The Gummi Bears riding their "quick car" in the tunnels of the Gummi Glen. In this animated TV series of the 1980s, the characters were always shown buckling up before riding their quick car. At that time, seat belts laws were not yet commonplace and were often ignored. So, the Gummi bears were enlisted to remind to children that they had to wear seat belts while riding a car.
Already in the 1960s, crash tests had clearly shown the effectiveness of seat belts in saving lives in traffic accidents. Nevertheless, the introduction of seat belts for passenger cars faced many obstacles. One was with the automotive companies, which often saw seat belts as an extra cost that they didn't like to bear. But customers were probably the most important problem. People knew about the risk of traffic accidents, but still they disliked seat belts, normally not using them even when they were available in their car. People often doubted the usefulness of belts; fearing the risk of remaining trapped in a burning car. Many disliked the feeling of constraint that wearing belts generated. More than all, it was a psychological problem: most drivers felt that they had a certain "power" on their vehicle and disliked the idea of a passive constraint on which they had no control.
Because of these motives, when a seat belt law was enacted in Italy, in the 1980s, it is said that you could buy t-shirts that had a fake seat belt printed on the front side, with the idea of duping traffic officers. If it is true, it is a great example of how weird is the way the human mind works. People would pay money NOT to be safer! (And, if it is a legend, the very fact that it diffused in the media indicates that some people were at least willing to consider it as true). Fortunately, today things have changed and there surely exists a general consensus that seat belts are not just a good idea, they are the law.
The story of seat belt laws has many points in common with that of the climate change problem. The reaction is in many ways the same: people ignore the climate problem, just as people in the 1970s often sat over seat belts rather than wearing them. Unfortunately there is no clear-cut consensus, today, that stopping climate change is not just a good idea, it should be the law.
So, can we learn something from the case of seat belt laws as a "model" for fighting anthropogenic climate change? Of course there are differences but, yes, it is worth examining in some detail seat belt laws as a success story in societal risk management.
A first point is that seat belt laws never were the objective of the kind of widespread denialist campaign that we are seeing today against climate science. That was not for lack of arguments: a 1981 paper by John Adams had found no clear evidence that the introduction of seat belts reduced the total number of traffic fatalities. Had the "Merchants of Doubt" stepped in at this moment to exploit Adam's data, probably we still wouldn't have seat belt laws. But no lobby decided to ride the issue and, without a political support, this view of seat belts remained confined to a tiny minority and it didn't generate the kind of aggressive denial that is typically seen in the debate on climate. Over the years, Adam's paper was disproved by experimental evidence clearly showing that seat belts do save lives and reduce injuries not just in laboratory tests, but also in the real world (see, e.g, this paper).
Notice how the lack of complete certainty did NOT stop the effort of legislating on the mandatory use of seat belts. Seat belts laws can be seen as a correct application of the precautionary principle: don't wait for absolute certainty, but act when there are sufficient data to establish that a risk exists.
Finally, seat belts were mandated by law much before the public was fully convinced that such laws were necessary - it was sufficient that policy-makers and opinion leaders were convinced. A 1977 poll in the US reported that 80% of respondents strongly opposed seat belt laws. These early data contrast with the present general opinion, which is now opposite. A 2008 poll, reports that "when asked whether they favor front seat belt laws 66 percent of 16- to 20-year-olds said they favor them 'a lot', and 26 percent said they favor them 'some' ". Evidently, the public learned to appreciate seat belts only after being pushed (a little, and sometimes a lot) to use them.
So, the story of seat belt laws shows us the importance of financial lobbies in the decision mechanisms of our society. Today, legislative action against climate change has been stopped by a series of effective propaganda campaigns which have succeeded in politicizing the issue and making it impossible to manage rationally. This is probably the most important stumbling block we are facing nowadays. As long as the denial machine is financed and active, progress with the climate issue can only be very slow.
But it is not impossible to beat even a very powerful lobby: it could be done in the case of the tobacco and the pesticide industries. It takes effort and patience but, if we work on that, eventually we'll succeed. Then, the example of seat belts shows us that absolute certainty is not necessary in order to act on a dangerous problem. The fact that a law may be unpleasant - such as wearing a seat belt every time one rides a car - does not prevent from reaching a general consensus that the law was needed.
We do have sufficient evidence that the problem of climate change is serious and important and, at some moment, we'll arrive to a general consensus that stopping climate change is not only a good idea, it is the law.