Opinion

Warm spring weather and global warming: If only scientists could be so persuasive

Warm spring weather can help convince Americans that global warming is happening and a problem. But scientists must change the way they talk about this subject. They must leave their ivory towers and learn to speak about climate change in a language that people understand.

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    Unusually warm spring in Maine: It's shirt-sleeve weather for Jackie Stowe-Davis from Sabattus, Maine, who shares an ice cream with her granddaughter, Marlee Jade Stowe, along the Androscoggin River in Lisbon, Maine, on the spring equinox March 20.
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A recent study by the Brookings Institution shows that unusually warm winter weather has made climate-change converts out of many Americans. Unseasonable temperatures are continuing with warm spring weather in much of the United States. In Washington DC, which just recorded its warmest winter, the famed cherry blossoms have opened two weeks early.

Though this kind of weather disruption is what climate scientists predict, they hesitate to place too much emphasis on one or two unusual seasons as a trend that changes public opinion. If next winter is more normal, the public may get the wrong impression about the dangers of climate change. Better for science to be more convincing.

But there's the rub. The American public is generally illiterate when it comes to science (so says the National Science Foundation). And when American scientists complain about public illiteracy and lethargy on the vitally important subject of climate change, they also have themselves to blame.

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Generally, those who know the most about climate – and other important scientific fields – are locked up in their university ivory towers and conference rooms, speaking a language only they can understand.

And they speak mostly to each other, not to the general public, policymakers, or business people – not to those who can actually make things happen.

This is dangerous. We live in an age when scientific issues permeate our social, economic, and political culture. People must be educated about science and the scientific process if we are to make rational and informed decisions that affect our future. Indeed, a well functioning democracy requires it.

But instead, the relative absence of academics and academic scholarship in the public discourse creates a vacuum into which uninformed, wrong, and downright destructive viewpoints get voiced and take hold.

Here’s a typical example. After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh argued that “The ocean will take care of this on its own if it was left alone...” In fact, the spill created extensive damage to wide ranging marine habitats as well as the Gulf Coast’s fishing and tourism industries. Long-term impacts are still unclear as scientists continue to monitor underwater plumes of dissolved oil that lie along the bottom.

To show how infrequently scientists communicate with the public, consider these findings. In news stories about the UN climate summit in Copenhagen in 2010, only 4 percent of the individuals quoted were scientists. This is according to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford in England

Similarly, only 9 percent of commentary pieces and letters to the editor in major US newspapers and magazines were written by university-based scientists in 2007, 2008 and 2009. The study was reported in the academic journal Organizations & Environment.

Another study finds a dearth of articles about climate change in business, sociology, and political science publications.

Why is this? New York Times commentator David Brooks captured the nature of the problem in 2009 when he was asked on a National Public Radio broadcast if he thought any current scholars might have the same influence as mid-twentieth century intellectual, Reinhold Niebuhr. He replied:

“My favorite period of American social science is the period roughly between ’55 and ’65. And this was a period when you had a series of public intellectuals who were not lost in academic disciplines, but who are much higher-brow than your average journalist.” But, he added, “the milieu that created these big daring public intellectuals just isn’t there right now.”

The fact is that today’s scientists are indeed lost to the academy. The failure begins with training in doctoral programs and continues through professional development where the constant immersion in academic seminars and journals serves to weaken scientists’ literacy in the language of public, economic, and political discourse.

Scientists limit involvement in such “outside” activities because tenure and promotion are based primarily on publication in top-tier academic journals. And the metric of quality in a large number of such journals is more about theoretical rigor and contributions to scholarship, not empirical relevance to society.

Writing for the broader media, turning out books for the commercial press, and even serving on government panels are often discouraged as “anti-intellectual” at worst and an “impractical” waste of time at best.

In the end, the system of near-term incentives for young academics is perverse. It hurts the ultimate interests of the individual scholar and the potency and relevance of the scholar’s field. It also harms society, because of the absence of critical, rigorous, data-driven voices.

In my view, few contemporary issues warrant critical analysis by problem-focused researchers more than environmental sustainability, and particularly climate change. This field of study has import, not only for the future of our natural world, but also for the future of our economy, which depends on it.

But there are signs that this model of scholarly isolation is changing. Some academic leaders have begun to call for more engagement within the public arena, and a greater balance between theoretical rigor and relevance.

To be useful, academic work must link directly to real-world problems rather than only extending a theory. This work must break down the silo-nature of academic scholarship and bridge the breadth of scientific disciplines, while also taking into account the economic and policy implications of its conclusions.

As this work enters the public discourse, there is the great need for more sociological, cultural, and cognitive research so that scientists can understand why people may either reject or accept what science “experts” say about problems and solutions.

Universities need to train emerging and seasoned scholars in the skills of communicating science to the public and policy makers. We need to develop a new generation of scholars for whom the role of public intellectual is not an anachronism.

Without such changes, the climate change debate devolves into a “logic schism” where the ideological extremes dominate the conversation and the space for solutions disappears into a rhetorical shouting match.

We’re already seeing this. Surveys have shown that the percentage of conservatives and Republicans who believe that the effects of global warming have already begun to happen declined from roughly 50 percent in 2001 to about 30 percent in 2010, while the corresponding percentage of liberals and Democrats increased from roughly 60 percent in 2001 to about 70 percent in 2010.

Overall, belief in climate change has declined in the American public from roughly 75 percent to 55 percent between 2008 and 2011, with a recent rebound to 62 percent in the fall of 2011, the Brookings Institution survey finds. One noted reason for the rebound was personal experiences with warmer fall and winter temperatures.

What we need are universities eagerly producing academics along the model of the late Carl Sagan, who popularized the study of the universe with his 1980 TV series “Cosmos” and his novel “Contact,” which was turned into a movie of the same name. America could use thousands of these Sagans, people knowledgeable about science who will share their knowledge in newspapers, on the Internet, in the local Kiwanis club, bowling league, and town-hall meeting.

There is simply too much at stake for knowledgeable scientists to sit on the sidelines, writing a few more arcane scholarly articles to satisfy their tenure and promotion committees.

Andrew Hoffman is the Holcim (US) professor of sustainable enterprise, with joint appointments at the Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources & Environment at the University of Michigan. He is also the director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise. A longer version of this essay first appeared in the blog of the Network for Business Sustainability.

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