Climate change, and the role of humans in it, was at the heart of carbon cap-and-trade bills in 2009 and 2010. It is also a substantial argument in support of the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon dioxide as a harmful greenhouse gas. But, there seems to be a disconnect between the main voices discussing the validity of climate change – specifically, between scientists and the media. And this disconnect has muddied the energy policy debate into a full-blown wrestling-match between those who believe that we should act to reduce climate change’s negative effects, and those who disagree with either the science or the response to it.
The result of this battle – policy that appears to ignore science.
Last Friday, I wrote about a session that I attended at the AAAS annual meeting in Washington, DC. Titled “Science Without Borders and Media Unbound,” this session pulled together scientists and science journalists to discuss the (lack of) acceptance of human factor in climate change by the public. According to members of the panel, while the vast majority of scientists (~98%) agree that climate change is real and humans contribute significantly to it, only about half of the public agrees. What is the root of this disconnect?
Throughout the session, there were discussions and debates on how the media had chosen to cover the topic of climate change (with a climategate, scandal focus) versus the calm, pragmatic (and at times, jargon-filled) approach to discussing the validity of climate change due to human actions, and the potential serious effects. The problem of the media as a truth-seeker versus the media as a ratings- and revenue-seeker came up throughout the discussion. But, more broadly, there seemed to be agreement that there was a disconnect between the two main climate change voices – scientists and the media.
According to David Wogan, who attended the same session, the disconnect might be due to a communication breakdown.
One of the benefits of climate change, as it turns out, is that it highlights how science communication leaves much to be desired. As discussed by the panelists, there are a lot of reasons why talking about science is a hard thing.
Scientists, for the most part, just aren’t good at explaining what they’re doing and why anyone else should care.
The lack of communication skills shouldn’t be worn as a badge of honor, as I’ve observed too many times, or awkwardly acknowledged then avoided. No, the modern scientist needs better communication skills. And stat.
On Saturday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a budget that, if adopted by the Senate and the President, could effectively eliminate the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases due to a severe lack of funding. This budget was passed with a majority of 249-177 despite the strong public support of the EPA’s actions under the Clean Air Act. It was also passed in spite of the near-universal belief in our negative impact on global climate change.
How can we fix the disconnects in the energy and climate change debate and get these discussions back on track?
As I said last week, I’m a fan of Robert Bryce’s book Power Hungry. His points are clearly stated, largely supported by data and quantitative analysis, and his style is very readable. But, being a fan doesn’t mean I agree with all of the statements he makes in his book – climate change being the perfect example. Here is a section of his pages on why he’s not a climate change believer:
My skepticism about the conventional wisdom on global warming arises from two main points. First, I adhere to one of the oldest maxims in science: Correlation does not prove causation. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere may be increasing, but that does not necessarily prove that the carbon dioxide is causing any warming that may be occurring.
Power Hungry ~pg. 150
I am glad that Bryce is a skeptical individual – the results of this skepticism resulted in a very good book full of quantitative analysis on subjects that have largely become qualitative debates, focused on sound bites and voter approval. I like that he questions the validity of global climate change accelerated by human actions – the best beliefs are those acquired after a large amount of questioning, soul-searching, and data crunching.
But, while I agree that “correlation does not prove causation” I find that this section of Bryce’s book lacks the quantitative analysis and scientific approach that most of the other pages include. This feeling is reinforced when Bryce states that:
For me, in many ways, the science [of climate change] no longer matters because discussions about the science have become so vituperative and politicized.
Power Hungry ~pg. 150
Dismissing a concept because the arguments surrounding them have become intense, negative, and political is a poor choice. Many important issues are highly contested and debated – exiting the conversation and closing your mind to the reality of climate change because the debate has gotten a bit hairy… I just don’t support that choice at all. Further, I feel that the statement “the science no longer matters” flies in the face of what this book is trying to do – dispute myths and support truths through quantitative analysis (the science).
That being said, Bryce’s statements regarding the difficulty of substituting enough hydrocarbons to decrease U.S. carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 are nicely discussed.
There is no doubt that, should the U.S. choose to aggressively tackle its carbon emissions “problem”, replacing hydrocarbons will not be easy.
But, difficulty is not a good justification for inaction.