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Photo by Gary Comer

The Julianehab Ice Cap in southern Greenland where silt, called "glacial flour," gives the water the greenish color. 


Why people struggle to understand climate change

by Mike DiFerdinando
Oct 11, 2011

The climate change debate reminds Philip Conkling, president of Maine's Island Institute, of two earlier environmental science challenges over DDT and pesticides.

“These questions threaten industries. And industries aren’t just benign bystanders. When threatened, industries react,” said Conkling, co-author of “The Fate of Greenland: Lessons from Abrupt Climate Change.”

Yet the controversy over DDT and pesticides were largely responsible for sparking the beginning of the environmental movement, and the public health question over whether tobacco causes cancer, noted Conkling.

Like the current research about climate change, DDT and the questions involving the safety of pesticide use became a highly-charged debate. And, like the science of climate change, environmental science was a newly emerging area of research that faced opposition within the scientific community.

Conkling said this was exemplified by the industry attack of Rachel Carson for her 1962 book “Silent Spring,” which brought the question of uncontrolled pesticide use to widespread attention and garnered support for controls.

“Everything about her research was attacked by scientists who were hired by the chemical industry to undermine her credibility,” Conkling said, interviewed at the Comer Conference on abrupt climate change held annually in Wisconsin .

The cigarette and tobacco industry response was much more sophisticated, he said.

“What they figured out early on was that they didn’t have to actively undermine the scientific connection between tobacco and health. All they had to do was raise questions. Then, it’s not settled. Then government doesn’t have to act,” Conkling said. “That’s pretty much been the strategy of the last 15 years of the carbon-based energy industries. They simply have to say that the (climate) science is not settled.”

Many of the scientists at the conference said the lack of understanding of the scientific process plays a major role in public perception.

“You have a situation where 95 percent of the science is on one side of the issue and 5 percent are on the other, and the media presents the two sides as if they are equally weighted and what the public concludes is that we don’t know and therefore we don’t need to do anything,” Conkling said. “Science is incredibly skeptical. That’s just how it works.  Every new idea is attacked to see what its vulnerability is. So it takes a long time to come to a consensus. People don’t understand that method of skepticism, which makes a 95 percent consensus overwhelming.”

Climate scientists and their colleagues at the conference agreed they themselves need to do a better job of communicating climate science directly to the public.

“The main reason is that there’s a disconnect between the way that we communication with each other as scientists and the way that we need to be communicating with the public,” said Adam Hudson, a climate scientist at the University of Arizona.

According to a 2010 Gallup Poll, 48 percent of Americans believe the impact of global warming is exaggerated. The same survey showed that 67 percent of Americans do not believe global warming poses a serious threat to their way of life in their lifetime.

Hudson said most of the research that he sees presented to the general public can be so daunting that people rely on second-hand information from friends, TV and the internet to learn about climate issues.

“I think it’s only gotten worse for us. We’re doing such complex research that for the sake of brevity we usually just gloss over a lot of the fundamental concepts, Hudson said. “We publish for each other and other academics and really what we’re doing is in the interest of improving the human condition. We should be communicating in a way that is interesting to everyone.”

Another challenge that climate scientists face when trying to communicate their research to general audiences is explaining why they do the things that they do. People often don’t understand why climate scientists who are supposedly concerned about the future of the planet spend so much time studying samples and timelines from the past.

“We want to understand what happened in the past so that we can see how climate may change in the future, but a lot of people are like ‘Well why do you care about the past,’” Hudson said. “There needs to be more of this kind of translation to make the information understandable and interesting for the public.”

Many scientists believe the key to greater public understanding of climate issues is to use simple examples everyone can understand.

“Glaciers are a good example of a good way to communicate climate change to the public,” said Toby Koffman, a climate scientist from the University of Maine. “Any average American with a high school education, you can say to them ‘When you leave ice out on the driveway on a hot sunny day it melts. And when it’s really hot, it melts faster.’ So, it’s not too hard to see that the warmer planet melts glaciers faster.”

Koffman said that another way to make sure people receive the correct scientific information about climate is to make their research reports more concise and to give people more than just research papers. He said presenting research in smaller, more manageable chunks, will enable people will be able to digest the information easier. This would also make it easier to present the information online and in other more approachable forms of multimedia.

“It’s certainly something that we need to think about as scientists, being good communicators and putting our cards on the table and being honest about our data - where it’s strong - where it’s not strong,” Koffman said.  “We need to make it clear that we’re not some conspiracy organization trying drum up half-baked hypotheses. This is our best understand of how the world works."