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Polls show majority of Americans believe climate change a serious problem, but US Presidential campaigns do not mention it

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, coming to you from Baltimore.

Four years ago, when President Obama was elected, there was talk everywhere about the urgency of climate change. President Obama actually made part of his campaign promise a new green economy, which was going to be a critical piece of what he would do when he was president. Well, now, four years later, there’s almost no climate change debate taking place in Congress. The whole issue of climate change policy seems to have lost its urgency.

And joining us now to talk about that is Catherine Gautier, who is a climate scientist herself and has just organized, starting on Saturday, a conference to discuss exactly that question, about the urgency of climate change and what to do about it. Thanks for joining us, Catherine.


JAY: So you’ve been a climate scientist. You’ve been working in California. What is your reason for organizing the conference, in the sense—. And, also, what’s your take on what’s happened over the last four years? It doesn’t seem like there’s been a change in the opinion of the scientific community, but the broad sort of sense of urgency does seem to have disappeared.

GAUTIER: Yeah, you’re right. I mean, there is no change among the scientists, particularly the climate scientists, those who are active in climate research. There’s about 97 to 98 percent of the scientists who believe that climate change is happening and it’s largely the result of human activities. So that hasn’t changed. But within the public opinion there has been some change, and there are less people now [incompr.] that we are responsible, humans, for what is happening to climate.

JAY: Well, it’s an interesting thing to try to assess where public opinion is on this. You know, you can see one set of polls says, you know, it’s about half-and-half whether people believe there’s climate change or not. But then you can see other polls that say that the vast majority of Americans—one of the polls showed 65 to 75 percent of Americans think that extreme weather, like when it gets really hot or when it gets really cold, but particularly really hot, think it has to do with climate change. Now, I know not all climate scientists think that every time it gets hot that that’s proof of climate change, but if public opinion thinks that it is, then it means the majority of people must think there is climate change. But even then there’s no public policy debate. Like, in this current presidential election campaign I don’t think we’ve really heard the word once from either candidate.

GAUTIER: Yeah, you’re right. It’s a very complicated and complex problem that we—in fact, we are organizing this meeting to try to understand a little bit why and how people are thinking about climate change. And, you know, from the climate scientific community, there has been quite a lot of disappointment, both from what has happened in the present administration, but also what happened after Copenhagen. You know, we were pretty excited about the Copenhagen Conference [incompr.] thought that we would be negotiating the next phase of the Kyoto Protocol. And really, essentially nothing happened after that. There are a number of reasons for that, but it’s not really clear. And after that, everything went down, went downhill from it, in terms of the discourse and the—I mean, the discussion among the public and at the political level.

And this is one of the reasons that, as I said, we’re organizing this conference, to try to figure out what’s happening, because there is no reason from the scientific data, from the scientific fact. In fact, it would be—the reason would be the opposite, not only because of the extreme events, but everything that is happening is exactly what should be happening, what was predicted to happen. And even now we know that a couple of days ago it has been announced that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in the Arctic has reached 400 parts per million, which is something we have never seen before. So—you know, although 400 parts per million doesn’t mean anything scientifically specifically. But it’s a very important point in terms of our way of thinking about things.

JAY: And your own expertise is in what area?

GAUTIER: My expertise is in cloud and aerosols. That is my—and to tell you the truth, these are some of the most complicated and most complex part, component of the climate system. These are the areas where there’s a lot of uncertainties, because both, I mean, clouds and aerosol have the potential to cool the system under certain conditions, and we don’t really know. I mean, from what we measure, the tendency now is to warming, but there could be some feedback effect eventually that could have a tendency to cool. This is not what is happening, this is not what we think could happen, but this would be kind of one of the unknown unknown that could happen [crosstalk]

JAY: Right. But this doesn’t—the fact that there’s unknowns in terms of the effect of clouds doesn’t change your view about the sense of urgency.

GAUTIER: No, no, no, absolutely not, because all the data points to that sense of urgency. Everything is going in the direction that we are predicting. The extremes, the changes in temperature, the changes in ice coverage, the changes in concentration, everything is leaning towards that there are changes going to—happening already and that will happen probably even faster in the near future.

JAY: It’s not just a lack of sense of urgency amongst mainstream national politicians. The issue of climate change doesn’t even get mentioned. In President Obama’s last State of the Union, you know, he kind of throws in the word clean energy here and there. But the idea of climate change as a real issue that needs to be addressed at all, never mind urgently, doesn’t appear there.

GAUTIER: Yes. And, no, I think one of the reason is definitely that there is a group, there’s a pretty powerful and well-funded group of people, which we often call skeptic or deniers, who have been mounting some campaign to dis-inform about climate change. But personally I think that’s not the only issue. Again, that’s why we have an organized conference here where we are bringing psychologists, because we think that people are really stunned about what’s happening and are afraid in some ways of the idea of that, the big changes that are up and coming. And we would like to help them face this issue.

JAY: Yeah, go ahead. I’m sorry.

GAUTIER: And we’d like to be able to help them face these issues, using some of the tools that are being used in psychology, in fact.

JAY: But, I mean, do you think that part of the problem is that, you know, the majority, perhaps—certainly sectors of finance and most of the political elite—. But do you think that what’s happened is sort of corporate America has done their study of this and come to the conclusion that there’ll be terrible things that will happen in a lot of the world, but it won’t be so bad for the United States, and why pay attention to it, that, you know, there’s—may even be money to be made out of it, and that they just don’t—. I mean, you would think even within the psychology of corporate America that if they thought their direct interests were going to be hurt, they’d be talking more about it. But, you know, barely a word. I mean, a couple of years ago, even the auto industry was kind of buying into all this. But very little—anything from them now.

GAUTIER: In some ways you’re right, but I don’t think it’s fully what’s going to happen, because maybe the U.S. will not be affected in the initial phase, this will happen in the less developed world. But there are a lot of potential problems here with drought, with heat waves, with sea level increase. You know, parts of Florida may disappear within a couple of decades. With forest fires—I mean, I live in Santa Barbara. I have lost my house due to a forest fire, a fire which probably—which might be linked to climate change. And we expect to have more of these fires. So we may not have, you know, a generalized impact, but there will be regional impacts pretty much everywhere in the United States. So I think it’s shortsighted to believe that we will be immune to this.

And in terms of corporate action, I think there are some corporation which are working in the background, at least, and, like, most of the major corporations have actions that are happening. Maybe it’s subservience to the action for activists, but I think they are conscious that things probably will be changing and they are preparing themselves. But, you know, it’s like before the crisis, the economic crisis: everybody expected that something would happen, but until it happens, nobody wants to stop dancing. We’ll all dance until the last minute.

JAY: Yeah. I mean, even now. In 2008 we were told we were on—facing a financial apocalypse. Everyone talked about regulation. And now, four years later, there’s next to no effective regulation and not much talk about it.

GAUTIER: So I think there is a main parallel [incompr.] It’s our way of looking at thing. And that’s why. I mean, we are very short-termist, and it’s really hard for people to think about long-term when they have short-term problems. But that’s part of the education that we have to impart to our students is to start thinking about long term so that we can prepare for what will happen in the long term, we can be ready for it.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Catherine.

GAUTIER: Okay. You’re welcome.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Catherine Gautier is a professor of Geography at the University of California Santa Barbara where she teaches about Climate Change. She holds a Doctorat d’Etat (Physics/Meteorology) from the University of Paris and has recently published two books with Cambridge University Press: Facing Climate Change Together and Oil, Water and Climate: An Introduction. Her main research areas are Global Climate Change, Science, and Education. With over 200 scientific publications in atmospheric and climate science, her education research addresses issues like learner-centered pedagogy, misconceptions about climate change, the utility of various pedagogical approaches (e.g., mock climate summits) and various tools (e.g., simplified climate models) to ensure learning and understanding about Climate Change occurs. She focuses on the use of concept maps to evaluate learning and misconceptions. Professor Gautier regularly gives talks about Climate Change in various local, national and international venues. She is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).