18 December 2009

AGU Day 4 – session on Scientists' Communication on Critical Global Environmental Issues

Posted by Dave Petley

I am going to split my AGU Day 4 report into two posts. This one will cover the session this morning on the communication of the science of environmental change, whilst the second post will cover the landslide sessions.

The first session that I attended this morning was an excellent, experience-led examination of how to communicate environmental science to the public and to policy-makers. The central theme was, perhaps inevitably, aspects of climate change and its associated impacts, with a great array of speakers giving different perspectives on their experiences.

First up was the man the denialists love to hate (well, perhaps second to Al Gore and on a par with James Hanson), Michael Mann. His theme was on communicating temperature change, and he started with a quip that he has spent a fair amount of time on that theme of late, which raised something of a belly laugh from the audience. His central theme was that the science case is now clear (he noted that AGW is not controversial scientifically, only societally), and the case is not hard to make to an educated and rational audience. So why is there a problem? Well, the issue is that it is clear that there is a group that wish to do no more than sew doubt in the minds of the public, and so repeatedly stir up ill-founded controversies about climate change. He referred to the ongoing hockey stick discussion – noting that as a poster-child of the debate it was inevitable that it would be attacked – but also noting that the case for anthropogenic warming does not rely on this dataset in any way, even though it continues to withstand attacks by its detractors.

So what can we do? Mann argued that all scientists need to get out there to make the case. Basically with a few exceptions the mainstream media has proven incapable of understanding the science, or at least of presenting the argument in a rational way. It is essentially up to the science community to sort this out – something of a rallying call to us all. I hope that the science community will step up to the plate.

Second up was Richard Alley, talking about ice sheets and sea level. As with his Bjerknes lecture there was a sense of extraordinary enthusiasm for his science. It was sad to see that once again he put a disclaimer on the front of his talk, noting that he was not presenting the views of Penn State (it is deeply troubling that senior academics are driven to have to do that). He started by showing a map of the effects of a sea level rise of 6 m on the eastern seaboard of the USA to show why sea level rise matters.

Alley argued that scientists have the best job description going (essentially to find out about things), but that arguing is part of the job – we are required to continually challenge, chase and discuss. Although absolutely correct, this does not play well with policy makers or the public, who don’t like to feel that there is uncertainty about science.

He then went on to look at the IPCC predictions from 2001 on CO2, warming and sea level rise. He noted that they were pretty good for the first two, but sea level was too uncertain to be able to predict. In 2007 a better prediction was made, with caveats for the unknown components, but the reality is that sea level is rising faster than expected. He then went on to talk about how melt on the large ice caps can lead to increased rates of collapse either from the loss of buttressing around the margins or from the movement of melt water from the surface to the base. The upshot was that he suggested that a sea level rise of a metre or so by 2100 is not unreasonable from a science perspective, but much higher rates look unlikely unless there is an unknown gorilla in the room.

Whilst he didn’t spend a huge amount of time on issues of communication directly, the talk was an excellent summary – essentially a masterclass in how to communicate the science.

Third up was a talk by Serreze on Communicating Arctic Change – essentially focusing on sea ice loss. Again, the key observation was that the ice loss trend was more rapid than the scientific models had forecast. He then spent some time thinking through the key aspects of science communication, which included:

  • The use of analogy – for example he showed some great maps from Donald Perovich showing areas of seasonal ice loss as a proportion of the land mass of Europe or N. America
  • The need to find themes that resonate for the community in question
  • The need to be open and transparent, and to use opportunities to explain properly the scientific process
  • The need to respond to misinformation and challenges quickly, but to do so in a thoughtful manner.

One of the questions asked about how the Arctic Sea Ice looked for next year. His response was that it doesn’t look good right now as the surface area is well below normal, and the ice is very thin and young. However, it will all depend upon the weather, which is unpredictable.

Next up was a great talk on changes in hurricane intensity by Elsner. He noted that his recent paper on the increasing strength of the most intense tropical cyclones had caused a storm (I bet he has never used that joke before…). He showed strong evidence to demonstrate that although the overall number of hurricanes had not really changed, the strength of the most intense ones had increased, especially in the N. Atlantic. He noted that arguments that this didn’t matter as the most intense hurricanes occur out to sea do not stand up to scrutiny. However, he also noted that in the Caribbean it may well be that the number of hurricanes declines with warming, but that the strength of those that do occur increases.

From a science communication perspective he noted that they had put their data and their code on a website, providing open access to allow people to test their ideas. This has been very effective.

The penultimate talk was on the impacts of growing levels of hypoxia (oxygen deficits) in the ocean, given by Whitney. He noted that higher levels of nutrients from the land mass (mostly from fertilisers and human waste) is driving oxygen deficits in the oceans that are impacting their ecology. He noted in particular that there is a tendency to replace fish with jelly fish and that the squeeze that reduced oxygen levels are placing on the usable habitats is making species such as tuna and sailfish more susceptible to predation. Perhaps the most interesting part of the talk was the demonstration that warming in the seas off eastern N. Asia is affecting oxygen levels off the west coast of the USA, which is now seeing invasions of organisms that favour low oxygen conditions. He then went on to look at issues of communication with stakeholders, noting the need to:

  • Identify issues to which the local community can relate;
  • Make story understandable;
  • Use case studies that the people can relate to;
  • Separate scientific analysis from advice on policy;
  • Prepare for resistance to the scientific message.

Finally, Gleick from Oakland talked about scientific communication. This talk was a neat summary of the key themes that had emerged from the other talks, with one difference – he was unconvinced that it is really easy to separate science from policy, although there is a need to differentiate between science and opinion.

I guess his key point was that policy makers need good scientists. There is only one thing worse than policies based on no science at all, and that is policy that is based on bad science. He noted that the fact is that we don’t communicate science well enough, or enough, or to the right audiences, or to the right audiences enough. He reminded the audience that the level of science education and awareness is low, whi
ch allows unnecessary controversies rage out of control. His final poin
t was again that we all need to do our bit, and that we need better journalists!

In questions he made reference to the frustration of denialst blogs, and the need to respond to them, through reference to this cartoon – “someone is wrong on the internet”:

Source of the cartoon: http://xkcd.com/386/

This raised quite a laugh.

Overall, it was a great session with good speakers and an audience was engaged and interested. The sense across the hall was of frustration that the strength of the science of environmental change, and the threat that this poses, just is not getting through. The lack of scientific controversy on all the key planks that underpin our understanding of anthropogenic climate change is a clear theme of the conference. We really do need to try to find ways to ensure that policy makers and the public at large understand this.