The decline of expert opinion: who is really to blame for the state of energy and climate policy today?
There was a time, not so long ago, that if you needed an opinion on something important and complex you would ask and expert. Today, we are urged to second-guess everything, from the expert opinions of our doctor, our boss, mechanic, or our government. Of course, this is healthy – we are not mindless automatons; we are rational, considering various opinions before we create our own. Or so we like to think – I believe there is a value in expert opinion that is getting lost in the current social landscape. If you have a pain in your chest, you consult a doctor, someone who has spent years becoming an expert in matters of human health. If your car isn’t working properly you take it to a mechanic. However when presented with an issue that could alter life on our planet, we have moved away from this kind of reasoning, politicizing the issue to the point where those with direct experience, scientists, and uninformed laypersons are all treated as “experts” on the same plane. If we need answers to climate change, we need to consult experts, not opinions.
One of the things that I often encounter outside the US is a uniform disbelief in America’s highly politicized approach to climate change. In one corner, you have tens of thousands of scientists from around the world, and in the other you have various types of skeptics. Climate legislation is frustratingly slow, despite the clear urgency of the situation – both in environmental and economic terms. While pockets of resistance exist in many places, there now remains no scientific body or international body that maintains a dissenting opinion on human contributions of climate change. Let me say this another way: not one scientific body – anywhere in the world – supports the popular American notion that humans are not contributing to global warming – much less that it doesn’t exist at all. We all believe we are rational people, and rational people consult experts on issues that are large and complex, but we are seeing that rational thinking has little to do with we are approaching this issue. Today, a nobel prize winning PhD and a university dropout talk-show host are somehow treated by our society as intellectual equals. How did we get here?
A big part of the problem is how we communicate in new media. The Internet has been the great equalizer in many ways, but one of the most significant developments of the past twenty years is the lowered barriers to entry for publishing (e.g., the ability to provide your personal opinion to a large audience). Radio shows, talk TV, blogs (including this one) are evidence of this; like all bloggers I simply publish views I feel others are interested in reading. Anybody can. But therein lies the rub – does my ability to write suggest that I know more about any subject than someone else? Certainly not, because the responsibility lies with you – the reader – to determine what is valuable opinion and what is not. If I chose to write about auto mechanics, gardening, or some other subject I know nothing about, then I should not be considered an expert on those issues. However this is not how we treat expert opinion re global warming & climate change – we as a society often treat everyone as an expert. It’s not always easy, but one needs to consider the source before adopting any view through the new media.
We are living in an unprecedented age of content, both good and bad. It’s easy to dismiss views different from our own, just as it is too easy to take on views similar to our own. I make a concerted effort to read everything from the Huffington Post to CNN to Fox to MSNBC to get a rounded view of the news. I often watch and laugh at the Daily Show and Glenn Beck for entirely different reasons. But sometimes this isn’t laughable; lending credibility to those who are not experts can have very damaging consequences. For instance, it’s easy to dismiss the views of CO2isGreen.org, a group who actually purports to believe that if we breathe and exhale CO2, it can’t possibly be a pollutant (this group actually demands more CO2 needs to be emitted into the atmosphere as it is healthy for plants to green the earth). As ridiculous this logic may seem (perhaps they don’t believe in sewage treatment either), this group collects millions in support from the oil and coal industries and regularly lobbies in DC against climate change regulation and launches “educational” campaigns through their sister organization to cast doubt on hard climate science. Now this is serious business.
So who is really to blame for the state of climate change opinion today? Unfortunately it’s us – not the CO2isGreen’s of the world. Organizations like this exist because we as a society often lack diligence in forming our own opinions. This is what I am really asking for, the kind of diligence you would give a medical or technical opinion – you may need to test it (e.g., a second opinion) but you aren’t likely well-quipped to reject it without the appropriate consideration. When it comes to climate change I urge you to read a lot, do your homework, then form an educated opinion on things that matter. We will all be the better for it.
Michael is the former CEO of the Global Reporting Initiative, Carbonetworks, and other sustainability organizations. He has been an advisor and CEO in sustainability for almost 20 years, and writes about technology, sustainability, and social innovation.