Thinking About Climate

Some thoughts on issues associated with communicating with the public about climate change, triggered by reading I’ve been doing to prepare for ?Heating Up: Coming to Terms with Climate Change in the Southwest” this weekend at the University of New Mexico:

I started with the naive premise that the U.S. public’s ignorance of science was a central problem, realized my premise was probably wrong in the case of global climate change, but ultimately concluded that my original premise, accompanied with some carefully subtlety, was probably more right than I realize.

The PowerPointIsh Bullets:

  1. The general public in the United States does not doubt the reality of global warming.
  2. The general public in the United States generally trusts the scientific consensus that the warming is significantly human-caused.
  3. The general public in the United States doesn’t distinguish between settled “textbook” science and the cutting edge of research, where stuff is hard and uncertain.
  4. Global climate change research is very hard and very, very uncertain.

Data on U.S. understanding of and attitudes toward global climate change comes from the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes [1]:

Virtually all polls taken have found a very strong majority believes that global warming is a real problem. Only a very small minority — less than a quarter of the public — doubts the reality of global warming.

A “strong majority” believes humans are behind the warming, and “a strong majority believes that there is consensus among scientists as to the reality of global warming.”

This undercuts a working hypothesis I started out with (I love it when my preconceived notions are wrong!). I had expected the U.S. public was more divided on the question than the data suggests.

But if you dive deeper into the Maryland data, you find a lack of consensus on what action, if any, is called for. People arent’ sure what, if any, action should be taken because they don’t seem to be quite sure what global climate change means.

And global climate change science cannot yet tell them. It’s one of those research areas out on the cutting edge where much remains uncertain. On a global scale, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, current models suggest surface temperature warming of 2.5 to 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century.[2]

That range of uncertainty is hard for folks to get their hands around. “This range, which many consider to be too wide to guide policy making, is due to gaps in understanding of climate science and the socio-economic drivers of climate change,” concluded a recent National Research Council report.[3]

The uncertainty grows when the research community starts talking about the specific effects at regional or local scales, or when the issue of abrupt and dramatic change enters the picture.

This is where the public’s understanding of science, or lack thereof, enters the picture. The polls may suggest some understanding of global climate change, but it’s not very deep, because people in general are not familiar enough with cutting edge science to understand the contingent and shifting nature of the research enterprise.

The National Science Foundation’s “Science and Engineering Indicators,” [4] published every two years, provides a useful benchmark on the public’s understanding of scientific facts and scientific process. To people in the scientific community, the results can seem abysmal – just half the adults surveyed, for example, know that electrons are smaller than atoms. But scientists must remember – that’s the cultural water in which they’re swimming. Most importantly, when the NSF’s researchers asked folks being surveyed questions to plumb their knowledge about scientific process, they bombed. Which means they are ill-equipped to understand the contingency and undertainty and complex statistical issues associated with global climate change research.

[2] Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
[3] Planning Climate and Global Change Research: A Review of the Draft U.S. Climate Change Science Program Strategic Plan
[4] Science and Engineering Indicators