Speaking Out on Global Warming

Hansen.jpgIn a fascinating article published in the open access journal Environmental Research Letters, James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York argues that widespread "scientific reticence" poses a threat to the future well-being of the planet by hindering a necessary conversation between scientists and the public over potentially large sea level rises. He points out that any delay in the discussion carries tremendous risk as system inertias could precipitate a situation in which future sea level changes careen out of control.

In laying out his case against scientific reticence, Hansen cites numerous studies that sought to examine this "resistance to scientists to scientific discovery" and this tendency to "delay discount" out of concern for being the one to erroneously "cry wolf." In essence, as do most individuals, scientists prefer immediate over delayed gratification, a practice that Hansen believes "may contribute to irrational reticence even among rational scientists" (for full list of cited references, see original article here).A similar argument in favor of a more activist and outspoken science body was made by Chris Mooney, the Washington Correspondent for Seed magazine, and Matthew Nisbet of the American University School of Communication in a recent Science article. In it, they urge scientists to become more adept at "framing" information, without misrepresenting the facts, to make them more relevant to different audiences. Because the public rarely uses the news media effectively to stay informed with issues and competing theories of note in science, it is not uncommon for individuals to "use their value predispositions (such as political or religious beliefs) as perceptual screens, selecting news outlets and Web sites whose outlooks match their own," according to Nisbet and Mooney.

Faced with these ingrained biases, scientists must learn to become more effective at communicating with the public and at defending their positions. "Frames organize central ideas, defining a controversy to resonate with core values and assumptions," say the authors. "Frames pare down complex issues by giving some aspects greater emphasis. They allow citizens to rapidly identify why an issue matters, who might be responsible, and what should be done."

Hansen recounts several past experiences in his own life in which he saw that "scientists preaching caution and downplaying the dangers of climate change fared better in receipt of research funding." He notes that after publishing a paper in 1981 that described the likely climate effects of fossil fuels, the Department of Energy (DOE) reversed a previous decision to fund his research, deliberately parsing through and criticizing key sections of his study.

"I believe there is a pressure on scientists to be conservative. Papers are accepted for publication more readily if they do not push too far and are larded with caveats," he explains. "Caveats are essential to science, being born in skepticism, which is essential to the process of investigation and verification. But there is a question of degree. A tendency for `gradualism' as new evidence comes to light may be ill-suited for communication, when an issue with a short time fuse is concerned."

In light of trends showing a likely 3 °C or more global temperature rise by the end of this century (a figure that could become much higher if all feedback processes, such as changes of sea ice and water vapor, are taken into account) that could result in sea level rises ranging from 20 to 59 cm (again a conservative estimation), Hansen believes it is critical for scientists in the field to speak out about the consequences and rebuke the spin offered by pundits who "have denigrated suggestions that business-as-usual greenhouse gas emissions may cause a sea level rise of the order of meters."

"There is, in my opinion, a huge gap between what is understood about human-made global warming and its consequences, and what is known by the people who most need to know, the public and policy makers," he explains. "The IPCC is doing a commendable job, but we need something more. Given the reticence that the IPCC necessarily exhibits, there need to be supplementary mechanisms. The onus, it seems to me, falls on us scientists as a community."

He concludes by issuing his own modest proposal, a call for the National Academy of Sciences to launch a major study on the effects of global warming.

::Scientific reticence and sea level rise, ::SCIENCE AND SOCIETY: Framing Science, ::Seed: The New Scientist

See also: ::The Big Five For Climate, ::Convenient Truths: Greenland's Warming Island, ::The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report, ::Climate Change is Real: Read All About It, ::Branson Offers $25 Million to Remove Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide


treehugger slideshows