Here’s my commentary:
Recent attacks by skeptics like Marc Morano, and the devolution of discourse on climate change back to the simplistic “global warming: yes or no?” debate, has prompted some prominent scientists to push back. That much is clear from the recent series of email exchanges between a group of scientists made public by the Competitive Enterprise Institute. [Here's a pdf file of the full text of the e-mail messages.]
I would urge anyone who is interested to read the actual texts of the e-mail messages. From what I’ve looked at so far it’s clear that some of the stuff there is clearly a manifestation of folks being hopping mad and needing to blow off steam. Too bad they still haven’t gotten the message about the public nature of e-mail…
Some of it also reflects what I take to be a truly breathtaking naïveté. For example, George Woodwell says this: “If the opposition opens an issue, make the issue theirs, and so hot that they have to let go.” [*]
As if a group of climate scientists can make it “hot” enough to force the likes of Marc Morano to let go. Even if they could, they’d basically be turning themselves into Morano. And a lot of good that would do for their standing in the eyes of the public. (Moreover, any scientist who thinks he or she can beat Morano at his own game is in for a very rude awakening.)
But I also tried to put myself in the shoes of a scientist who Senator James Inhofe has said should be investigated for criminal activity. As an outsider looking in, I’ve regarded this as clownish political theater. And then I realized that if the Democrats were to lose the Senate, clownish political theater could become more serious.
Obviously, Inhofe isn’t really interested in getting to the truth. He is mostly interested in intimidating scientists – to stifle research that conflicts with his political agenda, and also to squash political speech. Whether the research is right or not, and whether you agree with what scientists are saying in the political arena, such an attempt at intimidation by a government official is pretty disturbing.
Meanwhile, the polls show some weakening in the urgency felt by the public for policy action. But I think partisans on both sides of the climate wars tend to exaggerate what’s happening. For an aggregation of recent polls, seehttp://www.pollingreport.com/enviro.htm. It’s difficult to conclude from these data that the end of the world is nigh with regard to public opinion on climate change.
But it’s pretty clear that the public has other priorities right now. I get the sense that many scientists and other observers, including Randy Olson, attribute this at least in part to bad communication about climate science, both by scientists and journalists. I wonder.
If you were out of a job, if you feared losing your job, if your wages were stagnant or declining, if you were underemployed, if you lacked adequate health care, if you were struggling to pay the mortgage, if you couldn’t afford tuition for your children, if your child was off fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, if you couldn’t retire on time because your savings have disappeared, etc., etc., you might very logically and reasonably conclude that action on climate change — particular an incomprehensible policy that looks like a Rube Goldberg device — should take a back seat to other priorities. (And particularly during a winter like the one we’ve been experiencing!)
We’ve had more than 20 years of communication of climate science. … And thanks in part to Web 2.0, today there is more varied and voluminous communication on the subject than ever before, including some very effective efforts by scientists. Yet with all of that communication about climate science, we still do not have substantial policy action. So might it be that the problem has not been a failure of a communication, but a failure of policy?
Please don’t get me wrong: I’m all for more and improved communication of climate science, both by scientists and journalists. But I do not believe this is the key that will unlock better policy outcomes.