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Time to close gap between public view and reality of climate change

By Op Rana | China Daily | Updated: 2015-02-02 07:49

People ignorant or in denial of climate change and climate science are not new. Even the division between scientists on climate change is not new, although most (about 97 percent) active climate scientists believe humans are a major cause of climate change, while the number is "radically different" among economic geologists, or scientists who (according to Naomi Klein) study natural formations so that they can be commercially exploited.

Despite the contradictions and complications, we expect people in the world's most advanced country to accord some importance to, if not respect, the findings of scientists. But a Pew Research Center poll released on Jan 29 says American public and scientists hold vastly different views on climate change, genetically modified (GM) foods and (not surprisingly) evolution.

About 87 percent of the scientists who responded to the Pew poll said human activity was the main cause of climate change, but only 50 percent of the general public agreed with them. Disturbingly, about 25 of the Americans polled said there was no "solid evidence" to prove that the climate was warming - the percentage of such skeptics in a 2009 survey was only 11 percent.

The divide over GM foods was wider, with 88 percent of the scientists surveyed saying they were safe to eat compared with 37 percent of the public. The gap between scientists and the general public on evolution was wide too, with 98 percent of the scientists saying humans had evolved over time, compared with 65 percent of the public.

The difference in the beliefs (based on evidence, empirical or otherwise) of scientists and the public should not be surprising, because about 53 percent of the "economic scientists" do not believe in human-caused climate change.

The fact is, as Klein says in her latest book, This Changes Everything: "... we are all inclined to denial when the truth is too costly - whether emotionally, intellectually, or financially. As Upton Sinclair ... observed: 'It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.'"

The Pew survey results are not surprising because there is a connection between the refusal to "accept the science of climate change and social and economic privilege". Most of the climate change deniers are not only conservative but also "white and male" - a group with higher than average income. Worse, members of this group are more prone to be highly confident of their views even if they are scientifically wrong.

The Pew study reveals the difference between perception (of the American public) and reality (which scientists, based on empirical evidence, believe in). If we juxtapose the American public with the people in the rest of the world, we are most likely to get the same result, but that doesn't change the reality, that the planet and its attributes are not what they should have been in natural circumstances and that humans are responsible for that because they are the only beings who have the power to alter it.

And as Alan Leshner, the chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a leading scientific organization that publishes the journal Science, said: "Speaking up for the importance of science to society is our only hope, and scientists must not shy away from engaging with the public, even on the most polarizing science-based topics." Factors, including political views on climate change and religious beliefs on evolution, are out to trump science because of lack of scientific understanding among people.

This is a dangerous trend in times when science should be ruling the minds of the people. This trend needs to be countered with the help of education programs sponsored by governments, especially governments in countries like China, which know what the reality of climate change is and how it can be mitigated.

Will China, and other countries most threatened by climate change, take up this challenge?

The author is a senior editor with China Daily.

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