There have been some striking developments in this saga today. For the first time, those in the employ of the Washington Post itself are starting to come out and criticize George Will’s misinformation.
The new evidence — including satellite data showing that the average multiyear wintertime sea ice cover in the Arctic in 2005 and 2006 was nine feet thick, a significant decline from the 1980s — contradicts data cited in widely circulated reports by Washington Post columnist George F. Will that sea ice in the Arctic has not significantly declined since 1979.
Gee, do you think anybody at the Post agrees with us that George Will is spewing misinformation?
The Post has thus far pursued a “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach on this issue–Will can write what he wants, and meanwhile, I can contradict him on the oped page, Michel Jarraud on the letters page, Andrew Freedman for the weather blog, and Eilperin and Sheridan in the news pages. It is in some ways an understandable approach for a newspaper to take, and yet also highly problematic: When someone is as factually wrong as Will is, it shouldn’t just be a matter of opinion.
Nevertheless, there are now four separate Washington Post rejoinders to Will of various types, and that has to count for something.
1) Update from Congo: The virus affecting bonobos is making headlines around the world. As reported last week, they have been suffering from a mysterious flu and I’m glad word is getting out. The worst seems to be over, but please consider making a donation to Lola ya bonobo sanctuary where orphans desperately need food and medical care.
2) Deep Sea News is now hosting the 23rd edition of Carnival of the Blue. Meanwhile, over at Living the Scientific Life (Scientist Interrupted), you’ll find the inaugural post for Scientia Pro Publica (Science for the People). Each carnival has a terrific mix of featured posts from bloggers across the internet and The Intersection has contributed to both… Go take a look!
3) Next week kicks off the first annual Environmental Film Festival at Yale. The event showcases cutting-edge documentaries and short films to raise awareness of current environmental issues. The line-up looks very interesting and is free and open to the public. Those in New Haven should check it out…
We’re getting pretty psyched about the C.P. Snow event at the New York Academy of Sciences in just over a month. Meanwhile, I’m told the last day to get an earlybird discount as a conference attendee is Friday–so don’t wait. Go here, and register now, and we’ll see you in New York….
A number of scientists whom I respect and have come to know a bit–including Michael Mann of Penn State and Richard Somerville of Scripps–have a very interesting letter in Science about the vast gap between science and the public on the climate issue. You can read it here, but only if you have a subscription. Fortunately, you’ll also get what you need from my summary below.
This team of climate scientists takes it to be beyond obvious (and I agree) that “the use of science in decision-making” on global warming “lags far behind” the state of scientific understanding itself. Global warming isn’t the only science-centered issue like this–not by a long shot–but it’s clear there’s an enormous gap here between scientific knowledge and the actions we’re taking, the urgency we feel, and so on. So what can we do about it?
The climate scientists have three basic proposals, of increasing ambition. The first:
….we urge scientists and science journal editors to create a single, readily understood frame of reference for two critical concepts in climate science—atmospheric
concentrations of greenhouse gases and rising global temperatures—by using a standard unit of measure and a single temperature baseline. Specifically, because total anthropogenic forcing is the relevant policy measure, we strongly recommend referencing atmospheric concentrations of all long-lived greenhouse gases as CO2-equivalent (CO2e), not only CO2. CO2e is the concentration of CO2 that would cause the same level of radiative forcing as a given mixture of CO2 and other greenhouse gases…
My gloss: Unfortunately, I’m underwhelmed by this suggestion. Consider: Global warming deniers will be just as good at muddying the waters if we’re talking about “CO2e” as if we’re talking about CO2. Standardizing units of measurement and establishing baselines can’t hurt, but I don’t think it really speaks much to the gap between climate science and the public process.
However, the authors admit this is merely their advice for “scientists and science journal editors.” Then they get more ambitious:
…we urge the broader science, communication, and funding community to support largescale projects to translate scientific assessments into simpler, more useful terms….The first priority should be to explain where humanity stands on a scale of risk that includes CO2e, global temperatures, and climate impacts…the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) format “is inherently tuned for burying crucial insights under heaps of facts, figures, and error bars.” For example, the key warming projections figure, SPM.5 (4), obscures the risk of overshooting the multimodel mean. The average warming for scenario B1 is roughly 3°C above pre-industrial levels, but the range of potential warming is roughly 2° to 4°C. It is misleading, therefore, to say that B1 avoids breaching 3°C; there is, in fact, a 50% probability that it will. Stakeholders urgently need such information, so we recommend that large-scale efforts to improve translation and relevance be given the highest priority.
This is a not-so-implicit admission that while the U.N. IPCC may represent a massive success story for global scientific cooperation–and richly deserves its Nobel Prize on that basis–it is, indeed, extremely flawed as a form of communication or policy advice. The final reports end up exceedingly wonky, more written for scientists than for politicians. There has been a rather naive view that the scientists can just lay out the facts through outlets like the IPCC, and then the politicians will run with them…it hasn’t played out that way.
We certainly ought to make the IPCC more communication savvy; but given that the next report ought to be in about 2012, I’m not sure how urgent this is. Frankly, if we haven’t passed legislation by 2012 on climate change we’re in extremely deep doo-doo. It’s a little late, now, to be fixing the IPCC.
Only at the very end of the scientists’ letter, then, do we get an inkling of what’s really needed now:
At this critical moment, scientific understanding has outstripped our society’s capacity to use that knowledge by a wide margin. This situation must be resolved quickly to give policymakers—and the public—the broadest range of options. Therefore, the science community should adopt a common language and standard baselines to help nonexperts see the problem. Beyond this, the science and communications community should support a concerted effort to close the information gap by communicating climate knowledge in ways that nonscientists will find useful.
Once again, I don’t see the establishment of “common language and standard baselines” as that much of a salvation–deniers can sow doubt with any language and any baselines, I assure you. But this idea of a “concerted effort to close the information gap”–well, that would be promising. If it’s to the tune of millions of dollars, that is–which is precisely the problem.
I think these Science letter writers are definitely thinking along the right lines. They see the vast communication gap, they’re rightly concerned, and they want to close it. That’s the first key step to embrace in our thinking right now about the science-politics-society mess that is the climate issue.
The second step, though–no less crucial–is recognizing just why it is that the gap exists. I’ve started to do this in my serious of “Why Reason Loses” posts (here, here, and there will be many more). The underlying cause is equally apparent in the George Will, Nicholas Dawidoff, and other science media scandals relating to climate change. Basically: There is a massive campaign out there to sow doubt about climate science, to misinform the public, and it has merged with politics and many individual Americans’ ideological identities in such a way that it now represents a huge and almost unconquerable dogma, a hydra with a million heads. It is extremely well funded, un-endingly clever, utterly without shame or respect for knowledge, and thriving in the old media and new media alike.
Next to this, in my view, the climate science world has never really put up anything of comparable scale–with the exception of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (which was really the work of Hollywood). So while it’s great that climate scientists want to do something about the communications gap, I think they need, at the same time, to more fully admit just how deep the hole is we have to dig out of.
Which is tantamount to conceding our utter failure to match the dastardly communications effort being put forward by those who would deceive the public about this critical matter of global concern.