Ice Cliff

The AIDS Epidemic as a Model for Action on Climate Policy

Matthew Konfirst
Jan 15, 2014

The science of climate change is firmly established.

Of course there are still many of the finer details to work out, but the basic facts are clear: the sea level is rising, temperatures are increasing, rare weather events are becoming more common, Arctic sea ice is melting, and across the globe ice sheets and mountain glaciers are shrinking rapidly--- and all of this is happening at a pace that both natural and man-made systems will have trouble adapting to. Bottom line: We know enough about climate change to know we have to act.

So why haven’t we?

For the public, the problem may actually be the abundance of information. Climate change assessments, scientific journal articles, government agency websites, news media outlets, focus group reports and pronouncements by vested special interests are overwhelming a public that is only peripherally following the story. In actuality, however, exposure to every gory detail of climate science is not necessary for most people; pairing the gist of the story with potential solutions is more productive.

To illustrate this idea, consider the following example from an entirely different scientific discipline: HIV-positive individuals with persistently elevated serum interleukin-6 have a greater chance of dying than those whose levels are lower. This is an important finding, but the level of detail is overkill for all but specialists on the subject. Explaining simply that HIV is transmitted sexually and that using a condom can significantly reduce the spread of the disease is much more valuable to me as an individual. It gives me a straightforward explanation with a simple action I can take to avoid the problem (so I can get back to watching Storage Wars).

Climate science needs to be presented the same way. As scientists we are trained to analyze minutiae, but the scientific community apparently believes that correcting scientific inaccuracies is the best approach for building support for public action. (Many scientists wring their hands anxiously as they consider “dumbing down” their message by leaving out any details at all.) While consistent with professional scientific activities, it is counterproductive in mobilizing real-world solutions. Not everybody wants to know in excruciating detail how geochemical proxies have been statistically evaluated to demonstrate the high probability of anthropogenic gases being predominantly responsible for increases in atmospheric heating and associated alterations in the hydrologic cycle. (In case you were wondering, that line is ineffective during speed dating sessions.)

What we need is a better message to get more people engaged, something that is clear and empowers people by highlighting the solutions rather than the problems. So what’s a good message? Climate change is happening, it’s causing changes that present a threat to our stability, and here’s what we can do about it: Insert your favorite solution here.

Focusing on concrete actions is the key, and high-level coordination of the message is important to avoid overwhelming people with options. Additionally, it’s important to point out that we’ve faced global-scale crises before, and that science has been a reliable guide to an effective course of action. The AIDS epidemic is a perfect example. Highlighting specific actions that could be taken to combat AIDS did more to affect a solution than trying to educate the public about the medical details. In fact, with regards to climate science, continually dwelling on the scientific facts may have the opposite of their intended effect--- it may fuel public perception that the science isn’t yet settled. It’s also important to stress that climate action provides many additional co-benefits: reduced dependence on foreign energy sources, more jobs at home, resilient infrastructure, cleaner air and water, and the pride that comes with being a world leader in innovation.

During his first debate with Stephen Douglas in Ottawa, Illinois on 21 August, 1858, Abraham Lincoln said, “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.” Policymakers and scientists alike can better mold public sentiment by focusing on applied science and engineering solutions rather than basic science. This approach has been valuable in combating AIDS, and its application to the climate issue is a promising way to move us towards implementing effective solutions.

CDC data available at:

Image: taken from Pixabay.

Matthew Konfirst

Matt Konfirst is a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow at the National Science Foundation. Prior to his 2012-13 fellowship year, he was a Byrd Postdoctoral Fellow at the Byrd Polar Research Center, Ohio State University. His research interests include Antarctic climate evolution and micropaleontology.


This blog does not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, its Council, Board of Directors, officers, or members. AAAS is not responsible for the accuracy of this material. AAAS has made this material available as a public service, but this does not constitute endorsement by the association.

Comments (1)

Ruthanna Gordon (not verified)
January 21, 2014 at 11:48 am
And even more so than with AIDS, talking about solutions makes it psychologically possible for people to listen at all. Accepting climate change can be terrifying or depressing--solutions make people less likely to reject or ignore that message, by giving them something they can do about it.

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