Both Scientists and Media To Blame For Climate Change Miscommunication: Elizabeth Kolbert


photo: Andrew via flickr

One thing that particularly struck me about the Copenhagen Climate Congress was a feeling consistently brought up that there is a real disconnect between what scientists are saying about climate change, the way its presented in the media and by politicians. A fundamental problem of communication exists. Which made it all the more interesting when Yale Environment 360 ran an interview with Elizabeth Kolbert on her perception of the coverage of climate change. Here are a couple of the excerpts:Scientists Can't Just Leave Policy to Politicians & Economists
Kolbert was asked about how scientists have communicated the seriousness of climate change. She responded:

Kolbert: Oh, I don’t think they’ve done a good job. They have some of the same problems that journalists have, which is that scientists are interested in introducing something new in their work. They want new results, new information. They want to break new ground. They need to do that to get funding, really. And global warming, the fact that global warming is happening, that is really old news in scientific circles. It’s just a settled question in scientific circles. So scientists moved on to other issues having to do with climate change…

e360: But not whether it exists?

Kolbert: No, absolutely not. That would be considered — you’d just be laughed at in a scientific discussion. But that message really never reached the public, and you could argue that that’s the journalists’ fault, and I do fault journalists for that. But I also fault scientists because they sort of have just left things to the journalists. And now that we’ve sort of moved to a new stage of the debate, a policy debate, they’re not going to be involved in that either. They’re going to leave that to the economists or to the political scientists.

And I think that’s a big mistake because when you read a lot of economic analyses of climate change, you are struck with a very worrisome sense that the economists don’t understand the science, don’t appreciate the gravity of the situation. And they don’t seem to be factoring in the notion of we’re not talking here about small, inconvenient changes that are not worth changing our lifestyle to avoid. We’re talking about a desolate planet, not really in that long a time, okay?

In terms of generations that we will touch, certainly our grandchildren will be facing a very, very bleak future if we just sit on our hands for not that much longer. So I really urge scientists to make their voices heard, and I think there's a certain moral urgency to that—and I think some scientists feel that way.

It's really that last paragraph that hits the nail on the head for me. In Copenhagen I heard plenty of scientists express the idea that they didn't really want to get involved in the policy debate (at least not publicly). What to do with the information they provide regarding climate change was something for politicians and economists and society as a whole to decide.

Which is true, to a degree. As a society we have to decide to make changes in our lives and in the structure of our nations to prevent increasing carbon emissions and temperature increases. But without advice and leadership from the people closest to the research about what should be done—and sometimes that level of policy prescription does come from scientists, to be fair—the seriousness of the issue is likely to remain unrecognized.

The Moral/Ethical Dimension of Climate Change
Another thing which I was quite quite glad that Yale Environment 360 asked Kolbert about is the moral and ethical dimension of climate change:

Well, I'm no moral philosopher, but it seems to me in that if there's not a moral dimension to potentially leaving a totally impoverished planet to future generations, all future generations, I don't know what would be.

These are changes that last thousands of years. They're not things that you could turn around. What we've done to the oceans, for example, in terms of adding CO2 or, really, carbonic acid to the oceans, changing the chemistry of the oceans. That is irreversible for, on the order of, 10,000 years, okay? So we're talking about, basically, for all intents and purposes, forever...

What is our ethical obligation is not to hand off a planet that's habitable? I can't really see a higher ethical obligation.

More: A Reporter's Field Notes on the Coverage of Climate Change
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