Thoughts on the ocean, the environment, the universe and everything from nearly a mile high.

Panorama of The Grand Tetons From the top of Table Mountain, Wyoming © Alan Holyoak, 2011

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Reflections on climate change

I teach a course on climate change. (If you haven't figured this out yet, you're just not paying attention - come on people!).  Anyway, my students are mainly non-science majors, and that makes this adventure even more exciting.

One of the challenges of teaching this class is that some of my students get the mistaken idea that I "like" climate change and "hope" global warming is happening.  Eh!?  You'd have to be nuts to want that...who in their right mind would want global warming and its effects?  Granted, I live in a northern tier state so warming wouldn't be all bad locally, but globally!?  No way!

Another challenge is that my brain is routinely stuck in a scientific rut where I constantly experience the bizarre desire to want to find out exactly what's happening and why - data, data, data - strange I know, but that's what graduate school and a couple of decades of teaching can do to a guy.  Non-scientists, however, (especially in the USA) live in a media-rich world where sound bites and buzz rather than data creates opinion.  So you see the dilemma.  It keeps life interesting in a sort of east-meets-west kind of way.  By the end of the semester though, I have made some progress in helping my students see what's happening.  How do I know?

For example, last semester I had two students who were heavy duty "Tea Party" guys.  They were both openly skeptical and occasionally confrontational (but not belligerent) about climate change.  They made it clear that they thought global warming was either a hoax or totally blown out of proportion.  At the end of the semester though these guys came to see me at different times and for different reasons.  During our chats and without prompting they hung their heads and confessed that "There really is something to this global warming thing"...Ah success!!

These two guys epitomize the state of that prevails in the USA.  So where does this misunderstanding come from?  The combination of American media, politics, and deep-pocketed special interest groups.  The fact is that there is overwhelming consensus in the scientific community about climate change.  But politics and special interest groups continue to use PR and media messages to cloud the water and keep the reality of this consensus clouded as long as possible.  The current effort to cloud the general public's understanding of climate change is comparable to the tobacco industry's strategy to cloud the scientific message about confirmed links between tobacco and various forms of cancer over the past 60 years, and for which the tobacco industry was convicted on conspiracy and racketeering charges in 2006.  The tobacco industry appealed, of course, but the the original ruling was upheld in May 2011.
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If you want read about the tactics small groups of well-connected people use to misdirect public opinion and  cloud the issues on topics like climate change, I've got a recommendation for you: read the book "Merchants of Doubt" by the science historian Naomi Oreskes. ( )  It's an eye-opener!


The work of these "message clouders" is effective.  They use PR campaigns, editorials in sympathetic newspapers and other media outlets to promote their message.  They do not engage in scientific discussion, research, or publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals.  Sadly their methods work.  How do we know?  Climate scientists consistently and repeatedly demonstrate connections between human-produced carbon emissions and global warming in thousands of peer-reviewed publications each year, but this information is not communicated very effectively to the general public.  In the meantime, the slick PR machines of the contrarians spin out message after message of doubt in those results, and the public buys it.  Again, how do we know?  The American general public is expressing lower levels of concern and acceptance of this scientific conclusion than ever.  It's heartbreaking.

Here are some results from a  2011 GALLUP poll on climate change...
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...48% of Americans said that they believed the seriousness of global warming was exaggerated in the news. This is up nearly 20% from 30% in 1998 and 2006 (see the graph below):

1997-2010 Trend: Percentage of Americans Who Believe the Seriousness of Global Warming Is Generally Exaggerated

Then when people were asked whether they thought global warming had 1) Already started or would soon; 2) That it would occur within their lifetime; or 3) That it would not occur during their lifetime or not at all, 35% of respondents said that they thought it would not happen within their lifetime or even at all!  Yikes!

1997-2010 Trend: When Will the Effects of Global Warming Begin to Happen?

Fewer people also accept the conclusion that human activities affect climate.  Last year nearly 50% or respondents said they thought climate change was driven only by natural causes.  Sigh...the testable, confirmed scientific message is getting lost's in the muddied water stirred up by the PR machines.

2003-2010 Trend: Are Increases in the Earth's Temperature Over the Last Century Due to Human Activities or Natural Changes?

Because these numbers are slipping farther all the time, I feel compelled to continue to teach and share thoughts about our climate.  Fortunately, I see a great deal of change in my students' perceptions about climate as they learn the science and see the data.  The bottom line is that climate change is affecting the atmosphere, the land, and the ocean.  Its bigger than pollution alone. ozone depletion alone, water issues alone, it's bigger than, well, any of our current environmental challenges, because it's global and will affect everyone.

Here's to ongoing efforts to communicate the messages of science. Cheers!.

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