Finding Your Voice in the Climate Debate

June 13, 2019

Gavin Schmidt on Twitter – via ThreadReaderApp:

A thread on the iniquity, chance and contingent nature of having a ‘voice’ in the climate debate.

“To those that have shall be given” is a paraphrase of Mathew 13:12 where it refers to knowledge. But it is an apt description of the attention economy too.

People in the public eye, or who already have ‘voices’, are overwhelmingly the favorite ppl to be asked to do new things, be part of new projects, and if these are successful, have their profile even more elevated.

This is, of course, tremendously unfair to the voices that have new or untold stories to tell.

But there was a time when all of these voices were unknown to the wider public. How did that change? Why were these voices ‘plucked’ from obscurity? Were they born with a silver microphone in their lapels?

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” (Twelfth night). 

The same is true for a public voice.
Ironically, the credit for that line is given to Malvolio, even though it was nominally written by Maria whose letter Malvolio is reading. (There’s a lesson there…)

Where did I get my ‘voice’ for instance? (such that it is). I’d always been someone who liked to explain things to classmates, and I took a broad view of the subject (I’m a lumper, not a splitter), but I didn’t have any special access.

My first (brief) interview was with @RadioCanadaInfo who were covering a local climate conference. I’d given a talk on Cretaceous climate. Afterwards they explained how interested their listeners were in dinosaurs. 

Here is the interview in full:

[RC] what was the climate of the cretaceous like? 

[me] it was hot.

[RC] how hot?

[me] very hot!

[RC] merci!

Out of such trifles are reputations in public speaking made. 😉

In the late 1990s, some of my science got a little press attention – nothing massive. 

In 2001, I was driven to writing letters to the editor to correct egregious nonsense.
(At this point I was still naively expecting to be thanked for my efforts.) 

[narrator: he was not]
I started to meet & learn from an older generation of spokespeople – Jim Hansen, Steve Schneider, and develop relationships with journalists. 
But my frustration with the ‘public discourse’ about climate grew. The talking heads were the Jon Snow’s of climate – they knew nothing.
But folks that did have expertise didn’t have any direct lines to the newsrooms and there weren’t enough of them anyway.

What could be done?
At a scientist/journalist workshop in 2003(?) organized by Bud Ward, I realized that many others shared my frustration and a sense that something needed to change. But practical ideas were thin on the ground.

Then came the Day After Tomorrow – a singular film that is simultaneously the worst and the best film to ever have a paleo-climatologist as the lead character. (Think about it).
It should have/could have been a massive teaching moment. Instead, we got this…

New York Times:

”Urgent: HQ Direction,” began a message e-mailed on April 1 to dozens of scientists and officials at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

It was not an alert about an incoming asteroid, a problem with the space station or a solar storm. It was a warning about a movie.

In ”The Day After Tomorrow,” a $125 million disaster film set to open on May 28, global warming from accumulating smokestack and tailpipe gases disrupts warm ocean currents and sets off an instant ice age.

Few climate experts think such a prospect is likely, especially in the near future. But the prospect that moviegoers will be alarmed enough to blame the Bush administration for inattention to climate change has stirred alarm at the space agency, scientists there say.

”No one from NASA is to do interviews or otherwise comment on anything having to do with” the film, said the April 1 message, which was sent by Goddard’s top press officer. ”Any news media wanting to discuss science fiction vs. science fact about climate change will need to seek comment from individuals or organizations not associated with NASA.”

Copies of the message, and the one from NASA headquarters to which it referred, were provided to The New York Times by a senior NASA scientist who said he resented attempts to muzzle climate researchers.

Late last week, however, NASA appeared to relax its stand on discussing the movie. Though she did not disavow the e-mail, Gretchen Cook-Anderson, a spokeswoman at NASA headquarters, said on Thursday that the agency would make scientists available to discuss issues raised by the film.

”We’ve decided not to proactively speak out on anything related to the movie,” she said. ”But when asked, we can certainly provide some of our experts to answer questions about the validity of the science.”

Several days ago, NASA scientists produced a list of questions and answers about abrupt climate change, but the information has not yet been approved for public release.

”The Day After Tomorrow,” from 20th Century Fox, is directed by Roland Emmerich, whose ”Independence Day” in 1996 depicted an alien invasion of earth and included such memorable special effects as the White House exploding in flames. The new movie’s script contains a host of politically uncomfortable situations: the president’s motorcade is flash frozen; the vice president, who scoffs at warnings even as chaos erupts, resembles Dick Cheney; the humbled United States has to plead with Mexico to allow masses of American refugees fleeing the ice to cross the border.

The initial efforts by NASA headquarters to limit comments angered some government researchers.

”It’s just another attempt to play down anything that might lead to the conclusion that something must be done” about global warming, one federal climate scientist said. He, like half a dozen government employees interviewed on this subject, said he could speak only on condition of anonymity because of standing orders not to talk to the news media.

Along with its direct criticisms of a Bush-like administration, the movie also could draw attention to a proposed Bush budget cut.

Gavin Continues:

A couple of static web pages at LDEO and Woods Hole, some talking points I wrote that NASA belatedly sent out (not for attribution though), and a promise from the producers that they’d do a better job on the DVD special features. Not a shining moment for climate #scicomm.

That was when I decided that if it wasn’t somebody else’s job to do this better, I was going to try it myself. 
As I started talking about what that would look like, I found like-minded folk who wanted to do the same. And more importantly, 2004 was the summer of the ‘blog’.
(Can you imagine a world without social media where they idea of a continually updated web site with comments required a radical act of imagination? Nor can I anymore, but it really wasn’t that long ago)

And lo! @realclimate was born. 

I’ll spare you a rundown of the growing pains of running a blog in those days. 

But the work there lead directly to a big uptick in requests and opportunities to do media. Mainly because there was somewhere journalists could go easily.

And once you are in the Rolodex, you can stay in it until you stop picking up the phone. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

But what lessons does this hold today for the next generation of voices, if any? 

I think there are some.

First and foremost, it helps enormously if you have something to say and a conviction that it needs to be said. It’s a long road and there will be many distractions.

Second, find a team. You can’t do everything yourself, and colleagues can keep things ticking over when you’ve had enough, and temper your enthusiasm when it might lead you astray.

Third, be strategic. The temptation is to discuss everything and react to everything. If you want to do so, knock yourself out, but it’s mostly a waste of time and energy. Looking back, the endless sprawling comment threads are unreadable.

But some of the best stuff we wrote – synthesis, explainers, concepts – is still good today and has made a longer lasting contribution.

Fourth, persevere. It can take time to craft your voice, find a niche, expand it, make connections. Though some appear to arrive on the scene fully formed, they too have a story of before they were known.

Five, it really helps if you spread the joy. Pass along opportunities that could be better fits for someone else, and you’ll find things that fit you being passed back to you in turn. 

A deeper bench makes it easier for everyone.

Other ‘voices’ have had different paths, and although we do have some responsibility for those paths there are a lot of contingencies that shaped it. Recognizing this – as I think most do – helps our ability to mentor and help the next generation.

The good news is that the bench is deepening all the time. The ppl I’m following most closely were people I hadn’t heard of even a year ago. Break-throughs happen.

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