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Depoliticizing the climate debate: communicating the science

Are we hard-wired to keep warming the planet? The latest research suggests that evolution might stop humans from solving climate change. And yet, being scientists, the researchers suggest a more nuanced approach – and further study:

“There is hope, of course, that humans may solve climate change. We have built cooperative governance before, although never like this: in a rush at a global scale,” [University of Maine evolutionary biologist Tim] Waring says. The growth of international environmental policy provides some hope. Successful examples include the Montreal Protocol to limit ozone-depleting gases and the global moratorium on commercial whaling. New efforts should include fostering more intentional, peaceful and ethical systems of mutual self-limitation, particularly through market regulations and enforceable treaties, that bind human groups across the planet together ever more tightly into a functional unit.

But that model may not work for climate change. “Our paper explains why and how building cooperative governance at the global scale is different, and helps researchers and policymakers be more clear-headed about how to work toward global solutions,” says Waring. This new research could lead to a novel policy mechanism to address the climate crisis: Modifying the process of adaptive change among corporations and nations may be a powerful way to address global environmental risks.

As for whether humans can continue to survive on a limited planet, Waring says, “We don’t have any solutions for this idea of a long-term evolutionary trap, as we barely understand the problem. If our conclusions are even close to being correct, we need to study this much more carefully.”

More careful scientific study is of course a good thing – and solid science acts as a bulwark against climate doomism.

And in fact, further data research does indeed suggest that there are more reasons for hope than despair about climate change – and why a truly sustainable world is in reach.

A new book just out covers these findings, saying we may be wrong about the climate crisis – but in a good way. And, again, the thinking and visioning have to be based on solid science:

“It seems like we’ve been battling climate change for decades and made no progress,” Dr. Hannah Ritchie says. “I want to push back on that.” Ritchie, a senior researcher in the Program on Global Development at the University of Oxford and deputy editor at the online publication Our World in Data, is the author of the upcoming book, “Not the End of the World.” In it, she argues that the flood of doom-laden stats and stories about climate change is obscuring our ability to imagine solutions to the crisis and envision a sustainable, livable future.

You tell me if I’m wrong, but my hunch is that you are a person who prizes rationality. Of course, people often behave irrationally. How does the fact of human irrationality affect how you think about communicating about the climate crisis? Or put another way, are there limits to the persuasiveness of rational argument in this arena? The key to communicating this is to understand what different people care about and tailoring the message, and the message needs to be true. Actually, I have a hypothesis I’m going to run by you. I think the debates on climate change are far too politicized, and that’s doing a disservice to making progress. I see this on both sides. I think we would agree that when it comes to climate, the left tends to be more for climate action and the right tends to be more against it. But that breaks down when you look at data in the U.S. on which states are deploying solar and wind the quickest. Texas is the biggest in wind. The top states in the U.S. that have the biggest share of wind in their electricity mix are all Republican states.

Hannah Ritchie during a TED Talk in Vancouver last April.  Ryan Lash/TED – Imagining a pathway to a sustainable future: Notes on Session 4 of TED2023 | TED Blog

So this notion that for climate action to happen everyone needs to be convinced that climate change is a big problem — and the leaders in power also need to believe it — just doesn’t seem to be true when you look at the data. Americans like clean energy across the board. What people on the right don’t like is people telling them they have to have solar and wind. They don’t like requirements or mandates. But if there’s good technology there, they deploy it. What they also don’t like is being told that they have to do it on the basis of climate change. In some sense I don’t care whether they care about climate change because my framework for change is if the technologies are there, they’re cheap, they’re good, people like them, you don’t have to bring climate change into it at all. I think we’re at risk of pushing people the other way if you try to force the climate debate on them.

What is the appropriate response from the scientific community? To cede the political discussion to nonscientists? The appropriate response is to try to lay out clearly what the problem is and what the potential impacts will be. For people to trust that they need to try to stay away from politicization. When it comes to climate change, science is the bedrock. We need to keep the bedrock as solid as we possibly can. So the role of science is to discover, study, explain. What scientists are often not that good at is explaining to the layman what this actually means for them. You have temperature targets of 1.5 degrees or two degrees. We need to explain in clear language what that means for the average person.