Climate Change Science, Policy and Communication:
Examining the effectiveness of scientists on policy makers and the public on the issue of climate change
There are important questions to consider when examining the boundaries between climate change science, policy and communication. Can a scientific process be debated among politicians if it is certain to be true among the scientific community? Does the need for a policy come before the science, or does science dictate which policies need to be issued? How is climate change science and policy presented to the public? How and why a policy is developed is related not only to the amount of science that can be used to study and validate an issue, but also the importance of the issue based on public opinion. Policy makers will hesitate in discussing, debating and deciding if a policy is to be made if the community affected is not engaged on the issue. In this digital age of vast information accessibility, scientists from various disciplines seem to constantly exist in the public spotlight, such as Bill Nye, Dr. David Suzuki and Dr. Brian Cox. While these individuals are accomplished professionals in their own fields, none of them can classify themselves as climate scientists. This leads to yet another question. Should the public accept the opinions of a scientist who has not studied climate issues in detail, but claims to understand the science? This question also can be directed to climate skeptics such as Patrick Moore, a self-proclaimed co-founder of Greenpeace who does not believe anthropogenic emissions are the cause of climate change or global warming. Despite the overwhelming scientific consensus of the anthropogenic effects on the climate, public opinion on the matter is divided. This is due in part to how information concerning the climate is presented by the mass-media. The boundary between science and policy needs to be more thoroughly defined through proper communication. The scientific community, specifically climate scientists, need to be more engaged with community. Government agencies, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have attempted to bridge the gap between science and policy through communication, though its success can be debated.
Climate change and global warming have been considered a serious issue by scientists since the late 1980’s when Dr. James Hansen addressed the United States Congress. Dr. Hansen declared that the Earth has entered a long-term warming trend with which anthropogenic forcing is almost surely responsible. The term almost surely is questionable when addressing either a policy making body or the pubic. This suggests that there is uncertainty in the information being provided. The IPCC synthesis report released in 2014 used similar language when evaluating the risks of climate change. This public report, designed for policy makers, attempts to present the findings of climate change research in language that the layman can understand. Terms such as ’virtually certain’, ’very likely’, ’more unlikely than likely’ and ’extremely unlikely’ are used frequently to convey different ranges of probabilities. This approach, while done with the best of intentions, ultimately undermines the IPCCs presentation of the results. Policy makers and the public alike interpret such terms as ’very likely’ in different ways, thus making an already controversial subject even more so.
A paper published by Peter Weingart titled Risks of Communication: Discourse on Climate Change in Science, Politics and the Mass Media, outlines the interaction between scientists, policy makers and the media using Germany as an example. To put it simply, scientists politicize climate change issues based on results from numerous studies that include uncertainties. Politicians and policy makers attempt to reduce these uncertainties and the scientific complexity when assigning emission reduction targets (finite values). Finally, the mass media ignores any uncertainties presented from either group to develop a series of catastrophic events with which action is required. If scientists make assertions that will eventually affect the wellbeing of society, this will most certainly lead to political significance and in turn will have high value for the media. “Science has the first word about everything and the last word about nothing”, as stated by Victor Hugo.
Given that science and policy both go hand in hand, which of these needs to be initiated first? Does science need to present findings to a policy making body in order for proper measures to be taken, or does research funding need to be applied to investigate a particular issue? In the case of climate change, science clearly took the initiative to determine not only the cause (anthropogenic emissions) but also what mitigation steps needed to be taken (reduction of fossil-fuel use). Environmental issues such as deforestation, water pollution and urbanization have been considered of importance to the public for some time. The idea of climate change and global warming, on the other hand, is a relatively new idea (within the last 30 to 40 years).
Science may offer clear solutions in how to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change, however simply stating the obvious is not good enough for policy makers. Various outside lobbying tactics are used in order to persuade the public and legislators that an issue is in fact a concern. On one side there are the climate scientists and environmentalists who believe that climate change is a serious issue that will affect millions of people world wide. These individuals attempt to raise public awareness and create incentives for leaders to change policies. On the other side of the debate, are individuals and organizations who do not agree with the findings of scientists that the climate is changing. They claim there is too much uncertainty and that the climate system itself is too random to predict. The goal of these individuals is to create public confusion of the issue and outline the economic costs, reducing the likelihood legislators will want to invest capital on the issue.
This is, again, where organizations such as the IPCC have failed to convince both policy makers and the public on the climate change issue. Vocabulary such as ’very likely’ do not accurately convey the message of climate change they are trying to communicate. This lack of clarity from these organization only gives more power to those who are trying to undermine them.
Over the decades, several scientists have been in the public spotlight given their prestigious accomplishments in their respective fields. Charles Darwin, Nikola Tesla, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman are all examples of scientific individuals which have almost become household names. One of the most influential science communicators that comes to mind who had a profound impact on the public was Carl Sagan. “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage”, Dr. Sagan’s pioneering television series from 1980, is regarded as one of the most influential informational series of the 20th century in which approximately 500 million people have viewed as of 2009. While “Cosmos” mainly focused on the planetary sciences and astronomy, a small segment was devoted to global warming. Given the overwhelming success the “Cosmos” series had in educating society of scientific principles, why is it that the global warming portion seems to have been overlooked? Perhaps it was just bad timing, before the issue of global warming itself was considered a danger and at its currently level of public debate. As Sagan put it, “The study of the global climate, the comparison of the Earth with other worlds, are subjects in their earliest stages of development. They are fields that are poorly and grudgingly funded. In our ignorance, we continue to push and pull, to pollute the atmosphere and brighten the land, oblivious of the fact that the long-term consequences are largely unknown”. At the time, it seemed that science did not have a sufficient grasp on global climate change that could have persuaded policy makers to take action.
Dr. David Suzuki, a well known environmentalist and climate change activist, regularly discusses with the public and Canadian governments on climate change issues. With a PhD in Zoology, Dr. Suzuki has had incredible influence on governments and the public through his foundation, The David Suzuki Foundation. Yet, similar to Sagan, Suzuki is only a scientist trying to do his part to gain public awareness and to persuade policy makers to eliminate fossil fuels consumption. With 71% of Canadians believing that global warming is a threat, it seems he still has quite a bit to do to reach his goal.
Perhaps, also, the public has not fully embraced the climate change issue because the ones discussing climate science are not, in fact, climate scientists. While Dr. Sagan and Dr. Suzuki may understand the complexities of climate science and the consensus it brings, one might find it hard ot take their opinions seriously. You do not go to an engineer to determine the biological hazards of a substance or to calculate the magnetic field of a star. Because an individual has a scientific background does not mean their experts in all areas of science.
The amount of funding, research, and debate that has gone into the issue of climate change is staggering. Yet, with having put all of this time into the climate issue, a clear divide continues to exist between scientists, policy makers and the public. While there may be near unanimous consensus on the climate science and the issue of global warming, politicians and the public are not convinced. Given the vast forms of media available, climate scientists wanting to address the public is not something that is difficult to do in this day and age. And with younger generations becoming more aware of issues at an earlier age, they will discover the issue of climate change and decide whether actions need to be taken or not. Perhaps these younger climate scientists will be able to convince those in power that they are certain the climate is changing, and we are the cause.