A panel of climate and science experts discuss the role science plays in fostering healthy skepticism of political science regarding the climate.
The percentage of Americans today who say humans are the primary cause of global warming is much lower than it was in the second term of President George W. Bush. Skeptics are winning the climate communication battle even as temperatures rise and the number and intensity of floods and droughts increase worldwide. What role does the scientist play in the communication, and what messages will reach the skeptics' ears?
Michael Mann, professor of Geosciences at Penn State and author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, spoke of the so-called "hockey stick" curve he and his co-authors published more than a decade ago. The curve showed that "recent warming exceeded anything that we've seen for at least the past 1,000 years," Mann explained. The graph became an icon in the climate change debate. "If I'm going to be put in the limelight in the way that our detractors have tried to put me in the limelight," Mann stated, "I'm going to try to take advantage of that, and the book was part of my effort to do that."
According to Katharine Hayhoe, professor of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas Tech University and co-author of A Climate for Change, Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, climate change is so polarized right now, "that if we, as scientists, are not getting attacked, then we're not talking to the right people." Comparing herself to a doctor who finds a red flag for a potential disease, she said, "We're taking the temperature of the planet, we're seeing some red flags and we have a responsibility to tell people about that."
Bill Anderegg, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University researching forests and the American West, spoke of a study his team did on climate change, which was widely accepted by scientists. According to Anderegg, the study did two things: "First, we found that there's an incredibly high agreement behind what the IPCC had articulated as the main components of human-caused climate change. And second, that those who are publicly doubting and expressing their lack of agreement essentially were not very well qualified." He spoke of his surprise at the immediate backlash: "Suddenly, your e-mail address is across a dozen blogs that are not very friendly."
Both Mann and Hayhoe told of similar experiences. In one case, Mann opened a letter with a white powder in it. "Fortunately, turned out it was a harmless substance. It was only intended to intimidate me. It was only intended to send a chilling message to me. But that's, you know, part of the life of being a climate scientist today, participating in the public discourse."
And does it intimidate them? "Oh, not me," said Mann. Speaking of his detractors, he said, "They would like to see a barrier set up to prevent other scientists from doing research that might have implications for, you know, our burning fossil fuels and policies related to carbon emissions. We can't allow science to be chilled. We can't allow the scientific agenda to be set by those who have vested interests to not have the truth be unveiled."
To this, Hayhoe added, "this is not necessarily an issue of facts; it's an issue of fear. There is an enormous amount of fear that we are dealing with, an issue where the impacts are distant and far away, but the solutions are imminent and people fear them as being very costly and infringing on our freedom, our economy and our rights." Regarding her communications with faith-based communities, Hayhoe said that she compares global warming to the consequences of human behaviors in general, "We see all the time evidence of reaping what we have sowed and there are even verses in the Bible that tell us that. So this no way challenges God's sovereignty. Rather, it's a reflection of the free will that he's given us to make choices and then to bear the consequences of those choices."
Anderegg spoke of the evidence of longer fire seasons, larger fires, stress on water resources, snow pack and droughts. "We're seeing the early signs, the tip of the iceberg, as to what these forests are going to do during stress." He links rising temperature to a number of widespread massive tree-mortality events in the western U.S. and Canada over the past five to ten years. "And it's fairly safe to say these are kind of the early warning signals of what's coming for these ecosystems that a lot of local communities depend on."
"Not often enough do we frame it for the issue that it really is," Mann said. "Ultimately it's an issue of our ethical obligation." He spoke of future generations, adding, "To some extent, we have gained economically from access to cheap, dirty sources of energy, but there's a very real cost for that and that cost is going to be borne increasingly down the road. We still have time to avert a future where we leave our children and grandchildren a degraded planet, but there isn't a whole lot of time to do that."
Ph.D. Candidate, Stanford University, researching forests and the American West
Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, Texas Tech University, and Coauthor, A Climate for Change, Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions
Professor of Geosciences, Penn State University, and Author, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars
Michael Mann, geosciences professor and author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, deconstructs the manner in which skeptics deny evidence that points to rapid climate change. "Each argument becomes untenable because the science is pretty clear," says Mann.