In a recent opinion piece, published both as a blog post and in the New York Times Opinion section, Berkeley physicist Richard Muller explains why he is no longer a “skeptic”. The piece, and related writing earlier this year, have drawn a lot of attention because Muller’s study was in part funded by the Koch brothers, who have a reputation for funding conservative political causes, including organizations that campaign against climate policy.
While new studies on the causes of climate change are valuable, I find it hard to believe that scientific progress itself would prove a game-changer in climate policy. The scientific consensus on climate change has already been strong for years, but this has done little to convince skeptical members of the public. I suspect this failure has a variety of causes. Most people probably pay little attention to the evolution of the scientific community’s views of the causes of climate change. People also seem to react to scientific information about complex problems by avoiding them, as this blog post by Lynne Cherry at Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth suggests. Even if every single academic in the world agreed that climate change is caused by humans, think tanks could continue use hired guns as “experts” to advocate the opposite position, and few people would recognize the difference.
Given this, it is unlikely that anthropogenic climate change will become a widely accepted fact due to improvements in the science. The mismatch between the views of the scientific community and some segments of the public are more likely psychological and social. The good news is that many social scientists, myself included, have recognized the importance of this issue and are now working to develop and test theories of how people process scientific information and form views and opinions on the underlying problems, such as climate change.