As you are undoubtedly aware, this year's Nobel Peace Prize is being split between the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore, in recognition of "their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change."
Like almost everybody else here at Scienceblogs, I think this is absolutely fantastic. Gore has worked his butt off over the last few years. He's been tireless in his efforts to focus attention on climate change, and he's made a real difference. The potential effects of human-driven climate change do represent a real threat to everyone on the planet, and Gore has done more than his part to make sure that people - and not just policy makers - understand that.
As I just said, almost everyone here has nothing but praise and congratulations. But it's not quite unanimous. Matt Nisbet seems to have a few concerns about Gore's effect on the differences in the way Democrats and Republicans perceive global warming. Emphasizing the potential dangers, Matt believes, makes it easier for people to dismiss him as an "alarmist," and makes it harder to convince some people that there's a problem - particularly when the science is uncertain.
Personally, I think that Matt sees a problem when he looks at the very different levels of concern about global warming seen in Democrats and Republicans. There is definitely a problem there. I'm just not sure that it's the one he's identified.
In his post, Matt presents a graph that shows that 85% of Democrats worry "a great deal" about global warming, while only 46% of Republicans share that concern. Matt goes on to explain his view of this difference by providing a quote of himself from an NPR interview:
And so, what's going on here? It's because several Democratic leaders, like Al Gore, and even some scientists are really adopting what I call the catastrophe frame or the Pandora's Box frame, really focusing in on specific climate impacts that might be scary or frightening, such as the possibility of more intense hurricanes.
When you move in that direction, where the science is still uncertain, you open yourself up to the counter argument that this is just simply alarmism. It's very easy for the public, then, to simply rely on their partisanship to make up their minds, and that's why you have this two Americas of public perception.
After listening to his own view of the problem, Matt suggests a possible solution:
Gore says he plans to donate 100% of the Nobel prize money to changing public opinion on climate change, but if he is going to be successful, he needs to promote alternative frames and interpretations of the issue and pair these messages with less partisan appearing opinion leaders. In fact, Gore should take note of E.O. Wilson's message and efforts at working with Evangelical leaders.
Despite Gore's success, there's still a lot more research and work to be done in figuring out alternative meanings of global warming that go beyond just a focus on crisis and that can activate key segments of the American public.
Personally, I think there are some other sets of numbers that Matt should have looked at before suggesting alternative courses of action.
- Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to "believe in" evolution.
- Two thirds of Democrats support stem cell research, while less than half of Republicans do.
- 69% of Republicans, and 36% of Democrats, favor oil exploration in ANWR.
- 58% of Republicans, and 6% of Democrats, approve of the way President Bush is handling Iraq.
- More than half of Republicans still approve of President Bush's job performance overall. He's in single digits with Democrats.
Climate change is hardly the only area where there's a partisan divide in this country. Suggesting that Gore is a major factor in the divide is, at best, disingenuous - particularly when there are a huge number of extraordinarily loud voices on the right who continue to claim that global warming is nothing more than a hoax that's being perpetuated on the public by the evil liberals. Seriously, people: raise your hand if you think that Jim Inhofe would stop trying to intimidate federal scientists, or refrain from comparing environmentalists to the Third Reich, or the EPA to the Gestapo, if only Gore wouldn't be so "alarmist." Anyone? Didn't think so.
The partisan divide on this - and so many other issues - has absolutely nothing to do with how Al Gore, or the "new atheists", or the MoveOn.org crowd choose to present their issues. They may or may not be doing everything possible to eliminate the divide, but they certainly didn't cause it. The partisan divide stems in part from a Republican party that has made the denial of reality a central plank in their platform, and in part from a media that approaches politics from the perspective of a giant sports event. ("Go team! Go team! Yea team!")
Matt can put scare quotes around the words "climate crisis," and can deride Gore's efforts as a "Pandora's Box" frame all he wants, but the reality is that there is a real crisis out there. There are legitimate grounds for wondering if all of the things that Gore presents as possible effects are likely to happen. There are legitimate grounds for wondering if the timeframe he presents is correct. But there are no longer legitimate grounds for wondering if climate change is happening, or if climate change will have real (and serious) effects on humans over the next several decades.
Gore might be focusing attention on the worst-case possibilities, but someone needs to do just that. If more people don't pay attention to the worst case, we're going to be in a hell of a lot more trouble if it turns out to be the actual course of events. It's also worth noting that by focusing attention on the worst case scenario, Al Gore has done a great deal to shift the debate from "is anything going to happen" to "how bad will it be" and "what should we be doing now." For that alone, he deserves the honor he received today.