How to Make the Fate of the Planet Boring

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If energy and climate change are the great challenges facing the human race, why are leaders who should be telling us what our options are talking like a bunch of bean counters?

There's probably no better way to confuse and bore people than to start flinging a lot of numbers around. Yet this is exactly what's happening in Copenhagen where world leaders make bold speeches about how we must act and that global warming could be a disaster of epic proportions. Then the whole thing seems to disintegrate into quibbling over the numbers.

For a lot of Americans, it just becomes a blur. President Obama is offering a commitment to greenhouse gas reductions of about 17 percent compared to 2005 levels, while Copenhagen conference organizers say anywhere from 25 to 40 percent cuts are needed, but based on 1990 levels. The Chinese are offering an entirely different formula, promising to cut their "energy intensity" by 40 percent. It means they'll try to switch to cleaner fuels and be more efficient, but they're not actually promising to cut their emissions at all.

Then there's the 350 business. Environmentalists have rallied worldwide to promote a goal of having 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That's what many scientists argue is the maximum amount of CO2 the Earth's climate can stand (although we're already at 387 and likely headed for 450). Much of the coverage quickly turned into scientists debating whether 350 is the right number, or even feasible.

Any number that can spawn more than 4,000 demonstrations from Afghanistan to Antarctica is working for a lot of people. Climate activists have raised their own intensity levels, with more protests in Copenhagen. Unfortunately, anyone who's not already in the movement probably has no idea whatsoever what the whole thing means. For most people, this tit-for-tat over the numbers is utterly bewildering.

Why use 1990 levels as a benchmark, for example? Or 2005? If you're not an expert, this is like sitting in the stands watching the grounds crew argue over where to set up the goalposts and draw the chalk lines, without knowing whether they're about to watch football or curling.

Setting targets is important, and these are perfectly valid, even vital points for scientists and political leaders to argue about. But these discussions are soaring right over the heads of a general public where four in 10 Americans can't name a fossil fuel, according to opinion research by our organization, Public Agenda. Even more can't name a renewable energy source. A Pew Research Center survey found 55 percent said they're heard "nothing at all" about the cap-and-trade proposal in Congress.

We've spent our careers working to get the public engaged in complicated public problems, and we can confidently say that people don't engage with percentages, they engage with choices, especially choices about things that matter to them--their homes and communities, their livelihoods, their children's future. If you present the options fairly and explain them in actual English, not its fuzzy policy-wonk variant, people can and do weigh alternatives, consider the tradeoffs, and come to reasonable conclusions. In fact, letting people grapple with choices is one of the fastest ways to help them move along the learning curve. We've seen it happen time and time again in our work.

This climate change debate doesn't have to turn into a science class, and the fundamental problem isn't that hard to grasp. We need to cut greenhouse gases emissions, while also finding more energy to meet booming worldwide demand that's expected to increase 40 percent over the next twenty years.

We need more energy and cleaner energy, so let's start talking about this in terms of options. What are we using fossil fuels for now? Electricity and cars. What are the choices for switching away from them? Nuclear power, wind and solar, natural gas (which is a fossil fuel, but a cleaner one). What are the alternatives for making them less damaging? Using them much more efficiently and cleaning up coal. How long would it take? It will take a while. No time to lose. How much would it cost? They all cost something, but sticking with the status quo could cost us even more.

Telling people that the planet faces a catastrophe, and then launching into an incomprehensible debate that bears no relationship to people's daily lives could be the worst mixed message of all time. If it's that important, then we owe it to people to explain the choices open to us for generating electricity, fueling our cars and factories, building our houses and living our daily lives in ways that protect, rather than endanger, life on Earth. This numbers game is just shutting them out.