Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Publicize or perish

The scientific community is failing miserably in communicating the potential catastrophe of climate change. Joseph Romm urges scientists to start engaging with the public – now.

The fate of the next 50 generations may well be determined in the next few months and years. Will the US Congress agree to a shrinking cap on greenhouse-gas emissions and legislation to achieve the transformation to clean energy? If not, you can forget about a global climate deal. But even if the bill passes and a global deal is achieved, both will need to be continuously strengthened in coming years, as the increasingly worrisome science continues to inform the policy, just as in the case of the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting substances.

The International Scientific Congress on climate change held in Copenhagen in March, which was attended by 2000 scientists, concluded that
"Recent observations confirm that, given high rates of observed emissions, the worst-case Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realized." That would mean that by 2100 there would be atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide of more than 1000 ppm, total planetary warming of 5 °C and sea-level rises probably on the high end of recent projections of 1–2 m followed by a rise of as much as 2 cm per year or more for centuries. We would also see one-third of inhabited land reaching dust bowl levels of aridity, half or more of all species becoming extinct, and the oceans increasingly becoming hot, acidic, dead zones. And if we do not change course quickly, the latest science predicts that these impacts may be irreversible for 1000 years. [See "Intro to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water"]

In short, the fate of perhaps the next 100 billion people to walk the Earth rests with scientists (and those who understand the science) trying to communicate the dire nature of the climate problem (and the myriad solutions available now) as well as the ability of the media, the public, opinion-makers and political leaders to understand and deal with that science.

Disinformation and scientific illiteracy

So far, we are failing miserably. Neither the US nor the world as a whole has taken any consequential action to reverse emissions trends. And if the scientific community does not help lead the way in reversing emissions, then we will justifiably bear serious blame from future generations, who will no doubt become increasingly bitter about the havoc our ignorance and myopia has brought them. Nobody will be writing books calling us "the greatest generation."

As one example of how bad scientific messaging has been, let me go through Gallup polling over the past decade as discussed in a 2008 article in Environment magazine entitled "A widening gap: Republican and Democratic views on climate change".

The article reported that in 1997 some 52% of Democrats said that the effects of global warming had already begun and 52% said most scientists believe global warming is occurring. In 2008 some 76% said warming had begun and 75% said most scientists believe warming is occurring. It would appear that Democrats believe most scientists.

Few leading climate scientists or major scientific bodies would disagree that the scientific case that the planet is warming – and that humans are the dominant cause of recent temperature rises – has become stronger in the past 10 years. That is clearly seen in the scientific literature – as summarized in the IPCC reports.

And yet for Republicans, in 1997 some 48% said warming had begun and 42% said most scientists believe warming is occurring – a modest six-point differential. By 2008, the percentage of Republicans saying the effects of global warming had already begun had dropped to a mere 42% (an amazing statistic in its own right given the painfully obvious evidence to the contrary). But the percentage saying most scientists believe global warming is occurring had risen to 54% – a stunning 12-point differential.

In short, a significant and growing number of Republicans – one in eight as of 2008 – simply do not believe what they know most scientists believe. That is quite alarming news, given that it is inconceivable that the US will take the very strong action needed to avert catastrophe unless it comes to believe what most scientists believe, namely that we are in big, big trouble and can delay no further.

Here is the lesson for scientists: in the last decade, we have apparently become less convincing to Republicans than the deniers have been. They have apparently become better at messaging, while we have perhaps become worse.

In part, this has occurred because there is an organized disinformation campaign promoted by conservative think tanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and well funded by fossil-fuel companies like ExxonMobil, with key messages repeated by conservative pundits and politicians like George Will, Rush Limbaugh and Republican Senator James Inhofe. At the same time, the media have treated this more as a political issue than a scientific one, thereby necessitating in their view a "balanced" presentation of both sides, notwithstanding the fact that the overwhelming majority of scientists understand humans are warming the planet and dangerously so. Also, increasingly profit-driven media have been abdicating their role in science education. Science writer Chris Mooney and scientist Sheril Kirshenbaum offer these grim statistics in their recent book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future (2009, Basic Books):

For every five hours of cable news, one minute is devoted to science;
Some 46% of Americans believe that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old;
The number of US newspapers with science sections has shrunk by two-thirds in the last 20 years;
Just 18% of Americans know a scientist personally;
The overwhelming majority of Americans polled in late 2007 either could not name a scientific role model or named "people who are either not scientists or not alive".

The lack of scientific messaging

Yet just when the media are abandoning science coverage, many scientists are increasingly reluctant to address politicized issues like global warming.

Scientists who are also great public communicators, like Carl Sagan or Richard Feynman, have grown scarcer as science has become increasingly specialized. Moreover, the media like the glib and the dramatic, which is a style that most scientists deliberately avoid. Scientists like to focus on the things that they do not know, since that is the cutting edge of scientific research. So they do not keep repeating the things that they do know, which is one reason that the public and the media often do not hear from scientists about the strong areas of consensus on global warming. And as the physicist Mark Bowen writes in Thin Ice (2006, Holt), his book about glaciologist Lonnie Thompson, "Scientists have an annoying habit of backing off when they're asked to make a plain statement, and climatologists tend to be worse than most."

As scientist and writer Jared Diamond wrote in a 1997 article in Discover magazine on scientific messaging (or the lack thereof), "Scientists who do communicate effectively with the public often find their colleagues responding with scorn, and even punishing them in ways that affect their careers." After Sagan became famous, he was rejected for membership of the National Academy of Sciences in a special vote. This became widely known, and, as Diamond writes, "Every scientist is capable of recognizing the obvious implications for his or her self-interest."

Scientists who have been outspoken about global warming have been repeatedly attacked as having a "political agenda". As a 2006
article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society explained (87 1025), "For a scientist whose reputation is largely invested in peer-reviewed publications and the citations thereof, there is little professional pay-off for getting involved in debates that mix science and politics."

The scientific community must figure out how to effectively engage the public on this crucial issue. The physics community in particular must help lead the way. After all, it was effective at warning the public and policymakers about the dangers of that other existential threat to the human race – nuclear weapons. We appear to have walked back from the precipice of global nuclear war only to face an equally grave threat from our unbridled consumption of fossil fuels.

I believe that the major scientific bodies and leading scientists in the US must come together immediately to develop and quickly implement a serious communication strategy. We are again at the precipice. Indeed, it is, as the current Presidential Science Advisor and physicist John Holdren has said many times, too late to avoid dangerous anthropogenic warming of the planet. Now the only question is whether we can avoid unmitigated catastrophe.

One final point. If the scientific community is unable to help persuade the public, opinion-makers and political leaders to take the necessary action now, then the entire relationship of science to the broader world will change forever. When the US and the world do get desperate about global warming in the next decade or two, then the entire focus of society, of scientists and engineers, and of academia will be directed toward a Second-World-War-scale effort to mitigate what we can and adapting to the myriad miseries that our myopic dawdling has made inevitable. I do not think that the scientific community has even begun to think about that.

38 Opinion(s):

Anonymous said...

I do not support any climate change/global warming campaign until China and India join in. Between them they have over 2.5 BILLION people to feed and support on a daily basis yet no one touches them. What about all the gasses these masses of people emit? Surely they alone contribute to a lot of what the scientists are trying to convince the rest of the world is happening? Also, this is again a tactic to shame the west into giving more aid to third world countries. That's why people in the west are getting tired of this.

Doberman said...

China actually has begun to cut back its emissions, not nearly enough but it has started, India no, and yes, we in the West shouldn't be the only ones to put out but it has to start somewhere. I'll have an interesting post on a climatic phenomenon that happens when the world heats up, it actually brings about a Ice Age! The last one happened about 10 000 years ago. Stay tuned. People, climate change is real, and the results will be catastrophic if we don't do something about it now.

Vanilla Ice said...

It doesn't help that the BBC has done an about turn on climate change. How the hell am I, a layman, supposed to figure it all out? The scientists definitely need to get a uniform and coherent voice.

Doberman said...

VI, does it seem to be getting colder, not warmer, on your side?

Vanilla Ice said...

Ha ha, tough one to answer Dobes. The last winter was one of the worst in years. September recorded the hottest days on record, but then October went and recorded a coldest day on record, and we had more snow in two days than we normally receive in a month.

Vanilla Ice said...

To add to my earlier comments. We went from 35C, to -15C within 10 days.

Doberman said...

People say it appears to be getting colder. Three words, Atlantic Heat Conveyor, it's a clockwise circulating sea current that brings warmer weather from the Caribbean and keeps north America from completely freezing and keeps the UK warmer despite being on the same latitude as Canada. It is shutting down. I will have a post on it hopefully today to explain its workings. I believe it has begun to shut down. If that's the case, north America and northern Europe, Asia will enter another Ice Age shortly.

Vanilla Ice said...

Well that ties in with the movie. But some research indicates that it is highly unlikely to happen. But it seems a possibility given all the melting ice caps, and would explain Canada's erratic weather. The summer was shit, which is the second one in a row. Anyway, the point is that the scientists are doing a bad job of keeping us informed, and like freedom of speech; if you do not get the truth out there, we have no option but to rely on rumour, speculation and word of mouth.

Doberman said...

Indeed. We have to arrive at our own assumptions. It also explains the erratic behaviour everywhere. The Atlantic conveyor affects worldwide currents and temperature which might explain a lot of weird weather around the world.

h said...

The sun controls temperature on our planet and we can do nothing about the activity of the sun. If anything, we add to the pollution of our world, but that does not mean we influence the heat or global warming. Even if there were no humans on earth the sun would still cause the earth to heat up and cool down. Sun spots and solar flares do impact our world more than humans do, with regards to global temperatures. Making everyone pay carbon taxes does nothing to change the situation, except enrich some people, corporations and governments. If the sun died tomorrow and we lost our only source of energy, i'm sure politicians would say it was us humans and find ways to make us 'pay' for causing the sun to go out. Not that we would survive without the sun, i'm just illustrating a point. Global warming is real, they are just blaming it on the wrong thing. It's the sun people.

Doberman said...

@ h, I hear what you are saying but can we afford to risk it? What if the scientists are right that say global warming is going to be a catastrophe? If it happens, we can't undo the damage.

It will take hundreds of thousands if not millions of years for earth to return to normal (if ever). We could be looking at a mass extinction again including our own. Can we afford the risk? Should we?

Harry said...


I hear you, but rather than blame global warming on us, we should be persuing new forms of energy and pollution prevention for the right reasons. We damage and squander our earth's resources through pollution and we use a very primitive forms of energys such as oil and gas. I fully agree with us cleaning up our act and progressing our technologies, i just don't buy the whole 'global warming is humanities fault' story.

Yes, we should be using better and cleaner sources of energy because what we use today is very primitive and causes pollution and damages our health and the health of our worlds animals and plant life.

Yes, we must preserve our world for future generations and provide them with a clean and fertile place to live.

Considering that global warming is now a very very big money spinner / business the world over, i'm not sure what the real reasons are behind it. I guess we can argue about the reasons and outcomes, but i do personally feel that we do need to clean things up and get better forms of energy for future generations.

Humanity should be embarrased that 100 years after the invention of the combustion engine we are still using it to get around... We have gone to space for god's sake, yet we still drive cars powered by fossilised plant / animal matter in liquid form!

If it wasn't for big business, i think we would have had better forms of transport and energy by now. Profit is the only motive behind these business and governments, that is what makes me question their motives and what they really intend to gain from all this blame.

I'd love to hear some other perspectives, so please post some replies people. This is an important topic.

Vanilla Ice said...

@h, nobody doubts that global warming is as a result of the sun, but it may be the greenhouse effect, as a result of carbon dioxide. And this has a knock on effect, which may affect the ocean currents.

Doberman said...

@ Harry, thank you for a reasoned well-thought out comment. I guess the answer is to move to greener energy alternatives and since the shift is in that direction, the answer would be to take back control of the choices from big business. It's up to us. Let's assume global climate change is real and man-caused, let's assume. One, we can't risk the consequences and two, we, us little guys, we must take our own measures to thwart any big business control of new energy alternatives. That means installing solar panels, get off the national electricity grid (homemade wind propellers for example), find other ways to propel vehicles, that kind of thing. The technology exists, the rest is up to us individually to do something.

Vanilla Ice said...

@h, I endorse your latest comment.

Harry said...

@ Vanilla Ice

Humans contribute a very small percentage of the earth's carbon dioxide. The ocean is by far the largest contrbutor to the earths carbon dioxide, then there is dying vegetation and plant matter, then animals and insects, etc..

Also, carbon dioxide only makes up a miniscule percentage of green house gases. water vapour is actually the most abundant gren house gas on earth.

These are other reasons i doubt the whole argument that we are to blame, but i still agree we need to clean up our act and be better citizens of earth, for now and for our future generations.

FishEagle said...

@ Harry, I agree with much of what you said and I'm sure we can have a meaningful discussion on climate change.

I work in an environmental field (not directly related to climate change). The single biggest challenge I have is convincing people that it's taken us 100's of years to degrade the environment to its present status so there are no miracle quick fixes that will change things back to the way they were. The expectation is always that the problem can be fixed in a few days or months. It usually takes much longer and requires much more funding than expected. However, if there is no action the problem is just allowed to get exponentially worse and the productivity of the natural resource becomes diminished even further.

Socialist policies have interfered in the healthy regulation of business for so long that there is talk of capitalism collapsing. Historically business has never been particularly forthcoming with funding for environmental monitoring and mitigation projects. We have reached a point where global warming has become an inevitability when it should have been prevented. The bottom line is that an unhealthy environment will result in a poorer society. Business should continue as usual, with new developments due to climate change affecting some stakeholders positively, while others will be affected negatively. That's how it SHOULD work. Those that adapt to global warming will survive (longer?) and that's classic capitalism at work.

The impact of commerce on the science behind climate change and global warming is limited to funding made available for research projects. Business does not have an impact on the results of scientific studies. The scientific community has debated the results and there is certainly still no consensus about a way forward. But there is a consensus that humans have impacted on the levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere to the extent that it has contributed to a drastic change in the earth's temperature.

Anonymous said...

Global warming is bad, but please explain to me why average world temperatures have been decreasing since 1998?

Perhaps I should rather say that pollution is bad and should be prioritized, but currently global warming as an symptom of pollution seems to have no scientific basis.

BUT hey the "global warming" strategy is sound.

The global warming STRATEGY? you ask.

LEt me explain.
If you are reliant on oil and most of the oil resources are in the mid east, then it makes sense to have to find ways of lessening your dependence on these resources, considering that it would mean that these mid-Eastern countries would end up with having more and more power and especially if you do not like the fact that they will have more and more power.

What isn't nesessary is to lie about the reasons for wanting to move away from oil based economies to alternatively powered economies.

Oil based economies cause pollution.
Pollution is bad, but it can be controlled.

But lying about the fact that the planet is warming, when it is in fact cooling, just because you have to have a reason for lessening your dependence on other countries that you do not want to be dependent on, is stupid.

The sheeple are not so stupid as they used to be. Lying just causes a loss of face.

We get it. You don't want to have to depend on oil. You don't want to have this power of control in the hands of the oil rich countries.

Truly we understand, but don't insult our intelligence by some cockamayne story that you have invented.


Anonymous said...

Plants actually thrive better in a carbon dioxide rich environment.

You can see the planets control mechanisms at work.

Before humans were on the scene, the carbon dioxide would increase due to some natural event, leading to an increase in plant life, which would in turn increase the O2 levels.

It is a proportional control.

But global warming is a myth.
The scientific data does not support the strategy.


Doberman said...

What you guys need to understand is that global warming does not lead to warmer weather long term but COLDER weather. There have been about 17 Ice Ages and each was preceded by warmer weather. Again, I will do a post on the Atlantic Heat Conveyor shortly so you can understand the dynamics of the weather system. Global warming is a misnomer, actually "rapid climate change" is more apt.

FishEagle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
FishEagle said...

@A4, throughout the last century there has been an average increase in the earth's temperature by almost 0.75 %. Throughout this period there have been natural cycles of increasing and decreasing temperatures within the general trend. If more than 40 scientific societies and academies of science have endorsed the research's conclusions on global warming, who are you to conclude that there is no scientific basis for their findings?

The point that is highlighted in this article is that scientists don't have any strategy regarding global warming because they don't want to become bogged down with any the politics. There really is nothing in it for them. That's what worries me so much.

FishEagle said...

Dobes, it depends where you are. Some places will warm and others will cool, depending on how the local climate is impacted by the ocean currents. North America and Europe may experience another Ice Age but Australia is going to warm up.

That's actually something that worries me about Australia as an immigration destination. Brisbane may be particularly susceptible to the impacts of global warming (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effects_of_global_warming_on_Australia#Brisbane)

FishEagle said...

Sorry, the link in my previous comment is incorrect. It should be:


FishEagle said...

There is a problem with the link. The whole link is not being published. Just do a search using Wikipedia of

"Effects of global warming on Australia"

Doberman said...

There won't be a place on earth that will escape the havoc. Aus at least won't be covered by three kilometres of ice as in the northern hemisphere. The ice will cover New York city, London, that latitude. Have a look how far the ice stretched in the last ice age (link).

South America could turn dry, the Sahara might become lush again, Australia might get it's central sea back again. That's the problem, something is going to happen but nobody knows what. The weather will never be consistent. What we know is something will happen unless we change course.

FishEagle said...

@ Dobes, true. Maybe I'll just stay in SA, or move to the Sahara. Ha ha.

Doberman said...

@ FE, lol. Caught between a rock and a hard place. Racist black regime: climate havoc. I don't think it's going to happen in our lifetime (maybe towards the end) so no need to stock up supplies.

FishEagle said...

@ Dobes, lol. Tell me about it.

FishEagle said...

@Dobes, I have a better understanding of the oncoming Ice Age that you were referring to after reading up about it some more. The average temperature of the earth will drop after the temporary increase that we've been experiencing over the last 100 years. I didn't realize it before you mentioned it.

Increase in greenhouse gasses =
global warming =
melting polar ice =
disrupted ocean currents =
cooler air temperatures =
ice sheets & snow =
earth's reflectivity increases =
further cooling of air temperatures =
growing ice fields =

cycle of cooling follows

= erosion of land masses under ice
= sinking of ice sheets
= mitigation of cooling cycle

cycle of warming follows

Maybe Oz is not such a bad immigration destination after all :)

Thanks for that.

doob said...

Thought some of you might find this interresting, especially the second link...

Al Gore sued by over 30.000 Scientists for Global Warming fraud


The flawed hocky stick graph


Doberman said...

@ FE, succinctly done. I figure we're into the melting ice stage which is releasing a huge amount of fresh water into the oceans which is decreasing the salinity which is what makes the conveyor work (saltwater is heavier, sinks, pulls fresh water above and repeats etc). Expect the weather in the north to start getting colder and colder.

Anonymous said...

Here is my solution to global warming and it will actually create jobs and grow economies, instead of the STUPID liberal ideas of "cutting back" and other blah blah bullshit.

The biggest cause of global warming is the sun... a small star that gives off light and heat and all sorts of nasty radiation about 12 light-minutes away.

We must build a massive photo-voltaic solar shield and put it together in space. This will give the earth half an hour more night time a day and generate enough electricity for us to shutdown the coal burners. Which will lead to global cooling that we can fix in twenty or thirty years time by firing up the coal burners and closing the shield. Repeat ad infinitum - ta'da problem solved.


FishEagle said...

@Doob, John Coleman commented on CNN's Glen Beck:

"When I looked at the hockey stick graph.....it showed a steady lying (sic) temperature throughout the millenium and then a sudden rise, I KNEW that that was incorrect. I KNEW it couldn't possibly be...and I FOUND OUT it was BOGUS SCIENCE. It wasn't real. The numbers had been massaged. The whole thing had been created."

Huh?? The scientific literature is very clear. The National Academies of Science issued a defintive statement that the hockey stock is not bogus science. The myth that it was proven wrong was discussed in this article that was published in the New Scientist: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn11646

John Coleman is a meteorologist, which is not the same thing as a climate expert. He read the denier literature, which is rarey peer-reviewed and only a very small portion of all the available scientific literature on climate science.

@ Dobes, yes I think so too. The scary thing is the fast pace at which it seems to be happening.

@ Anon, LOL!!

doob said...

@Fish Eagle

With the video link, I was merely trying to show the amount of dissent. 30 000 scientists, 9000 PhD's. (That is quite a lot don't you think?)

I would like to see some of their credentials though.
(Can never be too sure, as we have seen with the so called anti-Huntley academics.)

Here is an MIT published article


In regards to the link you posted, there are many things that cast doubt on validity of the graph.

First of all, as a result of the mathematical errors pointed out (as seen in the above article) the graph has been updated quite a few times and with each new "version" the disparities decrease. This should be of concern in itself, showing a great exaggeration of the initial findings.

Another point of concern is the data used.
(Important to note is that the majority of his proxy records were generated from tree ring data)

As quoted from your article:

“ Direct temperature measurements go back only as far as 1860, so to extend the record back in time they had to use indirect or "proxy" records of temperature, such as the annual rings of trees and isotopic ratios in corals, ice cores and lake sediments. “

"Does the hockey stick accurately reflect northern hemisphere temperatures over the past 1000 years? There is no doubt that reconstructing past temperatures from proxy data is fraught with danger. Take tree ring records. They sometimes reflect rain or drought rather than temperature. They also get smaller as a tree gets older, so annual or even decadal detail is lost. "You lose roughly 40 per cent of the amplitude of changes," says tree ring specialist Gordon Jacoby at Lamont-Doherty."

One of the most damning arguments against the graph is the absence of the mini ice-age (http://www.meteo.psu.edu/~mann/shared/articles/littleiceage.pdf) and warm temperatures in the middle ages (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medieval_Warm_Period) .

doob said...

Here is a list of the scientists and their qualifications.


FishEagle said...

@Doob, Muller has a known history of cherry picking his data (http://climateprogress.org/2008/09/13/confusing-future-presidents-part-1/ ), pretty much as you have done in your quotes from the article. You didn't mention that the hockey stick has been for the most part been independently validated by data other than Mann's. Or that most later temperature reconstructions fall within the error bars of the original hockey stick.

Michael Mann and his colleagues have reconstructed northern hemisphere temperatures for the past 2000 years using a broader set of proxies than was available for the original study and updated measurements from the recent past. The new reconstruction has been generated using two statistical methods, both different to that used in the original study. Like other temperature reconstructions done since 2001, it shows greater variability than the original hockey stick. Yet again, though, the key conclusion is the same: it's hotter now than it has been for at least 1000 years.

Could the 30,000 scientists that have shown their dissent towards Gore be another case of "rejecting Sagan in a special vote for the membership of the National Academy of Sciences because he became famous"? In that case, such dissent is a huge problem for the collective message that scientists need to get out to the general public, which is the point of this article.

Anonymous said...

Lies, damned lies and academics farting figures sure creates heat and cold eh?