Q&A with Commonsense Media

Q: You’re a scientist and researcher and a skilled communicator (a rare and wonderful combination). You spend a good deal of time on the latter, particularly as it relates to the science of climate change. Why do you think it’s still so difficult for some people to grasp the reality of the changes in the climate we’re facing?

A: Climate is a tough concept to understand, and climate change is even harder. What our brains are designed to remember is weather: the conditions from day to day, week to week, and even year to year – that one sweltering week in July, or the blizzard that shut down the city a few years ago.

But climate is the statistics of weather over tens, hundreds, and even thousands of years. To keep track of climate and decide for ourselves if it’s changing, we’d have to be capable of remembering the temperature and rainfall on every single day of the year for decades at a time, then we’d have to be able to average all those numbers in our head and fit a trend line to it, to see if it were going up or down.

Scientists like myself do exactly this, using computers to track weather data for decades, and even centuries, around the world. That’s how we know that yes, the planet really is warming. Yet every time we turn on the TV, or read the news, we hear someone saying the opposite: “sea levels are falling,” claims one pundit, or “it’s cold outside – so much for global warming!” says the president, or “those scientists are just faking the data for the money” argues a political consultant. If we can’t analyze the data ourselves, how do we know whom to believe?

Climate change has become one of the most politically polarized issues in the entire United States. It’s gotten to the point where many of us feel that in order to belong – to our family, our social group, our church, or our political party – we have to agree with whatever opinions on climate change they hold. But a thermometer isn’t liberal or conservative; it doesn’t give us a different answer depending on how we vote. So why are so many people so vehemently opposed to the simple facts that climate is changing, humans are responsible, the impacts are serious, and we need to act now? Not because of the science, but because of the solutions.

To fix climate change, we have to wean ourselves off coal, and oil, and even natural gas. But if we look at the richest corporations in the world, the vast majority of those make their money from extracting, processing or making things that burn fossil fuels. So they – and the politicians whose campaigns they support – have every reason in the world to delay climate action as long as possible. To help, they fund talking heads and think tanks to throw up plausible objections, like “it’s not real,” or “it’s just a natural cycle,” calling into question and deliberately muddying the results over 150 years of solid science that tells us clearly: it’s real, it’s us, it’s serious, and there are solutions, but we need to act now.

Read the full interview here.