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All IPCC definitions taken from Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Annex I, Glossary, pp. 941-954. Cambridge University Press.

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Using Skeptical Science to improve climate literacy

Posted on 10 September 2010 by ltryhorn

Guest post by Lee Tryhorn

The average person who wants to be informed about climate change can find themselves bombarded by contradictory information from sources that appear to be equally valid. This is as true for someone working in a government organization as it is for a member of the general public. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has recognized this issue, and consequently has been working hard to improve the climate literacy of its representatives.

The latest effort has involved a series of workshops designed to increase the capacity of NOAA representatives to communicate current climate change science. I was fortunate enough to participate as a speaker at two of the workshops. The most recent workshop, Climate Literacy for Extension Educators, was held August 3-4 in Ithaca, NY. The participants in this workshop were predominately from Cornell Cooperative extension, NOAA Sea Grant, and the National Weather Service. For those that are unfamiliar with these groups, Cooperative Extension is an educational program implemented in the United States designed to help develop practical applications of research knowledge. The service is provided by designated universities in each state and tends to focus on agriculture, natural resources, community economic development, and youth programs. Similarly, Sea Grant is a nationwide network (administered through NOAA) of university-based programs that work with coastal communities. These people are often the point of contact for the general public and the media for many scientific issues.

Major themes of the workshop were communication of climate change, the current state of climate science, and use of climate change information in extension outreach programs. Many previous climate change communication efforts have focused on increasing the understanding of climate science and the scientific facts are assumed to speak for themselves. Of course, it has been shown many times over that presenting an audience with a graph of increasing global temperatures is not overly successful in motivating action on climate change. With this in mind, rather than asking the participants to learn every single aspect of how a climate model works, a large theme of the workshop was focused on techniques for finding reliable information, and reframing and communicating that information, including techniques for dealing with the media and climate skeptics. We devoted a session to the top 10 skeptics arguments and what the science says using material from this site.

Climate change discussions have become so polarized that many of the extension educators reported finding conversations with the public stifled. I know exactly what they mean, as when I say I’m a climate scientist, I sometimes have people assume that I will look down on them for using a dryer or others will ask me what I think about the Gulf oil spill. Like other controversial issues, climate change has been divided into two distinctive camps. These two camps continue to dominate the media and are in some ways intractable. At the workshop we discussed the need to restart the conversation in a more meaningful way. We really need to move beyond the crippling polarization and promote discussions of alternatives and solutions. In order to achieve this we need to start talking about climate change in ways that resonate more with what the general public already values or understands. For example, we can talk about climate change in terms of economic development, morality and ethics (a responsibility to take care of the Earth), and public health. The US military for one, is talking about climate change as a national security issue.

Of course, a series of workshops are not going to change the world, but we’re hoping that this is at least a better approach for equipping those on the ground with the communication tools they need.

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Comments 1 to 5:

  1. The stigma Lee mentions, the stigma in the public's eye for being a "climate scientist", is a perfect example of why these workshops should have been started TWENTY YEARS AGO. Now it feels too much like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. Still, it has to be done, even though now our descendants will receive far less benefit for it.
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  2. Here in Brazil the Climate Change issue is not so polarized as in the US. No political party puts its reality in question, for instance. Even so, our press also has its moments of miseducation, be it deliberate or involuntary. In my amateur efforts to spread the present knowledge about the subject, I like to include: - regional projected climate change, as it relates more easily to the general intuitive understanding. - where our national emissions come from. - alternatives to emission and economic implications.
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  3. Just wanted to say thanks to the contributors on this site. I have followed a, perhaps misguided, mission to get on conservative web sites and use their comments section to try and correct the many false ideas out there. I am sure I have not changed many minds but this site has been invaluable in helping me counter ignorance with information.
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  4. Thanks for this note, Lee. It's great that you were able to use this site as a resource in the workshop.
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  5. Politicization has transformed the climate change debate from one based upon scientific evidence and reason to one that is strongly influenced by political and social ideology. I may eventually encounter an ardent AGW “skeptic” whose politic leanings are not evident, but it hasn’t happened yet. Perhaps you’ve written off certain people as being beyond the powers of reason, but even if you have, I’m still concerned about the ones in the middle, who are legitimately confused by [apparently] contradictory information. I don’t know what sorts of techniques you are teaching for finding reliable information, but as in so many other aspects of politics, many people seek out information that will tend to confirm the beliefs they already hold, and they tend to trust sources who share and express their particular world view. It strikes me that any effort to improve the level of understanding of scientific issues must at minimum identify the intrusion of politics into science as a problem, and ideally find ways to minimize its impact. I feel that if people are alerted to the risks of political ideology influencing scientific interpretations, they will be better able, and more inclined, to distinguish real science from political ideology-based science. I realize that this potentially cuts “both ways”, but there’s actually very little evidence of politics in real climate science. Unfortunately, one element of the “world view” that lies at the core of much AGW “skepticism” is an inherent mistrust of “ivory tower” intellectuals and the “government” (where the term government refers to an entity that is something other than of, by, and for the people). This attitude has filtered down into our culture to such a degree that even some of those who don’t fully subscribe to it are not prepared to reject it outright. In other words, the notion of conspiracy between scientific community and the government, or the notion of scientists as incompetent bumblers is credible enough that it has some traction. This tends to tip the scales against science from the outset. Finally, I think it’s essential to separate the treatment of climate change into four sub-issues: 1) documentation of contemporary climate change and it’s impact on both human civilization and natural ecosystems, 2) attribution of climate change (What is the evidence that contemporary climate change is being caused—either largely or partly—by human activities, 3) climate forecasting (What is the future impact of climate change likely to be if we take no action? and 4) response and remediation (What can and should we do to address this problem. What will the costs be? Can we afford it? etc.) These topics are all interrelated, but tend to become hopelessly muddled in how this topic is approached. Notably, it the first three topics fall within the domain of science. Only the fourth belongs in the realm of politics. Unfortunately, considerations regarding response & remediation (#4) tend to color scientific treatment of #1, #2, & #3. Your statement, "Of course, it has been shown many times over that presenting an audience with a graph of increasing global temperatures is not overly successful in motivating action on climate change." indicates that you tend not to distinguish these issues. I think it's important to do so.
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