Climate change is an issue of ever-growing urgency and global impact. Despite the critical status of climate change, there are many barriers that cultivate a systemic lack of public scientific literacy and translate into insufficient environmental policy at the highest level. This article provides a brief overview along with more in-depth examination of some of the factors that shape the public attitude towards climate change and scientific issues in general.

In spite of the significant attention that climate change garners at a wide variety of national and international summits, government participation in climate change initiatives is lacklustre. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is the main global agreement on climate change with 195 national signatories. Although this may seem like a high level of consensus, signatures struggle to translate into action. Indeed, the UNFCCC’s major current initiative, the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol (2013-2020), a commitment to reduce emissions to18% below 1990 levels, has seen very limited participation. The Doha Amendment is limited to industrialized countries with only 37 having legally binding targets. Importantly, the five largest emitters, China, the USA, India, Russia, and Japan, which accounted for over half of global CO2 emissions in 2017, failed to participate with any binding targets. Other progressive, industrialized countries such as New Zealand and Canada also failed to participate. Wider participation in the Paris Agreement to limit global warming below 2°C is more encouraging but still fragile; the agreement provides no consequences if nations fail to meet their goals or withdraw. The USA, historically the largest contributor to climate change, has already announced its intention to withdraw from the agreement and has begun to dismantle legislation that aimed to control emissions.

One reason nations might feel justified in shirking environmental responsibilities is a lack of public consensus with regards to climate change. Take the USA as an illustrative example. Despite the USA being one of the most educated countries in the world, a poll conducted by Pew Research Center revealed that only 59% of Americans view climate change as a “major threat”. A silver lining to this discouraging fact is that this number has grown year-on-year in most countries. Additionally, more educated people in the USA and around the world are more likely to classify climate change as a major threat.

An important factor that has a tremendously negative impact on public scientific literacy is disreputable scientific sources. One form this can take is the continued propagation of findings that have since been disproven or retracted. For example, in 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a paper in a highly reputable journal, The Lancet, in which he and his coauthors claimed that there was a causative association between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccination and the development of autism in a cohort of children. Despite irreproducible results and unethically gathered data leading to its retraction by The Lancet, the paper continues to be cited by anti-vaxxers as a landmark study.

Another source of disreputable information that hinders public understanding of climate change can be otherwise reputable scientists. The list of climate change deniers within academia is long and includes many scientists who have made significant and legitimate contributions in fields other than climatology. This includes Fred Singer, a Princeton educated leader in early space research, Willie Soon, a scientist at the Harvard Smithsonian Institute for Astrophysics, and many others. However, when surveying climatologists published in peer-reviewed journals, 97% agree that humans are responsible for climate change. Likewise, the leaders of 18 respected scientific organizations, many of which are directly associated with peer-reviewed journals, including the American Chemical Society and American Medical Association, have also issued statements reaffirming the reality and gravity of human-induced climate change.

This brings up the crucial topic of peer-review, often touted as the gold standard for assessing the quality of scientific research. Research papers are reviewed by fellow experts in the field prior to publication to ensure their scientific methodology and interpretation of results can stand up to intense scrutiny. Where research groups publish their data can be telling. Take the Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP), a prominent climate change denying organization founded by Fred Singer. In the “scientific papers” section of their website, the vast majority of their cited papers are not published in peer-reviewed journals, but rather by like-minded, private institutions. Even then, the fine-tooth comb of peer-review can miss important pieces of information such as conflicts of interest; Willie Soon received $1.2 million from fossil-fuel corporate sources in exchange for publishing a slew of peer-reviewed papers suggesting that natural variations in solar radiation, not anthropogenic emissions, are the main cause of climate change. The fact that not all peer-reviewed journals are created equal further muddies the waters with unscrupulous and often fraudulent sources of information that claim to be peer-reviewed. Properly peer-reviewed journals should remain the goal standard. The introduction of a central accreditation system to certify journals against official standards would remove much uncertainty.

Unfortunately, the public pays little mind to the academic rigour of different scientific sources. This may have roots in our education systems. In Canadian high school curriculums, for example, the scientific method of experimentation is stressed across multiple grades. This is highly relevant to understanding how modern knowledge is acquired, yet leaves students ill-equipped to identify reputable scientific sources and sort fact from fiction. Since few students will pursue careers in science, but all will be exposed to scientific concepts and arguments, perhaps the emphasis should shift from method to analysis. Curriculum reforms should stress the assessment and evaluation of different scientific sources as well as introduce how the scientific community polices data publication (i.e. peer-review). Outside of the education system, an additional solution might be to expand legislation surrounding the spread of scientific misinformation. Similar to how the criminal offense of defamation relates to spreading misinformation about an individual, new laws could be introduced that punish spreading false scientific information. This would be complicated by existing freedom of speech laws as well as fundamental scientific tenets that make space for contradictory views and debate. In an age where “fake news” has become commonplace, addressing the problem of scientific literacy must be prioritized.

Another barrier to effective environmental policy improvement is the idealism of many green organizations, which jeopardizes implementation of practical solutions. If the conclusions drawn by the Paris Agreement are any guide, the major threat to our planet is a rise in global temperatures caused by anthropogenic emissions. Yet green organizations and political parties reject proven, non-emitting sources of energy such as nuclear fission and hydroelectric dams. Their qualms are not unfounded; hydroelectric dams cause irreparable environmental damage and nuclear power plants produce dangerous and enduring waste that must be carefully stored. Nuclear plants can also be at risk of catastrophic failure, a threat that has been brought to the forefront with the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

On the whole though, nuclear power has a positive track record with two of the three major nuclear accidents in history (Fukushima and Three Mile Island) anticipated to result in no new cancer cases. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission determined that living near Ontario nuclear power plants resulted in no increased risk of cancer. Moreover, with judicious placement of nuclear plants and improving failsafe mechanisms, the risks of disaster will continue to fall. Flooding damage caused by dams is also limited and predictable. In 2017 the preferred modes of carbon neutral energy and wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal power accounted for just 6.6% of global electricity production. This was far less than the 10.2% produced by nuclear plants and the 16.3% produced by hydroelectric. If environmentally minded organizations truly want coal, oil, and gas outpaced by non-emitting sources of energy, they must embrace nuclear and hydroelectric energy, if only temporarily.

Climate change becomes more urgent with each passing year. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated that from 2010 to 2030 emissions must be reduced by 45%. In contrast, from 2010 to 2018, global CO2 emissions had increased 12%. Without overwhelming public support for policy reform, climate change initiatives are doomed to fail. Unfortunately, scientific consensus has not resulted in universal public awareness. Despite a resounding 97% consensus in the climatology community, only 66% of Americans believe that there is agreement among climate scientists; something is being lost in translation. Systems must be put in place to promote scientific literacy and stem the flow of misinformation. Environmentalists must also use all the tools available to them, including properly regulated hydroelectric and nuclear energy. If we continue on our current trajectory, the situation will only become more difficult to correct.

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Luke Neufeld

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