To Walk the Talk You Need to Know Where You're Going

<p>Chip and Dan Heath wrote of the &lsquo;curse of knowledge' in their book <em>Made to Stick</em>. The fundamental idea is that once you know something well enough, it becomes very difficult to imagine what it was like not to know. I often say that if you know and understand every acronym in your company you probably risk this syndrome.</p>
<p>It's no difference for those of us in the sustainability space. Many of us, myself included, have been doing this long enough that we find it hard to imagine that millions of people do not take for granted some of the principles that we believe - such as whether or not global warming is caused by human activity.</p>
<p>Believe it or not, people are still not sure. And there are some good reasons for this, aside from the politics that have clouded the issue, there are a number of key challenges communicating scientific research to the public.</p>
<p>First is a difference in the use of language. In scientific usage, a theory does not mean an unsubstantiated guess or hunch, as it can in everyday speech. According to <a href=" ">Wikipedia</a> "in science a theory is a testable model of the manner of interaction of a set of natural phenomena, capable of predicting future occurrences or observations of the same kind, and capable of being tested through experiment or otherwise verified through empirical observation." In contrast, "in common usage, the word theory is often used to signify a conjecture, an opinion, a speculation, or a hypothesis."</p>
<p>#break#</p>
<p>Another reason that is often cited are current media practices including the need to explain complex issues rapidly to an increasingly fragmented and information-overloaded public, resulting in incomplete and less-than-comprehensive reporting by reporters who may not be experts in science themselves. As a health/science reporter once told me; &lsquo;please remember (that) I struggled with high-school chemistry.' The 1998 the report "Worlds Apart" by Rick Chappell, Ph.D., director of the Office of Science and Research Communications at Vanderbilt and Jim Hartz, former co-host of NBC's "Today" show documented a large gap in understanding between scientists and members of the news media.</p>
<p>At the same time the media are struggling for attention - with the internet and blogs having resulted in a 24-hour news cycle. To help grab attention the media sometimes delight in irony, such as a story that ran on October 29, 2008 in The Register: <strong>Snow blankets London for Global Warming Debate</strong>. Beyond the headline, the article began "Snow fell as the House of Commons debated Global Warming yesterday - the first October fall in the metropolis since 1922."</p>
<p>Of course, nothing could be more ironic than the combination of freezing temperatures and Former Vice President Al Gore presenting his climate crisis talk. In 2004 one headline read: <strong>Gore decries 'global warming' in bitterly cold NYC</strong>. Four years later, after having won the Nobel Prize and the academy award for his film bringing climate change into the public consciousness, his speech at Harvard coincided with <strong>Freezing Temperatures Follow Al Gore to Harvard!</strong></p>
<p>Leaving aside the political arena here are some sample stories from mainstream media (the blogosphere is full of many more examples):</p>
<p>The Telegraph - February 2, 2008: <strong>Global warming skeptics buoyed by record cold</strong>, Boston Globe - January 6, 2008: <strong>Br-r-r! Where did global warming go?</strong> and the Washington Times - December 19, <strong>2007: Year of Global Cooling.</strong> Trendwatch reported on October 30, 2008 that MIT scientists baffled by global warming theory, contradicts scientific data observing a nearly simultaneous world-wide increase in methane levels, contradicting theories stating man is the primary source of increase for this greenhouse gas. (It takes about one full year for gases generated in the highly industrial northern hemisphere to cycle through and reach the southern hemisphere. However, since all worldwide levels rose simultaneously throughout the same year, it is now believed this may be part of a natural cycle - and not the direct result of man's contributions.)</p>
<p>Some even argue in favor of climate change, such as <strong>Global warming: Good news for California's coast?</strong> Ventura County Reporter, CA (October 30, 2008).</p>
<p>Is it any wonder that people are unsure what to believe?</p>
<p>According to recent (October 2008) research, Americans are particularly interested in environmental savings that also have a favorable economic impact. And there's nothing wrong with looking for ways to save the household budget and the planet at the same time. The recent spike in gas prices resulted in people reducing their driving in an effort to save money. True, many people have gravitated to hybrid vehicles out of a sense of sustainability.</p>
<p>At the same time, there is also a massive disconnect between what we intend and think we're doing with our actual behavior. Coal-fired power plants that generate our electricity are responsible for 41 percent of CO2 emissions in the United States and a third (32.8 percent) of all greenhouse gasses. When asked most people think that they're doing their part to conserve, yet electricity use increased 10 percent from 2002 to 2007. Even while we're diligently shutting off our lights, our myriad of electronic devices are pulling juice at record rates. Your TiVo&reg; is using power to save last week's episode of &lsquo;The Office.' Your cell phone charger uses power, even when the cell phone is disconnected. Computers, VCR/DVDs, videocameras, iPods ... these devices are power &lsquo;vampires' even when they're not in use.</p>
<p>I don't mean to &lsquo;pick on' people for not knowing what to do. In fact, at a recent speech I was asked how people could be so na&iuml;ve. I responded by taking an impromptu poll of the approximately 60 people who expressed passion for saving the environment - only about half had a programmable thermostat in their home.</p>