“The elephant in the room” is an English expression to describe an obvious truth that is being unaddressed. The idea is that no one can really ignore an elephant in the room, yet, what do you do about it? It must be pretty difficult to get rid of the animal. It is large and heavy and, unlike dogs or horses, most of us are rather unfamiliar with how to get an elephant to obey us.
In 2006, the British street artist Banksy actually put a painted elephant in an exhibition in Los Angeles. Of course, the elephant did not go unnoticed, but unlike many metaphorical elephants in the room, action was taken rapidly. The elephant caught the attention of animal-rights activists and a few hours into the exhibition, the LA police came to seize the pachyderm.
Banksy is my latest discovery in the world of art. He is known for working in the margin of legality, making graffiti his main avenue to deliver a rather loaded social and political criticism. I am not sure exactly what it is about his work that attracts me, but the mixture between aesthetics, profits, unlawfulness and social meaning is fascinating.
Inspired in his work, I wanted to create a new post about an elephant in the room that I am being increasingly aware of: Climate Change. But before I go on, let me clarify what I mean by “being increasingly aware of”. To me, Climate Change is in the same group of topics as Evolution. It is backed by solid science, and in its general formulation it is a fact: it is undeniable. However, I am beginning to realize that this truth does not hold for everyone. In fact, where I live in North Carolina, it is even illegal to study Climate Change under certain circumstances! So, Climate Change is an elephant in the room, and I am just starting to see it as an elephant.
Why does this inspire a post? Because the idea that I must “preach” Climate Change paralyzes me. I am just a student of environmental economics. I look at measuring and monetizing the benefits and costs from all sorts of human interactions with nature. To advance and advocate for sustainable social well-being and environmental health, in my field it is useful and important to develop and analyze future scenarios. In this development of alternative possible future realities, I treat Climate Change as a fact. It’s hard for me to even understand what it means to not believe in Climate Change. How can I communicate with whatever percentage of Americans (or global citizens for that matter) that self-identify as non-believers of CC?
This fear has motivated me to dig a little deeper into my understanding of Climate Change and the history of the scientific knowledge behind it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this search has lead me into the direction of politics. Another important topic to be understood when it comes to climate science communication.
The physics behind the phenomenon are well understood making the climate models well founded. However, even though there is little doubt about the theoretical mechanisms behind climate change; data problems, computer technology limitations, and human biases may be enough to suggest we remain skeptical toward the specific predictions rendered by climate models. Other than through temperature increases and probably rising sea levels, there is little consensus about the ways that climate change may manifest itself . The greenhouse effect almost certainly exists and will be exacerbated by man-made CO2 emissions. The planet is likely to get warmer, and the impacts of this are uncertain, but are generally weighted toward unfavorable outcomes (to get an idea of the scale of the negative impact think of millions-if not billions- of farmers in developing countries located in the tropics and relying heavily on rainfall for their livelihoods, or of large urban centers in the coasts that will be affected by a rise in the level of oceans).
The real problem however, is not whether the scientists are ready to get it accurately. The truth is that the science is enough to invite to action. Why? Because carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for a very long time. The fundamental reason to care about climate change communication is the inter-temporal inconsistency between costs and benefits; or in layman’s words: that the actions we take today will affect the lives of future generations.
Climate scientists and environmental researchers will have to step into the political debate if we are to do anything meaningful with our knowledge. It would be hypocritical, irresponsible and, in fact, terribly costly for society if we decide to stay quite. In economics terms: the Social Costs of not speaking out are geometrically increasing with time as carbon dioxide continues to be emitted into the atmosphere at current rates. Alternative, the Benefits of ignoring the dialogue, despite being instantaneous, are arguably small and are likely to be followed by the common guilt and regret–if one happens to have a sense of social responsibility, of course.
Entering the political domain will be tricky. In politics, progress is not always possible: take for example the current Presidential raise and the polarization of constituencies and representatives in the US–the most powerful democracy in the world (Ha!). Perhaps, there is a better way to reach people and to successfully engage the public in a dialogue about the impacts of climate change and how to respond to them. Let me suggest one I am familiar with.
Science and politics are different realms with different objective functions and different rules. Economics could become a major player in this debate as it build a bridge between the two. Money, everybody is concerned about money and everybody can understand a science written in dollar terms. We don’t need to convince people about the science behind climate change, we just need to make them realize that failing to prevent the further magnification of this natural phenomena can be very expensive.
This option is feasible and reasonable. Yet, I am aware that successfully communicating economics is itself a monstrous challenge. Not only because economists are not exactly known for their conversational skills, but also because I fear this idea won’t be taken seriously by many natural scientists. Having interacted with many in academia, I sense there is some sort of hidden resentment against the pragmatism of the dismal science when it comes to valuing nature and pointing out the many trade-offs of environmentalist causes. Ecologists, biologists, climatologists, are more prone to engage with researchers in the softer social sciences than with us, the more objective, more abstract, more mathematical, more cruel or cold rationalizers. I invite all students of nature to find an economist and learn how, using the language of the “enemy” (the evil $), she can communicate the same altruistic values, concerns, and hopes studied by sociologists, psychologists, or anthropologists.
I want to end this post with a call to all economists of the world: get out, talk to non-economists, you need to practice empathy and improve your civic conversational skills to prepare for a great challenge that lays ahead.