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Climate debate must be brought down to earth

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Climate science is at last back in the spotlight with the release of the United Nations' latest benchmark report on the state and future of the planet's climate. The bad news is that disappointment lies just days away after the document's stark facts fade from news pages, and those unimpressed by our already vast library of climate research continue to, well, shrug.

To understand why the 5th Assessment Report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- issued by hundreds of international scientists every seven years and widely considered the authoritative word on what's up with climate and weather -- is unlikely to change much, it helps to know a little about what psychologists call the fallacy of "information deficit."

Information deficit, as British climate scientist Chris Ripley explains in the journal Nature, is the flawed notion that people opposed to what's scientifically obvious (Darwinian evolution, say) can be cured by simply upping their dose of facts.

It's a nice idea, but it doesn't work: Almost 15 years ago, 63 per cent of Canadians understood climate change to be true and human activity to be a cause, according to the polling firm Angus Reid. This year -- two IPCC assessment reports and countless research papers later -- numbers from April show the proportion has actually shrunk to 58 per cent.

"Faced with the choice of changing one's mind and with proving there is no need to do so," said Canadian-born economist John Kenneth Galbraith, "almost everyone gets busy on the proof."

It's a gloomy paradox, but it's not the whole story.

A more optimistic chapter was told to me recently as I sampled the weather-and-climate thinking of several people who make big-deal social and economic decisions across this country, including leaders from industries, governments and environmental groups: Joining any climate debate, as it turns out, is a luxury few can afford; most just want to know what the weather will bring.

That is, almost no one questions the legitimacy of climate science if it helps them understand what risks, opportunities and decision options are available to them, to their businesses or to their communities -- what can be done to keep a town's rain-saturated sewers from surging, a company's ice-threatened towers from toppling or a farmer's drought-menaced fields from drying to dust.

For some, it's understanding how much CO2 to cut to satisfy a worried U.S. president that their over-the-border pipeline plans are possibly not so bad after all.

What these people are talking about isn't the big climate change picture available in this week's IPCC report. It would be nice if it was. But most are at least interested in knowing how weather-and-climate science can help them plan ahead for what they think matters.

Once upon a time, selling climate science as a business or policy tool rather than as a clarion call to battle greenhouse gases was seen as capitulation -- another tired sign that we've given up the fight to stop (not merely get ready for) global warming.

But ample evidence shows the climate-information-deficit fallacy is still at work, and another approach may be needed to ever get beyond it: Engaging people to hear what climate research has to say about the future of their own businesses, health or circumstances may go a long way toward convincing them to listen when climate science speaks about the future of our planet.

Peter Christie, a Kingston, Ont, science writer and consultant, is author of The Curse of Akkad: Climate Upheavals that Rocked Human History.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2013 A17

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