Seeking Middle Ground for Climate Comms

January 8, 2018

In New Orleans for December’s American Geophysical Union Fall meeting, I met writer and Ski instructor Karin Kirk, who has been producing some great pieces on climate communication across the great American ideological divide.
Hope to interview Karin soon on this work – here’s a sample.

Yale Climate Connections:

The daily dose of news is often served up as a popularity poll: 26% of Americans like the tax plan; 37% approve of the President; 61% prefer dogs to cats.

Any hope of nuance is lost in a one-dimensional, up/down poll, as when it comes to climate change. For some, it’s irresistible to focus on “deniers,” in part because their perceived misrepresentations of the science are infuriating to many. But those who flat-out dismiss the science of climate change are a small minority, hovering at fewer than 10% of Americans, according to Global Warming’s Six Americas public opinion research, done by the Yale Program on Climate Communication, which publishes this site.

A larger segment consists of those uncertain, unmotivated, or having mixed emotions and views on the topic. When it comes to improving public understanding of climate change, that middle group can be a wise place to start.

Susan Elizabeth is one who sees herself as part of the middle ground on climate change: She is “cautious” on the Six Americas scale (along with 23% of Americans). Elizabeth, 60, living in Seattle, considers herself a moderate amid a fairly liberal community. She’s a software tester, with a Master’s degree in philosophy. “For somebody who’s not a ‘true believer,’” she says of her opinions on climate change, “I’ve thought about it a lot.”

Elizabeth volunteered for our series of “common ground” interviews, based on a recommendation from a friend and reader. Describing her preferred partner for her interview, she emailed: “my dream person would be someone who knows a lot about the science, maybe even a climate scientist.”

Fulfilling that dream was easy; many scientists are happy to discuss their work. Elizabeth was paired up with Ed Maurer, a civil engineering professor who studies climate change effects on water resources. Maurer, 56, conducts research and teaches at Santa Clara University, south of San Francisco, and also makes time to distill climate science to general audiences.

Elizabeth and Maurer are the latest pairing in the sequence of Yale Climate Connections “common ground” conversations, wherein people with differing views engage in a real-life dialogue. (Read about the first and second matchups in this series.)

Settling in for the video conference, Elizabeth expresses her anticipation for the discussion. “I’ve always wanted to go out to lunch with a climate scientist,” she muses, “so I can ask lots of questions.”

Elizabeth describes her predicament about climate change, beginning with the contrast with her friends. “My liberal friends just immediately agreed with climate change. When they agreed without any critical thinking, that bothered me,” she says. Elizabeth doesn’t doubt the science, per se, but she says she needs more clarity before she can feel comfortable with it.

“Three years ago I decided I really needed to figure out this climate change thing,” recounts Elizabeth. “So what I often do is look at the studies and read it, see what I think about it – look at it critically … But when I tried to do that with climate change I realized I couldn’t do it. The science was just too out of my ability to figure it out by myself.”

Elizabeth did what many do; she turned to someone with expertise to help her make sense out of it. “So I have a friend who is a scientist and I asked what should laypeople do … He immediately said, ‘you have to trust the scientists’ you know, hands down. I was like ‘Wait a minute, you want me to blindly believe what scientists tell me?’ We just can’t do that.”

Maurer is sympathetic to Elizabeth’s plight. “That’s a totally fair question,” he says, not the least bit defensive. “I agree with you that it’s hard to get good information. Science is covered poorly by the media.” Maurer’s first recommendation is to visit Skeptical Science, a scientific website written to help laypeople understand climate change research, and particularly to sort out the differences between misinformation and authentic science.

How many have actually looked at the data?

Elizabeth’s primary question revolves around the integrity of climate research. She wonders if scientists have reached their conclusions independently, or if they have a tendency to mimic each other’s thinking.

“How many of those people [scientists] have actually looked at the data themselves?” Elizabeth asks.

“Pretty much all of them,” Maurer replies.

“Really?” Elizabeth replies, showing a little surprise, “Like, you’ve done that?”

“Yes,” Maurer says, as he goes on to describe the vast range of data that is freely available and widely shared. “Atmospheric temperatures, sea surface temperatures, rainfall rates. It’s become pretty standard, I think, for everyone. Even in graduate school … if you’re working on this, you’re looking at the data.”

Elizabeth wasn’t kidding when she said she’d been wanting to talk to a scientist, and she proceeds to the next question on her thoughtfully-prepared list. She uses an anecdote from nutrition science, which for decades told us that fat is unhealthy. Current findings may upend that dogma, introducing the possibility that the initial conclusions led down the wrong path. “This is very political. It got rolling, and people started believing it even though the research may not have fully been there,” Elizabeth says.

Elizabeth wonders if the same thing could happen in climate research. “If scientists started to see a cooling effect, over several years, do you think they would come out and say that? Or is it too political?”

Maurer replies with a smile. “No. In fact, I think, rewards in science go to bucking the trends.”

“Okay,” Elizabeth says, nodding understandingly.

Maurer continues. “If you do something different you get published, you get a lot of attention, you get grants. There’s definitely value in doing that.”

Maurer illustrates his point with a high-profile example. In the early 2000’s, Earth’s surface air temperatures did not warm as quickly as had been expected. The reduced rate of warming attracted contrarian claims that scientists had climate change all wrong, claims echoed by political foes of taking climate action. The anomaly also spurred the scientific community to make sense of the unexpected results.

This so-called “hiatus” – a term that took hold even as many scientists found it inappropriate – was hardly brushed aside by scientists. The topic has been the subject of numerous peer-reviewed papers, fueling lively debate at scientific conferences.

“They were looking at that very openly and very frankly,” recalls Maurer. “I don’t think there was any effort to say, ‘Let’s pretend this isn’t happening. Let’s not talk about it because it’s not our narrative.’”

Maurer describes the scientific advancement gained in that process: “We nailed down where the heat really goes.” The Earth system continued to accumulate heat, but a prevalence of La Niña conditions suppressed the warming trend in air temperatures. Meanwhile, extra heat went into the oceans, not the air. “That became really evident once we switched back to an El Niño and we saw the leaps in global air temperatures over the last couple years,” Maurer explained.

“That answers one of my questions,” says Elizabeth. “It’s good to hear there would be a motivation to say something if people saw a different trend.”

5 Responses to “Seeking Middle Ground for Climate Comms”

  1. Grandma said it well: “In a multitude of counselors there is wisdom.”

    And it is always good to seek where the consensus and the facts lie.

    The facts and trends here are obvious and easily checked out.

    1. The seas are rising. See the King Tide videos of Florida, Virginia, Georgia, etc.
    2. The glaciers are melting, shrinking. Over 95% are doing so.
    3. The temperature data sets are all in agreement. Scientists know how to read thermometers and satellite records even when some adjustment is needed. That is, no one has a series of data sets showing the opposite.
    4. Spring is arriving earlier as are the birds and insects. Fall is lasting longer.
    5. Insect infestations are favored by the rising temps: bark beetles, ticks, lice.
    6. Likewise, plants like insects are moving north.
    7. More high temp records are being set vs low temp by over 3:1.
    8. Greenland is losing lots more water. Gigatons of it. The gravity satellites agree.
    Virtually all of Greenland’s glaciers are receding and flowing faster.

    And so on. The data continues to accumulate. Global warming is real It’s here now.

    Why not do something about it? Encourage others to do so, also. This is the only home we will ever know. Messing it up will hurt all of us. There is no escaping the effects. Why not proceed with utmost caution?

    To ignore the symptoms of impending blindness is court living in darkness.

  2. Alan Thorpe Says:

    What a load of nonsense. Nothing in this shows that any science has been discussed and there is not a single word that links any of the data to humans as the cause. It is as though the many ice ages and recoveries have never happened. How could they have happened when humans were not here to cause them? The earth is in the phase of recovering from the last ice age. That is basically why temperatures are increasing. There is nothing abnormal about the temperatures compared with the past history of the earth’s climate.

  3. Sir Charles Says:

    The Trump administration’s culture of climate denial and unwavering support for fossil fuels has pushed rollbacks of policies meant to protect public health, safety and the environment. But signs are starting to show that this refusal to accept the basics of climate science may hit its limits.

    => Climate Denial Pervades the Trump White House, But It’s Hitting Some Limits

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