Last week I posted on the first of two articles in the October issue of Physics Today (see). Today, I am commenting on the second article in that issue
Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol, 2011: Communicating the science of climate change. Physics Today. October 2011. ISSN: 0031-9228
As presented in the article Richard Somerville is a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, and the science director of Climate Communication, a nonprofit project based in Boulder, Colorado. Susan Joy Hassol, who works with climate scientists to communicate what they know to policymakers and the public, is the director of Climate Communication.
The abstract reads
It is urgent that climate scientists improve the ways they convey their findings to a poorly informed and often indifferent public
The article starts with the text
Over the past half century, the powerful new science of climate and climate change has come into being. Research during that period has settled a fundamental climate question that had challenged scientists since the 19th century: Will human beings, by adding carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere, significantly affect climate? The answer, debated for decades, is now known to be yes. Scientists now understand clearly that humankind is no longer a passive spectator at the great pageant of climate change. They have established that the climate is indeed warming and that human activities are the main cause. Every year brings thousands more research papers containing new knowledge of the many aspects of climate change.
Americans are also unaware of the strength of the scientific consensus. At least 97% of climate researchers most actively publishing in the field agree that climate change is occurring and that it is primarily human-induced.
There are many reasons for the large-scale public confusion. (See the article by Steven Sherwood on page 39.) Acceptance of the science of climate change appears to track with the strength of the economy. In difficult times, people seem more likely to reject the science. That may be because they believe that policies for addressing the problem might harm the economy. And perhaps people can only worry about so many things at a time.A second major factor is the well-organized and well-funded disinformation campaign that has been waged against climate science for decades. As documented in numerous books, the campaign seeks to sow doubts about the science. Motivations for that campaign range from ideological to financial. Some fear that policies to address climate change will limit individual freedoms and the free market. Some in the oil and coal industries fear for their short-term profits. Among the purveyors of the disinformation are public-relations masters who have succeeded in crafting simple, clear messages and delivering them repeatedly. The public’s failure to perceive the scientific consensus seems to reflect the success of that campaign.It helps the disinformation campaign that a small number of climate scientists disagree with the widely accepted central findings of the field. That there are a few dissenters is not surprising; all areas of science have outliers. But the mainstream scientific conclusion that climate change is occurring and is mostly human-induced has been endorsed by professional societies and science academies worldwide.A third factor is widespread scientific illiteracy, which is related to the fact that people trust and believe those with whom they share cultural values and worldviews. Opinion leaders who espouse the notion that global warming is a hoax are, for some people, trusted messengers. A fifth factor is that for most of human history, people have seen weather as the province of God, and some simply cannot accept the idea that humans could affect it. We still call weather disasters “acts of God.”Yet another factor is the way the media handle the topic. They often portray climate change as a controversy, presenting the opposing sides as equally credible. The current crisis in journalism has also resulted in fewer experienced reporters with the requisite expertise, which leads to coverage that can be inept and misleading.
The science tells us that meeting the policy goals requires urgent action. But given the limited public understanding, the need for scientists to communicate better also becomes urgent. Many scientists have expressed interest in communicating climate change science. Workshops aimed at improving those communication skills are increasingly popular at professional-society meetings and other venues.We must find ways to help the public realize that not acting is also making a choice, one that commits future generations to serious impacts. Messages that may invoke fear or dismay—as projections of future climate under business-as-usual scenarios often do—are better received if they also include hopeful components. Thus we can improve the chances that the public will hear and accept the science if we include positive messages about our ability to solve the problem. We can explain, for example, that it’s not too late to avoid the worst; lower emissions will mean reduced climate change and less severe impacts. We can point out that addressing climate change wisely will yield benefits to the economy and the quality of life. We can explain, as figure 5 shows, that acting sooner would be less disruptive than acting later. Let us rise to the challenge of helping the public understand that science can illuminate the choices we face.