Should Prestigious Scientists Fight Back on Climate Change?

At NewYorkTimes.com, Alex Kaplun of Greenwire reports on emails exchanged among several prominent climate scientists regarding possible plans to fight back against the "neo-McCarthyism" of political leaders such as James Inhofe.

The anger on the part of several scientists that is revealed in the emails is understandable. These scientists, members of the National Academies, have been personally attacked by commentators and threatened with legal action by Inhofe.

I have a great deal of respect for many of the scientists mentioned in the article. However, I side with the warnings offered by several other scientists in the email exchanges, and urge that scientists as a group think carefully and systematically about their communication plans and what might be at the root of continued societal inaction on climate change.

Multiple surveys show a decline in public concern with climate change and it's clear that political momentum for policy action has stalled. But there are several likely causes, the direct efforts of the climate skeptic movement just one of them, and probably one of the more minor causes.


These other factors include the economy, confusion over colder weather and other perceptual biases, general distrust of government, climate policies such as cap and trade that are not easily sold as effective or in line with public values, the absence of strong Presidential leadership on the issue, institutional barriers in Congress and at the international level, and the continued belief by some scientists and advocates that public support and policy action will turn on science rather than on a calculation of values and trade-offs.

In light of these many complex factors, for some scientists to angrily and emotionally focus on climate skeptics as the primary source of societal inaction is a major distraction and it reflects their own perceptual biases. These biases are well understood and predicted by past research in communication. They include a tendency for individuals heavily involved on an issue to perceive almost all news coverage as hostile to their goals (even news coverage that favors their position); to presume much larger effects for a message on the public than the actual influence; and to apply a faulty quasi-statistical sense to where public opinion might actually stand on a subject, perceiving public opinion as hostile, no matter what the objective indicators might say.

When scientists and advocates, motivated by these biased perceptions, respond with tit- for-tat attacks on climate skeptics, it takes energy and effort away from offering a positive message and well-planned engagement campaign that builds public support for climate action and instead feeds a downward spiral of "war" and conflict rhetoric that appears as just more ideological rancor to the wider public.

Alternative positive messages and strategies include re-defining climate change away from just being an environmental problem, to being a national security, public health, and economic problem, with policies that would lead to societal benefits in these areas rather than just perceived economic sacrifice, hardship, and costs. This does not mean replacing a focus on environmental science and impacts with other frames of reference, but rather it means partnering scientists and science educators with opinion leaders from across sectors of society who can speak to complementary dimensions of the issue and who can communicate about the benefits that would occur from specific policies, both at the national and local level.

Moreover, when scientists inaccurately presume that climate skeptics have single-handedly swung polls in the direction of public disbelief--and then adopt a warfare posture and "fighting back" strategy against skeptics--they call further media attention to the original "ClimateGate" event and feed the preferred narrative of skeptics.

If the tit-for-tat attacks from the tail ends of the spectrum on climate change continue unabated, what was once presumed influence on the part of these scientists will likely become real influence on public opinion, and scientists risk being partly responsible.

In other words, while some scientists may think that "fighting back" is the solution, they may actually risk further contributing to the problem of public disengagement and policy inaction.

In a report on the emails at the conservative Washington Times, Georgia Tech scientist Judith Curry offers an accurate observation and warning:

"Sounds like this group wants to step up the warfare, continue to circle the wagons, continue to appeal to their own authority, etc.," said Judith A. Curry, a climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "Surprising, since these strategies haven't worked well for them at all so far."

She said scientists should downplay their catastrophic predictions, which she said are premature, and instead shore up and defend their research. She said scientists and institutions that have been pushing for policy changes "need to push the disconnect button for now," because it will be difficult to take action until public confidence in the science is restored.

"Hinging all of these policies on global climate change with its substantial element of uncertainty is unnecessary and is bad politics, not to mention having created a toxic environment for climate research," she said.

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