Public Attitudes About Climate Change are at a Tipping Point

By April 2, 2015 Commentary No Comments


“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” – Charles Darwin

This has to be an enormously frustrating time for the world’s scientists, and particularly for those who work in climate, vaccinations and evolution. Despite their hundreds of millions of hours of work and rigorous investigation, and their overwhelming evidence, large segments of the public continue to turn a deaf ear.

Scientists have been warning us since the 1970s about climate change. They’ve written articles, organized seminars, produced scientific papers signed by hundreds of top scientists. They have been as clear as scientific integrity allows. Without changes in the way we live and on our reliance on dirty fuels, we and our children will face incomprehensible consequences to our environment, weather, food, health and security.

Last week, 772 of the world’s most accomplished climate scientists issued an SOS to the world, through the United Nations. They warned about the spread of disease, extreme weather, sea level rise, property losses, political instability, and threats to agriculture and food.

The response to these warnings of scientists, over the last few decades, has been clever and expansive. Industry funded ‘movements’ have sprung up to discredit science. Back-pocket scientists have been hired to make every question an indictment. Conservative activists and politicians, eager to embrace any argument against government, have been duly rewarded. Action has been virtually ground to a halt.

Despite it all, polling shows that growing numbers of Americans believe the climate is changing and want government to act. Politicians are speaking about climate more boldly than they did just a few years ago, even running television ads about the issue here in Maine.

The debate on climate change has followed a familiar pattern for attitude shifts among the public. It begins with a long period of education and debate, reflection, resistance and then over time gives way to an astonishing-fast breakthrough.

We’ve seen that pattern repeat itself in issues as far-ranging as the end of apartheid in South Africa to the fall of the Soviet Union and in the sudden overthrow of entrenched dictatorships across the globe. We’ve seen it in dramatic attitude shifts on race, women, gays and the environment. Each simmered quietly over a long period, then heated up and finally and suddenly boiled over.

The tipping point in any of them was hard to anticipate, but dramatic when it happened. Who really thought we would have a black President now? Who imagined that the leading candidate to be the next President would be a woman? Who foresaw the sudden acceptance of gay marriage or the legalization of pot?

We’ve seen similar breakthroughs and tipping points on other issues in Maine in our lifetimes. When I was a boy growing up along the banks of the Kennebec River in Waterville, many things seemed unchangeable. One was a techni-colored, stinking river. The other was the existence of ash trays in every home. The third, not coincidentally, was cancer in most families. And the last was litter along the roadsides.

We had some big conversations about all those things. People offered dire warnings about both changing and not changing. Groups sprung up to protect the status quo and argue against science. Other groups coalesced to fight for change. In the end, action and change happened and today people fish and swim in the river, returnable bottles are in our garages rather than beside the roads, and ash trays are more common in antique stores than living rooms.

The tipping point for the climate debate isn’t happening so much because scientists are getting better at explaining it to us than the fact thatpeople are beginning to see climate change around them, in their backyards or their workplace, on in the news. New birds and animals are at the feeders or in the garden. Fish and lobsters are migrating further north to cooler waters. Increasing acidity is weakening shellfish and invasive species like green crabs are destroying clam flats.

The climate change conversation is expanding now from the elites to the regular folks, and becoming less about science and more about common sense. That is the signal that the tipping point is upon us.

Alan Caron is the President of Envision Maine, a non-profit organization working to promote Maine’s next economy and the co-author of an upcoming book called Maine’s Next Economy. He can be reached at

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