through the heart of the climate change issue in Australia.  Privately,we take it seriously while publicly we do almost nothing. The horrendous floods in Queensland last month provide a glimpse of the social, environmental and economic impact that climate change is having on the Australian economy.  And yet organisations, including governments and corporate businesses, are seemingly incapable of developing an adequate response to the problem.The Gillard government’s extraordinarily hypocritical reduction in climate change funding to pay for flood damage is an example of the fickle nature of government policies on this issue, and the private sector has shown no concerted leadership for tackling climate change.

Three quarters of Australians acknowledge that climate change is happening and that it is caused by human activity (Newspoll, 2010).  The disparity between private attitudes and public equivocation seems mystifying.  It could be, as the historian of science Naomi Oreskes (2010) has recently shown, that the influential efforts of some conservative ideologues and think tanks havebolsteredscepticism towards climate science through the deliberate manufacturing of doubt. But this still does not account for the massive gap between private opinion and public action. 

The level of change needed to respond to climate change is daunting.  Real change requires resources, time and energy.  There’s also the need for new ways of thinking that makes transition difficult.  On the other hand, organisations stand to gain many benefits from addressing the crisis - greater economic efficiencies, the creation of news skills, and the development of values that support innovation.

So, given the high level of public awareness and the demonstrated benefits, why the ongoing prevarication and inaction?   It seems that, for various reasons,our private concerns about the climate crisis areseparated from the values expressed by the organisations we belong to and the businesses we work for.  The values that we hold at home are not being expressed publicly in the decisions we make and the conversations we have at work. 

We need to start holding these conversations and begin to voice our values and opinions in the workplace and in decision-making forums at all levels.  Climate change is a public,not a private issue.  Above all it is an organisational issue.  If governments and businesses don’t tackle this issue with the intensity and seriousness it deserves, then the climate crisis will continue to escalate and the droughts and extreme events like those we have recently seen will occur more frequently and with even greater severity. The cultural climates of organisations will need to change if we are to meet the challenge of global climate change.

To facilitate the conversations we must have, the climate science group at UWA will shortly be unveiling a blog that is dedicated to informed discussion about our society’s future. To find out more about this blog, visit www.skepticalscience.com or keep tuned for more climate casts right here on RTR.

LISTEN TO THE AUDIO PODCAST

References

Gentile, M (2010), Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.

Newspoll 2010, Public attitudes towards climate change

Oreskes, Conway (2010), Merchants of doubt : how a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming, 1st U.S. edn, Bloomsbury Press, New York.

There is much public demand for reasoned discussion about the way in which we can now move forward to tackle climate change. While there is much exciting science that remains to be discussed at www.skepticalscience.com, a different forum is required for development and discussion of ideas relating to the solutions to the climate emergency. There is much interest in such a forum, and the urgency of the issue is self-evident. The University of Western Australia is sponsoring the efforts of the university’s climate science group to set up such a discussion forum in the form of a high-quality blog that will be run by academics at the University of Western Australia and around the nation. This blog will be going live within the next few months and skepticalscience will keep you updated on developments.

Stephan Lewandowsky

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Comments

Comments 1 to 9:

  1. This is a terrific initiative, and I look forward to the forth coming blog.

    It is a much needed voice.
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  2. A fantastic idea. But oh my God - how do you moderate it to keep everything OT. Discussions of solutions Only, not the Climate Science itself.

    One insight, if it hasn't been considered already, is separating the different streams of 'solutions'; Technical like energy technologies, Economic, Political, Social, Psycholocal, Advocacy and Outreach.

    Keep us posted.
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  3. Look forward to the UWA blog too. Just one comment about Mark Edwards' post.
    While a majority of Australians may think privately that CC is a serious issue, I am not certain that everyone is actually convinced that 1)the impact is going to be significant 2) that we need to do something about it now. Even the recent natural disasters that we had in Queensland did not seem to raise that awareness. I had actually many people telling me " Oh, you are going to say that it's all related to climate change, but it isn't really, it's all about natural cycles..."
    I think that there is a bit of the "head in the sand " attitude here. People sense that may be our activities are harming the environment, but if we took the science seriouisly we would have to change the way we live and we don't really want to change. This is like someone who is addicted to junk food, who is getting overweight because of it, knows that this habit is likely to cause problems in the future, but still doesn't want to modify their diet because they love junk food so much!
    This attitude to the CC issue is certainly compounded by the fact that some powerful corporate interests and conservative ideologues work hard to spread doubts about the science. But their attempt at disinformation wouldn't go very far if it did not resonate somehow with private attitudes.
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  4. Phil, the obvious answer to the "natural cycles" bit is to compare with tides. Tide comes in, tide comes out, all's good. But what if, each time the tide came in, it was a little higher up the beach? And each time it went out, it didn't go out quite as far as last time? Surely that would be an issue worth worrying about?

    I hope this new blog comes up with good discussions of possible approaches to fixing the problem of CO2 emissions. Many 'solutions' are net-cash-positive in the long term - such as energy efficiency - I've heard of industrial cases where a $150,000 cost is recovered within two years, and after that it's all gravy (and how many businesses would say no to an extra $50k-$75k profit every year?)
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  5. Mark et al.,

    A great dialogue. I encourage you to please send this to the cabinet ministers and leaders of all the political parties in Australia. be sure to retain the SkS URL and send along a copy (or link) of the "The Scientific Guide to Global Warming Skepticism".

    This piece is also just the right length for an op ed in a major daily newspaper, perhaps with a graphic showing the rise of CO2 superimposed on the global SAT record, or some similar attention-grabbing graphic. So please do consider pursuing that avenue as well.
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  6. Excellent idea. We're at this strange point in time where every country agreed to a less than 2C target but hardly anyone is doing anything to get there. But it will be difficult to have an honest discussion without it being hi-jacked by those favouring the status quo as happens in every comment section on any CC-related topic.
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  7. Phil263,

    You are describing typical human behavior, which is that if something doesn't cause actual anxiety (i.e. an inbred human behavior to force you to focus on an impending but non-immediate danger), people tend to look instead for ways to rationalize it out of their lives. People want to compartmentalize things, because they have a lot on their plate, and meeting the mortgage or getting that promotion at work or the kids through college is the first priority, unless there's actual anxiety about something pressing.

    The underlying problem is that that sort of "it's not a problem yet" attitude is exactly where people get into trouble, when reason tells them it's a problem, but emotion doesn't. They ignore that mole on their skin, or that pain in their gut, until treatment becomes anywhere from costly to impossible.

    And the really deep problem is that it is a problem people should be anxious about, terribly anxious about, not because it's going to affect them today or tomorrow, but because their actions today are going to grossly affect their lifestyle (and that of their descendants) thirty years from today.

    The big problem with climate change as a whole is that it's slow and uneven, if relentless.

    Until people accept and admit that climate change is a long term problem, with long term impacts, but without solutions that do not begin today, we're all going to be in trouble.

    I liken this to the old parable about the man who jumped out a window at the top of a skyscraper. Every time he passed an open window, he was heard to remark "So far, so good!"

    I think the media, and some climate change messengers, make a bit of a mistake when they try to attribute horrific current events to climate change. It's somewhat useful, in that it helps to provoke that needed anxiety and wake people up, but the reality is that the on-topic message that should be getting to the public is:

    • Climate change takes a long time. Don't expect it to impact your life today, but that doesn't minimize its importance, or urgency.

    • Our actions today are permanently dictating future climate change (you can't thirty years from now undo the damage being done today).

    • The expense and inconvenience of making minor changes now is far less than the expense and inconvenience of mitigating the effects, enduring the suffering, and yet still needing to make major changes tomorrow.

    • Many of the changes needed now will be needed in twenty years anyway, as fossil fuels dwindle and competition for them increases.

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  8. @ sphaerica

    Totally in agreement with your analysis. BTW the message that you are suggesting is broadly the message that came out of the Garnaut Review. May be a shorter version of the Review should be made available to the public.
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  9. This new blog sounds like a great idea. But we are running out of time, with CO2 killing off deep ocean phytoplankton at the rate it is killing it. We really don't HAVE "several months" to wait. Rather, we should have been at this point (having the blog) years ago.

    If we don't cut back CO2 drastically really fast, the cockroaches will inherit the earth.
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