How often do you hear a climate scientist say: “We’re doomed. It’s time to party”? Hopefully, not too often.
How often do you hear a climate scientist say: “We are all doomed. It’s time to enjoy the party”? Hopefully, not too often. We are used to scientists emphasizing the urgent need for action, trying to bring about necessary change. Yet they are growing frustrated, research suggests.
Many climate scientists are actually “experiencing growing frustration and feelings of crisis” in regards to whether their science can really drive social change. A new paper in WIRE’s Climate Change explores this dilemma and suggests ways we can move forward with it.
According to Anita Engels, the author of the paper who is a social scientist at the University of Hamburg in Germany, we are facing a “social status problem” in climate science. At the basic level, this means that the perception of climate science in society is far different from what scientists would like it to be.
A reason is that the natural sciences in Western societies have been widely perceived as ivory tower pursuits with special access granted only to a select few about how the world works. Scientists have started to realize that they are just one crowd among many shapers of public opinion. And quite often, far from the most important crowd.
Human beings are not perfectly rational and so personal views, ideologies, political leanings, cultural narratives and religious beliefs color their perceptions of important issues like climate change often far more than insights afforded by science. Evidence suggests, for instance, that the more religious people are, the less likely they are to believe in climate science. Therefore, large groups of people might be predisposed by their beliefs not to fully trust scientists.
Engels notes that “the expectation of a strong relationship between climate science and climate action is naïve,” which is to say that people will not take meaningful action just because scientists may tell them to do so.
That is why it is time for scientists to engage more fully with the public in respectful ways. They should talk with people, not talk down to them, in the best tradition of science popularizers.