From flat-Earthers to anti-vaxxers, there is no shortage of people who question the validity of scientific evidence – and the issue of climate change has certainly attracted its fair share of doubters. While there is broad consensus within the scientific community that human activity is contributing directly to catastrophic shifts in weather patterns, there are plenty of people – the president of the United States included – who confidently treat that science-based conclusion as merely an opinion, and not one to be believed.
For those who have faith in science, this reaction is the equivalent of nonchalantly lying down on a railway track. What is behind it? More importantly, what can be done to persuade enough people that, with a concerted and cooperative effort, global warming is something we could contain and even reverse? And it’s not only climate-change skeptics who react in ways that seem oddly counterintuitive. Even among those who do not contest the science there is an inexplicable sense of business as usual, with attention on other priorities. Too many of us, if not actual deniers, are still – effectively – in denial.
Last fall’s watershed UN report warns us we have a short window to avert irreversible climate change. We have reached an environmental tipping point that requires a counteractive social tipping point. Although recycling is becoming the norm, and plastic bags and disposable coffee cups are the focus of mounting social disapproval, such changes are just the tip of a melting iceberg in terms of what is required on a larger and more radical scale.
The physical sciences have identified an existential threat and provided us with a roadmap for avoiding it. Overcoming the challenges involved in implementing solutions, however, is the territory of social scientists. It is our psychologists, economists and political scientists who are best placed to understand human motivation and incentivize society to adopt essential new policies and behaviours. To read about what is happening on this front at UBC, see page 10. The four social scientists highlighted are part of a comprehensive interdisciplinary approach to climate change that recently earned UBC the ranking of #1 university in the world for taking action to combat it (Times Higher Education University Impact Rankings).
As climate warnings mount and more people are directly affected by extreme weather events, there has been a perceptible shift in opinion and a surge of activism that is driving home to mainstream politicians the fact that the green agenda is no longer the vote‑risky terrain of fringe players. It’s beyond rational doubt that the human species cannot afford to keep on doing what it’s doing. Charles Darwin, himself a much refuted scientist in his day, developed a theory that suggested the key to species survival is the ability to adapt to a changing environment. Today, it would seem that the key to survival is to stop causing the change.