The Problem With Climate Scientists

By
Tuesday, August 10, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Time Magazine’s Bryan Walsh makes a good point today about a House hearing on the massive chunk of ice that broke off of a glacier in Greenland last week.

Walsh notes on Twitter: “The House hearing on #Arctic sea ice is an object lesson in why it’s so hard to use science to get politicians motivated on #climate.”

The House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming hearing, chaired by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) unfolded like most hearings on the science behind global warming do. One scientist — in this case Dr. Andreas Muenchow, physical ocean science and engineering professor at the University of Delaware — warns that you can’t point to any one event (i.e., the Greenland glacier fracture) to bolster your arguments about global warming. Lawmakers — in this case Markey — and other witnesses then say that event is part of a broader pattern that shows the planet is warming.

Markey spent much of the hearing engaging in an occasionally tense back-and-forth with Muenchow, who refused to make broad statements about what the Greenland glacier incident says about global warming.

More broadly though, this hearing shows how difficult it can be to use scientific data to sell a political point of view. Politicians are used to smoothing over nuance in order to push key policy priorities. Scientists, by their very nature, are bound by the data they collect. While the data certainly shows that the climate is changing, it can often be difficult to communicate that information effectively.

Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), picking up on this idea, asked the witnesses to be more aggressive in advocating for climate change policy, comparing climate change to an asteroid heading toward Earth.

The problem, in essence, is that the public still hasn’t glommed onto climate change as an animating political issue. Inslee’s point is that even if it’s against their nature, climate scientists could do a lot to push the issue onto the public radar. In the same vein, David Roberts, at Grist, wrote yesterday about how framing climate change as more than an environmental issue could increase public fervor. Roberts writes:

What needs to happen is for concern over earth’s biophysical limitations to transcend the environmental movement — and movement politics, as handed down from the ’60s, generally. It needs to take its place alongside the economy and national security a priority concern of American elites across ideological and organizational lines. It needs to become a shared concern of every American citizen regardless of ideological orientation or level of political engagement. That is the only way we can ever hope to bring about the urgent necessary changes.

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24 Comments

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Alexander MacDonald
Comment posted August 10, 2010 @ 7:31 pm

The problem is not insoluble, but it is recurrent and it will never go away, because the only instrument scientists have, regardless of what science they practice, is the truth. If they fudge on that, they lose credibility. Politicians, on the other hand, are not allowed to tell the truth; if they do, we get rid of them by, in some countries, shooting them, in others by jailing them, but here in the US of A, by decommissioning them and turning into lobbyists so that they can market the truth as their new paymasters see fit. Neither the scientists nor the politicians are not to blame. Only the media can expose the lies of the politicians, so that they may tell the truth, and only the media can explain the nuanced truths told by scientists so that politicians can mobilize the public to support rational and informed policies. The media, of course, will have to learn again what they once knew: how to take a bashing from those who prefer only what suits their own comfort or profit. I doubt that the corporate giants that own the media will allow the media to do that now that they have learned to disguise the news as infomercials and infomercials as news.


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Nebo
Comment posted August 10, 2010 @ 10:09 pm

If, as Rep. Inslee suggests, climate scientists become more aggressive as advocates, the deniers will seize upon their advocacy as “evidence” to continue their attempts to discredit them as “biased” or even “unscientific.” The very careful, just-the-facts approach exemplified by Dr. Muenchow is important if scientists are to maintain credibility in times where their findings are constantly being challenged by political forces. It's not the scientists who must become more aggressive; they are doing their work admirably. Rather, it's the policy makers and politicians who must find the fortitude to stand up to the denial community and move forward in an intelligent, principled, and visionary way, for the good of mankind; but also for the good of all non-human species and the habitats that sustain us all.


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louis vuitton
Comment posted August 12, 2010 @ 4:10 am

The media, of course, will have to learn again what they once knew: how to take a bashing from those who prefer only what suits their own comfort or profit. I doubt that the corporate giants that own the media will allow the media to do that now that they have learned to disguise the news as infomercials and infomercials as news.


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