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Climate: The Physical Science and the Social Science According to Chuck Hinckley

If it feels like climate catastrophes are popping up more often in the news, you're not imagining it, says Chuck Hinckley, a financial advisor from New York City, New York, with a history in the green energy industry.

While the pandemic raged on in 2020, it was also a record-setting year in terms of climate issues. It tied for having been the hottest year on record according to NASA (which follows the trend of the past seven years), and there were also specific events that made headlines. For example, there were 30 storms that were named, which is unprecedented, with 13 of them being hurricanes.

The Physical Evidence is Clear

Meanwhile, there were also a number of wildfires that caused roughly $17 billion in related damage, which is among the most devastating seasons — all of which occurred in the past decade or so, according to Charles Hinckley. Let's also not forget the extensive flooding (including major disasters in China), the strongest tropical cyclone that reached land in recorded history (Typhoon Goni), and the hottest temperature ever reliably recorded in Death Valley — a whopping 130F.

Despite a lot of people staying home or avoiding traveling at the height of lockdowns across the country, the CO2 levels continue to be at record levels. While carbon emissions were curbed by about 10% in the U.S. alone from less activity last year, this was offset by massive amounts of carbon belched out by the wildfires. However, the atmospheric carbon dioxide levels continued an upward trend, increasing by 2.6 PPM in 2019 to about 414 PPM last year.

What does this all tell you? A brief review of the increasing climate events and the CO2 levels in the atmosphere means climate change is not a matter of physics. The truth, although many continue to debate or deny it, is that humans are having a profound impact on the environment.

For those who cite a natural climate cycle to explain the changes, we only need to look at the curve of global temperature change before and after industrialization to make a connection. There was also a study that suggested the earth is warming 50 times faster now than when it emerged from an ice age, adds Chuck Hinckley.

Climate Change is a Social Science Problem

The physical evidence of rapid climate change is all around us, but so are skeptical attitudes about climate change. What it comes down to is addressing the social science — namely human behavior and how it impacts society.

There are a lot of influential figures around the world that are actively attempting to debunk climate science, which is leading to inaction or worse, says Charles Hinckley. In addition, there are several conspiracy theories about the environment, claiming that scientists who are sounding the alarm are lying or will personally benefit from the claims.

The narrative from skeptics seems to play on human emotions — such as claiming climate change measures are a way to impose new controls on the population. This leads to anger and otherwise reasonable people rejecting hard data. While the numbers may have changed in more recent years, as of 2013 about 40% of Americans believed climate change was a hoax.

Changing Behavior Means Changing Communication

Part of the solution is learning how to properly engage with climate change skeptics. Psychologist Jiaying Zhao addresses this in an article about this very topic, noting two groups can reach different conclusions based on the same data. Zhao and colleagues conducted a reading study that suggests people leaning towards climate science denial skipped over related words such as "carbon." Meanwhile, those who believe climate science tended to notice these related words more, creating a "feedback loop" that intensified their concern.

With that in mind, the way that climate change is communicated needs to change in order for some human behaviors to shift, explains Chuck Hinckley. As an example, instead of warning of the dangers of climate change, for some it may be more beneficial to point out the economic and technological advances that can be made by addressing it, notes the researchers.

The research also points out that instead of constantly repeating the message of what drives climate change, "environmental interventions" are needed to make climate action more accessible. That could be as simple as moving recycling facilities closer to a residential building to encourage use, or improving car sharing opportunities.

Charles Hinckley on Debunking the Debunkers

But what of those who are dead-set on denying climate change, despite the evidence? There are those actively trying to address unfound skepticism when it comes to issues of global importance, says Chuck Hinckley. Hinckley goes on to say that the science of climate change is no longer a physical science subject – that matter has been long resolved: mankind is burning fossil fuels. Fossil fuel carbon has a different atomic isotope than carbon produced today as the burning of fossil fuels is releasing the carbon of prior eras. There are very well understood human “fingerprints” to this carbon release. Scientists have known since the famous mathematician and physicist Jean-Batiste Fourier discovered the “greenhouse effect” in the 1700’s that increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere would raise the earth’s temperature. If anything, the models of today are prone to underestimating the rate and extent of global warming.

Thus, the issue of climate change is one for the social sciences.

For example, The Conspiracy Theory Handbook was updated in 2020 and has been translated into nine languages. The publication aims to identify what drives conspiracy theories and how to limit them. When it comes to covering how to talk to skeptics, the book notes empathy and avoiding ridicule are important factors to break through — not driving home the same scientific points repeatedly.

Changing human behaviors will be integral to the future of the planet from a climate perspective and more focus on social science is needed to make a bigger difference. While some decision-makers are leading the way, there needs to be a smarter approach in order to change minds, concludes Chuck Hinckley. “We need to engage with the believers of climate denial, they are after all victims of a well funded and orchestrated misinformation campaign. The world will never achieve the required reductions in carbon emissions unless we reach across and engage. The fact is, fixing this problem does not have harmful costs, but real economic benefits – today for our entire economy.”

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of EconoTimes

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