Text of Remarks from Harvard Kennedy School Panel on Climate Change, Skeptics, and the Media

Below are text of the remarks that I opened with at the Harvard panel last week on "The Public Divide over Climate Change: Science, Skeptics and the Media." To listen to audio of the panel, find links to news coverage, and read a detailed discussion of the panel, go to this post.


A little more than a year ago, when President Obama in his inaugural speech promised to "restore science to its rightful place" in America, there was great hope that the President and a Democratic Congress would soon pass major legislation on climate change and lead the world to a new climate treaty. However, today, due to a complexity of factors, meaningful policy action at the national and international level appears to have stalled.

For many scientists and environmentalists, the factor that has perhaps generated the greatest concern is the belief that climate skeptics are now even more influential in news coverage, media commentary, and policy debate. Indeed, the climate skeptic strategy appears to have evolved. While skeptics continue to emphasize traditional frames alleging the uncertainty of climate science and the devastating economic consequences of policy action, they are also promoting a relatively new focus on the public accountability of scientists and their institutions.

This narrative, driven by the controversy over the East Anglia stolen emails, defines climate change as fundamentally about alleged wrongdoing, politicization, and a cover-up on the part of mainstream scientists. The interpretation is instantly and effectively conveyed in short hand through the frame device "ClimateGate."
However, without more formal analysis, it is difficult to say what the impact of ClimateGate has been on American public opinion. There is the question of how much attention Americans paid to news coverage of the controversy, especially in competition with other issues at the time. Also, from what we know from public opinion research generally, for those who did follow the event, the most likely impact is a reinforcement of the views of audiences already deeply dismissive of the issue.

Multiple recent surveys--specifically those from Pew, ABC News, and Yale/George Mason--do show that public concern and acceptance of climate science are down from 2008, even among Democrats. Yet other factors likely influencing public opinion include the performance of the economy; perceptions of cooler weather at the local level; and widespread dissatisfaction and distrust of government and the media [though as the Yale/George Mason survey finds, public trust in climate scientists remains very high at roughly ¾ of Americans].

Beyond public opinion, however, the incident has and will continue to shape the policy debate in Congress and internationally. In fact, each subsequent similar event--such as the recent controversy over data relative to Himalayan glaciers--will be used to reinforce a broader false narrative about political wrongdoing by scientists.

With these developments in mind, relative to the news media and public engagement, there are several important issues and themes I hope will be discussed today, but to start things off I am going to emphasize two specifically:

1. Scientists have become more focused on public engagement, but need to consider the different roles they can play in policy making, the goals of public engagement and media relations, the need for greater transparency and public access to scientific research, and their own political biases.

While scientists are increasingly recognizing the need for greater expertise and investment in public communication, [as fmr Center for Environment fellow David Goldston often observes], many still tend to confuse the important differences between what is a science issue and what is a policy decision.

There is also the question of when scientists shift from being experts and popularizers to being advocates, and the implications for public trust, policy outcomes, and public engagement. In particular, I hope we can discuss the differences between advocacy and engagement during the Q&A.

Moreover, East Anglia's troubles with fielding Freedom of Information requests is a sign that establishing a new process that effectively enables public access to data and research, especially when that research is used to argue for contentious policy actions, will increasingly be an issue.

Raising attention to these questions is important: Political strategists and commentators are calling upon scientists to become more directly politically involved on climate change and other science-related policy debates. Scientists are urged to "fight back," and encouraged to go so far as to organize political action committees and to openly support "pro-science" candidates.

This last trend also raises an important research question: more study of scientists as a social and professional group is needed, specifically examining the influence of scientists' own ideology and news media use on how they evaluate political leaders, define their roles in policy debates, form political opinions, come to support proposed policies, and participate politically. Consider that a Pew survey of AAAS members last year found that 55% of scientists self-identify as liberals compared to 20% of the public and that only 9% of scientists self-identify as conservatives, compared to 37% of the public. This ideological gap between scientists and the public--above and beyond professional expertise or technical knowledge--likely contributes significantly to how scientists differ from the public in their views on political leaders, proposed policy options, and who or what is to blame for policy failures.

2. There are under-communicated dimensions of the climate change issue that hold the potential to increase public engagement and participation.

A Pew survey from January 2010 finds that only 28% of Americans consider global warming to be a top policy priority for the President and Congress, last among more than 20 issues. And just 20% of Americans in the Yale/George Mason survey say that climate change is either extremely important or very important to them personally [down from 32% in 2008]. These survey findings indicate that opinion intensity--one of the chief predictors of whether an individual becomes involved politically on an issue--is still missing on the part of the American public.

This absence of opinion intensity also explains why even though for most of the past decade, while majorities of Americans have favored mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions from industry and cars and have favored U.S. participation in an international treaty, there has been an absence of broad public pressure on elected officials to act.

However, two relatively new and still emerging frames of reference, if covered by the media and communicated by a diversity of opinion leaders, are likely to broaden and intensify overall civic engagement on climate change. These new storylines include a focus on the public health impacts of climate change and the national security implications.

I want to end by focusing specifically on how audiences respond to information about the public health impacts of climate change.

To view video and a version of the slides that I then presented at Harvard, go to the 32 minute mark of a similar presentation I gave at a recent panel at the meetings of the American Geophysical Union. The research presented is in collaboration with Ed Maibach at George Mason University and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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