Hayhoe, a climate researcher at Texas Tech University, had to laugh, too. She is all too familiar with the limits of facts when people don’t want to face them.
“We’ve known for a long time that simply communicating scientific facts is not enough to spur what science shows is the correct or rational behavior,” Hayhoe said. “Climate scientists were probably the least surprised people in the world when the response to the coronavirus became politically polarized. Because that’s what we’ve been living through for 30 years.”
To many experts, the coronavirus pandemic — and the United States’ inability to contain it — has felt like the climate crisis “at warp speed,” in the words of ecologist Jeff Dukes. Both disasters were predicted by scientists and could have been prevented, or at least mitigated, by swift and early action. Both the disease and the dangerous effects of global warming have exposed and exacerbated the fractures in our society, hitting hardest in the country’s most marginalized communities.
And, despite the deadly consequences of both crises, willingness to take steps supported by science — wearing masks, reducing use of fossil fuels — has become a matter of political debate. The confidence gap between Democrats and Republicans in the advice from public health experts mirrors the partisan divide over warnings from climate scientists.
Rubén Manzanedo, a forest ecologist at Harvard University and the University of Washington, said he recognized climate denial tactics developed over decades being deployed to downplay the danger of the coronavirus. “The playbook is very clear,” he said: Politicians have questioned the findings of government scientists; conspiracy theorists have muddied the public’s understanding of the threat.
“This has largely been an exercise in frustration and surprising deja vu,” said Dukes, who directs the Climate Change Research Center at Purdue University in Indiana. “Epidemiologists, welcome to our world.”
Yet researchers hold out hope that this terrible year will strengthen the ability of scientists to communicate the dangers of climate change as well as make the rest of society more willing to heed what they have to say.
Sheena Cruickshank, an immunologist at the University of Manchester and academic lead for the school’s public engagement program, has been studying research on climate communication as she advises her colleagues about how to talk about covid-19. Studies have showed that straightforward, nonjudgmental messages about climate change and personal stories about its effects can bolster acceptance of the science even among skeptics. So, rather than bombarding people with data — like the doctors in Hayhoe’s cartoon — Cruickshank has sought to counter misinformation about the coronavirus with simple explanations and earnest advice.
“I think it is about being respectful but also being clear, rather than just saying ‘No, no, no, you’re wrong,’ which is so tempting,” she said.
Climate scientists may have even more to learn from health experts, said Peter Manning, an ecologist at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Center in Frankfurt, Germany. In June, he and Manzanedo published an article in the journal Science of the Total Environment calling on climate researchers to “learn from the current situation.”
“There’s been a huge natural experiment here in different communication strategies,” Manning told the Post.
Each country is a case study in a different tactic, he said. Guidance from German Chancellor Angela Merkel (who holds a PhD in quantum chemistry) has been statistically rigorous and starkly unemotional. In New Zealand, where covid-19 has been almost eliminated, citizens received government text messages urging collective action: Let’s all do our bit. The director of South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Jung Eun-Kyeong, gave twice-daily briefings about the nation’s outbreak, earning praise for her “graceful crisis comms” from the magazine PR Week. The three nations have been among the most successful at controlling the virus.
The coronavirus pandemic seems to have boosted the public’s appetite for what once seemed like niche scientific information, many scientists said. For the first time in Cruickshank’s career, she is bombarded with requests to explain the role of T-cells or describe the workings of the immune system. Manzanedo said friends and family members often email him for help evaluating new research or surprising claims. And people are gaining fluency in concepts they may not have thought about since 11th-grade biology class, Manning noted, growing more accustomed to reading about scientific models and comparing growth curves.
“I think maybe that’s primed the public for ... looking at a future at which something bad is going to happen, but just how bad it’s going to be depends on a range of behaviors and actions that could be taken,” Manning said.
Online covid-19 dashboards, where growing case counts “provide feedback on a daily basis of what happens when you ignore science,” could serve as a model for communicating the local effects of climate change, Hayhoe said. And, much as stories of outbreaks among school kids and churchgoers have brought home the toll of the disease, accounts of ordinary people harmed by climate change could help “close the psychological distance” between Americans and the looming environmental disaster.
This moment in the fight against climate change, Hayhoe said, is roughly equivalent to early March in the fight against the covid-19 pandemic. The threat has already been set in motion. The effects are just beginning to be felt.
“Swift decisive action at that point was the difference between planking the curve and a runaway epidemic,” Hayhoe said. (“Planking the curve” is the catchphrase for eliminating infections in Canada, where Hayhoe is from.) One study suggested that the United States could have avoided 36,000 coronavirus deaths had social distancing and other control measures been implemented one week earlier.
Like covid-19, climate change is governed by feedback loops and exponential processes; every day of delay makes the consequences more catastrophic. Conversely, each action taken now will help avert even worse effects. United Nations scientists have found that the world can still meet the goals of the Paris Climate Accord — at which nations agreed to keep warming within the tolerable threshold of 2 degrees Celsius — if people reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6 percent each year.
It’s an ambitious target, but much of the knowledge and technology needed to achieve it already exists. A recent study from the University of California at Berkeley found that the United States could derive 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2035 for almost the same cost as maintaining the current grid. Big buildings, including icons like the Empire State Building, are becoming energy efficient and saving money at the same time. Nations like India, which boasts more electric vehicles than the United States, are seeking to “leapfrog” right over a fossil-fuel based economy to a more sustainable future. People are finding ways to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere through farming, planting trees, recycling it or burying it in the ground.
The pandemic has already proved that big change is possible. It took just a few days in March for Americans to isolate in their homes and overhaul their lives. It has taken just a few months for huge majorities people to adopt habits they would never before have considered; an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll in July found that three-quarters of Americans now favor requiring people to wear face masks.
“We still have that opportunity to plank the curve on climate change,” Hayhoe said. "The question is: Do we have the will?”
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