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Climate fatigue

There is too much climate information. Do we need yet another coordination programme?

The Future Earth research programme, to be launched at the Rio+20 summit in June, was lauded during last week’s Planet under Pressure conference in London as part of science’s answer to the climate change question.

Future Earth is supposed to co-ordinate global efforts and address fragmentation in climate science. But just as important, it will attempt to develop clear, concise and “actionable” research results for political leaders, in the hope that this will translate into policies on the ground.

The first part of that mission will be difficult enough, given that most climate science is conducted by independent, national research agencies, while Future Earth will deal primarily with smaller, international efforts, such as those of Unesco. But the second part of the mission faces truly formidable challenges.

The climate message has been broadcast to all corners of the planet since the UN’s first Rio meeting 20 years ago. And the world—or most of it—has taken some halting steps forward, as a result. The Kyoto Protocol may be widely disparaged, but it has helped to mould determined efforts in many nation states to set and meet targets for carbon emissions.

However, distilling the multifarious signals produced by climate science into a clear message for the public remains a challenge. Polls show some evidence that impatient electorates are gradually losing interest in the issue.

Climate change has barely featured in recent and pending general election campaigns in Europe. This lack of public interest makes it difficult for political leaders to move more quickly on emissions. As Anne Glover, the chief scientific adviser to the EU, pointed out at the London meeting, reaching politicians directly is only half of the battle. “Who do ministers look to? They look to the voters,” she said.

And it is hard to see how more information about the problem will help. Rather, the sheer volume of bad news, combined with confusion about what to do for the best, makes people feel powerless and reluctant to change their behaviour. Climate-fatigue, when people do nothing rather than making efforts that might turn out to be useless, is a result of information overload.

This also affects the behaviour of industry, which Future Earth also hopes to influence. But industrial behaviour—like public policy—is most influenced by the general public, and its consumption patterns. To change the market, one has to change the demand, and this can only be achieved by influencing the views of consumers, and creating demand for different, and maybe fewer, products.

Streamlining and simplifying climate research information is clearly a good thing to do. But if Future Earth is going to make a difference, it will have to find new ways of reawakening public interest in the challenge of climate change. That remains a tall order for a research community that, in this as in so many other spheres, spends far too much time talking, in its own language, chiefly to itself.