Climate scientists are getting a little too angry for their own good.
Scientists are also susceptible to the biases of their own political ideology, which surveys show leans heavily liberal. Ideology shapes how scientists evaluate policy options as well as their interpretations of who or what is to blame for policy failures. Given a liberal outlook and strong environmental values, it must be difficult for scientists to understand why so many Americans have reservations about complex policies that impose costs on consumers without offering clearly defined benefits. Compounding matters, scientists, like the rest of us, tend to gravitate toward like-minded sources in the media. Given their background, they focus on screeds from liberal commentators which reinforce a false sense of a "war" against the scientific community.
The scientists seem to believe they can prevail by explaining the basis of climate change in clearer terms, while asserting the partisan motives of "climate deniers." This has been the strategy since the early days of the Bush administration, yet for many members of the public, a decade of claims about the "war on science" are likely ignored as just more elite rancor, reflecting an endless cycle of technical disputes and tit-for-tat name calling. What are needed are strategies that transcend the ideological divide, rather than strengthen it. Most importantly, snarling, finger-in-the-eye responses to the skeptics risk alienating the more than one-third of Americans (PDF) who remain ambivalent about climate change.
To be sure, there is a need for better, clearer explanations of the science, but it's wrongheaded to imagine that researchers and their organizations could ever compete effectively, in the long term, in a political debate with climate skeptics and their allies at the Chamber of Commerce and Fox News. Instead of exaggerating the problem of an allegedly hostile American public, scientists need to wake up to the fact that they continue to enjoy almost unrivaled trust and communication capital. Consider that a recent Yale/George Mason University survey finds 74 percent of Americans trust scientists as a source of information about climate change. Though this figure is down slightly since 2008, scientists still outrank every other societal group or political figure on the trust index by a wide margin. The numbers hold even among groups that might seem most antagonistic to science: A recent analysis (conducted by me and several colleagues) found that 77 percent of evangelicals under 35 trust scientists as a source of information about global warming.
Climate skeptics hope to erode this trust by drawing scientists out into the open of political debate. Instead of going on the counterattack, scientists and their organizations should employ their communication capital by partnering with opinion leaders from other sectors of society and engaging with local communities through public meetings and social media. By creating a public dialogue on climate change in cities and towns across the country, they can make the issue more personally relevant without getting mired in ideological differences. In these contexts, scientists and their community partners can talk about climate change as more than just an environmental problem. They can frame the issue in terms of national security, religion, public health, or economics—with an emphasis on policies that would lead to societal benefits rather than sacrifice and hardship.
Here's the best part: These partnerships with opinion leaders, from clergy to CEOs, would do far more than educate the public; they would educate scientists, too. By getting out of the lab and away from their echo chamber of like-minded views about climate politics, researchers would learn how other people view climate change, and what should and can be done about it. In the end, scientists are better off as community-based diplomats than cable news and blogosphere culture warriors.
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is a professor in the School of Communication at American University where his research focuses on the intersections among science, the media, and politics. He blogs about these topics at Framing Science.
Photograph of climatologist Dr. James Hansen by Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images.