November 1st, 2010
Disease control and evolution have dealt with controversy for over a century. By comparison, climate science is relatively new to the idea of public resistance. This has had consequences.
EFFECTIVE, LONG-TERM LEADERSHIP TAKES TIME
Everyone has their opinions on why the climate movement (meaning the efforts expended towards “climate action,” which means the attempts to develop legislation and change behavior to reduce our impacts on the atmosphere which we believe are translating into climate change) has failed. Here is my opinion of one major factor which is based on three sets of experiences.
Over the past three years I’ve been given a glimpse into three fields of what we could call “science controversy”: evolution, global warming, and disease control.
The evolution experience comes from my first movie, “Flock of Dodos.” The global warming comes from my second movie, “Sizzle.” The disease control comes from my visit to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, my getting to know the “Hollywood, Health, and Society” project at U.S.C., and my taking part in an epidemiology conference last month at University of Connecticut.
IT’S ABOUT MATURITY AND EXPERIENCE
Here’s my overall assessment of the situation — the problem is one of maturity and experience. Two of these issues — evolution and disease control — have long histories. The evolution controversy goes back to Charles Darwin. For public health issues there has been the challenge of public compliance and participation from the outset.
But climate has been a branch of science that up until the past two decades has not had to deal with public resistance. It has never really had any sort of element of imposition upon the public. Evolutionists have confronted people’s religious beliefs, epidemiologists have urged the public to change their behavior, but climatologists have simply talked about the weather.
It wasn’t really until James Hansen told congress in 1988 that we’re doing something wrong here and need to change our behavior that the entire field of climate science began experiencing major controversy.
From looking at these three areas, you can see the long-term consequences. In the field of evolution, the year before Hansen kicked things off for climate, The National Center for Science Education had already hired it’s current Director, Dr. Eugenie Scott. As I tried to show a couple of weeks ago in my interview with her, she brings 23 years of knowledge and experience to the defense of evolution, resulting in powerful leadership in dealing with that controversy.
In the case of disease control, the U.S. created the Centers for Disease Control in the 1940’s. During my visit they told me that year after year, polls show they are the most respected federal agency. In 2010 a Gallup Poll showed that 61 percent of the public believes the CDC is doing a good or excellent job, the highest positive rating offered to any of the nine federal agencies tested in the survey.
CLIMATE NEEDS EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP AND A “CREDIBLE SOURCE” FOR INFORMATION
But for climate science, the whole controversy came as a mind-boggling surprise throughout the 1990’s. There was no long-term set of experiences for how to deal with climate skeptics, nor how to communicate the science effectively. As a result, in 2006 when Al Gore stepped up to take the lead in public communication of the science, the climate science community enthusiastically handed it all over to him, lock, stock and barrel. I know this. I witnessed it from the start. When I was a professor at U.N.H. in the fall of 1988, I began hearing updates from one of the first members of the IPCC. Over the years he was giddy that Al Gore was rallying to their cause. And in 2006 at the A.G.U. meeting, they had to move Gore’s talk to the largest auditorium and still couldn’t handle the overflow crowd packed in to see him.
Many mistakes have been made in the presentation and defense of climate science with the public. But that’s okay. It is to be expected of a nascent “movement.” The only thing that matters now is an understanding and support for the process of “trial and error.” And this is what concerns me.
When I moved to Hollywood in 1994 and began learning about the studio system, I heard all about the infatuation with “what’s next.” If a movie about tennis players loses money, then ALL projects involving tennis players are dead, regardless of substance — regardless of whether everyone agrees a new script is brilliant. There is simply no vision or courage — only the desperate desire to follow what is believed to be what the public wants — “the hot new thing.”
I fear there is too much of this in the climate community these days — the obsession with “what’s next” and wanting to make sure it doesn’t look or sound like anything from the past that wasn’t a silver bullet. This is where effective leadership comes into play with the ability to override the “what’s next” urge with a more logical, content-driven approach.
The mistakes need to be objectively analyzed and wrung out for all that can be learned from them. And there needs to be critical assessment of the landscape to figure out what this movement is missing that other movements have. Along those lines, I can tell you very simply it’s what the CDC and NCSE offer. Both are effective sources of leadership and “credible sources” of information — two of the most important elements to make things work. The climate world needs the same.