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Why We're All Confused About Climate Change

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You'd think most of us would have a knee-jerk instinct to protect Earth; good planets are hard to come by.

If the Earth were in distress, say, heating up to dangerous temperatures, the public would band together. We'd all scrutinize the problem to help climate scientists and environment ministers find a solution... wouldn't we?

Many people wouldn't. In fact, when the issues are really complicated, some would avoid the crisis altogether.

New research has found that the less Canadians know about complex issues-- the economy, energy, and the environment-- the more they avoid becoming well informed about them. This willful ignorance is associated with a "chain reaction" of dependence on governments to solve the problem, especially if it is urgent.

The American Psychological Association surveyed 511 adults in Canada and the U.S. in a series of five studies to discover more about the "'ignorance is bliss' approach to social issues."

In one study, those who felt most at risk in the face of a recession were more likely to avoid literature that challenged the government's ability to manage the economy.

Staying ill-informed "is an ideal way to protect the psychologically comfortable (even if inaccurate) belief that the government is taking care of the problem," state the authors, who cited Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth.

Gore's truth and his 2006 documentary were ill-received by some American parents, who wanted it banned from schools, calling its bleak portrayal of global warming "propagandist."

The authors of the study note that this tendency to avoid threatening information about complex issues is called "motivated avoidance."

Imagine the consequences for someone worried about an energy crisis. They'll gloss over headlines heralding peak oil instead of reading more. Unless you're a banker or an economist, it's doubtful you've looked up the specs on subprime mortgages.

We'd hate to think that a fear of ozone depletion might actually prevent someone from learning more about chlorofluorocarbons, hydrochlorofluorocarbons, carbon tetrachloride, and methyl chloroform. We encounter the effects of climate change in our travels to regions where global warming could mean more than just fewer snow days. It could mean drought. Famine.

And as for our reliance on politicians: Following the recent UN conference in Durban, Canada announced its intention to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, which has made us climate pariahs. Most Canadians can't imagine being loathed by much of the world for our government's stance on binding CO2 emissions caps, so this seems like an opportune time for Canadians to become more informed.

But that presents another problem. Where will Canadians, already prone to avoiding negative stories, turn for information?

For a long time, while the Earth heated under our feet, everyone was at a loss as to how to talk about climate change. Newspapers gave equal editorial weight to theories about carbon emissions as culprit, which has been the consensus among scientists for longer than you may think, as they did to alternative theories. It was a case of fair and balanced reporting gone extreme -- scientists in one corner, deniers in another.

Without a thorough understanding of the problem, neither the public nor politicians could muster a solution.

Collectively, we couldn't agree on whether climate change was a man-made problem; whether it was the responsibility of governments to impose carbon taxes; whether it was up to the market to adapt or consumers to demand.

And maybe, the more amorphous climate fear became, the deeper heads buried in the sand. And all the more trust was instilled in politicians.

But politicians spin science to suit their agenda. Barack Obama hung part of his 2008 presidential campaign on rhetoric about "bringing science back" into the U.S. administration, something he claimed his predecessor George Bush had quietly vanquished.

Canada's Parliament isn't much better. During Question Period, on the topic of the ozone, NDP Environment Critic Megan Leslie recently challenged a Tory minister with: "When will this government realize that science is real?"

If politicians won't discuss science without resorting to criticism of their opponents, what is the public supposed to believe about scientific issues with social consequences?

The International Energy Association, a group tasked with tracking energy consumption and advising industrialized nations of the consequences recently found that rising fossil fuel use will lead to "irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change."

In October, Environment Canada announced the discovery of an "unprecedented" hole in the ozone, about twice the size of Ontario, above Canada's Arctic. Ice on our northern lakes is thinning, threatening both hunting patterns and the cultural survival of First Nations and Aboriginal communities.

Climate science is complicated and scary, fair enough: but our contributions don't have to be. Even a child can start by learning how much energy we save annually by turning off a light switch, or get permission to watch An Inconvenient Truth. Informed newspaper readers can work their way up to learning more about methyl chloroform.

Despite risks to our psychological comfort, we hope that a fear of climate catastrophe will motivate action, not avoidance.

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