Climate change is being called the “perfect moral storm,” and scientists may need to throw the public a lifeline.
Finally, at long last, it has happened. As the planet continues to warm, active global warming skepticism has most decidedly become uncool.
The signs were unmistakable in early February, following the release of the policymakers’ summary of the latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The document bluntly stated that the warming of the climate system is “unequivocal,” with a nine in 10 chance that humans are causing it. A few scattered attacks on this conclusion emerged from the usual quarters—right-wing think tanks, The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page, congressional crackpots like Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe—but they were few and far between. There was nothing remotely resembling the barrage of volleys that followed the 1995 and 2001 IPCC report rollouts.
Instead, as newly empowered Democrats pledged to make carbon-emission caps a top priority, the Bush administration tried to erase its own previous stance of global warming skepticism. Two White House officials misquoted the president himself in order to suggest Bush had always acknowledged that human greenhouse-gas emissions are causing global warming. It was a lie, but one that told a deep truth about how the climate issue has evolved over the past several years.
Those concerned about preserving the planet should find these latest developments heartening. In the long run, apparently, reality does indeed prevail. Eventually—and just as with Big Tobacco’s campaign to question the health risks of smoking—the active denialists and strategic doubt-generators can be driven into obscurity, if not into outright retreat. Eventually.
That’s the good news.
But as I attended the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco in February and listened to the climate-related discussions going on there in the wake of the IPCC report, I heard a less heartening theme being sounded as well. Despite ever-increasing scientific certainty, global warming remains a relatively low priority for the US public: Most Americans worry far more about issues like crime, taxes, war, education, and health care. And while the doubt-creation industry has gone into recession (at least for this issue), an insidious partisan divide still persists on climate change. A recent Pew survey revealed that over 50 percent more college-educated Democrats than Republicans accept that humans are to blame for rising temperatures. Without both acceptance and concern on the part of the public, politics won’t move fast enough either. With each day that we fail to cut emissions, we’re passing the buck to future generations. Yet we delay, delay, delay.
Ethicist Stephen Gardiner of the University of Washington-Seattle is one of many thinkers who’ve looked closely at the disconnect between the hard evidence of human-caused global warming and our failure to deal with the problem. He calls climate change a “perfect moral storm” because it uniquely tests our capacity to do the right thing (cut emissions). That climate change is global means we need coordination across societies that have vastly different values, priorities, and technological capabilities. That the most severe impacts won’t be felt immediately means we have to sacrifice today to protect generations yet to come. And that there is still considerable uncertainty about future consequences means we can debate endlessly about how bad things are going to get. It’s no surprise, then, that decades have passed without a coordinated global response that’s adequate to the problem at hand.
But admitting and recognizing all of these hurdles doesn’t let anyone off the hook. In fact, I’ve grown increasingly convinced that scientists and science defenders must realize that they are also responsible, to a significant extent, for failing to communicate the nature of this “perfect problem” to the rest of the public in a way that truly mobilizes action.
The point hit home for me as I listened to Arthur Lupia, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, debunk a central assumption that many scientists harbor as they endeavor to inform the public about complicated, technical issues like global warming: “If we tell them what we know, they will change what they believe and change what they do.” But that’s not how it works. As Lupia explains, people aren’t necessarily lazy, apathetic, or stupid. Instead, there’s so much to understand about global warming; a barrage of information competes for everyone’s attention, and a pack of spin doctors are actively trying to confuse the issues. Then there are the less-enlightened media outlets that either fail to cover the issue in depth or misleadingly treat it as a controversy. The facts have been distorted, and the message hasn’t been getting through.
Scientists certainly aren’t the only or the main problem here—but all too often, they speak at audiences on global warming, rather than to them. Effective communication starts with understanding the assumptions and prior knowledge of the audience. And on global warming, Lupia explains, the public is “lost in the woods.” But rather than trying to go in and find that public and guide it around obstacles, it often seems as if scientists would prefer to shout highly technical directions from a distance. They drone on about probability distribution functions and albedos.
Communicating about climate change is tricky, no doubt. For one thing, Lupia points out that the right person to go in and rescue the “lost” public isn’t always going to be a techno-bantering scientist. Instead, some people might respond better to a different messenger: perhaps a fellow church member and evangelical Christian, or perhaps a fellow businessman and market-based conservative.
Lupia’s ideas dovetail closely with the work of one of Seed‘s own science bloggers: “Framing Science” author Matthew Nisbet, a professor at American University. Whereas Lupia emphasizes the importance of finding the right messenger to reach the public, Nisbet highlights the message itself. As he details in his research, certain “frames”—selective ways of presenting an issue—can be shown to resonate with core values held by the public. For instance, evangelicals have framed the obligation to address global warming as a matter of “creation stewardship,” even as some corporate leaders have framed the issue as an economic “opportunity,” rather than an all-out assault on the GDP.
Notice: Neither of these frames is technical or science-intensive. No wonder—most nonscientists’ eyes glaze over when they hear that kind of stuff. In fact, it can be argued that emphasizing scientific complexities is actually counterproductive: All the caveats and “uncertainties” make the public think (precisely as the denialists want) that the cause of the problem is somehow still in doubt. So, odd as it may sound, scientists may want to stop talking exclusively about scientific complexities all the time if they actually want to steer the public out of the woods and, in so doing, incite change.
I admit, this isn’t a comfortable thing for many scientists to hear. I know it can be a contentious issue. But as I’ve watched some of the most important science-based issues of our day become entangled in politics here in Washington, D.C., I’ve become increasingly convinced that science itself, as an institution, needs to change how it approaches these subjects. It’s not just the climate issue. Across the board, political decision making increasingly depends upon highly technical information. So science itself is being drawn into ever more political contexts in which it is covered by media, spun by advocates, and misused by politicians. This won’t happen on every research subject, but it will surely happen on the high-profile, controversial ones. We’ve already seen the same pattern on climate change, embryonic stem cell research, reproductive health, evolution, and many other topics. And I suspect we will see it with future issues on the horizon like genetic engineering and nanotechnology.
Scientists who try to communicate on these subjects often feel as if they’re howling into a maelstrom. Facing an unrefined and (sometimes undignified) public and media dialogue, I understand the option chosen by many experts to remain “just a scientist”: Simply state the facts, and let the winds of political fury carry them away. But I wonder if the scientific community as a whole can truly continue to passively accept the ongoing translational failures that seem to ensue on virtually every occasion that scientific information enters the political and public arena.
I suspect in the long run, they can’t and won’t. A lot of the scientists I know and have met are ready to start becoming better, more strategic communicators. They’re just wondering how.
And so, I propose an answer: In the very best traditions of science, treat communication itself as a subject of research and inquiry. Endeavor to find out what the public thinks before trying to change its mind or sway its opinion. Try to learn which messages will resonate, and which ones will not. We’re not talking about “spin” here—we’re talking about packaging scientific information in such a way as to actually increase knowledge and understanding on the part of nonscientists. Not only is this the right thing to do—on global climate change it’s something we must do, before it’s too late.
Originally published May 29, 2007