The Politics, the Science and the PR

The recent floods in Pakistan, the drought in Russia, melting glaciers and record-breaking temperatures in New York are bringing home the real threat of global warming.  Extreme weather conditions are convincing people that the problem is real.

But the case for global warming involves sophisticated analysis of averages and statistical trends, and so there are different measures, different theories and considerable room for debate.  The evidence is converging, and the consensus now seems pretty firm.  Personally, I am convinced myself.  Yet the science is abstract, hypothetical, while real weather is always local and immediate.  It’s hard for most people to believe in the reality of global warming in the midst of a snowstorm.

So this spate of extreme weather is turning out to have the fortunate side effect of turning skeptics into true believers.  As The New York Times noted last week, even climate scientists note that weather has always been varied and often unpredictable: “the averages do not necessarily make it easier to link specific weather events, like a given flood or hurricane or heat wave, to climate change.”  That makes it easier not to believe what we don’t want to believe.

In Russia, long skeptical about the issue, the drought and heat wave has brought about a dramatic change in public opinion. “Everyone is talking about climate change now,” President Dmitri A. Medvedev said earlier this month. “Unfortunately, what is happening now in our central regions is evidence of this global climate change, because we have never in our history faced such weather conditions in the past.”  (See, “In Weather Chaos, A Case for Global Warming.”)

This makes it clear that it takes more than a good argument to get us to change our minds.  We tend to go on believing what we have always believed, what we want to believe, what it is in our interest to believe — that is, until something dislodges us from our habits.  Logic and science do not carry as much weight in the mind as uncomfortable and threatening experiences.

In the on-going public relations campaign to get us to reform our polluting habits, we need books and articles, congressional testimony, and films like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.  But, sad to say, nothing will work as well as disaster to get us to sit up and take notice.

The trick will be to keep our memory of these disasters alive and fresh.