Science on Gore's Impact and Message
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
Climate researchers have known Gore as the rare policymaker who brings scientists in--and listens. When he visited Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, as a senator, recalls geochemist Wallace Broecker, "he said, 'I don't want a tour. I just want to sit around a table with some of your climate people.' " While Gore was writing his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, recalls atmospheric chemist Michael McElroy of Harvard University, the then-senator spent 2 hours on the phone nailing down a "pretty subtle chemical point" about ocean acidification. "He came into these issues with a visceral feel that this was an important issue," says McElroy, "like the Vietnam War had been when he was a young man."
Schneider thinks the award to both Gore and IPCC recognizes their dual roles in promoting climate science. "We provide the credibility the Gores and Blairs and Schwarzeneggers need," he says of the panel. And Gore's treatment of that science? "He did a pretty good job of communicating complex scientific information to a lay audience," says McElroy of Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth. "If it was a scientist doing it, it would be different. But I don't think there were any glaring errors." The publicity, Broecker says, accomplished far more than IPCC's scientists could have done on their own: "Gore put it in a way that people listened. We're much further along to meaningful action [to cut emissions] because of him."
To close the article, I am quoted offering the following observation, along the lines argued this week at this blog and elsewhere:
The end result has been an explosion of media attention and, in the United States, unprecedented political debate and even emission-cutting legislation. But it's not over, warns political communications researcher Matthew Nisbet of American University in Washington, D.C. IPCC and Gore may have raised awareness broadly and stoked concern among the already environmentally attentive, but by Nisbet's reading of the polls, the broad support for emissions cuts that will hurt is nowhere near there. Activists, he says, need a new message.
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