What We Know About Climate Change ... and What More We Need to Do

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
March 20 2014 7:30 AM

AAAS "What We Know" About Global Warming Campaign

consensus project

Photo by The Consensus project

Climate change is real. The globe is warming. The data show it, the effects are already happening, and when you talk to scientists who study it, they all know it, too.

Yet the public still seems to be confused over it, mostly due to the confusion sown by professional confusers. Polls asking the public what degree of consensus climate scientists have about global warming consistently underrate it; the truth is that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that the planet is heating up and that human activity is the cause.

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We—and by that I mean scientists and science communicators—are not getting through to the public.

That’s why the American Association for the Advancement of Science—the world’s largest general science society—has put together a public information campaign called “What We Know.” The motivation behind it is not so much to be a compendium of facts, but instead to “present key messages for every American about climate change” as a way to hopefully show people the reality of what we’re doing to the Earth.

I think the idea behind the campaign is a good one. The problem right now isn’t any scientific debate or controversy, for there isn't one. Virtually all the doubt and arguing are being instigated by politically motivated groups and do not exist among actual climate scientists. Getting this across to the public is a crucial step in ousting head-in-the-sand politicians and marginalizing the denial groups that are massively overrepresented in the media.

I also think What We Know picked three key issues that do need to be hammered home.

One is that scientific consensus. The second is the risk of abrupt change in the climate, and the third is the need to act swiftly to lower the risk and cost of action. All three of these are important, and sometimes lost in the noise in the media.

There’s also a PDF document they put together with more information and details. It’s good, and has solid info.

And yet …

As I went through the AAAS website, something about it was bugging me. It took me a while, but it wasn’t until I read the PDF that I figured it out. The presentation of the campaign strikes me as somewhat bloodless. It’s not precisely dry, like a scientific journal, but it still reads like something written by and for scientists. The prose and the style are very straightforward, even analytical, but don’t convey a sense of urgency. The second and third issues they chose to highlight are all about urgency, but I just don’t get that feel from the website.

shutterstock_globalwarmingsign

Photo by Shutterstock / rnl

Don’t get me wrong; the material is good, it’s just not great. They put together a few videos, and they’re very well done; professionally staged, with well-spoken scientists talking about the issues. But again, there’s a sense of distance to them. Watching them, I felt removed from the topic I was supposed to be engaged in, like watching a lecture rather than participating in a call to action. (I’ll note that Brentin Mock at Grist feels much the same way, though he puts it somewhat more pithily.)

The audience for these videos and documents is supposed to be the general public. I think that’s great, and just who we need to be communicating with. But I’m not sure this campaign will have the impact the AAAS wants.

I agree with the group's desire to not just regurgitate facts; the facts are already out there for people to see. We have official sites from NASA and NOAA, organizations like the NRDC and UCS, and fantastic resources like Skeptical Science and Real Climate. There are also numerous climate scientists themselves who have made it their mission to get the word out about this.

Facts don’t speak for themselves; they need advocates. And these advocates need to be passionate. You can put the facts up on a blackboard and lecture at folks, but that will be almost totally ineffective. That’s what many scientists have been doing for years and, well, here we are. The conversation is dominated by louder voices that are grossly and totally wrong, but they’re passionate. That’s what connects with people, and that’s a big part of why a tiny minority of “climate skeptics” have way more leverage than they should (well, that, plus huge coffers thanks to the fossil fuel industry).

The AAAS is a huge organization, filled with scientists who have devoted their lives to investigating the natural world. That is where the true power of the AAAS lies. Putting together this campaign is a good first step, but I think that’s what it should be: part 1.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

The next thing to do is to put together videos and Web pages that have more humanity to them, more emotion. If you want to sway people, then you can’t just throw facts at them; those will reflect off them and fall away. We know this (for a fact, oddly enough). If the AAAS wants to change the public’s mind on this issue, it will have to connect with their hearts.

This, I think, is true for all of us advocating for reality. I can show you all the ways climate change deniers are wrong, I can make a bullet-point list of anti-vax falsehoods, I can point to studies showing why evolution is true. But none of that will have any effect if you don’t connect to the audience. They have to want to hear your message, and then they have to absorb it, bring it home.

Scientists and science organizations, by their very nature, tend to shy away from that sort of thing, relying overly much on just relaying the facts. This campaign by the AAAS is a decent step away from that, but we’re past the time where it can stick its toe in the water; if it’s going to do this, it needs to dive in. Tap into the vast resource of scientists it has, find a diverse group of them who are doing cutting-edge work and wear their passion on their sleeve. Get them out there and get them talking about this. There is a strength in numbers; the more the merrier. It will also have the benefit of providing a pool of voices that can be used in the media to counter the denial.

As a final point: earlier this week, astronomers announced a breakthrough discovery about cosmic inflation, which happened in the earliest slice of time in the Universe after the Big Bang. This was a very interesting bit of news, but it was also a complex and esoteric result that has almost no direct connection with the person in the street.

And yet … shortly after all the news conferences were made and articles written, a video started going around. It shows Chao-Lin Kuo, one of the astronomers who made the observations, going to the house of Andrei Linde, one of the theoretical physicists who first came up with the idea of inflation in the 1970s.* Kuo breaks the news to Linde that the work to which he has devoted his life now has solid observational evidence to support it, and the look on Linde’s face (and that of his wife, also a physicist) is simply priceless. That one moment does far more to show the public the importance of this new result than any article or interview ever can.

As I write this, just two days after the video went up, it has more than 2 million views.

That’s how you communicate science, folks. Let’s do more of that.

Tip o' the keyboard to Ed Yong.

*Correction, March 20, 2014: The post originally misspelled the first name of physicist Andrei Linde.

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