In the fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Report, a chapter was added to the beginning to “assess information relevant for understanding the risks of human-induced climate change, and also to illustrate the complex and uneven pace of scientific progress.” The IPCC didn’t acknowledge the constantly evolving world of science to undermine their findings, but to help more readers understand why climate change reporting from two decades ago might not match today’s reality. As the introduction to the report says, “science is inherently self-correcting.” Hypotheses are made, and sometimes they are proved wrong, but that doesn’t mean that all science is inaccurate and unreliable. Unfortunately, in a world of misinformation and a growing uncertainly about the truth, the evolving nature of science has led to a level of distrust among non-scientists, causing solutions to be thwarted before they are even implemented. Could this distrust in science be our downfall if it prevents necessary changes?
“[Scientists are asked how they can predict climate 50 years from now when they cannot predict the weather a few weeks from now. The chaotic nature of weather makes it unpredictable beyond a few days. Projecting changes in climate (i.e., long-term average weather) due to changes in atmospheric composition or other factors is a very different and much more manageable issue. As an analogy, while it is impossible to predict the age at which any particular man will die, we can say with high confidence that the average age of death for men in industrialised countries is about 75. Another common confusion of these issues is thinking that a cold winter or a cooling spot on the globe is evidence against global warming. There are always extremes of hot and cold, although their frequency and intensity change as climate changes. But when weather is averaged over space and time, the fact that the globe is warming emerges clearly from the data.” This paragraph, taken from chapter one of the fourth IPCC report, provides a clear example of some of the arguments against climate change scientists encounter. Environmental scientists are not the only ones facing doubt. Doctors and public health professionals involved in containing the pandemic have been undermined by politicians and citizens who have used evolving information about a new disease to downplay its severity.
The disbelief in science ultimately stems from the lack of education about topics like public health and the environment. Dr. David Birch, a health education professor at the University of Alabama, says health education is not nearly comprehensive enough. Currently, it is often taught during one semester during one year of middle school or high school and often fails to discuss basic public health principles. This has been apparent as COVID-19 still commonly gets referred to as an “epidemic” in reporting, despite being classified as a “pandemic” in early March. Knowing terminology is the stepping stone to being educated on scientific topics, yet common words and terms in science are still widely misunderstood. Take the difference between “climate change” and “global warming.” Global warming is an example of climate change, just as extreme cold is also an example of climate change. New Year’s Eve 2018 was the coldest NYE on record in the northeast region of The United States. Donald Trump took this information as an opportunity to call global warming a hoax, because how could global warming happen if temperatures were so low. Unfortunately, a world leader mistaking climate change for global warming has led to an inadequate handling of environmental policies and confusion amongst citizens who follow and believe what government officials say.
Not only is evolving science and failing education causing regulation to fail, but it is also hurting businesses. More companies have realized their ability to make changes in a world where capitalism reigns. In many cases, this can be good. Businesses can choose to implement practices that benefit the environment, avoiding the need to wait for government action. But, environmentally sustainable initiatives come at a price. If consumers believe that science is wrong and issues like climate change are fake, why would they pay more to support sustainable companies? Enough consumers abandoning a business can hurt even the strongest companies, drying up funding for more environmental initiatives in the future. For impactful change to occur, science needs to be better understood. Students need to be taught, not just the steps in an experiment, but why even correct hypotheses can be replaced with more up-to-date information. We need to learn that it is okay that science is evolving because the world is also evolving, and we are constantly learning. And as we are learning, we are coming up with better solutions that will benefit all of us in the long term.