20 April 2012

Overcoming misunderstandings and misleading data in climate science

Posted by kramsayer

Assistant Professor of Geology Callan Bentley spoke on reducing confusion and overcoming misunderstandings about climate change among the general public at a symposium held 16 April. (Credit: Eric Villard)

People can misunderstand the science behind climate change, which in turn can lead to skepticism, said scientists and communicators at the fourth annual Climate Change Symposium, held 16 April at Northern Virginia Community College. They shared ideas about how to correct the often-misconstrued data about Earth’s changing climate.

Callan Bentley, an assistant professor of geology at the college and author of the blog Mountain Beltway on AGU’s blogosphere, explained how misunderstanding the science behind climate change can lead people to doubt its causes and impacts. One common misunderstanding comes when someone confuses weather and climate — the former being short term changes in atmospheric conditions and the latter being long term weather patterns and trends. One unseasonably warm day in winter does not equal climate change, Bentley explained; likewise, one day of snow or a frigidly cold day does not mean there is no climate change occurring.

“Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get,” Bentley said, quoting author Robert Heinlein.

Another misunderstanding can arise if people cherry-pick data, he said, using only specific bits of research studies to prove a point while ignoring the rest of the research. Those who do this may reach a completely different conclusion than those who read the whole study. In the case of climate change, Bentley said, skeptics often point to downward trends in temperature over a short span of years while ignoring the overall rising trend that the data shows when taken as a whole.

Anyone disbelieving climate change, Bentley said, is ignoring four facts: that the burning of coal, oil, and other sources generates carbon dioxide, that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reflects heat back towards Earth, that concentrations of carbon dioxide are increasing in the atmosphere of the planet, and that the average temperature of Earth is rising.

“The logical conclusion that naturally follows from those facts is that human burning of fossil fuels is warming the climate of the Earth,” he explained. “That’s the conclusion – it’s an interpretation, you can argue it, but it’s logical and it’s based on fact.”

Juliet Eilperin, an environmental policy reporter for The Washington Post, talked at the symposium about how politicians interpret climate and how it affects policy. In 2008, Republicans and Democrats in Congress agreed that climate change was a real and present threat, she said, and opponents John McCain and Barack Obama had very similar stances on climate change in that year’s presidential election.

Recently, however, climate change has become a heavily partisan issue. It’s gotten to the point that any bills introduced into Congress mentioning climate get killed without much thought from policy-makers, she said.

It’s important to inform the public about key climate change issues, such as the Keystone XL pipeline, she said, because it is the public who elect the legislators. The pipeline is an extension of the Keystone pipeline that originates in Canada, and it would carry crude oil as far south as Houston, Texas. Opponents argue the pipeline would damage the surrounding environment. The pipeline would also provide more fossil fuels to be burned, pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Informing the general public requires prominent coverage of science in the media, Eilperin said, coverage the pipeline has not really received.

“If you don’t have politicians caring about an issue and you can’t provide evidence that the public is caring about an issue…then it’s very difficult to argue that something deserves front page coverage,” she explained.

-Eric Villard, AGU science writing intern