Climate change remains a controversial topic that is fiercely debated by members of the public. While most acknowledge the long-term consequences that will arise due to current trends in pollution and emission profiles, others remain skeptical, or even deny that climate change is happening. Currently, there is a sea of uncertainty among the public regarding these concerns, where all sides are quick to argue; how does the scientific community fit into this global issue?

It is often assumed that the general public has a distrust of science, but studies have shown otherwise — the public considers scientists to be trustworthy figures when it comes to environmental issues when compared to other groups such as politicians and media figures. Although most scientists are no experts on climate change, nor do they proclaim to be, the scientific community plays an important role in the advocacy of such issues. The ability to understand scientific writing is part of the foundation of what the scientific community is built upon. This skill allows scientists to act as liaisons between the world of nuanced research papers and the public. And when the public is unable to understand climate change publications due to scientific jargon, it should be a scientist’s job to translate the results into something simple and easy to understand in order to reach a larger audience.

Why should scientists — or more specifically, immunologists — care about advocating for these issues in the first place? Advocating for issues as polarizing as climate change is a huge undertaking to begin with. A common deterrent among choosing to openly advocate for a cause is the fear that your stance can be perceived to ‘have an agenda’ which could threaten both your career and credibility. But despite these fears, the scientific community must realize the magnitude of their voice and the social impact it can bring. Unlike many groups — public figures, elected officials, industry CEOs — that may be willfully ignorant towards the growing body of evidence in support of climate change or who remain quiet due to vested interests, scientists must make use of their scientific literacy to convey the scientific truths about climate change as a global concern.

To sway public opinion, painting a picture of black and white, right and wrong, is not the best approach. Disregarding the opinion of the opposition is a quick way to alienate those who disagree and can generate hostility. A discussion is needed where both perspectives are given time to allow the public to come to their own decisions. In order to achieve this, advocacy should provide an open discussion in attempts to change how the public sees the greater issue. Common refutes against climate change are typically drawn from personal experience. For example, if a Canadian experiences negative thirty-degree weather, they could believe that the temperature increases we are seeing throughout the world are not as impactful. As advocates, framing climate change into a more targeted and relatable issue for your audience is powerful. For instance, the aforementioned Canadian will be more impacted by yearly increases that lake water levels are seeing across Canada as it is a more concrete and relatable example. The recent Australian wildfires have served as a wake-up-call to the world with Australians rallying to protest for action in climate policies. When the issue hits close to home, the reality sets in as the impact hits hard. It is the job of climate activists, scientists included, to help people realize the impact of these issues without needing a disaster to hit close to home first.

The attitude that the majority has towards global issues is a powerful force. A prime example is cigarette smoking, where in the 1960’s, was both socially acceptable and promoted as a desirable activity by public figures in the media. As we have seen over the years, advocacy for the heath detriments of smoking were in large part responsible for swaying the public’s opinion. In 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General’s first Smoking and Health report was released, adding powerful evidence in support of the reality of smoking. This landmark report resulted in countless news stories and a culture shift that began to frown upon the activity entirely, tanking the sales of cigarettes along with it in the United States. While we have not yet seen the same results following the release of papers outlining the reality of climate change, this example is meant to highlight the impact of a collective opinion and the power that the public can hold. Although individual efforts to reduce carbon footprints may sometimes feel insignificant, choosing to support companies and businesses that strive towards greener alternatives pressures competitors to follow suit. We have more recently seen this with large companies such as Amazon claim to be moving towards carbon neutrality and compostable packaging.

Persistence and patience are key in efforts to raise public awareness. Efforts to educate the public, no matter how small, can only accelerate the attention climate change receives. Much like the slow and steady process of climate change, this issue requires global social action. Compared to just a decade ago, public rallies and protests advocating for climate change awareness continue to show phenomenal turnout, and their impact only continues to grow.


References:

Publics Trust in Science

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02389-8

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/11/191114161912.htm

Scientists in Advocacy

https://www.nature.com/articles/nj7634-611a

Attitudes towards smoking throughout the last five decades

https://www.atsjournal.org/doi/full/10.1513/AnnalsATS.201308-258PS

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Philip Barbulescu

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