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The Problem With Climate Scientists

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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