Last week, the discussion revolved around the national political commitment to climate change issues (especially within the current election). This week's presentation/discussion expanded on that theme, considering how to most effectively communicate the findings of climate scientists to the public.
We began class with Richard Alley's "Earth: The Operators Manual”, available from PBS (blurb below)
Join geologist Richard Alley as he travels the world and across the USA, sharing an accurate, understandable and upbeat report on the interlinked stories of humans and fossil fuels, Earth's climate history and our future energy options.
Introduction to our Guest Speaker
Our guest speaker (Bob) comes to us after many years as an investigative reporter, focusing first on natural disasters and more recently on Senate committees discussing climate change. The political arena during the beginning of the Obama administration demonstrated to him how “uncertainty” could be hijacked from scientific terminology and injected into the policy debate. This inspired his current project, which focuses on ways to clearly and convincingly communicate climate change to the general public.
As an example, Bob cites a piece in the NYTimes detailing the work of Benjamin Strauss, whose group Climate Central focuses on framing sea level rise in local terms.
Generally, In Bob's view, forecasts and predictive models were far less effective for motivating change than the ability to connect climate change to localized self-interest, such as extreme weather in one's own area.
A Few Discussion Highlights
Choosing extreme weather events as a theme
Sam: How did you decide to focus on extreme weather?
Bob: It's a way to frame it - whether we view this as a problem for the future as opposed to a problem that's happening right now. This isn't restricted to weather. Disaster response, emergency planning are other examples.
Admitting prediction/model error
Gerry: Predictions on climate and weather are dicey. It starts to look like every weather pattern justifies climate change. (which means that none of them do)
Bob: I admit that this is an issue... As an example, sea ice is something that is both truly frightening and extremely difficult for people to connect to. Using tangible metaphors that make sense to the average public is a better track.
Cap And Trade
Eric: Is there still a focus on cap and trade?
Bob: Other groups are largely taking this conversation over; my own group isn't prepared to go that far. Even the carbon tax was argued significantly, despite being a Republican idea.
The tangibility of scientific precision
Marco: As an example, the effects of sea ice loss on surface temperature was equivalent of 20 yrs of CO2 being pumped into the air (according to Peter Waldman's statements to BBC). Can you (the students) conceptualize this? Even those of you who work with this data...is this something that the lay person can actually connect to?
Gerry: Echoes the conclusion that the average person simply doesn't connect to the science.
The tangibility of a communication strategy
Dan: How do you measure the success of your organization?
Bob: I get asked this question all the time. It's difficult, but we tend to view “success” as when we've gotten out message across.
Sources of Scientific Authority, Part I: Peer Review/Scientific Consensus
Marco: <Directed at the class at large>How much do you trust scientists? For example: I tell you that melting in Greenland will effect your food prices.. this is a consensus we (scientists) arrive at with the help of economists. Do you just trust us? And if so, why?
Patrick: I have to see the links ( the logical connection) between what your saying and what I perceive in the world independently.
Sam: We know there's going to be uncertainty; how do we represent that?
Marco: Let's use smoking as an example: I've proven its dangers to you (say you accept this as fact), but then someone that you meet casually over a beer tells you that I'm full of it. Does this change your mind? Why?
Kamila: It's an issue of credibility. What are your sources?
<some discussion about how to communicate uncertainty in the scientific community>
Gerry: It's going to depend on the audience. If I'm speaking to lay people, I will state more confidence in the science than I would in front of a scientist.
Sources of Scientific Authority, Part II: Esteemed Geophysicist deems “Spiderman's Uncle” a perfectly valid citation
Marco: How many people here have read Hanson's paper on extreme events?... I'm going to ask the class to write a half-page paper in the format of a press release advertising Hanson's paper. I think it's important for us to exercise our ability to communicate particularly influential findings in the sciences to the general public....”With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”...pretty sure that was Spiderman's uncle, right?
< aside: this quote can actually be attributed to Voltaire, although admittedly, Uncle Ben has a certain gravitas >
Climate Change and the Election Cycle
Patrick: Why do you think public opinion has changed so much in the past couple of years about climate change?
Bob : Inconvenient Truth had a huge impact , from 05 to Obama's election, we just saw a growing consciousness in the population. Then there was a concerted effort against it by the fossil-fuel industry (and the Tea Party) and a new melding of political interests to fight it.
Sam: What did you think about Romney's quote essentially saying “Obama's worried about oceans rising, but I'm helping your family”..
Bob: He was throwing a bomb at Obama for overstating his power. (targeting him for grandiosity, which is sometimes a fair criticism). It's basically red meat to the hard-core climate deniers. It works because Obama's vulnerable in terms of appearing grandiose, but Obama's team is (rather intelligently) fighting this attack by connecting large-scale changes to local concerns, such as forest fires for Iowa voters.
Bob: As a reporter, I've seen The Republican Party move hard right. It's been amazing.
Caitlin: I'm reminded of 14 science-based questions <to be posted on the blog>. that a group is asking politicians to answer. Romney's answer acknowledged that climate change was happening, but denied anthropogenic causes (which I thought was interesting). Are you able to articulate that kind nuance when you go out and connect to people?
Bob: It's hard, but we try not to alter the message too much.
Caitlin: This threatens a lot of people's ideologies. What do we do?
Bob: I'm reminded of the notion of the “Six Americas”. There is a section of the country who you can convince, and a section of the country that you can't...we find those who are open to having their minds changed.