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Publicize or perish: The scientific community is failing miserably in communicating the potential catastrophe of climate change.

By Joe Romm on October 7, 2009 at 9:20 pm

"Publicize or perish: The scientific community is failing miserably in communicating the potential catastrophe of climate change."

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Physics World asked me to write for a special issue on Energy, Sustainability and Climate Change.  The article, “Publicize or perish,” is online and reposted below with links.

Scientists must get better at messaging about climate change before it is too late. (Credit: Photolibrary)

The fate of the next 50 generations may well be determined in the next few months and years. Will the US Congress agree to a shrinking cap on greenhouse-gas emissions and legislation to achieve the transformation to clean energy? If not, you can forget about a global climate deal. But even if the bill passes and a global deal is achieved, both will need to be continuously strengthened in coming years, as the increasingly worrisome science continues to inform the policy, just as in the case of the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting substances.

The International Scientific Congress on climate change held in Copenhagen in March, which was attended by 2000 scientists, concluded that “Recent observations confirm that, given high rates of observed emissions, the worst-case Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realized.” That would mean that by 2100 there would be atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide of more than 1000 ppm, total planetary warming of 5 °C and sea-level rises probably on the high end of recent projections of 1-2 m followed by a rise of as much as 2 cm per year or more for centuries. We would also see one-third of inhabited land reaching dust bowl levels of aridity, half or more of all species becoming extinct, and the oceans increasingly becoming hot, acidic, dead zones. And if we do not change course quickly, the latest science predicts that these impacts may be irreversible for 1000 years.  [See "Intro to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water.]

In short, the fate of perhaps the next 100 billion people to walk the Earth rests with scientists (and those who understand the science) trying to communicate the dire nature of the climate problem (and the myriad solutions available now) as well as the ability of the media, the public, opinion-makers and political leaders to understand and deal with that science.

Disinformation and scientific illiteracy

So far, we are failing miserably. Neither the US nor the world as a whole has taken any consequential action to reverse emissions trends. And if the scientific community does not help lead the way in reversing emissions, then we will justifiably bear serious blame from future generations, who will no doubt become increasingly bitter about the havoc our ignorance and myopia has brought them. Nobody will be writing books calling us “the greatest generation.”

As one example of how bad scientific messaging has been, let me go through Gallup polling over the past decade as discussed in a 2008 article in Environment magazine entitled “A widening gap: Republican and Democratic views on climate change”.

The article reported that in 1997 some 52% of Democrats said that the effects of global warming had already begun and 52% said most scientists believe global warming is occurring. In 2008 some 76% said warming had begun and 75% said most scientists believe warming is occurring. It would appear that Democrats believe most scientists.

Few leading climate scientists or major scientific bodies would disagree that the scientific case that the planet is warming – and that humans are the dominant cause of recent temperature rises – has become stronger in the past 10 years. That is clearly seen in the scientific literature – as summarized in the IPCC reports.

And yet for Republicans, in 1997 some 48% said warming had begun and 42% said most scientists believe warming is occurring – a modest six-point differential. By 2008, the percentage of Republicans saying the effects of global warming had already begun had dropped to a mere 42% (an amazing statistic in its own right given the painfully obvious evidence to the contrary). But the percentage saying most scientists believe global warming is occurring had risen to 54% – a stunning 12-point differential.

In short, a significant and growing number of Republicans – one in eight as of 2008 – simply do not believe what they know most scientists believe. That is quite alarming news, given that it is inconceivable that the US will take the very strong action needed to avert catastrophe unless it comes to believe what most scientists believe, namely that we are in big, big trouble and can delay no further.

Here is the lesson for scientists: in the last decade, we have apparently become less convincing to Republicans than the deniers have been. They have apparently become better at messaging, while we have perhaps become worse.

[For more poll details, see "The Deniers are winning, but only with the GOP".]

In part, this has occurred because there is an organized disinformation campaign promoted by conservative think tanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and well funded by fossil-fuel companies like ExxonMobil, with key messages repeated by conservative pundits and politicians like George Will, Rush Limbaugh and Republican Senator James Inhofe. At the same time, the media have treated this more as a political issue than a scientific one, thereby necessitating in their view a “balanced” presentation of both sides, notwithstanding the fact that the overwhelming majority of scientists understand humans are warming the planet and dangerously so. Also, increasingly profit-driven media have been abdicating their role in science education. Science writer Chris Mooney and scientist Sheril Kirshenbaum offer these grim statistics in their recent book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future (2009, Basic Books):

  • For every five hours of cable news, one minute is devoted to science;
  • Some 46% of Americans believe that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old;
  • The number of US newspapers with science sections has shrunk by two-thirds in the last 20 years;
  • Just 18% of Americans know a scientist personally;
  • The overwhelming majority of Americans polled in late 2007 either could not name a scientific role model or named “people who are either not scientists or not alive”.

The lack of scientific messaging

Yet just when the media are abandoning science coverage, many scientists are increasingly reluctant to address politicized issues like global warming.

Scientists who are also great public communicators, like Carl Sagan or Richard Feynman, have grown scarcer as science has become increasingly specialized. Moreover, the media like the glib and the dramatic, which is a style that most scientists deliberately avoid. Scientists like to focus on the things that they do not know, since that is the cutting edge of scientific research. So they do not keep repeating the things that they do know, which is one reason that the public and the media often do not hear from scientists about the strong areas of consensus on global warming. And as the physicist Mark Bowen writes in Thin Ice (2006, Holt), his book about glaciologist Lonnie Thompson, “Scientists have an annoying habit of backing off when they’re asked to make a plain statement, and climatologists tend to be worse than most.”

As scientist and writer Jared Diamond wrote in a 1997 article in Discover magazine on scientific messaging (or the lack thereof), “Scientists who do communicate effectively with the public often find their colleagues responding with scorn, and even punishing them in ways that affect their careers.” After Sagan became famous, he was rejected for membership of the National Academy of Sciences in a special vote. This became widely known, and, as Diamond writes, “Every scientist is capable of recognizing the obvious implications for his or her self-interest.”

Scientists who have been outspoken about global warming have been repeatedly attacked as having a “political agenda”. As a 2006 article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society explained (87 1025), “For a scientist whose reputation is largely invested in peer-reviewed publications and the citations thereof, there is little professional pay-off for getting involved in debates that mix science and politics.”

The scientific community must figure out how to effectively engage the public on this crucial issue. The physics community in particular must help lead the way. After all, it was effective at warning the public and policymakers about the dangers of that other existential threat to the human race – nuclear weapons. We appear to have walked back from the precipice of global nuclear war only to face an equally grave threat from our unbridled consumption of fossil fuels.

I believe that the major scientific bodies and leading scientists in the US must come together immediately to develop and quickly implement a serious communication strategy. We are again at the precipice. Indeed, it is, as the current Presidential Science Advisor and physicist John Holdren has said many times, too late to avoid dangerous anthropogenic warming of the planet. Now the only question is whether we can avoid unmitigated catastrophe.

One final point. If the scientific community is unable to help persuade the public, opinion-makers and political leaders to take the necessary action now, then the entire relationship of science to the broader world will change forever. When the US and the world do get desperate about global warming in the next decade or two, then the entire focus of society, of scientists and engineers, and of academia will be directed toward a Second-World-War-scale effort to mitigate what we can and adapting to the myriad miseries that our myopic dawdling has made inevitable. I do not think that the scientific community has even begun to think about that.

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27 Responses to Publicize or perish: The scientific community is failing miserably in communicating the potential catastrophe of climate change.

  1. ken levenson says:

    Andy Revkin’s horrendous coverage of the March Congress is almost a parody of himself:

    “There are signs, some scientists warned on Thursday, that overheated descriptions of looming dangers coming out of the conference could actually backfire. More on those warnings is below….Daniel Sarewitz at Arizona State University said this was a classic example of how scientists and the media play down complexity in their thirst for powerful framing that catches attention and might drive action. The problem, he and several colleagues said, is that over-reaching can also lead to distrust and further polarization of advocates threatened or empowered by the controversial finding.”

    http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/12/copenhagen-summit-seeks-climate-action/

    …while Rome burns….

    The scientists have got to get together en masse across diciplines and make a stand or the frog will remain brainless.

  2. Emily says:

    I would argue that nonprofit media are working hard to translate science for the average person to convey the urgency felt by the scientific community. Mainstream may not cover it, but look at groups like InvestigateWest (invw.org), High Country News (hcn.org), The Nature Conservancy (nature.org) and California Watch (californiawatch.org), to name a few. The voices are out there. We just need to support them so the message is heard.

  3. JWFITZ says:

    Actually I believe scientists are doing a very fine job of getting the data to those capable of understanding it. What I find to be very lacking, however, is direct personal action by those who understand the threats of climate change. This means of course direct advocacy. but the most effective advocacy is demonstrating personally a lifestyle that reflects the changes that the future demands of that. When average people, perhaps not conversant in the science are exposed to those who live differently than others–markedly differently, and meaningfully–they are indeed persuaded.

  4. JWFITZ says:

    In other words, if I’m unclear–it’s WE that need to begin living differently, and less consumptively. It’s WE that need to act. No one is going to act for us.

  5. Wes Rolley says:

    I have to deal with multiple issues, of which global warming is just one. A related one is that of water, drought and the fate of farming in California’s San Joaquin Valley. This latter is even more politicized than global warming with politicians of both sides of the aisle turning up the volume on the propaganda machines. It is also nearly impossible to get a good story out of the main stream media and when they do quote a good, knowledgeable source, it is mostly misquoted.

    These two issues are related in that climate change will exacerbate the drought and building more dams and canals does not help much when significant farm land acrerage is going to flood from sea level rise.

    What we get are politicians, like Jim Costa and Dennis Cardoza, Democratic Congressmen from the San Joaquin Valley, pushing for short range solutions in an effort to keep themselves in office.

    I would argue that politicians do not react because they don’t want to hear what the scientists are saying… they are afraid that it will not poll well.

  6. Sanford says:

    A standard lament that I hear from certain conservatives is that the country really and truely is conservative, and if it weren’t for the liberal elites in the media (and educational community) that are constantly confusing and befuddling the American voter, then we would have the kind of conservative government that we need. They seem unable to comprehend hat maybe, just maybe, that silent majority really isn’t fully in their camp.

    This post sounds like a liberal version of that complaint, i.e., people really are ready to be lead to the promised land of low carbon living, except that they are being confused and befuddled by Deniers funded by (modest) sums of money from big business, and by the mainstream media and a science community that hasn’t hectored them frequently enough and severely enough about the absolute horrors that lie just around the corner.

    Perhaps the real problem is that the American public is simply not willing to make major sacrifices for an predicted apocalypse that lies decades into the future. I don’t think this is simply stubborness born of stupidity. I think it is more likely numbness born of life experience. Most of us have been bombarded since birth by dire warnings and dogmatic advice on how to live our lives, with much of that advice contradictory, and coming from a broad spectrum of credentialed experts and authorities . After awhile, it starts to seem like meaningless noise. I think most of us roll our eyes a little bit each time some new study or scientific finding rockets through the media. Here we go again….

    This jaundiced view of experts and authorities certainly spills over to the climate change debate. We’ve been hearing about the horrors of global warming now for 20 some years, going back to Hansen. Yet every year, the seasons come and go. There are hot spells that make you wonder, and then cold spells that make you doubt. We hear warnings of increases in deadly events like storms, droughts, and hurricanes. But those have always been with us, and unless one happens to be pounding you right now, it feels like more media hype than real threat. For most, climate change is not nearly as worrisome as losing a job, or losing health insurance, or losing retirement funds in a collapsing market.

    My prediction is that if you ramp up the rhetoric, much of the American public will just tune out in an ever more deliberate fashion. And each year that passes without clear evidence of an immediate, personally felt catastrophe will simply reinforce the notion that you guys are a bunch of chicken littles who can safely be ignored.

  7. David Otness says:

    Well put.
    No going back.
    To doom or not to doom?
    That remains the ?.

  8. paulm says:

    When the US and the world do get desperate about global warming in the next decade or two

    I think the desperation will now becoming within the next few years if 2009 is anything to go by.

    Here in Canada, the public radio, CBC, has recently taken to discussing various CC issues openly, realistically and regularly. This week I think there was a discussion almost daily. The month before and previous there was hardly a mention on the topic.

    We have ignoring the wail of those desperate scientist because this was so way out of the picture and demands substantial sacrifices. But its hard to deny whats happening right now. I fear it is too late for the worst. We can only try as best we can from were we stand.

    Everyone is starting to get a very uneasy feeling about this.

  9. Roland says:

    Graham Pearman, former head of Atmospheric research at CSIRO is now looking at the human problem and out inaction in spite of all the evidence

    A very interesting presentation
    http://www.greenhouse2009.com/downloads/Keynote_090324_0930_Pearman.pdf
    and related article
    http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/what-we-have-is-the-failure-to-communicate-20090615-caq1.html

  10. Of all the ways to solve a problem, denying it is the worst.

  11. Richard Brenne says:

    I’m convinced many if not most scientists have something like at least mild Asperger’s Syndrome that makes scholarship easier for them than all social interactions, especially speaking to audiences of non-scientists.

    And to be a scientist today (as opposed to say, the patent clerk Einstein or most scientists before that time) means you work for some large governmental or academic institution that you don’t want to anger or upset.

    Scientists typically aren’t good communicators. Good communicators usually don’t understand science.

    Because they don’t understand the science sufficiently, most journalists are as timid as scientists about making – or even quoting -bold statements.

    TV meteorologists are hopelessly timid, as are their station managers, because the vast majority of our economy runs on fossil fuels, either indirectly or directly like the auto dealerships that are a high percentage of most TV stations’ advertising.

    The best single success story is the one you mention, Joe, that I’ve written about many times. My frequent panelist Brian Toon was the lead scientist and author of most of the nuclear winter research, while his partner Carl Sagan was the popularizer of the danger of nuclear winter.

    Together they partnered to finally convince Gorbachev and Reagan and those in their governments that nuclear war was unwinnable, because a full exchange would create a nuclear winter so severe that it wouldn’t get above freezing for a single day for at least two years in Iowa and Ukraine, so very little food could be grown anywhere in the world.

    And so I’m working on setting up a network of top climate scientists and top communicators like you, Joe, to agree to wording and concepts that can then be communicated boldly, as you, Al Gore, Bill McKibben and Jim Hansen do – almost alone, along with the folks at RealClimate.

    We already have a prototype in place that has worked well. Let me know if you’re interested.

    Thanks,

    Richard Brenne

  12. JeandeBegles says:

    In agreement with JWFITZ, and by opposition to some macro analysis developped here (ie CO2 wedges), I think the solution nedds to be bought by every people. The difficulty with the global warming threat is for everyone to understand that he is part of the problem and that it depends on him to be part of the solution.
    How to get people involved? To make them understand that the total CO2 emissions is the result of the addition of everyone emissions. We are living in a consumer driven society.
    We think at taca (french association http://taca.asso-web.com/77+premiers-films-et-photos-du-picnic-sans-carbone-du-4-octobre-2009-a-bordeaux.html) that it is up to the consummer (or citizen) to cut his CO2 emissions and that there must be a financial driver (a price on carbon via a carbon tax) to favor low carbon products and services versus intensive carbon products that are today the cheapest ones.
    This individual involvement needs a sensible and clear unit of measure: the CO2 ton is pointless, the carbon kilo (equivalent of the use of 1 litre of gasoline) is the right unit of measure, even if it needs to change what is goind on.
    Do you think that we will achieve this path towards a low carbon society without pain and effort?
    Are we stupid?

  13. Florifulgurator says:

    Methinks it’s more than a science communication problem:

    The message is too depressing for mortals to not avoid thinking of it. It can be traumatizing to see the full picture. So they won’t ever listen to science and will always find excuses for freak weather. (I have listened enough to old Germans discussing Holocaust numbers. Denial until death.)

    Some of us are lucky to have slowly been eased into climate science over the last decades. And being a cold blooded scientist or empiricist does help a lot.

    But those who don’t get it now – now that the scientific picture and evolving evidence has sharpened to a profoundly horrifying and shattering scenario – need some help from psychologists. Scientists alone can’t do the full job of communicating climate science.

  14. Greg says:

    I disagree, Joe. The USA is not the world. Articles such as this suggest that scientists have communicated very effectively:

    Angry statement from 131 countries at climate talks in Bangkok claims rich nations are rejecting historical responsibilities

    One hundred thirty-one countries have heard the message loud and clear.

    Lots of business leaders want to get on with attacking the problem, too. Even the head of Air New Zealand, an airline based in a place where you have to fly 1000 miles to get to your nearest neighbor, is unhappy with the American and European shenanigans:

    Air NZ chief blasts climate change ‘circus’

  15. BBHY says:

    There is a significant anti-science, anti-intellectual tilt in much of the American public, led mostly by the wingers, rural, and southerners.

    So, scientists have not just a disinterested, but in many cases a hostile public working against them.

    Until we start convincing people that science is a good thing, and makes for a stronger America, stronger economy, and better life for people, then there is little chance of getting the message across, at least to that segment of society.

  16. Hmpf says:

    Sanford mentions widespread distrust of experts and especially of experts announcing ‘apocalyptic’ threats: he’s right, I think; this really is part of the problem. I’ve encountered some of the typical evasive deniers’ arguments in the local Greenpeace group, of all places! (Specifically: “In the seventies they told us that a new ice age was imminent” – implying that we shouldn’t worry too much now because experts have been wrong before; and “you have to remember that some people are making a lot of money by declaring the next apocalyptic threat” – implying that scientists are motivated by money rather than facts when they announce that we have a serious problem.) – And this is Germany, not the almost proverbially science-averse U.S.

    I think human beings are almost hardwired not to be able to mentally process the truly massive threats (after all, isn’t trying to ignore the fact that we are all mortal one of the main ways we cope with the inevitable fact of our own death, for as long as possible? It’s not surprising we’d behave the same regarding the potential death of civilisation.) Plus, yeah, there’s the fact that not a single apocalyptic warning of the past has come true; so ignoring new ones seems well-founded, rationally. (Of course, this really is as rational as believing, as you fall from the top of a skyscraper, that you’ll never hit the ground just because you haven’t hit the ground yet…)

    Despite this, how to put it, “anti-apocalyptic bias” maybe?, I suspect that to get the world to act appropriately to counter the current threat, people around the world would first need to accept the extent and the reality of the threat, and despite the anti-expert bias it would probably be helpful if scientists spoke out more clearly. But it will definitely be an uphill battle.

  17. DrD says:

    First, I recently read Chris Mooney’s and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future and recommend it for a greater discussion of the heart of this post. (I also recommend “Idiot America” by Charles Pierce for a look at why convincing the unconviced will be difficult.)
    Second, when I read Sanford’s post (#6 above), I found myself agreeing–briefly–with his analysis and scenario. But, like Martin Luther who declared that if he knew the world would end tomorrow he would nevertheless plant his apple tree today, I will continue to do what I can to reduce my own carbon footprint, to correct the misunderstandings of the mis-informed, and to communicate to a larger audience in my own small way the human-caused global warming dangers that face my children and grandchildren and soon-to-be great grandchild. I’m discouraged, but not (yet) despairing.

  18. Lewis says:

    I agree with what others have said, succinctly as “It isn’t the facts they won’t accept but the consequences.”

    All of the deniers I know are at minimum libertarian leaning. They view government as the enemy out to take the fruit of their labor and pass it around to those who don’t labor. They view AGW as another tactic of the enemy to seperate them from their earnings.

    Just something else to be afraid of, someone else telling them how to live.

  19. Giove says:

    Sorry for reposting, but i should have written here. Please delete the one(s) you believe most appropriate:

    I think the real problem is that a part of the elite of western society, a very influential part which is able to deeply shape opinions of the general population, has distanced itself from science. While using all the benefits from science, I believe it is weary of the changes that any advance in knowledge brings .. and that carry a threat to the status-quo. I also believe that when business is sniffed they start running… so the situation can change very quickly if you can show the sparkle of money…

    For example, if I am not wrong, in the 80’s USA has been pulling all the brakes on genetic research. Then (I think, as I don’t know the details) from one day to the next USA changed patent law on DNA sequences, changing a stalled research into a gold rush that involved government, pharma industries, venture capital, universities etc etc.

    I believe that deniers can thus be convinced of pursuing the necessary climate-friendly politics, as long as they can benefit from it. Then suddenly they will become the strongest proponents of the good and the right :) ..

    There is a problem though. Who is the typical denier? If it is an ultra-egoist old guy (and I know a few) .. then he really does not care about anything after him and while he has power he will do everything to avoid investing further than the nearest future. He has been eating the future for the entire life (see public debt accumulation and other similar politics), so he will not change now. Is the problem a generational issue in addition to scientific communication?

  20. Leland Palmer says:

    I think that the main problem is that we have a corporate controlled news media here in the U.S., but most of us think that it is a free press. And that corporate controlled news media seems to be dominated by giant oil corporations like ExxonMobil that want to drill for oil in an Arctic that is ice free in the summer.

    Consider the testimony of Scott Borgerson, an employee of the Rockefeller (ExxonMobil) dominated Council on Foreign Relations, before the U.S. Senate (following a campaign of testimony before the House, and several articles in the New York Times and other print media, and a couple of nationwide television interviews):

    http://www.cfr.org/publication/19313/prepared_remarks.html?breadcrumb=%2Fbios%2F13363%2F

    1) U.S. policy has not kept pace with climate change. Ice in the Arctic Ocean is melting much more quickly than most people appreciate and U.S. policymaking is lagging far behind environmental realities. The Arctic is the fastest warming region on earth and is on pace to be ice free in the summer by 2013. The past few years have witnessed extraordinary melting and last summer the two fabled Arctic passages over Eurasia and North America opened together for the first time in history. Recent satellite images of the Chuchki and Beaufort Seas show dramatically less ice than what is historically normal for this time of year. By every measure, from huge ice shelves breaking free to complex environmental dynamics that scientists do not fully understand, the polar ice cap is disappearing and all indicators point to another record sea ice minimum this coming summer. We may be approaching a tipping point past which the melting sea ice cannot recover.
    2) This dramatic and unprecedented climatic change is affecting the geopolitics of the region. The Arctic is home to an estimated twenty-two percent of the world’s remaining undiscovered hydrocarbon reserves as well as access to the fabled shipping routes over Eurasia and North America, both of which have led to balance-of-power struggles in the region. The next few years will be critical in determining whether the Arctic’s long-term future will be one of international harmony and the rule of law, or of a Hobbesian free-for-all with dangerous potential for conflict. This is a story still being written with a plot full of characters who speak of multilateral cooperation but pursue their own self-interest. There is, however, reason for optimism, as governments in Washington, Moscow, Ottawa, Oslo and Copenhagen have issued public commitments to behave peacefully in the Arctic region, in addition to the general
    1 These views are my own and not those of the Council on Foreign Relations, which takes no institutional position on matters of public policy.
    goodwill that has developed during the ongoing International Polar Year. Several Arctic states are closely collaborating on mapping the seafloor, with scientists from one country sailing aboard icebreakers of another. On the face of it, everyone seems to be getting along swimmingly.
    But there is reason to worry, especially considering Russia’s increasingly assertive behavior in regards to military and economic expansion in the region….

    Even Asian countries with no Arctic coastlines are getting into the game. The Chinese sent its icebreaker, the Snow Dragon, on its third Arctic expedition last summer. Beijing successfully earned observer status to the Arctic Council and also plans to install its first long-term deep-sea monitoring system in the Arctic to keep an eye on long-term marine changes and the impacts of global warming on China’s climate. South Korean and Singaporean shipyards are building new icebreakers and ice-strengthened tankers to navigate new Arctic routes. Japan is closely watching the shorter shipping routes opening up in the region, which will benefit Japanese businesses due to the country’s northern latitude….

    The combination of new shipping routes, trillions of dollars in possible oil and gas resources, and a poorly defined picture of state ownership makes for potentially an unstable geopolitical situation.

    3) The U.S. should approach the Arctic with enthusiastic diplomacy and in a spirit of cooperation, while hedging in order to protect its interests. While the U.S. has a critical leadership role to play in helping the Arctic develop peacefully, responsible statecraft requires immediate corrective action to address strategic vulnerabilities as a result of the sea change on America’s fifth coast.
    Specifically, the U.S. should:
    a. Strengthen the Arctic policy released in the last week of the Bush administration in three key areas. First, the policy did not specifically outline funding for new icebreakers. The Coast Guard needs at least two new ships to replace the geriatric Polar Sea and mothballed Polar Star. The country finds itself in a dire predicament considering the cost of more than one billion dollars per acquisition, and that each ship will take a decade to build given the egregious inefficiencies imposed by the Jones Act. Even if Congress appropriated the money today, this would mean the U.S. would be launching its first new ship five years after the Arctic was already seasonally ice free. This is unacceptable, especially in light of the fact Moscow has pledged to build at least three new nuclear ships to join what is already the world’s largest icebreaker fleet.

    The CFR, Borgerson’s employer, is dominated by the richest people in the country, including the Rockefeller family, who still appear to retain significant control of ExxonMobil, by some measures the world’s largest corporation. This is the foreign policy voice of Big Oil, IMO.

    So, Big Oil looks forward to an ice free Arctic, and wants to drill for oil there, going after the estimated 22% of remaining undiscovered oil deposits that are currently under the Arctic icecap.

    They want the rest of us to pay for nuclear icebreakers, to guide their reinforced tankers through the thinning Arctic pack ice from the oil platforms to ports that can offload the oil.

    Big Oil appears to want a world with an Arctic that is ice free in the summer, and is willing to risk all of our lives, the lives of our children, and the future of the next hundred generations of humans to achieve their ice free Arctic, IMO.

    And Big Oil is willing to tell multiple lies to multiple audiences, fund a network of climate deniers, and exercise their controlling influence over our mainstream news media to achieve an Arctic that is ice free in the summer, I think.

    Personally, I don’t think Big Oil can get their ice-free Arctic within any human timescale without setting off a runaway methane catastrophe.

    I think the scientists are being too conservative in their statements, but they are also transmitting their message through communications channels that don’t want to carry the message, and will delay, distort, and minimize the climate change problem in service of their hidden agenda – which is an Arctic that is ice free in the summer.

  21. Jim Bouldin says:

    Oh boy, here we go with another “scientists can’t (or won’t) communicate” article, which have become so chic lately. This is nothing more than evidence of the increased finger pointing that generally occurs when an intractable problem gets worse.

    The ability of scientists to communicate what is happening is NOT the central problem here. There are BOATLOADS of information targeted at the level the general public can understand, written by scientists, in various media, particularly on agency and university-maintained websites, among many others. And the basics of the problem are frankly not that difficult to understand, qualitatively. Exactly what is going to happen in the future, however, is another problem entirely, and scientists walk a VERY fine line between over-statement and under-statement, while being criticized from both sides for leaning too far in the ‘other’ direction.

    For the most part you put up very useful stuff here–particularly with respect to the legislative/policy side of things–but every now and then you fly off with something like this that you have just not thought through very well.

    [JR: It's not the central problem -- as evidence by what I spend 99% of my posts on -- but it is a major and ongoing problem. The media is a bigger problem. Conservatives/deniers biggest.]

  22. Giove says:

    Would a (maybe subsidized) intervention convince big $$ to extract methane hydrates from shallow deposits, the most vulnerable to thermal decomposition, instead of drilling for more oil? I mean, if they are doing tar sands and mountaintop removal, and 20 km deep drills .. they can do this too. They also should be able to develop the technologies to quickly find them, maybe from satellite with synthetic aperture radar or other means? I believe that once they are motivated to do it, they would do it in no time.

    In this way they could help to defuse one of the most dangerous known processes while switching to an energy source which is not likely to peak for a very, very, very long time (unless it blows up in the atmosphere!). Of course, this (and they) must not stop deployment of renewable sources and energy efficiency.

  23. Midwest says:

    I generally agree with what Jim Bouldin wrote and I think the stats Joe cites demonstrate the point. Democrats get it, Republicans don’t. This is not because scientists have communicated better to one group than the other. The simple facts are that 1) contrary to Joe’s statement, the current effects of climate change are NOT obvious or even apparent to your average person. Try telling a dubious Midwesterner that terrible changes are underway when they just experienced their coolest summer on record! And, 2) given that the current effects are not obvious or having any noticeable effects on the lives of most people, nor can most people read both sides of the “debate” and know how to make heads or tails of it, they do what comes natural: they adopt the position of those they already agree with on other topics. Republicans don’t doubt global warming because they are ignorant of the evidence, they just don’t see undeniably obvious proof, and don’t like the solution (i.e. scary Big government and international actions).

    Joe, I know you liked Mooney’s latest book, but I think it is important to note that a lot of smart and reasonable people, scientists included, think it is both fluff filled and off target in several areas. Messaging is important, but it is not one of the most important problems here as you somewhat conceded. I’m sure you are aware of the “framing wars” that lead to Mooney leaving the Science Blogs group and which have made the name “Nisbet” a dirty word and a laughing stock in some quarters. This topic is a sure way to divide “our side” and not make any useful progress. There is no shortage of information, well presented, available. The message is out there and people hear it loud and clear. However, many people will never believe it until they see it with their own two eyes. And that is just not happening yet in ways that make an emotional impact on people.

  24. Florifulgurator says:

    Midwest, paraphrasing: I’m no longer sure if people will ever believe it even when they see it with their own two eyes.

    E.g. Australia is meanwhile hard hit by shifting climate, with evidence hurting the eyes, like forest fire storms, dying sheep and farmers, the latest soil storm etc. And still the wingnuts there busily explain that they don’t get it.

    Another example is some of my Bavarian alpinist buddys. They see the glaciers receding. Still they don’t believe it. One popular excuse here is ice man Ötzi. It should suffice to eyeball the distance between today’s ice and the memorial on the spot where they found Ötzi. But no, it ain’t true…

  25. Ed says:

    In Holland a recent studie by a group of young scientist and students gave the following figures:

    Cutting CO2 emissions by 20 procent costs 6748 euro per family! This is ammortisised in 6 years by lower energy prices (they forget about imported CO2 but what the heck). That is considered to long by most families.

    Even more concerning. The group born after 1974 (which grew upduring the Reagan/Thatcher globalisation frenzy) is less likely to conserve energy then their parents!

    So we’re most likely to continue the great work of our forfathers!

    Greetings, Ed

  26. Mike#22 says:

    May I humbly suggest that all of the involved scientists out there create, sign, and publicize a simple one paragraph:

    “Declaration of Imminent Disaster”

    Start a private website, build the list of peers, workshop the paragraph.

  27. Roger says:

    One reason Joe blogs is so that folks in 2100 (if they’re able to find a record) will be able to read what we were thinking in 2009–back when there was still a chance. Millions of years of evolution down the drain. Too bad we can’t work together to preserve the relative “Heaven on Earth” that most of us now enjoy. “I’m sorry, dear grandkids, Mossy and I did what we could; you can’t believe how frustrating it was…”

    But let’s keep trying. We had air raid drills run by the government in the last century. Maybe the government, charged with protecting its citizens, could spend a few million dollars to better publicize the $20 billion dollars worth of climate research that sits dormant at http://www.globalchange.gov. I’m sure that Madison Avenue could come up with some memorable jingles, etc., given enough financial incentives.

    If we combined climate-preservation ads with a call for sacrifice and action by loyal, red-blooded Americans who are willing to heed the plea for planetary help from their President, maybe we can still save ourselves, from ourselves. Billions of grandkids would be grateful!