By Kirsty Costa
Thousands of scientists from all over the world contribute to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on a voluntary basis. In September 2013, the IPCC released its latest summary of what these scientists are saying – that they are 95 per cent certain that global warming is being caused by humans.
95 per cent certain.
Scientists deal in predictions and uncertainty, and therefore have to use the language of statistics and probability. When climate scientists declare that they’re “95 per cent certain” it sounds like there’s room for debate or doubt. There is none. This is their cautious way of saying that there is a freaky bit of a chance they are wrong because sometimes random stuff happens in the world.
So why do some people still not trust this science or its findings even though there is 95 per cent certainty?
The answer to this is less about climate science and more about trust issues.
Trust is part of the foundation of any healthy human relationship. Yet it can’t be seen or heard; we know when it’s there because we feel safe. And while most of us in Australia have power over our private lives, we also seek the knowledge of experts to help us live a better life and to let us know that we’re on the right track (to help us feel safe).
There is evidence, however, that the status of an ‘expert’ is now in flux and can be affected by social trends. Let’s look at the healthcare system. My grandmother’s generation rarely questioned medical science and the opinion of their doctors. But with greater access to information, many individuals now diagnose themselves or explore their treatment options. Medical knowledge doesn’t necessarily change but the trust relationship between doctors (now often seen as ‘service providers’) and their patients (‘their customers’) has. The fact that a person can use information gathered on the internet, told in a forum or suggested to them by family and friends, indicates that we have a tendency to trust the experience of others more than the findings of scientific ‘experts’.
The authority of climate science is undermined in a world where being an ‘expert’ is subjective and less based on someone’s role in society.
While scientific language contributed to someone’s ‘expert’ status in the past, it is not necessarily trusted now. This is problematic for climate scientists. Added to this, climate scientists are saying that we are not safe and this contributes to the mistrust felt by sceptics or those who are yet to make up their mind.
The messages in the media about climate change further degrades the trust people have of climate scientists as it’s often about who is right, who is wrong and who has vested interest… leading us to wonder whether climate scientists are indeed ‘right’ and whether they have vested interest that can’t be trusted. The messages coming from the Abbott Government support feelings of mistrust with the decision not to have a Science Minister as part of its Cabinet and the axing of the Climate Commission.
When people don’t understand climate science and they don’t know or necessarily trust the ‘experts’ who say they are 95 per cent certain, they will seek out information from places they do trust. And for some people, these ‘experts’ are conservative politicians or media outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch… or family and friends who trust these sources of information and repeat what they have heard.
So, as much as they frustrate me, I would argue that not all climate sceptics are “misinformed”. Many are basing their opinion on information they trust more and some are then promoting themselves to ‘expert’ status through the power of their own research. Where does that leave those of us working to create rapid, social change in order to reduce the harmful impacts of climate change? I don’t fully have an answer to that yet but I’m thinking that we need to stop labelling climate sceptics uneducated buffoons and make trusted relationships the primary vehicle for communication and empowerment.
Read other CERES Education Our Say articles at http://dev.sustainability.ceres.org.au/project/our-say/ and join the conversation on social media.