It's not just climate change skeptics who are rattled by the accumulating science. It might be that most people, including believers in man-made warming, are facing human obstacles in grasping the complex concepts related to climate change.
Those characteristics, which belong to people, not political parties, could be causing us to diminish the urgency around rising greenhouse gases, new research suggests. One recommendation urges climate scientists to simplify their jargon-drowned message to lawmakers and the public. Another is perhaps more ambitious: It asks people to discover how climate change works, because absorbing information from news and blogs won't do it.
"You just can't tell people this stuff. They have to learn about it themselves," said John Sterman, a professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose paper was published recently in the journal Climate Change.
Most of us have trouble grasping key concepts affecting the carbon cycle, he says, like feedback processes that spin in loops until people lose track of the impacts.
One feedback comes when rising carbon dioxide levels push temperatures upward. As they get warmer, more emissions could be released from places like Arctic permafrost containing methane hydrates, again raising temperatures. But the phenomenon doesn't occur linearly, as human minds like to think, but exponentially. There are also multiple feedbacks occurring simultaneously, including those that offset the emission impact.
What you don't know could hurt you
"There's decades of research showing that people don't really understand just how quickly that kind of reinforcing feedback can accumulate to dramatic change," Sterman said.
It's not limited to climate change. Consider this experiment Sterman conducted with graduate students: He told them to imagine folding a piece of paper in half, then in half again, then in half 40 more times, and then estimate its thickness. This is an old trick, his paper says, that exhibits the natural inclination to think linearly, not exponentially.
The mean estimate of the 95 graduate students concluded that the paper would be less than 2 inches thick. Actually, after 42 folds, it would reach the moon, measuring about 273,000 miles, according to the paper.
Our tendency to shrug off climatic impacts has less to do with our aptitude than it does our wiring. We tend to be overconfident, believe undesirable outcomes won't occur and adopt an illusion of control, the paper says. All of this, Sterman says, leads to "pervasive errors and biases in judgment."
Take, for example, the lapse between the scientific evidence showing the benefits of wearing seat belts and motorcycle helmets and rules that require their use, the paper says. Those don't come close to matching the complexity around climate change.
The paper recommends that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change overhaul its approach to communicating climate risks before its next landmark report is issued in 2013. Its publication for lawmakers, policy officials, businesses and the media should use plain language crafted with the help of communication specialists. Its readers should not have to be climate scientists to get the gist.
Facts won't win the debate
If it's too technical, people of all persuasions will attempt to interpret -- and perhaps misinterpret -- the findings, the paper warns.
"Without effective risk communication, the most thorough risk assessment is, at best, wasted," it says. "At worst, poor risk communication creates a knowledge vacuum that is then filled by error, disinformation and falsehood -- some supplied inadvertently by people without knowledge of the science and some injected deliberately by ideologues and vested interests."
But perhaps the more important message is directed at policymakers and citizens. Sterman, an architect of fast and simple computer models that depict the outcome of carbon policies on global emission levels, believes the IPCC should provide simulations that help people understand the carbon cycle.
Being able to pick and choose a host of energy sources and emission policies and then seeing how they affect the climate might be the best way to learn about global warming, he said.
"A lot of people believe, 'Well, all right, a lot of people didn't understand this, but that's because they're not climate scientists. If we just tell them more about how the carbon cycle works, give them more facts, then they're going to get it.'" Sterman said. "And that's just not true."
He believes people need to discover it for themselves.