Walsh: The price of ignorance

Photo by Joy Sun.

Forty-three percent of Americans believe that if we stopped punching holes in the ozone layer with rockets, it would reduce global warming. Twenty-six percent of Americans aren’t sure if this would work. Loosely interpreted, 70 percent of Americans think that holes in the ozone may contribute to global warming and that rocket ships may be responsible for these holes. Neither of these ideas is accurate, and, to say the least, such widespread misunderstanding is troubling.

A recently released survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication paints a grim picture of Americans’ understanding of the issue of climate change. In a recent talk, the president of the World Resources Institute noted that the gap between climate change science and general comprehension demonstrates that “something is moving really fast that people don’t get yet.” After decades of scientific inquiry and political discussion, we have witnessed little progress. Two questions loom: What accounts for this misapprehension of climate change? And why does it matter?

A large group of those mostly in the know, from scientists to journalists to politicians, has failed to communicate both the facts and significance of climate change to the general public. A muddled and politicized message has led to a muddled and politicized response — or more accurately, lack of response. But more important than this failure to communicate is the outsized influence of money on decision-making: Rarely, if ever before, has money been so capable of buying facts and influencing opinion. The Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court, which allows corporations to fund political advertising without limit, and the heavy spending of the billionaire climate-change-denying Koch brothers each illustrate how an extraordinarily wealthy and small group of interests is bending the arc of progress. The Orwellian credo “ignorance is strength” rings eerily familiar. Instead of the product of a totalitarian regime, the slogan now represents our blind and fiscally dominant corporate interests.

In his inaugural address, President Obama called for a return of science to its rightful place. Degraded for eight years to merely another kind of punditry, science was to ascend to the right hand of policymakers as a powerful tool and trusty determinant. But this hope will not be realized unless we reconsider the rightful place of moneyed political interests in our democracy. If we want a public that does not attribute global warming to the aerodynamics of rocket ship cones, then we need to clarify the public dialogue. To clarify the public dialogue, we need to remove or filter the intense miasma created by the disproportionate amount of money coming from groups intent on stalling environmental progress.

Which leaves the second question: Why does this matter? So what if the particular causes and symptoms of climate change are not understood by the public? The survey itself bluntly gives the answer: Without basic and credible understanding, “many Americans lack some of the knowledge needed for informed decision-making in a democratic society.” Smart political choices are exceedingly difficult with an uninformed electorate, especially when it comes to scientifically motivated policy.

Cap-and-trade failed to pass the Senate this year, and the environmental community was up in arms about where to place the blame. Was it spineless Democrats, stubborn Republicans, a preoccupied Obama? Did Rahm Emanuel push his weight around, or did the Beltway environmental organizations compromise too readily? Such questions echoed for months. But the conversation largely ignored the public, and wrongly so. The results of Yale’s recent survey illuminate an electorate that is largely misinformed. If politicians are going to move forward on these issues, they need the goading of constituents. If constituents are to act, they need a clear vision of what is wrong. And to present a clear vision of what is wrong, we need to first and foremost scrutinize the unreality created by intensely adversarial wealth-brokers. This roadblock must be surmounted before any policy questions can be fairly asked, let alone answered.

Dylan Walsh is a second-year student in the School of Forestry & Environmental Sciences.