When it comes to the science of climate change, what you hear depends on who’s doing the talking
When I think of the future, I can’t help but wonder what kind of world it will be when my son Nelson is grown up. Of course I am an optimist and I love to think about the seemingly miraculous technological innovations, the peaceful pluralist nations that foster hope and inspiration, as well as a lush and rich bounty of ecological harmony (cue songbird soundtrack). But then, the nagging pessimist in me inevitably points out to myself that we are currently living in a world in which biotechnologies such as plant crops and vaccines are shunned out of ignorance, someone like Donald Trump is actually The president of the United States and the very real threat of climate change looms over us like an impending jail sentence.
Whereas, I can easily dismiss the first of these 2 concerns as temporary fads, the latter, the future challenges associated with climate change from runaway global warming terrifies me and fills me with worry for my son and his generation. In this light, the future looks a little less bright.
With the expectation of melting polar ice caps and the flooding of coastal areas leading to massive human displacement of millions of people currently living in low-lying delta areas, such as the Mekong, Nile or Mississippi, we are likely to see human immigration crises that dwarf the current Syrian immigrant issue... not to mention the chaos of urban metropolitan cities like NYC and Amsterdam becoming completely submerged under sea water. Frequent and intense storms will become the norm and weather patterns are predicted to get more extreme and unpredictable. And on, and on, and on. It paints a pretty grim picture.
All of these scenarios are actually realistic models of the future and that the cause is clearly known and well understood to be from human burning of fossil fuels and releasing CO2 and methane into the atmosphere. Why then are we yet to do anything significant about preventing this problem? It goes without saying that this is a complex issue and people may be challenged by the science. However, it is imperative to note that we are also being blinded by those who do not want us to know about the science, because if we did we’d be compelled to do something about the problem.
Let’s first make something clear, there is a near unanimous consensus among scientists that actually study aspects of climate science and the earth’s geochemistry (we’re talking about some seriously smart geeks here) on the causes of this issue. It is due to human activity that emits greenhouse gases such as CO2 and methane, that is exacerbating the earth’s greenhouse effect, which itself is rapidly increasing the global warming and will lead to significant and important climate change. Why then does it seem that the jury may still be out among certain members of the public, governments or industries, we may ask? It all comes down to who is doing the talking and when it comes to the communication of the science of climate change, the fossil fuel industries unfortunately have the loudest voice.
As a professor of science, one of my main interests is in the field of science communication and the role that scientists may play in the discourse of science with members of the general public. For this reason, I am increasingly frustrated with the climate change story because it represents a classic case of a breakdown in the chain of communication from the scientific experts towards the members of the public. As I shall argue, this is due both to the inadequacies of communication skills and motivation among scientists, as well as the role that industry has played in spreading pseudoscience, falsehoods and lies.
As scientists we are not trained to speak to the public as part of our typical education and the culture of science is a solitary one, involving long hours in the lab or field and much contemplation about the implications of our results. As a general rule, scientists are not the types to seek public attention, nor to be very good at animating it, were they to be offered the opportunity. There’s a good reason that the scientist stereotype is of a closeted, bumbling and incoherent genius... because there is often a lot of truth to that.
On the other hand, fossil fuel industries are among the most profitable economic enterprises in the history of humanity and they devote a good chunk of that money to their public relations departments. As such, they have a tremendous reach and impact in promoting some ideas and squashing others, of getting some politicians elected and others disgraced and shaping policy and social attitudes all in the name of maximizing their profit margins.
This may sound like the ramblings of a paranoid conspiracy theorist but these facts are well known and part of the public record. For example, recent articles in the Washington Post, Rolling Stone Magazine and The Guardian UK clearly spell out the active role that the American billionaire oil barons, the Koch brothers are playing in the funding of puppet organizations that fight climate reform in the government, prevent subsidies to the electric vehicle industry and lobby against solar power. Or that it has recently become known that Exxon-Mobil, the single largest and most profitable business ever, had known about climate change from their own research years before it was known by the public. Over that last 30 years, however, they have rabidly fought the acceptance that climate change was real and actively funded anti-science and anti-climate organizations to the tune of millions of dollars.
In light of these formidable opponents, it becomes clear that there is an imbalance in the communication that the public is receiving on this important topic. That the science is irrefutable but yet climate skeptics are given equal airplay in TV news stories on the topic are a testament to the power of the fossil fuel industry’s lobby and that we are being lied to so that they can continue to pollute while we debate idly amongst ourselves.
Well a few things seem obvious to me: firstly that there needs to be a more reasoned discussion of the science of climate change in the public and secondly, that those in charge of the climate deception are likely to be viewed by history as having committed crimes against humanity for all of the millions of people that they will have doomed to lives of misery.
As a father and a science professor, I can do my part to fight this climate ignorance by helping to usher in a new era of science communication, one that empowers people to separate the sense from the nonsense so that together we can combat these weapons of deceit with knowledge. As another Nelson (dear ‘Madiba’ Mandela, who inspired our son’s namesake) would have said much more eloquently than myself: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world”. We won’t let the Kochs and Exxons of the world take that power away from us anymore.