Days before the Senate dispersed for its August recess, Harry Reid announced that a vote would not be held on a “bare minimum” energy-only bill, just weeks after the Senate gave up on comprehensive climate and energy legislation. The inability of the Senate to gain any traction on even the most modest of energy bills in the wake of one of the most devastating environmental disasters in history is a clear indicator that there is still a long road ahead toward a strong U.S. climate change policy. There is no better time to reexamine the debate, and the debate begins with the science.
The science of climate change is sound but complex. Climate change will affect different parts of the planet in very different ways, and it is impossible to precisely quantify the physical impacts on Earth’s surface, let alone the social, political, and economic implications of those physical impacts. But ‘uncertainty’ in climate models – the expected variability in data – is too often mistaken for uncertainty about the science itself, and the well-funded lobbyists wishing to cast doubt on the science have made an almost effortless practice of manipulating the statistics and skewing the facts. Still, much of the public’s misunderstanding about climate change persists because of serious flaws in messaging by the science community to counter the misinformation. In many ways, the purpose of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is to bridge this communication gap with the public. But with recent polling suggesting that the U.S. public increasingly perceives climate change as a very low-priority issue, the IPCC – and the science community as a whole – needs to overhaul its communication strategy.
The IPCC’s communication problems have spurred plenty of controversy in the past. Last month, IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri sent an ill-conceived letter to the scientists participating in the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), advising them to “keep a distance from the media.” The letter was widely criticized by scientists for seemingly encouraging a “bunker mentality.” In recent months, questions have also swirled around the validity of conclusions reached in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), particularly concerning the projected timeframe for the melting of Himalayan glaciers. Although a review by The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency found “no errors” that would impact any of the report’s 32 main conclusions, the agency did raise a concern that “the foundation for some of these conclusions could have been made more transparent.” But while the IPCC’s transparency may need improvement, its process does not. The IPCC has always had a very meticulous assessment process. The AR4 Summary for Policymakers was “approved line-by-line by all WMO and UN member governments” in a thorough three-day conference that was open to members of the media. And yet, due largely to its uncoordinated communication strategy, the IPCC has been unable to allay widespread criticism of its process. Even Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, has requested an independent review of the IPCC due for release next week.
David Ropeik, a risk communication consultant, offered the following perspective on the science community’s apparent communication gap in an exchange with Andrew Revkin of The New York Times:
“The passionate debate over why people don’t seem to “get” science is the newest chapter in an old discussion. Are people too stupid? Is our education system failing? Do scientists not “get” people, or communicate poorly? It’s time to move past those rather tired questions, because they are predicated on the assumption that there is an “It” to “Get”… some ideal truth that perfect reason can reach, if only the communication gap were bridged and “the facts” were made clear. That fails to acknowledge, as Drs. Jasanoff and Brulle have noted, that human perception of facts is not just a fact-based process. It is an affective mix of fact and feeling. We JUDGE facts. We INTERPRET facts. We run facts through our values and instincts and life circumstances and a host of other affective lenses that produce our beliefs. The gap isn’t scientists from Mars and people from Venus. It’s the gap between people from the mythical land we’ll call Rationalia ignoring evidence of how the real people of Earth actually behave.”
As journalist Chris Mooney has pointed out, polling shows that political ideology weighs heavier on an individual’s views about climate change than education level. Better educated Republicans are actually less likely to accept climate science than those who are less educated, while the correlation among Democrats is reversed. This appears to support Ropeik’s conclusion that information is not simply evaluated in a fact-based way, but rather that climate science is interpreted, first and foremost, in a “politically driven” way. To engage the public at a more “human” level, the IPCC and the wider climate science community needs to call on social scientists and communication experts to drive its messaging strategy, contributing to what American University School of Communication Professor Matthew Nisbet has called “a cultural shift in how leaders in U.S. science view public engagement.”
For many, climate change is just an abstract concept – a hazy set of possible scenarios that will play out gradually and often subtly in the all-too-distant future. In a sense, climate change will always be abstract, often guided just as much by faith as by tangible evidence because it is impossible to definitively attribute any specific environmental event to rising temperatures (the recent flooding in Pakistan, for example). But it is important to approach the issue in new and creative ways to make the theoretical more practical. Some skeptics will likely remain intransigent regardless of how irrefutable the evidence becomes. But when climate change is presented as a public health issue, as a national security issue, or as a moral issue, the message appeals to a much broader audience that would otherwise be unwilling, for purely political reasons, to accept the scientific consensus. The leap from science to policy will always be difficult because politics inevitably gets in the way. But if communication experts take on the challenge of overcoming the political obstacles with new messaging techniques and perspectives, climate change can eventually rise from a bottom-tier issue in the public’s eyes and real policy solutions can finally begin to take shape.