Communicating Climate Science

Climate change is, understandably, a hot topic of political discussions, particularly following the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Treaty. This article does not intend to discuss the merits of President Trump’s withdrawal; the Review has already had two such editorials that are very much worth a read. Although a persistent problem, the manner in which the media reacted to the Paris withdrawal accentuates the way that climate change is portrayed: Doomsday articles latch onto the most dire models, in turn met with vehement disbelief from climate skeptics. Scroll through the comments of any climate change article and you can see the hostile back-and-forth between the two sides. It’s the well-meaning environmentalists, though, who perpetuate many of the problems of climate change discourse.

An unfortunate number of keyboard warriors who consider themselves au courant with with climate change have, at best, a cursory understanding of the work that goes into those doomsday predictions that garner page-clicks; in turn, when researchers rescind past predictions, this provides ammunition to climate change deniers. The science behind climate change is dynamic, much like the environment itself, and will continue to change as technology improves and more data is collected. One of the integral aspects of science is skepticism (this pops up occasionally with things like cancer research) about preliminary results — one study should never be accepted at face value, and climate science is especially susceptible to this variation because of all the factors that go into predictions. A recent story about California’s climate becoming wetter in the coming century exemplifies how science changes as new information is gathered. This does not invalidate the scientific method, but reinforces it: Admitting you are wrong in science is fine (the approach to publishing null results is, however, a worthwhile discussion).

The journal papers that these news articles report on are much more cautious in their phrasing and discuss their findings in the context of their models, encouraging future research. This is true of all sciences — junior synonyms are routine in paleontology, contradictory study results frequent for ecology (though the latter is particularly susceptible to this, as systems are incredibly complex). Scientists are well aware of this, and publish their research knowing that it may be wrong, while oftentimes news articles report with undue certainty and authority — so if a new study finds a different result, suddenly all research is invalidated in the eyes of many.  

Isaac Asimov has an excellent essay entitled “The Relativity of Wrong” in which he discusses a letter from a student majoring in English Literature. Asimov’s correspondent contends, correctly, that science is often wrong, and that what we believe now (climate change, for example) is likely to be revised in the future. This is similarly true. Asimov’s response, however, outlines how scientific beliefs change over time, citing the example of a flat earth (discounting certain rappers): When the earth was thought to be flat, this was wrong, but it was based off of evidence available at the time. And, in fact, Asimov describes that this is not terribly far from the truth, as the Earth curves just 0.000126 per mile. The Earth was then thought to be a sphere — this was closer to the truth, but as pedants are fond of pointing out, the Earth is (almost) an oblate spheroid. Calling the Earth flat is wrong, as is calling the Earth a sphere; however, equating the “wrongness” of a flat Earth with a truly spherical Earth is, in Asimov’s words, “wronger than both of them put together.”

Svante Arrhenius first began work on the anthropogenic impact on the climate in the late 19th century, work later refined by David Keeling in the 1950s and 1960s. Arrhenius believed that the warming effect of carbon dioxide would take thousands of years; the resolution of Keeling’s original work has been greatly modified in the succeeding decades. The rallying cry of “Global Warming” has been changed into the less assertive, equanimous “Climate Change.” Al Gore’s PowerPoint predictions have not come true, and numbers swing massively on all aspects of climate change — such as precipitation. Gravitating to solitary journal articles and accepting them as immutable truths ignores scientific progress and change. The tone of such news snippets is a further disservice to climate science, invariably drawing in irrelevant political discussion and writing in overwrought language with insinuations as to income and education. Mocking and belittling climate change deniers, coupled with scientific illiteracy from both sides, makes it hard to win over skeptics.

The webcomic XKCD takes an excellent approach to people unfamiliar with apparently obvious topics: Encourage and educate them.  You can’t do the former with snide remarks, and you can’t perform the latter without knowing the science yourself.