The scientific enterprise has occupied a fairly clear and distinct role within our culture, at least in the United States, but the clarity of this role is blurred by the role of science in the call for new policy that addresses global climate change.
The scientific enterprise in the U. S. is financed primarily by the federal government and by corporate R&D. Corporate support for the science is almost exclusively directed to the development of products that will make a profit for a given corporation and thus enrich the company’s stock holders. Taxpayer support for the scientific enterprise is provided because the government’s investment in the science has provided valuable increases in military strength, health care technologies, and ideas that generate new products and new businesses that keep the economy growing. (The scientific community is rightfully proud that it has also given us wonderful new knowledge about the world we live in -- the kinds of knowledge that Carl Sagan waxed poetic about in his show Cosmos --but if this were the only value of science, I suspect that government and corporate investment in science would be roughly at the same scale as their investment in the arts and humanities.) In other words, science is supported because people expect it to make life better – more secure, healthier, and more comfortable. Science produces, it gives.
With global climate change, we find science in a rather different role. Rather than giving more, it seems to be taking away. It is asking for, even demanding, sacrifice.
It may well be the case that the general culture will more and more have to get used to the scientific enterprise under this aspect of asking for sacrifice, but it is important that we understand that at this time the general culture does not recognize this as a legitimate role of science. Indeed, the general culture recognizes only one institution that legitimately has the right to ask for sacrifice, and that is religion.
Since the culture expects science to produce and to fix things not ask for sacrifices in rectifying problems brought on by expanding technologies, it should not be a great surprise that the attitude of that culture to the problem of climate change is something like “you scientists created the problem, you fix it.” That science created the problem is, of course, only partly true – the endless appetite to consume resources, fossil fuels in particular, is OUR appetite. But the prestige of science has come from its ongoing ability to feed that appetite – the few within the scientific community that have questioned the wisdom of feeding that appetite and its ever increasing expectations has always been an easily dismissible minority.
You hear it said that people are “skeptical” of climate change, but this is an overly simplistic statement. As suggested above, it is not just skepticism about observations and theories regarding climate change, it is questions about the legitimate role of science in the realm of culture and politics that come into play. Thus it is not enough to simply do a better job of making the case regarding climate change and what is required to reverse the conditions that have led to it. The perception of the role if science within our culture also needs to be addressed.
Communicating better about climate change is not just about presenting the data in a clearer way, it is about the whole art of communicating and relating. Communicating, relating, understanding culture – none of these, in my experience, has ever been the strong suit of scientists. People with these skills tend more toward the arts, humanities and social sciences. Perhaps enlisting more input from these areas might prove valuable in creating a more effective communications strategy