Changing an Anti-Science Culture

How to Make Science Matter through the Example of Climate Change



By Alexander Pralea, Editor

In 2006, Al Gore released a film that was years in the making: An Inconvenient Truth. Reporters heralded him as a hero and luminary who used his position of influence to increase public awareness of the pressing issue of climate change. He made few factual errors and was thus universally considered among scientists to have portrayed scientific knowledge (like the Keeling Curve depicting the rise in carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere) well. However, a later perspective reveals that he took the country years back by transforming science, in the form of climate change, into a political issue associated with Democrats, thereby tearing it away from its Republican roots.

Climate change transcends political boundaries. It cares little if one is a Republican or a Democrat, a city-dweller or rural farmer, a Manhattanite or a Denverite, an American or a Spaniard. It affects all. President Richard Nixon, a Republican, recognized this crucial fact throughout his presidency, in which he made the word conservative synonymous with conservationist (after all, both share the same Latin root). In 1970, he signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that created the Council of Environment Quality to require the creation of an environmental impact statement (EIS) whenever a federal action might compromise environmental quality. This vital piece of legislation revolutionized the blossoming field of environmental justice and science. Beforehand, the environment was deemed separate from humanity; after all, who cared for a simple bird species? However, increasing pollution levels drove Americans to desire change. They had witnessed the ramifications of environmental damage, as captured through scientist Rachel Carson’s novel Silent Spring, referring to the possibility that so many birds would be decimated by the pesticide DDT that none would be left to sing, and the catching on fire of the polluted Cuyahoga River in Ohio.  NEPA forced agencies that cooperate with the government to evaluate the fact that economic decisions have external costs that inflict damage on people not involved in the decision making. However, as people endured the necessary consequences of environmental protection, they felt the restrictions were burdensome and excessive, reversing many strides that the country had made and increasing divisiveness along political lines.

A Yale Climate Opinion map spanning the entire United States depicts a sharp rural vs urban divide in accordance with this political polarization. [1] Most notably, however, the difference changes based on how the climate change question is phrased. Although the political debate may make it seem that most deny the existence of climate change, the map tells otherwise – at least initially. Nationally, a stunning 70% believe climate change is happening. The problem comes into play when the question becomes more nuanced: will global warming affect me personally? In a stark wake-up call, only 40% of Americans, mostly concentrated in diverse cities most directly affected by global warming, believe it will affect them personally. To most Americans, it is a distant, non-anthropogenic issue that mostly afflicts those in developing nations. To change this attitude, we as a nation must change the way we perceive climate change.

First of all, the government must continue to offer its unflinching support for the EPA’s efforts to combat climate change, rather than handicap its ability to provide for clean air and water access for all Americans. Subsidies of large fossil fuel corporations – amounting to a whopping $775 billion in 2012 – must be eliminated if Americans hope to conserve their planet. [2] This means Americans must be willing to compromise in the form of higher prices for unsubsidized gasoline and oil.  Ultimately, the struggle with climate change paints a dismal picture of the state of science in the country. Science is no longer regarded as credible and is instead warped into an endeavor designed to support the agenda of the “liberal elite,” even when gas companies like ExxonMobil recognize the indisputable truth behind climate change and the country’s current administration released a report calling for immediate action in response to climate change to avoid a whopping seven degree Fahrenheit increase in global temperatures by 2100. [3] [4]  Helping Americans acknowledge science in all its forms and take advantage of scientific data to adapt their lifestyles is a key aspect of climate change policy, as enhanced technology alone cannot remedy climate change. Science paves the path for a better future, though it is up to us, the people, to convince our politicians that the short-term difficulties are worth the long-term benefits for the globe.