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Public Confused About Global Warming, Google Can Help

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By Ben Carmichael

According to a poll [on American priorities] recently released by The Pew Research Center, the environment has declined for three consecutive years. This year alone it is down 15%. Global warming has similarly declined. It is now in last place, behind all other 20 national priorities.

As if that weren’t bad enough, another poll recently released by the Rasmussen Reports shows that public understanding of climate change is poor. According to the report, “In July 2006, 46% of voters said global warming is caused primarily by human activities, while 35% said it is due to long-term planetary trends.” The new study shows that, “Forty-four percent (44%) of U.S. voters now say long-term planetary trends are the cause of global warming, compared to 41% who blame it on human activity.”

In other words, public opinion is not only declining, but increasingly confused as well. For a dedicated environmental blogger, this is bad news.

The question is: Why is the public so confused?

The decline of climate change is easy to explain. As the Pew poll itself explained, the economy and jobs trumped all other national priorities. Standing in a line yesterday at a supermarket here in Oxford, the Financial Times had this headline: “Gloom deepens as 76,000 jobs go in a day.”

The confusion of the issues -– from an understanding of it as human caused, to a belief that it is a natural cycle –- is harder to explain. Amongst the possible explanations between 2006 and 2009 are two national policy debates that bear closely upon the issue of climate and environment.

First, was the offshore drilling debate, initially stirred up by rising fuel prices and brought to a boil by a false argument advanced almost exclusively by Republicans that drilling would lead to short-term reductions in energy prices.

Second, and related, was the Presidential election. Over the space of two years, public attention focused on Democratic and Republican arguments. In these arguments, the two parties placed drastically different policy priority on global warming. According to the Pew Poll, “While 64% of Democrats say global warming is a Very Serious problem, just 18% of Republicans” agree. I’m afraid that the political debate created the false illusion of a scientific debate. And whereas the President who pursues science based policy won, for the American public the science of climate change became an election casualty.

What are the lessons here?

The first is just how easy it is to inject uncertainty into discussions of complex science. Scientists often speak within the limits of their data, journalists within the parameters of a balanced story, the public within the limits of what they can read in otherwise busy lives.

The second is how much easier this is made by the presence of multiple parties with competing interests discussing the same issue. Climate change is a scientific issue; as fact it’s apolitical. But given its scope, its implications, climate change requires it be addressed by policy. That means government, and that means the cacophony of caucuses can’t be far away.

The third is that these two together generate a lot of discussion –- and a lot of written content. More than a person with an interest in this earth’s protection can possibly manage. As an environmental science student, I can barely manage it. Even when I was blogging full time, I couldn’t sort through it all in a day. The mere task of visiting each page is challenging; RSS feeds don’t capture the full picture; and other blogs subject you to another person’s perspective.

That’s why sites like Grist, Dot Earth, Yale Environment 360, and others are so helpful. They sort through all the chaff and try to write only about the wheat.

But still –- I find myself wanting the information sorted more easily into clear categories of my own choosing. This is the privilege and the burden of the web; pressed by the limits of what we can consume, the answer is not that we want to consume less information, but more information more easily sorted. We want lots of information, as long as its on our terms.

This, I think, is where Google can play a significant role.

Because Google’s success has been built upon the pillars of innovation, aggregation and information. They’ve proven they can change entire markets and that they can personalize searches. Moreover –- they’ve made climate a priority for their business. The fit seems natural.

And so, what if Google built an environment page, that included the following principles:

Combine. If the challenge of understanding climate change –- even for the environmentally engaged –- is keeping current with a diversity of information, than Google is a natural choice for the company to channel this information. With its model of aggregating information in innovative ways, Google could combine multiple channels of information onto one page.

Think here Google Finance, where instead of information about stocks, you had information about ecosystems. This could include carbon markets, news and blog feeds, science maps, stocks, etc.

Personalize. All of this information could, like Finance, and iGoogle, be personalized. Instead of visiting a series of web pages, you could click through layers of environmental information, organized according to how you best consume information.

Interact. I’ve written before about how online, interactive media presents opportunities to deliver environmental messages in clearer, more effective ways than traditional print media. In creating this green channel, Google would be well positioned to draw upon its wealth of information -– maps, pictures, video, blog content -– to create a truly rich environment for the consumption of compelling environmental information.

Finally, elevation: What if you could express a preference for specific kinds of scientific information? Like Google’s wiki function, where you can elevate certain kinds of information. Or, like Google’s “SafeSearch” function, except this would keep your searches -– and your children –- safe from climate skeptics. Or from climate scientists. It could be like the Kinsey Scale of Climate Conviction. I’m joking here –- but only slightly.

Consider that information from NGOs -– reports, litigation, etc. –- often doesn’t have the kind of traffic or links to raise it up onto the second or third page. If you searched for a location, or a company, wouldn’t you want to know its environmental history as well?

Let me be clear –- this isn’t a silver bullet. But in combating a challenge that requires a suite of our best responses, information must surely play a role. Indeed, it already does.

I only hope Google uses its position to invest not only in clean energy infrastructure, but in improving access to environmental information as well.



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