Distilling the Discussion of Climate Change

Speaking science is hard. There’s a lot that goes into it. How do scientists, journalists, or other communicators get across the scientific process, facts, models and predictions? In a way that doesn’t put everyone to sleep? Persuasively, even? Science is a process that goes on for years and decades, and a particular subject area may need to be condensed down to 15 minutes, if we’re being generous.

Climate change is the prime scientific subject in our culture today. Everyone has heard of it, most people have an opinion about it, yet it remains muddied in a haze of misinformation, hyperbole and doom. “How to talk about climate change so people will listen,” an article by Charles C. Mann in The Atlantic, tackles the problems of persuasion and the limits of facts in this conversation.

Unlike most non-scientists—okay, unlike most scientists too—Mann digs into a doom-and-gloom news story about sea level rise associated with climate change and reads the two journal articles that backed up the story. He found that the timeline was left out of the story: barely any effect would be seen in his lifetime or even while any descendants could remember his name, according to the predictions. An economic-moral problem at the heart of this incredibly long-term problem is how much do we value future generations, and how much should we do to help them out? “How much consideration do I owe the people it will affect, my 40-times-great-grandchildren…,” Mann writes. “Americans don’t even save for their own retirements! How can we worry about such distant, hypothetical beings?” The human species isn’t good at planning for the future. Can facts and scary stories overcome that limitation at all?

Every side in the debate throws a mass of data at unsuspecting lawmakers or the public, hoping to win over hearts and minds. This strategy has two weak points: the invocation of Science, and the presentation of facts. The data, Mann writes, only work well between climatologists, but “for the typical citizen they are a muddle, too abstract—too much like 10th-grade homework—to be convincing.” Previous research on persuasion shows the limits of data for winning over the skeptical, even the neutral. Another problem is that every side claims the science is on their side, and the do-nothing crowd is all-too-happy to point out the rare dissenting scientist and then let the ‘controversy’ spin itself. “Bewildered and battered by the back-and-forth, the citizenry sits, for the most part, on its hands,” writes Mann. Like children in the middle of feuding parents, most people are too frozen to pick a side, instead hiding their head under the pillow. Who can blame them?

Science communication comes upon this thorny problem like Sisyphus against his boulder. Progress is made—in polls, in treaties almost signed—then lost again, erased in a cloud of obfuscation and contrived debate. Because it’s not easy, because facts are insufficient, because it will take work and money to address the causes and symptoms of climate change seriously. Some environmentalists turn in frustration toward hyperbole—spitting out boldly false predictions of Malthusian starvation—and “moral blackmail” that sours the public on the whole movement.

Mann argues that to move past the confusion, we need to simplify the discussion and define quantifiable objectives. When talking about carbon, the majority comes from burning coal. And although a lot of carbon dioxide is also released by burning gasoline in personal cars, coal is burned in a much smaller number of power plants, making it easier to wrap our minds around. “No matter what your views about the impact and import of climate change,” Mann writes, “you are primarily talking about coal.” Although the most economically sound solution to producing too much carbon dioxide, an essentially global carbon tax that avoids ‘carbon haven’ countries, is still politically and practically difficult, “it is, at least, imaginable”. And that’s a step.

The Obama administration is, in fact, taking this approach. Coal emissions in the United States are now supposed to be reduced 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.  Is it enough? No. But it’s a start. And reflecting on the lessons taught by the conversation around climate change can help us think about other thorny issues where the communication of science is at the forefront. If we can begin to condense down the salient points about climate change—coal is at the forefront, and changes can be made—then we can think more clearly about simpler issues, like GMOs. Coming to a mutual understanding about what’s at stake, be it coal emissions or agricultural pesticides, can help clear away the clutter and improve both the communication of science and help society decide what to do about the issue at hand.