Consensus_Gap

You might have heard something in the news recently about climate change ‘pausing’, ‘stopping’ or ‘slowing down’. While there is some truth to the phrase ‘global warming hiatus’, the issue is in fact a complex one. The hiatus represents an interesting example of an unexpected event which science cannot yet fully explain, despite taking place during a time in which our knowledge about the climate is growing at an exponential rate [1]. This raises some important questions about communication. How do we talk about climate change? Who’s listening? And how can we improve?

What’s it all about?

The term ‘hiatus’ or ‘global warming pause’ refers to the flattening of the global surface temperature record over the past decade. Possible reasons for this pause include excess heat taken up by the ocean or short term cooling by atmospheric particles that reflect sunlight. For a technical background of the global warming hiatus, see the Signal to Noise article by Lauren Kuntz in this issue.

The fact that scientists can’t pinpoint the exact reason for the hiatus doesn’t change the reality of human-induced global warming [2]. The pause is a tiny blip in the vast climate record. It is a scientific certainty that as a result of adding greenhouse gases to our atmosphere, heat will continue to increase [3,4].

Despite these long-term trends, many point to the recent data and say, “hey, scientists were wrong – the climate isn’t warming!” This disconnect is driven in part by the way science is communicated from researchers to the public, and the important role the media plays in disseminating that information.

The consensus gap

When communicating climate change, the media often strives to represent all sides equally, even though that can distort the debate. The comedian John Oliver recently took this issue head on during his show Last Week Tonight [5]. Oliver begins with one scientist, Bill Nye, sitting across from one climate denier. He then has ninety-six additional climate scientists join the side of Bill Nye with two additional skeptics on the other side of the table in what he calls “a statistically representative climate change debate”. As you might expect, the debate quickly deteriorates, with Oliver giving up and exclaiming, “I can’t hear you over the weight of scientific evidence…this debate should not have happened!”

While Oliver presents the material in a humorous fashion (check out the video above; Warning: Strong language)), his sketch highlights pervasive issues in the media communication of climate change that propagate a significant gap in understanding. According to recent surveys, the public perceives that only 55% of climate scientists agree on global warming, whereas in reality the figure is 97% [6,7].

Figure 1: “The consensus gap.” (Skeptical Science).

Is the gap in understanding really more about skewed media coverage than scientific uncertainty? Not quite. Other challenges exist to communicating climate change, but there are also many helpful lessons to be learned.

Closing the gap

Opinions can change drastically in the short term. A spring 2013 report from the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found that the percentage of Americans who believe global warming is occurring dropped from 70% to 63% in less than a year. The authors hypothesize that the unusually cold winter just before the public survey heavily influenced this result [8]. The immense timescale of slow-moving climate changes is difficult to convey to a public very attuned to the intense effects local weather can have [9]. This comic from xkcd sums up this point (and the frustrations of climate scientists) particularly well:

Furthermore, there exists a strong “climate contrarianism” community out to politicize the issue of climate change. With these individuals effectively targeting the climate science coming from the research community, it is often easier to cause public confusion than for scientists to convey that the science of climate change has long been settled [10]. Scientists and communicators should focus the discussion in terms of solutions, or what we can do to solve the problem. This avoids the unnecessary debate about whether or not the problem exists.

Some approaches emphasize climate co-benefits, such as achieving cleaner air as well as lower carbon emissions from shutting off coal-fired power plants. This approach has strongly shaped the media discourse on the recently announced Environmental Protection Agency carbon pollution regulations [11]. As long as the administration frames the issue with respect to public health and safety, they can expect stronger public support than using an environmental argument alone. Effective solutions are often ones that address concerns directly relating to what people care about.

The popular television show Cosmos tackled climate change in a recent episode [12]. Based on the original series presented by Carl Sagan, Cosmos features astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and attracts millions of viewers every Sunday night [13]. In a particularly impressive segment, he used the analogy of walking a dog on a beach to represent the difference between climate and weather (check out the video below). The dog walker follows a predictable straight-line path (representing climate) while the dog meanders back and forth (representing weather). Of course, the dog cannot go too far due to the constraints of the owner’s leash, showing that weather is predictable within reasonable limits. Effective visual communication, reaching millions of interested viewers of all ages, is an excellent step in the right direction to improve climate communication.

 Moving forward

It is easy to frame the hiatus in a simple way such as “climate change turns out to be not as bad as we expected”, while the actual explanation is complex, technical, and fraught with uncertainties. There is no “one size fits all” solution to climate communication, but moving forward allows us to adjust by learning from the past, much like the study of climate itself. The hiatus offers a unique opportunity for climate scientists to engage with the public, and encourages active and well-informed discussions through new and traditional media sources. While the global warming pause highlights uncertainties in our understanding of the climate system, it also gives the public an inside look at scientific discourse and offers a challenge for scientists and science communicators to explain the ever-evolving process of scientific research.

 

Katie Dagon is a graduate student in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

References

[1] Hawkins, E. et al., (2014). Pause for thought, Nature Climate Change, 4: 154-156. http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v4/n3/full/nclimate2150.html

[2] Schiermeir, Q. IPCC: Despite hiatus, climate change here to stay, Nature News, 27 September 2013. http://www.nature.com/news/ipcc-despite-hiatus-climate-change-here-to-stay-1.13832

[3] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (2013). Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis, Cambridge University Press, New York, NY. https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/

[4] Key Indicators, NASA Global Climate Change. http://climate.nasa.gov/key_indicators

[5] Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO): Climate Change Debate, YouTube video, 11 May 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cjuGCJJUGsg **Warning: Strong language

[6] Nuccitelli, D. The epidemic of climate science false balance in the media, Skeptical Science, 27 February 2014. http://www.skepticalscience.com/epidemic-climate-media-false-balance.html

[7] Nuccitelli, D. Survey finds 97% of climate science papers agree warming is man-made, The Guardian, 16 May 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2013/may/16/climate-change-scienceofclimatechange

[8] Leiserowitz, A. et al., (2013). Climate change in the American mind: Americans’ global warming beliefs and attitudes in April, 2013. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. http://www.climatechangecommunication.org/report/climate-change-american-mind-series-spring-2013

[9] Plummer, B. Can global warming be real if it’s cold in the U.S.? Um… yes!, The Washington Post, 7 January 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/01/06/can-global-warming-be-real-if-its-cold-in-the-u-s-um-yes/

[10] Boykoff, M.T, (2014). Media discourse on the climate slowdown, Nature Climate Change, 4: 156-158. http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v4/n3/full/nclimate2156.html

[11] EPA Proposes First Guidelines to Cut Carbon Pollution from Existing Power Plants, EPA Press Office, 2 June 2014. http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/bd4379a92ceceeac8525735900400c27/5bb6d20668b9a18485257ceb00490c98!OpenDocument

[12] Weather Versus Climate Change, National Geographic, YouTube video, 28 May 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cBdxDFpDp_k

[13] Mooney, C. Neil deGrasse Tyson destroys climate denial in this new video, Grist, 29 May 2014. http://grist.org/climate-energy/neil-degrasse-tyson-destroys-climate-denial-in-this-new-video/

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