Citizen Action Monitor

Scientists agonize over how to communicate climate change to the public

No 104 Posted by fw January 12, 2011

In an October 1, 2010 article, How Warm Was This Summer? the eminent NASA climatologist,  James Hansen — in a piece replete with maps, graphs and talk about “seasonal temperature anomalies” — did his best to explain why extreme local temperature/weather anomalies, of the kind we experienced this past summer, are unrelated to global trends. He went on to speculate on what was in store for us in 2011 and 2012.

Perhaps the most interesting part of his article, for me, was his closing comment about how best to answer frequently asked questions of this sort:

Was global warming the cause of the 2010 heat wave in Moscow, the 2003 heat wave in Europe, the all-time record high temperatures reached in many Asian nations in 2010, the incredible Pakistan flood in 2010?

The problem, says Hansen, is that standard scientific answers are often mis-translated by the public

The standard scientific answer to the above question is, “You cannot blame a specific weather/climate event on global warming.” That answer, to the public, translates as “No.”

But what if the question were posed in a different way?

“Would these events have occurred if atmospheric carbon dioxide had remained at its pre-industrial level of 390 ppm?” An appropriate answer in this case is “Almost certainly not.” That answer, to the public, translates as “Yes”, i.e., humans probably bear a responsibility for the extreme event.

In either case, the scientist usually goes on to say something about probabilities and how those are changing because of global warming. But the extended discussion, to much of the public, is chatter. The initial answer is all important. . . . We suggest that leading with the standard caveat “You cannot blame  . . .” is misleading and allows a misinterpretation about the danger of increasing extreme events.

Hansen’s article was subsequently featured by Joe Romm on his immensely popular, authoritative climate science blog, Climate Progress.  Romm’s post drew 57 responses, many of which highlighted the struggle that scientists and the rest of us face in attempting to communicate climate science to a largely scientifically illiterate general public and a biased media. And if scientists are struggling, is it any wonder that politicians shy away from using their bully pulpits to try to win public support?

Anyway, here is a sample of just 8 of the 57 comments to the Hansen piece on Joe’s blog.

Claudia F says: The lack of meaningful translation of climate science for the public is one of the profound tragedies of the IPCC process. This applies especially to a country where people with the most modest understanding of science for some odd reason feel that they can have an opinion about highly complex matters that require extremely specialized training and experience.

Mike Roddy says: I’m not sure that extreme weather events of 2012 will translate into political urgency. The media has been well trained by the oil and coal companies to treat extreme floods and droughts as independent events without causation, and to wag their fingers at scientists who connect them to GHG caused global heating. Probabilities and patterns don’t translate well to a poorly educated population that prefers both certainty and magical thinking. Sophisticated right wing media spokesmen such as Milloy and Watts exploit this distrust of data well. In 2010, they will once again try to drag scientists into a “debate” over weather events, and the scientists will be left with probability bands and chains of evidence. Watts, for example, will try to find a bigger drought or storm at some point in the distant past.

Norris Dale says: I’ve heard an interesting way of dealing with the improperly framed question. Goes like this: “I wouldn’t put the question quite that way . . . . Now, if you were to ask me whether these extreme events would be occurring without the rising greenhouse gas levels, I would say, definitely not . . . .”

John Atcheson says: Rather than counting on the interviewer to ask the right question, or rephrasing the question (which might seem deceptive to a confused public) an answer along these lines would be both correct, and less confusing: “It is certain we are seeing extreme events of this kind as frequently as we are, because human’s have emitted huge amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.”

Grypo says: While scientists are expected to be reticent, the opposition can say whatever it wants, including comparing scientists to witch burners and murderers.

Richard Brenne says: We’re done with the tired cliché that “One weather event cannot be blamed on global warming.” That was always illogical, misleading and just plain stupid. Instead, “Every weather event fits into a pattern of averages we call climate, and so every weather event, put in the perspective of patterns over a big enough area and long enough time illustrates climate change. Even a cold record does this, because there are now fewer of them.”

Rick says: And to the general public, this [the ‘you cannot blame . . .’ response] appears as a contradiction that demonstrates that scientists don’t know what they’re talking about. But it’s of course because the “general public” is ignorant of probability and statistics. It’s demonstrated by how easily they are fleeced using lotteries.

Caerbannog says: Frankly, I hope that some large, GOP-dominated Midwestern-Southern cities in the USA get “Moscowized” in August 2012. A lot of GOP’ers deserve weeks of 110+ heat-index daytime highs plus overnight lows of 90+. Not days, *weeks*. And throw in lots of choking smoke from wildfires burning through dried out forests. Yes, they deserve it. Unfortunately, lots of innocent folks will suffer as well, but if there are going to be nasty global-warming-induced heatwaves and wildfire outbreaks, let them occur where they will cause the maximum possible amount of discomfort amongst the right-wing yahoos who have stalled meaningful climate action over the past 20 years or so . . .

Finally, I echo Deborah Stark’s words of praise and thanks:

Thank you to Jim Hansen, Joe Romm and Bill McKibben for your courage, integrity and tireless work on behalf of all of us who who are concerned about the issues at hand and care very deeply about the kind of world we are leaving to our children and grandchildren.

And maybe, as Caerbannog suggests, people won’t sit up and take notice until some extreme weather event of devastating proportions touches them personally.


How to communicate climate-change information to the public

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This entry was posted on January 12, 2011 by in climate change, information counterpower and tagged , , .
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