NEW YORK -- Climate scientists need to become more savvy when communicating facts and findings to the public, an expert panel urged yesterday.
Scientists argued a new approach is needed to reverse an eroding confidence in climate science among the general public -- made worse by the "Climategate" scandal involving leaked e-mails among scientists at a U.K. university. They also said they were seeking a more effective retort to conspiracy theorists who argue that thousands of scientists contributing to the field are lying.
Ned Gardiner, a contractor with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who manages a climate visualization project, said efforts to paint climate scientists not as dedicated professionals trying to solve problems but as "conniving and clever people in some geo-conspiracy" are troubling.
"My mentors in life are dedicated scientists who much more closely fit that first category, and it really surprises me that there are people in society that do hold that second opinion. But thinking it's bad is not going to make it go away," he said.
The discussion, hosted by Columbia University's Earth Institute, provided a moment of soul-searching for professionals and activists trying to figure out why confidence in their findings is as low as it is today. Recent opinion polls show that large percentages of the public in the United States and United Kingdom don't believe that climate change is occurring or that it's a major problem. Last month, a new Gallup poll found 40 percent of Americans think global warming is an exaggerated problem not caused by humans -- an all-time high.
In Washington, D.C., a new coalition led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the World Wildlife Fund and the U.N. Foundation also is aiming to improve science communication. A new project being launched this month called Project for Climate Science will be aimed at delivering "high-quality scientific research and information" to the public, media and lawmakers.
Scientists have long reported that numerous experiments in laboratories have proved that carbon dioxide, methane and other gases trap heat, and that adding more of these gases to a confined space increases the heat-trapping effect. The same effect has been documented on a global scale, and observed changes have been definitively linked to mankind's combustion of fossil fuels for energy.
Scientists and media blamed
Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler with the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, noted that while scientists fret over widespread climate skepticism, wary public reaction is not unique to their field. Evolutionary biologists and even fisheries scientists are used to being ignored or branded outright liars when scientific evidence comes against political and economic interests, he said.
"It's something that occurs really whenever science is seen to impinge upon something that the people are much more closely tied to than the scientific method," said Schmidt. "People are much more wedded to their political opinions about how markets work, for instance, or their right to burn fossil fuels whenever and however much they want, than they are to the integrity of climate studies."
Schmidt argued that he and his peers have done "a terrible job" at communicating their findings to the general public. But the media were also singled out for inflating the Climategate scandal and accused of reopening what many had long considered a closed scientific debate.
The group accused media professionals of too often relying on the opinions of experts with no scientific credentials. They also advocated new steps like steering the media toward stories about on-the-ground work by unknown climate scientists rather than focusing on the latest report or relying on the most frequently quoted individuals.
But the panel also cautioned that scientists should not launch new communication efforts to directly change behavior. Merely telling the story, presenting the evidence and explaining the process by which scientists quietly go about doing their work could be immensely beneficial, they said.
"People respond well to stories about scientists doing their work," said Schmidt.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500