Understanding Climate Risk

Science, policy and decision-making

Science controversy and communication

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Two new articles in Physics Today, one open access and the other behind a paywall (you need to be a member of a partner organisation to get access) cover science controversies and communicating the science of climate change.

The open access article, by Stephen Sherwood of the Climate Change Research Centre at UNSW, is excellent (Steve also did a great presentation at Greenhouse 2011 on climate feedbacks). He covers past controversies surrounding Galileo and Copernicus and compares them with climate change. His argument skewers the contention that the Galileo movement puts up of the climate skeptic being the lone holder of true knowledge persecuted by the all-powerful Church of the Holy Global Warming Consensus.

Greenhouse warming today faces an even greater array of bogus counterarguments based on the uninformed interpretation of data from ice cores, erroneous views about natural carbon sources, alleged but unobserved alternative drivers of climate change, naive expectations of the time scales over which models and observations should match, and various forms of statistical chicanery and logical fallacy. Many of the arguments sound reasonable to an inexpert but intelligent layperson. Critics use the alleged flaws to attempt to discredit the entire field.

Debates between mainstream scientists and silver-tongued opponents cannot be won by the side of truth no matter how obvious the fallacies may be to an expert. Incredibly, as recently as the mid-19th century, a highly charismatic figure calling himself “Parallax” devoted two decades of his life to crisscrossing England arguing that Earth was flat. He debated legitimate astronomers—sometimes teams of them—in town-hall-type settings and wowed audiences. For similar reasons, Einstein himself gave up debating his critics early in the 1920s.

A kicker statement:

Global warming is the first environmental forecast based on physical reasoning—the greenhouse effect and its intensification as IR atmospheric opacity increases—rather than on extrapolating observed patterns of past behaviour.

And the current behaviour mirrors that of the past:

It is jarring to ponder the scene of a colleague from the 17th century refusing to look into a telescope—a level of aversion to inconvenient facts, admittedly not common, that seems incredible. Yet modern counterparts can perhaps be found in those who vilify the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change without apparently ever having examined its reports, or who repeat claims—such as global warming having stopped in 1998—that can be trivially falsified by looking at the data.

The other article on science communication by Richard Somerville and Susan Hassol isn’t quite as successful because I think it overlooks some of the human frailties in understanding complex risks that Sherwood covers in his history. Although titled communicating the science of climate change, it gets into risk – how and why we can avoid 2°C warming, for instance.

There is some up-to-date info on American attitudes to climate science. In May 2011, only 64% of Americans think the world is warming (down from a high of 71% percent in November 2008). Only 47% of all respondents believe that global warming, if it exists, is caused mostly by human activity. These numbers are different to those in another recent assessment that concluded 83% think the world is warming. This difference is significant. Perhaps it’s due to different methods: how the question is asked matters a great deal.

However, the key piece of information is this:

Only 39% believe that most scientists think global warming is occurring, and 40% believe there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether it’s occurring. Even among those in the most engaged categories, only 44% of the alarmed and 18% of the concerned say there is scientific agreement that the world is warming. Among the disengageddoubtful, and dismissive, less than 5% believe there is such agreement (Original research here).

These categories are the six Americas of belief in and concern about global warming (cautious is the sixth).

Somerville and Hassol list a range of reasons as to why people haven’t received the scientific message one of which (not the least) is the way scientists communicate. The rest of the article covers a great deal of good advice about how to deliver a public message on scientific findings. They deal with the science-values interface in a manner very reminiscent of Stephen Schneider (and why not?).

Yet, they didn’t address framing. My view is that the strategy they nominated will work with the alarmed and concerned sectors of the public (39% – US population), less well with the cautious (25%) and not at all with the other three categories (35%). Informing the public about the level of meaningful consensus amongst the climate research community is a task that requires access to mass communication of one sort or another. A lot of people are pointing the finger at scientists suggesting that their poor communication is reason for the failure of climate policy. While communication can always be improved (and needs to be) the other reasons why people may not accept the underpinning science: threats to existing belief systems and short-term self interest to name two, getting a clearer scientific message across is not enough.

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Written by Roger Jones

October 6, 2011 at 7:25 pm

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