Skepticism

No, Scientists’ Poor Communication isn’t Responsible for Climate Change

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Transcript:

You know how humans have been systematically destroying the planet for a century or two and now we know almost exactly how to stop doing it but we keep doing it anyway because it’s not our problem, it’s our children and grandchildren’s problem? You know who I blame for all that? Scientists. Who study climate change and inform our politicians and the general public on what’s happening. Definitely their fault. Yep.

Catch-22,” reads a recent headline from The Hill, “Scientific communication failures linked to faster-rising seas.” Let me count the problems I have with this headline. First of all, the study they use to support this headline does NOT in ANY WAY say that scientific communication failures are at all “linked” to faster-rising seas. Not “linked” as a cause, like scientific communication failures directly led to faster-rising seas, nor even linked as a general correlation, like the seas happened to rise faster as scientific communication failures increased. In fact, they found that scientific communication has improved over the past three decades, during which time, um, the sea levels have continued to rise. So. 

And second, even if that were true, that’s not even a Catch-22! I know this because I just read the god damn book. I mean, I already knew what a catch-22 is but I wanted to mention that I read the book recently and it’s really good! But The Hill writes, “Scientists failed for decades to communicate the coming risks of rapid sea-level rise to policymakers and the public, a new study has found.

“That has created a climate catch-22 in which scientists have soft-pedaled the kinds of catastrophic risks most easily headed off by cutting emissions.”

No. A catch-22 would be a situation in which contradictory rules trap a person in an unwinnable situation, with the original example being that a pilot can get out of flying missions in a war if they’re crazy, but they themselves have to ask to be grounded due to their craziness. But wanting to be grounded from flying is very sane behavior, therefore no one crazy enough to qualify would possibly ask to be grounded. Catch-22.

I guess one way to apply that to climate change would be that Congress states they will sign legislation taking drastic action on climate change only when they’re directly affected, but they’ll be directly affected when Washington, DC’s low lying roadways are underwater and no one can get to Capitol Hill to vote. That’s a catch-22.

Anyway, it’s a bad headline and lede, and people on social media were (rightfully) pissed about it. I saw a lot of people pointing to millions of examples of how scientists have been desperately trying to get politicians to do anything about climate change for more than a century now – in fact, as far back as 1856 when women’s rights activist, dog-lover, and environmental science queen Eunice Newton Foote first discovered that carbon dioxide traps heat in our atmosphere.

A lot of people posted a clip of Carl Sagan testifying before Congress in 1985 to explain the importance of addressing climate change immediately, which actually led me down a delightful rabbit hole that I’d like to share with you before, you know, getting into the actual study this Hill article was based on. You can watch Sagan’s full comments or read the transcript, and I highly recommend watching it in full because it’s only 15 minutes but here’s how he wraps it up:

“I’d like to close by just saying a few words on the kind of perspective that this problem, as related problems, pose to us. Here is a problem that transcends our particular generation. It is an intergenerational problem if we don’t do the right thing now, there are very serious problems that our children and grandchildren will have to face. It is also a global problem.

“It is no good if just one or two major industrial nations take major steps to prevent a major increase. Still further in CO2 and other greenhouse gasses because other nations may, through their industrial development, cause the problem by themselves.

“And not to say that this is inevitable, but just to give an example, the largest coal reserves on the planet are the United States, Soviet Union and China. China is undergoing a very major industrial development, and the burning of coal is certainly something that must be very attractive for the Chinese looking into the future.

“I would say that there is no way to solve this problem even if the United States and the Soviet Union were to come to a perfectly good accord on this issue without involving China and many other nations that will be developing rapidly in the time period we’re talking about.

“So here is a sense in which the nations who deal with this problem have to make a change from their traditional concern about themselves and not about the planet and the species—a change from the traditional short-term objectives to longer-term objectives. And we have to bear in mind that in problems like this, the initial stages of global temperature increase, one region of the planet might benefit while other regions of the planet suffer, and there has to be a kind of trading off of benefits and suffering, and that requires a degree of international amity which certainly doesn’t exist today.

“I think that what is essential for this problem is a global consciousness, a view that transcends our exclusive identifications with the generational and political groupings into which, by accident, we have been born. The solution to these problems requires a perspective that embraces the planet and the future because we are all in this greenhouse together. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”

Sagan wasn’t the only one to testify during this hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Toxic Substances and Environmental Oversight – he was joined by Dr. Syukuro Manabe of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who showed the potential impacts of global warming on food production in the US, Soviet Union and Western Europe, oh and a now forgotten senator named Albert Gore, Jr., who promised to introduce legislation funding more research.

Now, this was 1985, right in the middle of the reign of conservative deity Ronald Reagan, so I honestly expected that these pleas went nowhere. After all, Reagan’s predecessor, Jimmy Carter, put solar panels on the White House in 1979 only for Reagan to tear them down in 1986. So I looked into it, and I was shocked by what I learned.

This hearing occurred in the midst of an ongoing international discussion about climate change and the ozone layer, which at the time was considered one of the most pressing issues to solve. Earlier that year, there was an international discussion on what to do about it, which led to a framework that was proposed two years later in the Montreal Protocol, a treaty that would phase out the production of substances depleting the ozone layer. That was exactly the thing that Sagan was talking about: as many countries as possible coming together to agree to fix this problem that will affect everyone, even if the fix means that some countries take a bigger hit than others.

In the case of the Montreal Protocol, companies like Dupont thought they were going to take way too much of a hit, since they relied on the production of ozone-wrecking substances like Freon to make their massive profits. So they ALSO testified before Congress, arguing that the science was made up and that alternatives to CFCs were too expensive. They were actually pretty confident that the deregulation-happy Reagan administration would side with them, to the point that they went from spending millions of dollars researching alternatives during the Carter years to spending practically nothing on it once Regan was in office.

But surprisingly, Reagan wasn’t on their side. Documents declassified in 2015 revealed that Reagan actually had to work with the EPA to overrule his own cabinet in order to push through the ratification of the Montreal Protocol. While Dupont WAS able to weaken the treaty somewhat, the Montreal Protocol became one of the most successful (possibly THE most successful) environmental mitigation effort the world has ever undertaken: the ozone is recovering and is expected to recover by 2066 and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the Montreal Protocol will ultimately prevent “280 million cases of skin cancer, approximately 1.6 million skin cancer deaths, and more than 45 million cases of cataracts in the United States among individuals born between 1890 and 2100.” 

Thanks, Reagan! God, I know these rabbit holes lead me weird places but who would have guessed it would end up giving props to Ronald Reagan?

So what happened to politicians listening to scientists and caring about this stuff? Well, where Dupont and Big CFC ultimately failed, Big Oil has committed themselves to succeed. Following the Montreal Protocol in the late 80’s, the Fossil Fuel industry kicked their propaganda machine into overdrive, pouring vast amounts of money into their marketing and “science” to convince the general public that climate change wasn’t real, and to either convince the politicians of the same or simply buy them. Their efforts paid off – as a study found two years ago, every time the US government introduced legislation to fight climate change, Big Oil launched a massive counterattack to stop it. As I said back then:

“When the researchers laid the popularity of claim 4 out over time, they noticed spikes in the messaging at interesting points in American political history: 

Point (A) is 2003, when Senators John McCain (Republican) and Joseph Lieberman (Democrat) introduced the first Climate Stewardship Act, which would have capped co2 emissions at the level they were at in 2000 (plus provided a scholarship for people studying climatology, how nice!). The act died in committee after the fossil fuel industry funded a report that said it would have negative economic effects on the US.

Points B and C were the follow-up 2005 and 2007 bipartisan Climate Stewardship and Innovation Acts, which was essentially the same as the first act, just reintroduced to new Congresses. Both died in committee despite vast popular voter support.

Point D is the Climate Security Act of 2007, another cap-and-trade bill that would limit emissions. The act died due its inability to overcome a Republican filibuster after outlets like the Washington Post ran statements from fossil fuel CEOs saying that the bill would be economically devastating.

Point (E) is the Waxman-Markey Bill, aka the American Clean Energy and Security Act, another cap and trade bill that came to a Democrat-held Congress in 2009 and actually PASSED in the House. It was never even brought to the floor in the Senate after conservative Think Tank the Heritage Foundation wrote a report claiming that passage of the bill would lead to an energy crisis.

Finally, point (F) is when President Obama introduced the Clean Power Plan in 2015, an initiative that provided each state with a goal of reducing their carbon emissions however they wanted. Congressional Republicans tried to block the plan, with groups like Americans for Prosperity arguing that the plan would have a “devastating effect on the economy”. Donald Trump did away with the plan when he took office.

See the pattern? Every time the US had a chance to pass legislation that the IPCC says is necessary for the survival of the human race, conservative think tanks like the Heartland Institute (funded in part by the fossil fuel industry) started talking more about how alternative solutions to fossil fuels simply will not help.”

The facts are very clear: it’s not the scientists. It’s the capitalists.

Which brings me back to that The Hill article, and more importantly the actual study it’s based on: Communicating future sea-level rise uncertainty and ambiguity to assessment users was published this week in Nature by a small team of scientists led by Robert Kopp of Rutger’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. They did NOT find (or even look into the idea) that poor communication on the part of scientists is linked to rising sea levels. They DID find ways that scientists have improved their communication regarding the problem of rising sea levels. They did this by looking at IPCC reports over the past from 1990 all the way up to the latest one in 2021 (which I discussed from the safety of my bed in this video).

And here’s what they found: in general, scientists have always been really good at communicating “quantifiable” risks: like, scientists understand how oceans absorb heat and expand in response, so they can say with a high degree of certainty what will happen to sea levels thanks to that process.

But there are also ambiguous, uncertain outcomes that are much harder to predict, and in the early years of IPCC reports, scientists weren’t great at communicating those more complicated ideas to the public. For instance, in 1990 the report stated that “a rapid disintegration of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet because of global warming (was) “unlikely in the next century.”” (I’m quoting the study’s press release, here.)

The problem with that is that while it’s true that that’s an unlikely event, if it DOES occur the results would be catastrophic.

“In contrast,” the press release states, “in the Sixth Assessment Report, published in 2021, scientists warn that higher rates of sea level rise before 2100 could be “caused by earlier-than-projected disintegration of marine ice shelves, the abrupt, widespread onset of marine ice sheet instability and marine ice cliff instability around Antarctica.”

“The report goes on to explain that the processes are characterized by “deep uncertainty.” It concludes: “In a low-likelihood, high-impact storyline, under high emissions such processes could in combination contribute more than one additional meter of sea level rise by 2100.””

The authors suggest that this new way of framing risk is better for the public to understand what’s going on, and that people should get a balanced presentation of both quantifiable risks and those unknowns in order to make better policy decisions moving forward. Because while a certain event may be unlikely, it could also be devastating AND easily avoided by doing certain actions now. It’s unlikely that you’re going to die from a lightning strike, but if you do, it’s going to suck. And you can significantly reduce your chances of encountering that unlikely outcome by not paddling your metal boat out onto a lake to go fishing in the middle of a thunderstorm.

The authors conclude by noting that they don’t know if this method really will improve policy making decisions or public perception of climate change. The most recent report came out not even two years ago, so we have to wait and see (and someone needs to pay attention and collect the data and analyze it). But this is important work for science communicators, and not just those talking about rising sea levels. Pretty much every discipline has trouble with helping the public understand ambiguity, like DNA researchers trying to tell the general public they don’t necessarily need to freak out if they have a certain gene mutation, or biologists helping the general public understand that scientific disagreement over certain aspects of how evolution works doesn’t invalidate evolution.

People have trouble with the idea of being unsure about something, with changing their minds when new evidence comes in, with statistics in general. That’s the root of conspiracy theories and magical thinking and superstition, and it’s how big industries like fossil fuel companies can manipulate the public into believing something that is scientifically disproven. I’m glad that researchers are finding better ways to communicate complicated ideas. I just wish our media would do a better job at communicating THAT. Looking at you, The Hill. It’s a real catch-22.
OH YEAH before you go, and while we’re discussing climate change, I wanted to give a quick plug to a little thing I’m doing: later this year, I’ll be riding a bike hundreds of miles across Death Valley as a way to raise money for charities fighting climate change, like the California Bicycle Coalition. If you’d like to support this completely ridiculous fundraiser, go to support.climateride.org/participant/RebeccaWatson (link is in the transcript if you don’t want to type all that out)! If you can’t or don’t want to support, no worries, just let me know in the comments your best tip for training to do something I’m pretty sure is going to kill me. Thanks!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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