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Climate change: We see as we are


By Mike Osborne

It’s just not polite to talk about some things. Dinner parties can go wobbly if you raise certain topics, amalgamation is an obvious one but if you really want to kill a dinner party stone dead bring up the subject of climate change or its uglier name global warming.

Which is the correct term – “climate change” or “global warming”? Climate change better covers the gamut of effects brought on by global warming – as winters can have colder and more severe storms and sea level can drop in some areas while rising in others. For those people with linear minds who can’t cope with inconsistency or paradox these phenomena are sufficient to consign the whole topic to the dustbin (a simple strategy for avoiding thinking about complex matters).

Climate change became the favoured term because Frank Luntz, George W Bush’s pollster and spin doctor, divined that it was a more benign term than global warming (youtu.be/_WiTVL9iT1w). It lessened the perception of urgency for a president that didn’t want to upset the fossil fuel sector.

But why is the subject so controversial given that it is grounded in science? The spread of views about global warming is vast, ranging from there is no exceptional warming right through to there is abrupt climate change that will trigger mass extinction within decades.

Dan Kahan of Yale University was interested in how it is that ideas that are subjected to the scrutiny of the scientific method find such a variance of acceptance when put into the public arena. From this standpoint he and his team conducted research and founded a project called The Cultural Cognition Project (www.culturalcognition.net) to examine how cultural values shape public risk perceptions and the related policy beliefs. To boil it all down, the science doesn’t matter. What matters is whether or not the science fits with your worldview. And, this applies to vaccinations, nanotechnology, nuclear power, GMOs etc.

Throw in the Backfire Effect (goo.gl/HGJpgl) for good measure, and your cleverly constructed fact-based argument is only going to harden the beliefs of those you are trying to persuade.

Positions on climate change have come to signify the kind of person one is. In the words of the much quoted saying, ” We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”

If you do see global warming as an issue that needs a response and you want to find out ways to meaningfully respond, there will be a special screening of the documentary film “Tomorrow” at the Regent Theatre on Tuesday, November 22. Ticket bookings and information at www.projectwairarapa.org.nz.


  1. It’s controversial because the solution requires all of us to give up at least some of the luxuries fossil fuels have allowed us over the last century. We blithely continue buying the SUV to take precious Nigel & Fiona to kindy oblivious that the SUV epitomises the biggest and most real danger that our children will ever face

  2. ‘Global Warming’ and ‘Climate Change’ are both correct terms, it is not one or the other, both are happening. Atmospheric CO2 has increased by 40% since the industrial revolution, increasing the greenhouse effect so raising the average global temperature by 1 degree C. Since the ‘weather’ we experience is mainly driven by heat in the atmosphere and oceans our weather has therefore been changing and ‘climate’ which is just weather averaged over 30 years or more is also therefore changing – hence global warming leads to climate change. The basic physics of global warming and climate change has been understood for over a century.

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