Besides publishing science books for children, Tumblehome also supports science literacy in other ways. Andy Zucker, author of the following reflection, is co-author with Penny Noyce of a 4-day curriculum unit on Resisting Scientific Misinformation, downloadable here

Climate change: “We have met the enemy and he is us”

 

Scientists have known for more than 150 years that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, which for modern science is a long time. For over 50 years there have been warnings of potential disasters due to climate change. Yet global greenhouse gas emissions keep rising, not falling. Why? Why hasn’t the world done more, and more quickly, to solve the problem?

It is true that fossil fuel companies have paid to promote climate change skepticism and denial. And it is true that some people, such as key editors at the Wall Street Journal, have spread misinformation for what looks more like ideological reasons or willful ignorance than simply to make money.

Ultimately, however, the way that a great many human beings’ minds work—that is, the way most humans think—seems to be the culprit, rather than a smaller set of evil-doers and villains. Here’s one way to look at the situation: On the second Earth Day, in 1971, before recycling was common, Walt Kelly’s Pogo cartoon (which ran in newspapers for more than 25 years) showed two characters surrounded by garbage. Pogo’s final line was, “Yep, son, we have met the enemy and he is us.” That view of human pollution, whether it is in the form of garbage or CO2, still strikes me as the truth, or at least much of the truth.

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Beginning in 2014, when I was shocked to read that the West Antarctic ice sheet would entirely melt, whatever else people might do to reduce climate change, I began to read more about psychology and global warming. For several years I blogged on that subject, ultimately listing 36 reasons why people don’t understand climate change (https://climatepsychology.files.wordpress.com/2016/11/reasons-people-do-not-understand-climate-change.pdf).

Psychology and climate change turned out to be an interesting topic with a growing literature and specialized academic journals. As I read more I encountered many surprises, and I also learned much that is relevant beyond the problem of climate change. For example, a growing number of people trust peer groups more than experts, about many topics.

Even now, after so many scientific reports have appeared about climate change, and so many politicians have focused attention on the issue, too few Americans realize just how serious the problem is. Most people seem to believe that dealing with the problem some day in the future, but please not now, will be enough. That way of thinking appears to be an example of the same type of over-optimism that leads many people to under-estimate their risk of heart attacks and other health problems. Whole books have been written about what some psychologists call the “optimism bias.” (Of course, excessive pessimism can be just as problematic as excessive optimism; what is most often needed is realism.)

For thousands of years wise men and women have counseled people to “know thyself.” Climate change poses a risk to the human species. To fully understand the problem includes seeking greater knowledge of how our fellow humans think.

Andy Zucker

 

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