"Americans and Climate Change: Closing the Gap Between Science and Action" (PDF) is a report synthesizing the insights of 110 leading thinkers on how to educate and motivate the American public on the subject of global warming. Background on the report here. I’ll be posting a series of excerpts (citations have been removed; see original report). If you’d like to be involved in implementing the report’s recommendations, or learn more, visit the Yale Project on Climate Change website.

Below the fold is the third part of the chapter on the challenges science and scientists face in communicating to the public about global warming. It’s got some good stuff about how science is perceived by the public — how the stable consensus is hidden under a layer of seemingly continuous change and reversals.



Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.


Science as a Land of Contrarians and Reversals

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

There are a few complications with this proposal to survey scientists or to rely on new efforts to crystallize and publicize scientific consensus more generally.

First, there have already been many group statements by distinguished scientists expressing concern about climate change and urging action, as well as one of the largest undertakings of joint science ever conducted (i.e., the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). We need to better understand the reasons for their apparently limited impact. Perhaps the public believes that such declarations and peer-reviewed processes are subject to self-selection and politicization. If so, a comprehensive survey of all those scientists qualified to pass judgment, publicized as such, could be significantly more influential than these previous efforts. Or perhaps such statements and IPCC reports are indeed convincing to those who are exposed to them, but they have simply not been disseminated effectively enough to penetrate public awareness. We need more textured surveys of the public (not just the scientists) to better answer these questions, and there are social scientists ready to step up to this task.

A second caution is warranted before undertaking to measure and advertise scientific consensus. This is that few messages in our society go unanswered. One experienced social marketer at the Conference noted that, in past communications efforts where she had made a special effort to exhibit a robust scientific consensus as the centerpiece of a communications campaign, it almost instantaneously drew out those few scientists who disagreed — and with a ferocity that may have nullified the persuasive benefits of the consensus itself.

This may stem, in no small part, from the scientific temperament as well as scientific norms and methods. Science does not advance through affirmative proofs, but rather through the formulation and attempted falsification of null hypotheses that progressively whittle away alternative explanations to the one being advanced. This requires of its practitioners a contrarian stance, and many of them apply this to proclamations of consensus. One prominent scientist at our Conference noted that scientists are "skeptical to a fault." Whether skepticism is a fault or an indispensable engine of scientific progress is a legitimate question, but the point here is that it can complicate efforts to translate science into societal action. Scientists have a strong predilection to emphasize puzzles, uncertainties, caveats and details rather than to repeat core points of any consensus, even one they believe in.

A third challenge to the survey plan is that science, for all its authoritativeness, appears to many Americans to be a realm of perpetual discovery and reversals. Despite the indication in Kull’s poll that the public is highly susceptible to persuasion by scientific consensus, Americans also perceive science as a contentious enterprise in which the prevailing consensus has often been overturned — often by heroic iconoclasts whose claim to fame is that they resisted conforming to what later became regarded as a laughably misguided consensus. It is no coincidence that Michael Crichton, a best-selling author with a genius for appealing to the American psyche, reportedly modeled his sympathetic scientist in the misleading novel State of Fear on one of the few skeptics still dissenting from the consensus view that climate change is a problem. But we’re surrounded by non-fiction examples too, all the way back to grade school. Copernicus cautiously overturned Ptolemy’s theory that the Earth was the center of the universe, which had dominated European astronomy for 1000 years. And Galileo famously lost his freedom for defending Copernicus’ revolutionary idea, before recanting to avoid execution. Dietary science would appear to provide Americans with regular exposure to science’s erratic nature: chocolate and red wine were bad for you, now they’re good for you, etc. The food pyramid long inflicted on us has now been rebuilt. And so it goes.

Watching these debates and reversals from outside — without the benefit of seeing the excruciatingly careful methods underlying the best science — the average American can perhaps be excused for taking a wait-and-see approach while the experts debate their way to resolution. This perception requires that scientists do a better job of explaining the changes and updates in their understanding, which are often more nuanced than the stark reversal perceived by the public.

The "Coming Ice Age" as a Famous "Reversal" of Science

In the case of climate change, a good place to start would be to explain much more clearly, and repetitively, to the public and decision-makers alike the real story behind the ice age "scare" of the mid-1970s. That single episode during the maturation of the atmospheric sciences has served as a mainstay of editorialists and skeptics sowing confusion about the state of climate change science today, and has not been effectively put into context.

The somewhat oversimplified explanation is that three key drivers of climate change were coming into better focus in the mid-1970s, but scientists had yet to understand their relative strength: 1) ice age cycles caused by slow variations in the Earth’s orbit; 2) the reflective, cooling effects of sulfate aerosols from man-made air pollution; and 3) the heat- trapping effects of increased greenhouse gas concentrations, also from human sources. Some scientists indeed produced a faulty projection of the net effect of these three, seeing the cooling from sulfate aerosols as predominant and speculating that continuation of such a trend could tip the climate toward an accelerated cooling or even an ice age. The multi- decade period of northern hemispheric cooling then prevailing (which ended in 1976) was also apparently a factor behind these inferences. Yet the scientific consensus at the time was responsibly cautious, a fact that seems to have since been lost to the public amidst the popularization of the dramatic ice age scenario. In 1975, for example, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Research Council issued a report called Understanding Climate Change: A Program for Action, which said: ". . . we do not have a good quantitative understanding of our climate machine and what determines its course. Without this fundamental understanding, it does not seem possible to predict climate. . . ." Climate modeling was still in its infancy and the report essentially called for more research, given growing recognition of the history of climatic instability and its impacts.

By 1979, however, the scientific case was firming up that warming would likely predominate over cooling if carbon dioxide emissions continued to increase, as evidenced by a National Academy of Sciences study led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist Jule Charney (see "Carbon Dioxide and Climate," Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 1979).

This brief account indicates the measured caution with which concern about climate change actually emerged, and varies considerably from the picture Americans might otherwise have of indecisive scientists flitting impetuously from one doomsday scenario to another.

Yet it is unrealistic to think that complex explanations like this — describing an evolving scientific understanding of the net effect of competing forces — can be propagated easily through the channels of our sound bite-oriented media today. And the news media are, like it or not, the primary source of most Americans’ environmental education. A Yale Environmental Poll in 2005, for example, found that television news programs were the most frequently mentioned source for environmental information, with 67 percent of Americans citing them.

Here is where the Conference’s educationally oriented recommendations come into play, in an effort to provide venues for contextual knowledge and understanding. One recommendation calls for incorporating climate change content into K-12 curricula (Recommendation #28). While there is a great deal of core material on climate change that could be covered, one could envision the "ice age" episode being thoughtfully treated in this context. It might fit not only in a science course module, but also in a history of science module in a social studies curriculum. Such material should, if the instructional design is sound, generate a better student grasp of how science is conducted and corrected — and how it can mature to a point where the findings really do become a compelling basis for action, a threshold that many believe we are well past on climate change today.

Another recommendation urges the strengthening of citizen-science initiatives specifically on climate change, so that Americans can get hands-on experience participating in scientific endeavors and thereby gain greater insight into how science develops (Recommendation #4). From Audubon’s Christmas bird counts that have indicated the changing northerly latitudes of bird migrations to the contribution by thousands of citizens of their idle desktop computer time to major climate modeling projects administered by ClimatePrediction.net, citizen-science is an intriguing and so far under-exploited avenue for engaging Americans on the climate change issue.

Science Loves the Written Word, but Society Loves TV and Video Games

Scientists prefer the written word, whereas climate change needs to be portrayed more visually if it is going to resonate with a society increasingly gravitating away from the written word to the various visual media, whether TV imagery, animation, web games or other vehicles. A key image in this mix, at least on TV, needs to be human faces.

Communications about climate change very rarely feature human faces, and the cumulative impact of this void has been to reinforce the idea that the issue somehow has implications for polar bears and ice sheets — but not for people!

Out at the cutting-edge, the emerging field of immersive, virtual reality has been under-leveraged to date in its capacity to vividly and experientially communicate the implications of climate change. Recommendation #30 calls for incorporating climate change content into instructional technologies, broadly construed to include not just educational simulations like SimCity, but also video games and other entertainment formats more likely to reach and engage the youth segment. Making climate change fun and engaging may not seem easy at first blush, until one sees what SimCity did for metropolitan planning.

Google Earth, for example, is a tool that could be augmented with climate change content. Launched in June 2005, this application has rapidly popularized Internet-based "virtual globes" by bringing them to the non-expert’s desktop (NASA’s World Wind is another). Such innovations should be harnessed to create new opportunities for the public to visualize the effects of climate change in their locality and the planet as a whole — and, as Google Earth so elegantly permits, to zoom in and out between the two, reinforcing our dependence on the larger planetary system. Rita Colwell, former head of the National Science Foundation, was quoted in the journal Nature describing geographical information systems (the professional antecedents of Internet tools like Google Earth) as "the ultimate, original, multidisciplinary language" (Nature 439, 16 February 2006: 763). Given the language obstacles to public understanding of scientific discourse on climate change discussed earlier, these image-driven approaches hold out new potential for communicating not just across scientific disciplines, but also from scientists to non-scientists.

As described in Nature, Google Earth and its counterparts go far beyond a communication tool. They combine a set of rapidly advancing technologies (geographical information systems, remote-sensing, data- mining and global positioning systems) that enable the collection and integration of location-specific information. These offer the possibility of changing and profoundly democratizing the conduct of science. Consistent with Conference Recommendation #3, volunteer citizen- scientists could be recruited to submit data that would be rapidly aggregated with the inputs of others and visualized into a full picture. These advances in spatial data representation, moreover, are useful to the scientists themselves; many are, as reported in Nature, increasingly using Google Earth to overlay multiple data sets, and to thereby visualize complex systems (including weather) as an aid to hypothesis formulation.

Finally, we have considered words and pictures, but what about sounds? We know that many people are auditory learners. We know that many Americans believe — to this day — that they helped to cut global warming risk starting back in the 1970s by giving up their aerosol spray cans (many Americans confuse the ozone protection and climate change issues, and in fact CFC propellants are culprits in both, though decades ago the phase-out was driven by the ozone issue alone).

But one might ask why the environmentally negative impacts of aerosol spray cans stick so vividly in people’s memory, whereas greenhouse gas emissions out of car tailpipes don’t? Here’s a simplistic, and certainly debatable, hypothesis: maybe it’s that hissing sound. Aerosol spray cans sound like a damaging gas, and indeed they were. Greenhouse gases, by contrast, are not only invisible, but silent.

What if we experimented by putting a hissing device on each tailpipe?

What if the thermostat hissed when you turned it up on a winter day? These are implausible options, but they reinforce a point: we need to think freshly about what people pay attention to, what drives them to make connections (bad sounds = bad environmental effects), what they retain in memory — and ultimately, what drives behavior.