Spreading Doubt About Climate Change, By Mistake

ice.jpgOn Friday the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was released, with the strongest arguments and conclusions yet that humans are the main cause behind increases in greenhouse gases and global warming. National Public Radio’s Morning Edition host, Steve Inskeep, interviewed Susan Solomon, a co-chair of the panel that put together the report. Given the rumors about what the report would contain, I was expecting some clear and strong statements from Solomon, but unfortunately was treated to the type of evasion and obfuscation that one normally expects to hear from a global-warming doubter (though Solomon’s intentions were just the opposite). Listen to the report here and click on the (not very prominent) “Listen” button.

Solomon starts out clearly enough by calling the report a “huge advance” in being able to have the “level of confidence we have now about the effects of human activity on climate change.” But it’s all down hill from there.

Asked next about whether the findings of the report indicate humans should be changing their behavior, Solomon goes the diplomatic route and says that’s a political question, not a scientific one, and she prefers to keep the two separate and not get into political directives. OK, fair enough, while I disagree, I take her point.

Inskeep next asks, “According the report, how would the world be a different place in 100 years if current trends continue?” Solomon replies, “Well, that will depend a lot on the choices people make on how many greenhouse gases to emit,” and then goes into a list of a whole range of scenarios and jargon (“mid-latitudes and sub-tropics” that are dense, inter-twined and hard to follow. Inskeap tries to summarize by saying “If I could try to translate that for the layman you’re saying that areas around the equator are in danger of becoming deserts” and that other areas will also see dramatic changes. “That’s fair” states Solomon.

When next asked about sea level changes resulting from melting arctic ice, she goes into an extended list of possible factors, again with jargon and metric measurements (which most Americans don’t relate to), and again Inskeep has to translate into a succinct few words and foot measurements, which again the scientist agrees conveys her point.

Writing about the report in the New Yort Times, William Stevens does not drop the caveats but puts them in perspective: 

“To say that reasonable doubt is vanishing does not mean there is no doubt at all. Many gaps remain in knowledge about the climate system. Scientists do make mistakes, and in any case science continually evolves and changes. That is why the panel’s findings, synthesized from a vast body of scientific studies, are generally couched in terms of probabilities and sometimes substantial margins of error. So in the recesses of the mind, there remains a little worm of caution that says all may not be as it seems, or that the situation may somehow miraculously turn around — or, for that matter, that it may turn out worse than projected….

But perhaps the most striking aspect of the 2007 report is the sheer number and variety of directly observed ways in which global warming is already having a “likely” or “very likely” impact on the earth.”

He goes on to note that probability that human activity is having an impact on all the major trends in climate change is now 90-99% probability. (The 1990 report pegged it as 50% - even odds whether it was humans or nature.)

I’ll say once again that solving global warming is an information design problem, and that doesn’t mean just through graphics. Like any communication platform, it has to be equal across all touchpoints, and that definitely includes spokespeople. Whether you are on the side of believing humans do impact on the climate or do not, it is in all our best interests that scientists speak clearly and in language that we can understand about this enormously important issue.

That does not necessarily mean stripping away all the complexity and caveats, but it also does not mean foregrounding them the way they might for scientific colleagues who understand why those caveats are being stated. Instead, adjust the message for the audience with an appropraite level of jargon, as any good communicator would. Unfortunately, with the increased specialization in science, scientists end up only talking to scientists of their own specialty, and most seem to lose a good ability to translate their interesting work into terms people outside the specialty can understand easily.

Let’s hold our scientists to a higher standard. After all, it’s only possibly the future of human survival at stake.

Read the summary of the report here (moderately large PDF).