It’s Time to Explain America’s Climate Options

Few Americans know enough to make informed choices about climate policy. We need to help them.

In an amazing feat of wartime daring, Felice Benuzzi and two compatriots escaped from a British POW camp in East Africa to climb Mt. Kenya, and then broke back into camp. An illustration on an Oxo food tin served as their map for the epic assault. Their adventure is recounted in the mountaineering classic, No Picnic on Mt. Kenya.

A food tin label is hardly a map, but it gave the climbers some reference points to go by. It would be hard to imagine scaling the peak with anything less—a Jackson Pollack painting, for example. But that is exactly what the science education and communications communities are asking the American public to do.

We are diligently trying to teach people enough climate science to immunize them against disinformation. We urge people to consider the evidence and make wise choices.

But what are the choices? If the goal is a stable climate, how can we get there? Nobody seems willing to answer this crucial question.

In effect, we are leaving the public in the lurch, hoping they will glean scraps from vested interests and politicians or go back to school. It’s like suggesting they navigate via Jackson Pollack or learn cartography from scratch. Neither option is realistic.

I think America’s science and education communities can and should address this problem. It’s time to set our fears about betraying impartiality aside and create an accurate, easy-to-read map of the solutions terrain.

After all, a map is not a policy prescription. It’s a faithful, accurate representation of the environment. It shows all the possible roads and routes, but it doesn’t tell a person where to go or how to get there.

A person chooses a destination and then consults a map to select a route from all of the possible options. Travel time, difficulty, availability of resources along the way, private property boundaries, and other factors can be weighed using the map. People need these inputs—they can’t make choices that they can’t see.

In 2010, I joined climate scientists, social scientists, decision scientists, ethicists and economists in a joint call for a new effort to inform Americans about the risks of climate change. We mentioned that existing institutions are not well suited to this task. The primary reason, in my mind, was that science institutions stop talking once they’ve delivered the results of their research. This limits their range to reporting the evidence of physical and biological change.

Who will report on the social, economic, technological, public policy and management factors involved in minimizing the climate threat? Unfortunately, faithfully mapping the solutions terrain isn’t anybody’s job.

Science and science education institutions have something unique to offer in this regard. They’ve evolved all of the rigorous assessment and review processes that faithful map-making demands of us, and they enjoy a high degree of public trust.

Science organizations lack technical expertise in economics, social science, business, law, ethics and a range of other necessary disciplines, but they know how to convene the most eminent experts, survey the peer-reviewed literature, identify the most robust and relevant evidence and conclusions, and work with communications experts to make the results accessible to everyone.

Projects like Earth: The Operators’ Manual show how science communicators can translate technical information for public audiences. But they can’t do the job alone.

  • We need the imprimatur from an authoritative, trusted and impartial voice.
  • We need to create a comprehensive interpretive framework to help people set priorities and weigh options.
  • We need reassurance that vested interests haven’t poisoned the well with disinformation.

A democratic society needs to inform its citizens about their climate choices. This effort needs an institutional home and sufficient funding to do the job quickly and carefully.

Without it, Americans will continue to be victimized by the voices of despair and denial. They will be like the POWs who sat behind the prison wire gazing at a distant peak with no idea how to get there.


About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.