• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Don't blame human nature

According to multiple reports, the percentages of Americans who believe that (1) climate change is real and (2) humans are responsible for most of it continue to fall.

December 12, 2011

According to multiple reports, the percentages of Americans who believe that (1) climate change is real and (2) humans are responsible for most of it continue to fall. A recent analysis in Grist sets forth both the discouraging numbers and conventional wisdom about why they're falling.  The numbers may well be right, but the explanation is bogus. It consists of a litany of excuses. The fact that it's widely accepted by both wonks and media folks is, perhaps, more discouraging than the numbers it tries to explain.

In summary, the conventional wisdom boils down to (a) human nature -- climate change is happening too slowly for people to experience at any profound level, (b) other priorities -- the economic situation (including unemployment) is just too dire for folks to worry about longer-term issues, even if those issues are real, and (c) it's not expected to happen to us -- the worst impacts of climate change will be somebody else's (somewhere else's) problem.

One of the things I like about living in the Northeast is that, when the fancy strikes me, I can get outside the USA pretty quickly. Not that Canada doesn't have its own problems, but the fact that it's so close by prevents me from falling into the trap of equating US culture and US opinion with humanity as a whole. Polls about anthropogenic climate change are a case in point. Because while Canada's government is acting no more responsibly on the world stage than its neighbor to the south, the grasp the average Canadian has on climate change -- and the opinions (s)he expresses regarding what should be done -- are very different than those found in the USA.  Which leads us the the question of why.

The average Canadian is pretty much as subject to human nature in general as the average American, and the vast bulk of Canadian citizens have been no more exposed to rapid climate change than we have.  (A) doesn't seem to provide much explanatory power.

The Canadian economy isn't much stronger than the economy of the USA, and unemployment rates north of the border resemble those around here. Thus, (b) isn't looking too strong, either.

While the USA contains only one (Miami) of the ten cities worldwide most likely to be wiped out by rising sea levels, Canada has none at all. And if warmer winters seem (at least initially) unthreatening to those of us in northern US states, they're even less so in Canada.  (C) would seem even more true north of the border than here.

The conventional wisdom seems entirely off the mark.

So why the great difference in awareness, understanding, willingness to take action? I certainly don't have a complete explanation, but I think I can see some signs.  First among them is the quality of the Canadian media and the information they convey. Read the recent analysis of Durban put out by the Canadian Broadcasting Company. True, it's no better than analyses on subjects of similar weight as published in the best American journals, but recognize -- the CBC is a television network! The medium perhaps least suited (save Twitter and Facebook) to in-depth analysis has done as good a job up there as the best-suited medium does down here. Think of the implications.

Second, and on this one I don't have statistics at hand, it's my impression that universities -- and, by extension, scientists and other academics -- are held in higher esteem in the country to our north than they are in the USA.  If that's true, then perhaps it contributes to the relative willingness of Canadian opinion to be shaped by scientific knowledge. I could well be wrong, but if I'm right it's another reason to rethink the role of IHEs in American society. Unless we're willing to state that Canadian universities are more deserving of respect than their US counterparts (and I, for one, am not), then I think we have to consider the possibility that Canadian schools present a better face to their public than we do to ours. 

It's worth thinking about.


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