Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Politics of Climate

There are few concepts in science that I can think of that are more politically polarizing than climate. The story behind why this has occurred in some places (the US and the UK) and why it has never been the same kind of political issue in others (the rest of the world) is complicated. Most science focusing on the environment, in has some type of public policy element to it because people have an enormous impact (collectively and individually) on the world around us.

Climate is different. It has been elevated to the same level of political partisanship as the theory of evolution during the monkey trial of 1925. Though most scientists cringe at the notion that anything as complicated as a changing climate should be distilled down to simple binaries, it is nevertheless interesting to see how perceptions among Americans change over time. The Pew Research Center has been survey populations about the issue for years and their latest polling (released Dec. 1) shows some interesting results.

Trends in American acceptance of the idea that worldwide temperatures are warming have been buffeted by media campaigns on both sides. After the release of the Al Gore's film "An Inconvenient Truth" there was a huge upswing in popular belief that the planet was fundamentally changing. The next couple of years saw a steady erosion in the number of Americans thinking there was solid evidence for warming coinciding with the rise of the Tea Party, the staged "climategate" scandal and the Koch brothers campaign against the science of climate change.

Since the failure at Copenhagen, American opinion of the soundness of climate science and their belief in a warming world has been steadily increasing. We shouldn't get too far ahead of ourselves though. It still remains bizarrely controversial for an issue which 98% of climate scientists believe is settled. It serves as a stark reminder that public policy is as predicated on public opinion and knowledge as much (if not more so) as it is on science.

This same basic understanding of the distinction between enlightened decision-making and public opinion led Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece to write that the best form of government would be a benevolent dictator, a philosopher king. I think in many ways this is a dangerous line of thought and one that has no known precedent of actually working. But it would be interesting to speculate on how the climate talks and other intractable international issues could be resolved if governments were led by Plato's benevolent dictators.

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