Hot potato, hot potato

Research synthesis points out the dangerous blame game we are playing with climate change

Recent years have seen a surge in the awareness of environmental issues and climate change. This has been largely due to the huge advances in research that have occurred, and in the ability of scientists to convey this research to the general public. Despite this, there remains a small, yet significant, portion of the population that remains unaware or misinformed about the issues around global warming. This group is not unique – they simply epitomize the disconnect that exists between two distinct lines of thought: scientific and general.

It is on the basis of addressing this problem that Project Climate Change and European Marine Ecosystem Research (CLAMER) was built. On their website, CLAMER suggests that, “there is a gap between what is known through research and what policy makers and the public know and understand about the effects of climate change.” As such, they have published a synthesis of the research conducted within the European Union in the past 13 years and have compared it with a poll of public opinion. Though the project’s focus is on the marine environment and the effect of global warming on coastal regions, the polling results are relevant to climate change as a whole.

The culmination of 13 years of marine-related environmental research by scientists in the European Union includes some well publicized facts. For example, we know that our coastal cities – New York, Tokyo, even Montreal – will be in dire trouble should the sea level continue to rise. Europe seems particularly vulnerable to this. The synthesis notes that 35 per cent of European GDP is generated within 50 kilometres of the shore. Similarly, the effect of global warming on the frequency and severity of storms has been well publicized and publicly observed in recent years.

The CLAMER synthesis also draws attention to lesser known consequences of warmer marine temperatures, such as bacteria growth leading to increased risk of illness and the migration of fish colonies away from the same areas that will experience extreme drought and crop failure.

The second part of the CLAMER synthesis is comprised of a poll conducted this past January, led by a part of Taylor Nelson Sofres PLC, the world’s largest custom market research company. This is the first poll of its kind to focus on public perceptions of climate change’s impacts on the coastline and sea. Though conducted in Europe, it manages to reveal some characteristics of general public opinion, especially those opinions that may be standing in the way of finding viable solutions to climate change.

The poll revealed that though worried citizens take personal actions toward more sustainable living, they place most of the blame for climate change on other nations, and assign responsibility to governments and corporations. Dror Etzion, of the McGill School of Environment and the Desautels Faculty of Management, is unsurprised by this. “[The] government is often a whipping boy for these concerns, but the same is true for issues like education, health, and quality of life in general, so it is not unique to environmental concerns,” he says. But if the European public is hoping that these feelings will elicit a more rapid response from governments, it may be severely disappointed. When asked if governments would feel any pressure from publications such as this recent synthesis, Etzion replied that they would not feel any pressure in the near future.

So how does this European research synthesis relate to our North American perceptions and reality? How would a public opinion poll in Canada compare to the poll featured in this study? Etzion thinks a poll would produce similar results in Canada, asserting that we do tend to blame other nations and governments. He added, “In North America the situation is worse, in that many individuals do not pursue personal measures to the extent that is done in Europe.” This is an incredibly dangerous attitude to have when we live in a country where close to 60 per cent of municipal water usage comes from residential usage. This startling statistic does not even take into account the fact that, in several provinces, less than 5 per cent of residential water users are metered while almost 100 per cent of business users are. In addition to this, water for agricultural use is largely not metered, and even free.

And that’s not all: it also appears that North Americans are, on average, less informed than our European counterparts. The synthesis notes that while 86 per cent of Europeans believe that climate change is caused mainly or entirely by human activities, 32 to 36 per cent of Americans believe that it is mainly or entirely a natural phenomenon.

With such demoralizing statistics, the real question becomes: can studies such as these really propel individuals, governments, and corporations to break what Etzion refers to as the “societal gridlock” on such environmental issues? While projects such as the CLAMER synthesis are made accessible to the public, they are not advertised and, as such, reach a very limited audience. Even though these projects begin with good intentions of bridging the gap between scientific and popular opinion, they not only fail to do so, but, they continue to support their own esoteric scientific communities. These failures are not just a call to governments, scientists, and researchers to step up, they are also a call for individual action. We, as individuals, may be the only ones who have the ability to penetrate the “societal gridlock.” This can only happen if we become informed and take action in our own lives. Governmental and scientific institutions can only do so much. The future belongs to all of us, and so does the ability to change what it will be.