Climate Scientists Ready to Engage Public and Take on "Skeptical" Congress

Climate science vs public perception

Bring it on – time for climate scientists to engage

A House Science and Technology subcommittee hearing scheduled for November 17 may be the last time in some time that climate science gets a supportive hearing in the House before Republicans take charge next year.

Planned well before the midterm elections, the Hearing, called A Rational Discussion of Climate Change: the Science, the Evidence, the Response, features Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences as a chief witness among other scientists, military leaders, and policy experts.

Even though this may be the last “rational” discussion on climate change in Congress for awhile, many climate scientists say they have learned their lessons from the past year, and are ready to take on the new flock of climate skeptics and deniers coming into Congress while engaging the public with a clearer message of their work.

When the going gets tough…

I might argue that, in total, the US Congress has yet to have a rational discussion on climate change, at least one that led to substantive climate and energy policy or leadership, and the conventional wisdom is that it will only get worse when the new Congress takes over. Given the year many climate scientists have just had – finding their work often misrepresented and their very lives threatened – it may seem as an especially disheartening time for the scientists working to understand the nature and scale of climate change.

But the challenges of the past year has only served to make climate scientists more determined than ever to communicate their message.

“Because we’ve gone through this very unpleasant year, we’re much better prepared,” said Richard Somerville, a climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. “The community, taken as a whole, is more willing to speak out.”

Several programs aimed at engaging and informing the public are in the works or have already been launched. Last year the American Geophysical Union provided a service to journalists and bloggers attending the COP15 climate conference access to climate scientists for answers to science questions (a service of which I personally availed myself of while in Copenhagen for the conference). The success of that project has led the AGU to establish a permanent referral service providing journalists access to hundreds of volunteer scientists ready and willing to answer questions relating to climate science.

John Abraham, a professor of Thermal Science at St. Thomas University, is also organizing a similar effort, assembling  a “climate rapid response team” of about 40 scientists.

These efforts speak to a community that now begins to realize they have been completely outmatched in their public relations ability, and have seen their work hijacked by pundits, well-financed PR campaigns,  and political operatives. They see their message getting lost in the fray.

“I’m scared,” says Abraham when asked what motivates his efforts:

“I think most scientists I speak to are scared that we have a window of opportunity that’s closing fast,” he said.” If we don’t take some action now, we’re going to miss the opportunity. It wasn’t done because of political reaction, because of the political situation on the ground,” he said. “I would say that many more scientists have at least expressed interest in engaging actively with the public. [Climate science] is like brain surgery or automotive repair or any specialty, in that we can’t expect everyone to have a deep understanding of the nuances. I think it’s our obligation as scientists to help with the communication. We haven’t done a good job in the past.”

Along with engaging the public’s understanding is, as Joe Romm writes in his blog Climate Progress, an awareness of the need to push back against intentional misrepresentation and disinformation:

“Climate scientists are starting to get angry that they are losing the single most important science messaging effort in human history to the most insidiously successful disinformation campaign in human history,” writes Romm, saying that some scientists are – to borrow the phrase from Peter Finch’s portrayal of fed-up news anchor Howard Beale in the the 70’s classic Network mad as hell, and they aren’t going to take it anymore.

And it’s about time.

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