The Cheap Al Gore

05/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A few years ago, I was invited to give a talk on climate change at a top European B-School. When I asked why they wanted me to do it, the answer was: "My boss wanted Al Gore, but we got sticker shock when we heard his 6-figure speaking fee. So the boss said 'Get me a cheap Al Gore.'" So I am the Cheap Al Gore, and it's getting to be a hard job.

The first time I gave a talk on climate change was back in 1995 when my dissertation advisor couldn't make a presentation at a senior's center - I went instead. The retirees were concerned about climate change, but one man's comment seemed to capture the mood; "Well, we don't have to worry about it because we'll all be dead by then." His sanguine attitude shifted a bit when I reminded him his grandkids would still be around.

Since then, I have given some version of the presentation more than 100 times, mostly to MBA students, and the response has been what I would consider rational concern. But something has changed of late. Recently, in every group, there is an outspoken minority that belittles the scientific evidence and sidetracks the discussion with misinformation gleaned from the mass media. Don't get me wrong. I am a scientist by training and I know that science only advances through skepticism and healthy debate. However, it is informed skepticism that improves our understanding. Informed scientific skepticism has driven huge advances in our knowledge of the climate system and the challenges we face. What I seem to be confronting now is popular skepticism. It's in vogue.

Recent polling data confirms the escalating popularity of climate skepticism. A survey of U.S. adults conducted by Yale & George Mason Universities shows a falling concern about climate change. Data shows a decline in people thinking climate change is real from 71 percent in 2008 to 57 percent today. Likewise, trust in climate scientists' work has dropped from 83 to 74 percent.

I see these statistics brought to life in my audiences. What I find most telling is that after we spend the whole session responding to and answering the popular climate skeptic's challenges, we still don't make progress. More than once I have heard, "Yeah, well I still don't believe it." Public acceptance of climate skepticism is due in part to the successful use of "uncertainty" to delay government regulation. UC San Diego's Naomi Oreskes provides a good history on this political strategy. But there is more to the story. There seems to be an innate public receptiveness to the popular climate skeptic's message.

What I have come to realize is that the "Yeah, well I still don't believe it" response of today is the same response as the one I heard in the senior center more than a decade ago. No one wants to worry about climate change because accepting the science means we have to take action that may alter our comfortable lifestyle. If we don't take action, then we are given visions of a climatic apocalypse. Neither is an attractive future. It's more comforting to be skeptical.

The good news is that doing something about climate doesn't mean economic collapse or saying goodbye to most of our comforts. Study after study and case example after case example have shown we can dramatically reduce our climate footprint at very low to no cost. Low cost action is the "Cheap" Al Gore's convenient truth. It is also a potentially hopeful antidote to popular climate skepticism.