Andy Refkin: What if the Public Had Perfect Climate Information?
August 23, 2010 § Leave a comment
What if the Public Had Perfect Climate Information?By ANDREW C. REVKIN
Not surprisingly, Joe Romm, “ America’s fiercest climate blogger,” has assaulted my piece examining ways in which scientists might make scientific information on issues like global warming more impactful. How could I write such a piece — he says — without also including a big dollop of blame for institutions and individuals doling out reams of scientific disinformation to complacent journalists?
Of course there’s disinformation on climate and energy, and The Times has long documented it, whatever the source. You can look back over the years through my work, that of John Cushman and plenty of others. But that’s a distraction from the real question.
The real question for Romm is, what if climate information were perfect?
He starts to address this question in his post, but dribbles off and shifts the focus to a couple of surveys that show people deeply care about global warming — even when there’s abundant evidence that much of public attitude on climate is, as I’ve been saying, the equivalent of water sloshing in a shallow pan — lots of fluctuations, little depth or commitment (particularly when money is involved).
[8:50 p.m. | Updated Romm answered the question tonight with quite an appealing word picture depicting how the energy quest would have begun 30 years ago and averted much of the danger the world faces now. I’ll be exploring the climate communication challenge more on Thursday.]
The sociologists speak of “issue salience” (read Helen Ingram here) and global warming has little of this, no matter how many undistorted articles might be written. They also talk about humans’ “ finite pool of worry,” and it’s hard to fit global warming, in which the clearest risks are still someday and somewhere, into that pool.
My impression is that this body of work is what Chris Mooney and the Academy of Arts and Sciences — the subject of my post — were determined to emphasize.
At one point, Romm seems to destroy his own media critique by acknowledging that communication isn’t the real issue:
The REAL problem isn’t so much science communication … as the fact that we have this 60 vote supermajority extra-constitutional ‘requirement.’ If the Senate only needed 50 votes (plus a VP tiebreaker) to act, we would have passed a climate bill last year, even in the face of the disinformation campaign and lousy media coverage. True, it would have been inadequate, but again, primarily because of the disinformation campaign and poor media coverage.
The bottom line is that anyone hoping to find substantive ways to integrate scientific information into policy-making (let alone personal choices) would do well to study what’s known about how people think and react — or don’t react — and why they hold beliefs of one sort or another. Hey, this is one reason I left daily journalism to join Pace University as senior fellow for environmental understanding (I proposed the name).
The one part of Romm’s post that I readily embrace is the quote from the scientist-blogger with the moniker Evil Monkey. This neuroscientist largely echoes some of the points in Randy Olson’s book “ Don’t Be Such a Scientist” in calling for less thumb sucking and more personal action:
So what can scientists do? Well, we have to pull double-duty debunking misconceptions of the data and of scientists in general. Universities and especially tenure committees need to be more supportive of scientists devoting time to outreach, especially for those conducting the so-called “lightning rod” research. That means more settings where scientists take the practical side of their research and tell the public about it, before it becomes an issue (which admittedly is about the only thing Mooney lays out as a strategy, even though he doesn’t get into the nuts and bolts). Kids need to be made aware of how vaccines benefit them and the population as a whole. The general public needs to understand how evolution impacts their local ecosystems. We need to get out there and engage the public more, as scientists we’ve always fell short here. More scientists need to consider media-based careers, like Phil Plait. More scientists need to speak up in church…. More scientists need to sit on school boards. If you’re a scientist and you’re active in politics, find somebody like-minded in the opposing political party and organize a politics-free teachable moment where both sides of the aisle show up and see each other as human beings with common science-based problems that transcend their petty politics. Find ways to have teach-ins with legislators and staffers at the state and federal levels, if possible.
Now if Evil Monkey would just uncloak, that would be a step in the right direction, as well.