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Perception, Power and Principles: Human induced climate change and why people have trouble accepting the science
Over the last three months in Cambridge, we have been treated to a large number of free public lectures – there is definitely something special about this place and I think that Canada has a lot to learn about engaging the public to be interested in science and its role/impact on society. My next blog entry will focus on public lectures, but for now, I want to tell you about two lectures specifically and how they made me understand why people are so divided on the issue of climate science. (and yes, this is one of the reasons that public lectures outside of one’s field are an excellent thing to attend)
Talk #1 – Nigel Lawson, British Politician, Climate Change Skeptic
Aside from general musings about how many holes there are in the data and how lots of things are ignored or exaggerated, a couple of themes struck home:
Lawson made a very good point: The vast majority of people who are trained in the climate science field are told “climate change is happening and it’s man-made” and are then set onto the task of researching its effects in area/situation X. In some respects this is true, as an entire generation of climate science trainees did not partake in the original global warming discussions. We’ve all heard the line “the scientists have agreed on this for decades now”, but how many of them actually know why?
Of course, this is common in academia (I had to accept the theory of stem cells before I could learn about them, but only part way through my PhD could I argue confidently and cite why stem cells were real and important) – perhaps it is particularly bad in climate change related fields? I don’t know the answer to that, but even I’ve read a large portion of the IPCC report, and I hope that every climate scientist has at least taken down the executive summary.
Misdirected Passion and Politics
In the question/answer session, three junior climate scientists were so offended by Lawson’s diatribe that they not only asked questions like “How can you believe this?” but spent 20 minutes following the session harassing Lawson for his views.
Lawson, the seasoned politician, deflected all questions, raising general points that cast some doubt on elements of climate change and well outside the field of expertise of each individual scientist, giving Lawson’s indoctrination argument some serious merit. In many ways, as sick as it makes me feel, the climate critic came out looking pretty darn good.
But clearly… this is the politics of science, and scientists themselves have a HUGE amount to learn if there is to be any progress in policy. Some quick advice if you are making an argument in public – keep things simple, inside your area of expertise, and be direct. If you’re asking a politician a question, make it a yes or no question – people like Nigel Lawson are experts at saying what they want to say no matter what you ask, try boxing them in with logic and simplicity.
Talk #2 – Bob Watson, Chief Scientific Adviser, British Dept. of Environment
Honestly, this talk was one of the most disappointing of the Darwin College lecture series on “Risk” (which was generally quite good). Bob Watson is one of the most engaged scientists when it comes to Government and I really thought he would have a sense of “who is your audience”. Instead, his first statement was something along the lines of “right, so we know this is happening and man-made” and then proceeded to tell us all about the models from the IPCC.
He was in front of a general audience, at least some of whom are in the Lawson camp of not being sold on the climate change debate, and was four months after the “climate-gate” scandal from Bob Watson’s University (though not his department to be fair)… and instead of clearing the air at all, he just played the doom and gloom cards of what could happen.
What climate scientists really need to do whenever they give a public lecture:
Show simple slides on why the scientific community is convinced
– What are the key pieces of data? What convinced you?
– our world is not a ball of ice because of the greenhouse effect.
– greenhouse gases and clouds are part of this process and particular gases (carbon dioxide, water vapour, methane, etc) have more of an effect than others
– increases in these gases means more radiation heats the earth
What have we observed?
1. CO2 and methane are up and rising
2. Global temperature has and continues to rise
Why do you need to do this?
Because, while it might not be new to you… the world is not convinced and until they are, the scientific community has to drill home these messages (especially the experts in the field). Simple messages… we have high confidence in X because of Y. Don’t preach that scientists have it all figured out and you should now obey our demands… that is not appealing to anyone. Be a little more savvy about your message.
Clearing the air
I do not dispute the science that says our planet is warming. I also think that there is a reasonable chance (and lots of correlative data) that humans have played a role in pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (i.e.: we have chopped down a lot of forests and burning coal and flying airplanes are pretty effective at emitting the stuff) – so if the greenhouse effect is truly what keeps our planet from being a ball of ice (which seems to be the best theory running so far), then I’m pretty sold on the need to reduce our output of greenhouse gases.
Am I sold on all the models? To be honest, I don’t understand them, so it’s tough to say. What I do understand is that that if an entire community of academics – at least some of whom I trust are very critical of the data and models – are screaming to high heaven that we need to worry about this, so I’m keen to make some serious changes. Let’s just work on getting Joe Public on board
PS: Looks like Canada is doing a great job from over here in the UK…