Winning hearts and minds
Burton: Sure, it’s sound tactics, I mean he probably shouldn’t have said it in such a way that people knew that he said it, but that’s a whole different issue. But here’s what makes me squeamish when I hear you talking about social entrepreneurs using the crisis, leveraging it. As somebody with a scientific disposition, I’m very comfortable with highlighting the scientific consensus that’s been established on global warming. I’m very comfortable about the fact that a clear pattern has emerged based upon all sorts of data about what has happened over a long period of time. By and large there seems to be a clear indication of what’s on the more speculative side, what’s on the more established side, and so forth.
But once people start looking at individual data points, like, “Oh, there was a really big storm! – something must be going on!” then Iget nervous. Because then you face the danger of someone elsecoming along and saying, “Oh, there’s no global warming because it was really cold this winter” , and all that kind of silliness. So Ithink there’s a real danger in misusing the science. I understandwhat people are trying to do: they’re using an event to get attentionand get people to focus on the bigger picture, but isn’t therea risk of jeopardizing the scientific process by doing that?
Hoffman: It depends on how it’s done. Scientists stepped forward right after Sandy and said, “This storm is not climate change. This storm was not created by climate change, but climate change created the conditions by which it was more extreme than expected – the ocean was warmer and so forth.”
Weather is not climate, you’re absolutely right, but what they’re trying to do is get the process going so that people are open to the issue. People respond to what is salient and personal. That’s why polar bears sell and snail darters don’t: it’s charismatic mega-fauna, people have this affinity to it, this reaction to it, it pulls the heartstrings. There are studies that show that people who have been exposed to extreme weather events are more inclined to believe climate change is real because they can accept that the environment can turn nasty on them, that it can become hostile.
Burton: Yes, but I don’t want to convince them that way. I want to convince them by educating them about science.
Hoffman: Well, you start with the data of a weather event, but then you quickly transition and say, “This is not climate change. Climate change is about long-term trends in global mean temperatures. It’s about broad-scale shifts over a longer period of time.” But this is the door opening.
This is a communication effort that a lot of scientists get upsetover, as you are right now, but scientists need to recognize that you might have the right idea, you might have the right answer, but now you’ve got to convince people that it’s the right answer. Scientists who think that “I just need to come up with my right answer and people are going to accept it” and ignore the social and political context of what they’re doing, they’re really missing the point.