Richard Somerville editorial: How much should the public know about climate science?

Unfortunately, the world needs to take firm action about the threat of manmade climate change within the next decade….   Realistically, there may be no chance to educate the general public in depth about the science so quickly. Meanwhile, a well-funded and effective professional disinformation campaign has been successful in sowing confusion, and many people mistakenly think climate change science is unreliable or is controversial within the expert community. Thus, the more urgent task for us scientists may well be to give the public guidelines for recognizing and rejecting junk science and disinformation. If students today, who will be adults tomorrow, can understand and apply these guidelines, they may not need a detailed knowledge of climate change science. To that end, I offer the following six principles.

Climatologist Richard C. J. Somerville is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.  Although I did my thesis research at Scripps, we’ve never formally met.

Somerville helped organize the must-read 2007 Bali Climate Declaration, in which more than 200 of the world’s leading climate scientist explained why we must limit total warming to no more than 2°C.

He sent me a new essay published online with open access in Climatic Change, “How much should the public know about climate science?”  He notes that recent research shows “global emissions of greenhouse gases must peak and decline within the next decade if global warming is to be limited to a level that avoids severe climate disruption” (see figure below).

Given the success of the most effective, immoral, and self-destructive disinformation campaign in US history, scientists need to focus their messaging on a handful of key points.  Somerville offers six:

  1. The essential findings of mainstream climate change science are firm. The world is warming. There are many kinds of evidence: air temperatures, ocean temperatures, melting ice, rising sea levels, and much more. Human activities are the main cause. The warming is not natural. It is not due to the sun, for example.  We know this because we can measure the effect of man-made carbon dioxide and it is much stronger than that of changes in the sun, which we also measure.
  2. The greenhouse effect is well understood. It is as real as gravity. The foundations of the science are more than 150 years old. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat. We know carbon dioxide is increasing because we measure it. We know the increase is due to human activities like burning fossil fuels because we can analyze the chemical evidence for that.
  3. Our climate predictions are coming true. Many observed climate changes, like rising sea level, are occurring at the high end of the predicted range. Some observed changes, like melting sea ice, are happening faster than the anticipated worst case.Unless mankind takes strong steps to halt and reverse the rapid global increase of fossil fuel use and the other activities that cause climate change, and does so in a very few years, severe climate change is inevitable. Urgent action is needed if global warming is to be limited to moderate levels.
  4. The standard skeptical arguments have been refuted many times over. The refutations are on many web sites and in many books. For example, the mechanisms causing natural climate change like ice ages are irrelevant to the current warming. We know why ice ages come and go. That is due to changes in the Earth’s orbit around the sun, changes that take thousands of years. The warming that is occurring now, over just a few decades, cannot possibly be caused by such slow-acting processes. But it can be caused by man-made changes in the greenhouse effect.
  5. Science has its own high standards. It does not work by unqualified people making claims on television or the Internet. It works by expert scientists doing research and publishing it in carefully reviewed research journals. Other scientists examine the research and repeat it and extend it. Valid results are confirmed, and wrong ones are exposed and abandoned. Science is self-correcting. People who are not experts, who are not trained and experienced in this field, who do not do research and publish it following standard scientific practice, are not doing science. When they claim that they are the real experts, they are just plain wrong.
  6. The leading scientific organizations of the world, like national academies of science and professional scientific societies, have carefully examined the results of climate science and endorsed these results. It is silly to imagine that thousands of climate scientists worldwide are engaged in a massive conspiracy to fool everybody. It is also silly to think that a few minor errors in the extensive IPCC reports can invalidate the reports. The first thing that the world needs to do to confront the challenge of climate change wisely is to learn about what science has discovered and accept it. The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report at is a good place to start.

The Fourth Assessment is a good place to start, but, as Somerville notes, the science in many aspects has become more dire (see “An illustrated guide to the latest climate science” and The Copenhagen Diagnosis).  For refuting the standard talking points of the anti-science disinformers, I’d recommend starting with Skeptical Science.

Somerville notes:

The CO2 growth rate has increased substantially over the period of record. It was 1.4 ppm per year on average from 1960 to 2005, but 1.9 ppm per year for the decade from 1995 to 2005, the highest recorded for any decade since measurements began…..  The observed increasing acidification of the world oceans, which may have profound biological implications, is also a serious consequence of adding CO2 to the atmosphere.

He presents this figure:


Emissions pathways to give a 67% chance of limiting global warming to 2—¦C above preindustrial temperatures. From: The Copenhagen Diagnosis, Updating the World on the Latest Climate Science ( Originally from German Advisory Council on Climate Change, Solving the Climate Dilemma: The Budget Approach, WBGU, Berlin, 2009. Creative Commons license.

Obviously, the all-too-willing takeover in this country of the conservative movement by the Tea Party makes it exceedingly unlikely we are going to hit one of those pathways (see Why the victory of the Tea Party extremists (backed by Big Oil) over the slightly less extreme GOP establishment (also backed by Big Oil) is good for progressives, but bad for climate and clean energy).  That doesn’t change the urgency of the messaging, but it does require an augmented strategy, which I will discuss post-election.


43 Responses to Richard Somerville editorial: How much should the public know about climate science?

  1. Dan Miller says:

    I had the honor to spend the day with Jim Hansen 2 weeks ago. He said we have one to two years left to begin reducing CO2 emissions if we are to have any hope of getting back to 350 ppm by the end of the century and, therefore, keep an earth that we would recognize (with ice caps). He said waiting 10 years will be too late.

    He also said that the chances of the legislative branch doing something effective was close to nil (and who would disagree?), so he said he will pursue action in the courts, where facts actually matter and you argue in front of intelligent people. Contact me via if you are interesting in supporting Jim’s activities.

  2. Alteredstory says:

    I recently did a bit of a rambling blog post on this, but one thing that I think is fairly important to change is public perception of scientists.

    There’s a stereotype of scientists as dry, unmotivated, and uninterested (if they’re not insane), and that, combined with a broad perspective of science as boring, leads to some speculation about why they do what they do. That in turn has led, for some, to the assumption that most scientists go into their respective fields because it must pay really well. After all, why else would you go spend all night tracking bats and then spend most of the day crunching the numbers you just got?

    It may be that I’m the only one who thinks this perception is part of the problem, but I do know that if more people had the understanding of science and scientists that made me laugh when I first heard what people think about them, they might be less likely to think of money as a likely motivator, and so less likely to dismiss results as corrupted by greed.

  3. Jeff Huggins says:

    Action-Thinking Beings and an “augmented strategy”

    First, thanks for the great thoughts, Dr. Somerville. Bravo!

    Second, I look forward to your thoughts on the “augmented strategy”, Joe, although I can’t say that I’m looking forward to the election results, but we’ll see. I hope that the “augmented strategy” is a super-duper augmented strategy, and I’m guessing that it will be, with anticipation.

    Third, human beings are “action-feeling-thinking” beings, for lack of a better phrase for present purposes. Our “thinking” and “feeling” and “action” are all so intimately intermingled and complex that I’d rather try to separate spaghetti sauce from the spaghetti (that it’s already mixed with), or try to separate Yin from Yang, than to try to begin to pretend to explain how action-thinking-feeling are separated in humans. So, what’s the import of this?

    I think we mislead ourselves, to a degree, if we think that some specific points, or some specific explanations, are going to carry the day, no matter how good they are, or seem, to our minds. I’m not suggesting that Dr. Somerville thinks this way, but WE ALL DO — especially cognitive types — to a degree.

    So, our actions — talking to neighbors, events and demonstrations, “pleas”, boycotts, suits against oil and coal companies, and so forth — all must proceed and go hand in hand with any efforts to fine-tune and improve messages. I could (if I only had the ability) write an excellent two-page eloquent compelling explanation of climate change and why we should act, BUT if I deliver it with a calm face, or merely on the internet, or merely as an editorial in the newspaper, rather than by laying my body down in front of the entrance to a coal plant, it will have marginal impact. ACTIONS speak louder than WORDS, period. ACTIONS and WORDS conveyed together, in person, are best yet. So, we can’t really disentangle the “message” and the “media”. And, we shouldn’t put a “hold” on demonstrations and activism until we think we have the message “perfectly right”.

    THIS WEEKEND, on the open thread (if Joe kindly offers an open thread, again), I hope that more people will participate in ideas and discussion regarding the “positive societal change” stuff. I’m also looking forward to Joe’s thoughts on “augmented strategy”, and I hope he “lets his hair down” as he thinks about that. (Sorry to draw attention to your hair, Joe.)

    Cheers for now,


  4. darth says:

    The figure is a bit unclear to me. Are the years labeled the starting years for the corresponding % reductions? So, if we start next year we only need 3.7, but waiting longer means more % later? Is that interpretation correct?

  5. cervantes says:

    So have you met him informally?

  6. It is hard to grasp that we’ve ignored this for nearly 60 years.
    Shame on us.

  7. mike roddy says:

    Dan Miller, I like the lawsuit tactic. Please keep us posted, and don’t overlook global scale lawsuits.

  8. Dan B says:

    Alteredstory @2;

    I agree. Scientists must be seen as people if any of Somerville’s points are to be accepted. Most people are looking for a trusted voice, not an expert whose credibility is the least bit uncertain.

    Most politicians and people who are influential know that task number one is to tell your story, a personal story, one that will give people a sense that they share your principles. Professor at Scripps is good for people who know what Scripps is, like me, for others it’s a non-starter.

    Why did Professor Somerville go into science? What was his family like? What’s his family like today?

    The six points are fine but it’s three too many, too wordy, and too many big words for a mainstream audience. They can easily be pared down. There’s good stuff in them. What stuck in my mind from a quick scan were a few things:

    The science of global warming is as clear as gravity. The principles have been understood for 150 years.

    Global warming is happening even faster than the experts predicted three years ago.

    There are many things that affect the earth’s temperature. Climate science has considered everything that has affected our climate from the rotation of the earth in its orbit to the change in ocean currents. The only thing that can explain the current increase in temperature of the earth is CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels.

    (An aside here. I like Tim Flannery’s response to people who doubt that humans could affect the atmosphere. He says the atmosphere looks like it goes forever but it’s actually very thin, like the thinnest peel on an onion. Great “simple” science.)

    Science has high standards. Research is published, reviewed, and checked. It is self correcting. Skeptics are not. They simply repeat their points and ignore the conclusion of hundreds of scientific organizations worldwide.

  9. spiritkas says:


    It seems like we’re paying for putting off our research and deployment of clean bright green technologies in the post-Carter years. I’m not sure if it is the media or the truth, but it still feels like the energy generation and infrastructure projects are 5-10 years away or more. I think efficiency is the bridge. We can drop our usage 50% in 10 years without building one wind turbine or mounting one solar panel. Current off the shelf building and energy efficiency technologies are about the only thing I see bridging the gap from now to when we get the populace, politics, and broad business base in line with reality.

    The return on investment is so quick for so many of these technologies, every new AC unit, new roof, new building could be made for 3-10% more in costs that can be 40-50% more energy efficient. It just pays off so quickly.

    I’m very intersted as well in what these augmented strategies might be and like green tech research and deployment, why in the world we haven’t been using this augmented strategies for years now. Perhaps the legal and business basis for such arguments are only now coming into fruition.



  10. Wit's End says:

    Dan Miller, I’m in favor of using the courts, but this:

    “you argue in front of intelligent people”

    is debatable!

  11. Steve Metzler says:

    Joe, first time poster here and I spotted a fairly major gaff in the opening spiel, which might give people exactly the opposite impression that you intend:

    “…in which more than 200 of the world’s leading climate scientist explained why we must limit total warming to *more* than 2°C.”

    (*my emphasis added*)

    I’m fairly certain that should be: *no more*. I quickly scanned the comments that proceeded mine, and no one else seems to have spotted it. Apologies if this is a dupe.

    Otherwise, very impressed by Dr. Somerville’s 6 concise and well stated points. Bookmarkin’ this.

    [JR: Yes, I dropped a ‘no’ — darn that voice dictation software which sometimes misses small words. Keep postin’!]

  12. Had long chat about communicating climate science with Dr Somerville at his office in Scripps a couple of years ago. He has been doing the hard work of communicating with the public for some time.

    It is less the message than the number of voices… There simply are more of “them” at a time when good media is lies crippled on the side of the road.

  13. PS There is a new international treaty as of 3 hours ago here in Japan on protecting biodiversity… that can help climate change if implemented by countries.

    The US did not sign on.

  14. Wit's End says:

    Hi Dan #1,

    I agree with you whole-heartedly that we are in an emergency and should use any means at our disposal (aside from violence), especially including the courts. Actually I would like to see the President declare war on climate change and ration fuel, restricting its use to only the most necessary activities, and do the same thing with water. I also agree with what you said in your talk, that Al Gore’s more tepid approach isn’t going to be effective – at least, not in the time frame we have left – and it’s time to scare people out of their wits with the unvarnished truth.

    I don’t know if you have visited my blog where I write about ozone, but I would like to suggest it because I think the “other” greenhouse gas problem might be actionable in court since the damages are so widespread – dying trees with all that implies, and a significant diminishment in crop yields. Potential complainants are farmers, consumers who pay higher prices for food, homeowners or businesses who have to cut down and replace trees that have been damaged, or fallen on property such as cars and buildings – even killed a mounting number of people.

    The harm wrought from ozone seems much more immediate than climate change and has basically everyone as its victim, including people who are part of the epidemics of cancer, emphysema, and asthma.

    NASA, the EPA, the Department of Agriculture and the Forestry Service openly publish information (much of which is linked on my website along with academic research) that links ozone to all of the effects I mentioned, so there really shouldn’t be any issue about whether real damage is being caused. The energy companies are actively engaged in spending money to contradict the science and derail regulations on ozone levels, so perhaps there is an action on that basis.

    Lastly, I saw on your website that you are giving a talk on algae and biofuels. If you know of anyone who is testing to see whether the emissions from biofuels are better – or worse – for the health of humans and the biosphere, I would be very interested. The only information I have been able to find on this topic indicates ethanol causes more caustic ozone than gasoline, which might be one reason trees are dying at a rapidly accelerating rate.

    Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions, suggestions, or can think of any way I could be useful.

    Stephen Leahey, THAT is the most depressing thing I have seen since Copenhagen.

  15. Mimikatz says:

    Darth: Yes. Hansen had a similar chart when I heard him. The sooner we start, the less quickly we have to reduce. Conversely, the longer we wait, the faster we have to reduce to get to the same place.

    He also said that it matters how long we stay at elevated levels. He seemed to say that the ice sheets were probably ultimately unstable at 450 ppm, maybe even at current levels for an extended time. Therefore, we have to get cracking ASAP.

  16. Mike says:

    This is a little OT. A lot has been made about the parallels between the denial of climate change and the denial of the dangers of tobacco use and second hand smoke. But another important historical parallel is the refusal of the Reagan Administration to deal with AIDS. Many thousands likely dies because of the delays.

    “Reagan’s religious background, feelings or beliefs had nothing to do with the political response to the AIDS epidemic. Rather, his appalling lack of leadership and vision — which led directly to enormous setbacks for HIV/AIDS research, discrimination against people with AIDS and the lack of any comprehensive outreach for prevention or education work, thus adding to the already-staggering tally of deaths — was a product of indifference, disdain, self-imposed ignorance and a political capitulation to the rising wave of a new, staunchly reactionary and religious Republican constituency that was to reshape not only the party but the state of American politics.”

    It does not have the corporate connections, but the political parallels and the psychology of fear are present.

  17. Jay Dee Are says:

    Expecting nonexperts to read and comprehend the IPCC AR4 report is a tall order. Even educated people wouldn’t read The Gulag Archipelago because it was too long and that was more understandable by the general public. I recommend starting with Mann and Kump’s “Dire Predictions.”

  18. Mark Shapiro says:

    Andy Revkin has a pivotal post today at dot earth –

    In addition to helping people understand the science, we need to help them overcome their fear and anger. When those emotions are being stoked by a well-funded disinformation campaign, it is even tougher, and even more important.

    Just as we ask people to accept unpleasant physical realities, we need to accept unpleasant psychological and social realities.

    Reality rules.

  19. Dan says:

    There are good talking points. I’d love to see them employed by groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists and others. There are some in the Revkin / Pielke Jr. crowd that that would disagree with point #5. I’ve seem them critical of the peer review process in the past. Could be a sticking point in an otherwise broader coalition.

    Overall, a great effort.

  20. John Lemons says:

    Richard Somerville makes excellent points in his editorial concerning why when scientists talk with the public and media, they should make clear and concise comments concerning the fundamental principles of climate change.

    After spending more than 34 years as a university professor working on climate change, for whatever it is worth here is my take on some of the problems:

    1. We are quickly approaching the point of no return if we do not act quickly and meaningfully to reduce GHG emissions. I agree with the posted comments that legal suits might be one of the ways to proceed. I suspect this is one reason Dr. James Hansen has chosen to be arrested for non-violent civil disobedience relating to mountain top removal of coal. If he is tried, he will be able to present facts concerning the harms and risks of coal, including the immorality of doing so because use of coal causes risks and harms to be imposed on people globally who have not given consent to be harmed from our actions, which primarily are economically based, i.e., cheap energy.

    2. Professor Donald A. Brown from Penn State, who also serves on the American Bar Association’s Committee on Climate Change, has an excellent website ( that explores the ethical dimensions of climate change. His recent post concerns the question of whether the “disinformation campaign” developed by climate change deniers can be considered a “criminal action. It is worth reading. The URL is:

    3. It might also be time to consider non-violent civil disobedience. I have no idea whether this would work, but whatever we have been doing since about 1980 when we first were told by the scientific community that humans were changing the earth’s climate has not worked. I have a posted blog on Professor Brown’s site that addresses this problem. The URL is:

    I also have in press in a professional interdisciplinary scientific journal and will be glad to email a copy to those who might be interested.

    Dr. John Lemons
    Professor of Biology and Environmental Science
    Department of Environmental Studies
    University of New England
    Biddeford, ME 04005

  21. paulm says:

    #1 #10 #14…. It really is past the courts now.
    How can nation leaders review data, information and scientific advice on global warming, presented very nicely by you Dan ….

    and not declare a state of extraordinary emergency – globally. This is worst than all the world wars combined and leaders are paralyzed, by WHAT?

    Jesus! It is Easter Island happening on a scale 100x over.
    WTH is going on? Can we even try to save the current biosphere?

  22. Joojoobees says:

    Whereas I greatly appreciate Joe’s work (I check this site at least once per day), I wonder if we aren’t wasting time trying to educate people who remain willfully ignorant. Isn’t it reality that we have ALREADY failed to avert the coming catastrophe? Anyone thinking we can take the ever-more drastic steps necessary to mitigate the effects of global climate change (IMO) is kidding themselves. We need to start looking at how we are going to survive in a world of super-droughts, unprecedented floods, and in particular, previously unseen rates of erosion. We need to think about how we are going to handle the waves of refugees.

    Note, I’m not saying we should stop trying to reduce the amount of carbon we release into the atmosphere, and there were reasons to shift to alternative sources long before this problem became apparent. I just don’t like watching people ignore the political reality that change will not happen in time. It is ALREADY too late. We need to plan ways to mitigate the disaster that is already around us.

  23. Wit's End says:

    Well, paulm, how hard would it be for everyone who really cares about this issue to dress up like a climate zombie, with a cheap tuxedo t-shirt and top hat, to swarm together on a given day? Handing out this flyer, or something like it:

    to educate the public about the massive amounts of money that are being deployed to distort the science and increase the profits of filthy energy companies?

    Jesus people, where’s the mojo??

    John Stewart’s milquetoast rally has support, but here is an important critique:

    If I had known earlier about this, I would have gone myself. As it was, I have been disappointed by the conflation of extreme right wing fanatics with “left-wing” scientists!

  24. David B. Benson says:

    Current concentrations of CO2 are about the same as those prevailing during the Miocene. During the Miocene, sea highstands were 25–40 meters higher than current sea levels. It is an inescapable conclusion that if CO2 concentrations remain at current levels indeed much of GIS, WAIs and some of EAIS will melt.

  25. Colorado Bob says:

    HOUSTON — Texas has refused to meet new federal greenhouse gas emission rules that go into effect in January, the latest anti-Washington move in an ongoing battle that could halt new construction at the nation’s largest refineries and other industry in Texas.

  26. Jeff Huggins says:

    Regarding Dr. Lemons’ Comment (Comment 20)

    I agree with John Lemons’ Comment 20 — all three of his excellent points. I’m encouraged to see and read more scientists (although MANY more are needed) beginning to speak out clearly. Bravo!

    I did not realize that Donald Brown is involved with the ABA. Good! Perhaps he and other ethicists, working with a few scientists, can work with the legal community and large relevant groups of people concerned about climate change to bring the appropriate suits, ASAP. The sooner the better, I’d suspect, so that the culprits can be put on notice and can start to consider the implications of their actions — and the fact that they may lose billions, gain infamy, and perhaps be plopped in jail some day.

    Great comment, Dr. Lemons. Thanks for it.

    Be Well,


  27. Prokaryotes says:

    The ultimate problem with the climate situation is that once the real threats start to kick in it is likely to late to change the outcome. I guess humans are long gone till the real climate state shift appears.

    We evolved the brain and intelligence to circumvent the worst case from happening and history has several excellent examples in this regard. This is the ultimate evolutionary barrier for our species on this planet, we either start now acting or we are doomed. Further the mess we are in can only be solved if all nations work together, because to make a difference with carbon sequestration it has to be adopted worldwide.

  28. Dan Miller says:

    An important reason why we are not doing anything about climate change is that is does not trigger any of the”threat indicators” that humans have developed over evolutionary time. They are:
    1. Immediate
    2. Visible
    3. Historical precedent
    4. Caused by an enemy/another tribe
    5. Simple causality
    6. Direct personal consequences.

    For comparison, the BP oil spill has 5-1/2 of these (BP was the enemy). Climate change has zero. See my talk on for more on this.

    At this point, I don’t think the issue is science, it’s psychology and communications.

    Regarding adaption, while it will help in the short run, it won’t work in the long run (except, perhaps, for small groups of people). In Jim Hansen’s book, Storms of My Grandchildren, he talks about a possible “Venus Syndrome” where the oceans boil off into the atmosphere and nothing is left, including cockroaches. And this can happen in just hundreds of years. In the next 30 years, the mega-droughts that are coming will not be a pretty picture.

    I’m hoping that while the US (and other countries) are living an Alice in Wonderland existence right now, we will wake up in the next few years as the impacts become more visible and certain. I said I’m hoping.

  29. Theodore says:

    So long as the public has the option of ignoring climate, they will. A new system will be needed to put every citizen who would like to become eligible to vote into four hours of classroom instruction per week. Beyond climate science there is a vast array of topics that every participant in the political system needs to know. Education should be a lifelong affair.

  30. Omega Centauri says:

    “Thus, the more urgent task for us scientists may well be to give the public guidelines for recognizing and rejecting junk science and disinformation.”
    I thought there would be more about this alternative line of attack. I think it is a worthy project in itself, although I think far to late given how entrenched disinformation has become. Even if we did it, I doubt it would have great effect. People will mostly stick to whatever they think membership in their political tribe requires. Then there is the fact, that one who knows the guidelines, and some convincing sounding jargon can argue with just enough of the trappings of being an expert to fool the masses.

  31. David B. Benson says:

    You can fool some of the people all of the time…

  32. Mark Shapiro says:

    Dan Miller is 100% correct. AGW is completely invisible. CO2 is invisible, and so is infrared. One degree average temperature rise and sea level rise are invisible.

    Melted glaciers, floods, droughts, and storms are highly visible, but all the connecting rods back to coal and oil are not.

    The issue is psychology and communicating. It’s worth a couple posts, Joe.

  33. paulm says:

    A graph that needs to be banded around more….

    Mind you I think things will have deteriorated beyond the point of civilization collapse before sea levels really start to be a catastrophic problem. Vectors, drought, deluge and storms are going to get us first.
    It really is a sad picture.

    Where is leadership when we need it the most?

  34. John Mason says:

    John #20,

    Thanks for those notes, and the link to Brown’s interesting piece.

    I have long suspected, since becoming aware of the disinformation campaign, that there must come a point where enough people realise that there is something severe occurring (that could have been prevented)for some kind of backlash to occur, although the form of that is open to conjecture.

    What to do in the meantime?

    I too look forward to Joe’s thoughts post-Midterms, but I would say to everyone who is concerned about climate destabilisation (my vastly preferred term) to get more involved. This may mean anything from joining your local Transition Initiative to communicating climate science as a career-change. The latter is what I am engaged in trying to do.

    It sure beats what I have been doing – spending years on a UK weather forum – a good forum but, like many others, it also has a climate section that, as these things tend to, resembles perpetual trench warfare with the same old faces repeating the same, long-debunked mantras. There is a very limited point in engaging with such people, when there are an awful lot of people out there who are genuinely concerned and who need help in both understanding the issues and in moving to a lower-carbon way of life. As a science communicator in any case (geology), switching to climate isn’t that difficult – had my first job-interview last week and the subject felt as comfortable as any presentation I have done on geology.

    How much should the public know? As much as possible. This is made all the more necessary because the stuff circulated by the disinformers is so often repeated and has to be debunked. It requires a tremendous but careful effort on the level of what John Cook has achieved at Skeptical Science. It needs to stay away from experimental, gimmicky initiatives that can backfire themselves, such as the ill-conceived 10:10 film. People need to understand the meaning of uncertainty and to realise that it does not apply just to climate science but to all of everyday life – decisions are almost never based on 100% certainty of outcomes. But they also need to understand that in this case uncertainty is a range of outcomes from fairly bad to off-the-scale bad under a BAU scenatio, which is why a new, lower-carbon BAU so urgently needs to be introduced.

    In other words, if you feel getting more involved will help – go for it!!!

    Cheers – John

  35. William P says:

    We should convince business that the temperature climbing to say, 140 degrees F will be very bad for business. We might get their attention.

    Get them to understand climate heating affects not only polar bears and coral, but could eventually kill all their customers.

    Get it Mr. Businessman? No customers, you go broke.

    It took over fifty years to overcome the confusion sown by tobacco companies about cigarettes causing health problems like cancer. Their CEO’s sat in a row in congress not that long ago and swore nicotine was NOT addictive, nor did it cause health problems. Remember that?

    Now its the turn of big oil, coal and natural gas. Maybe in 40 years we’ll overcome their disinformation campaign.

  36. fj2 says:

    Seems like the Tea Pary and Republicans just can’t get enough devastating this country and planet and have no other ambition but to finish the job.

  37. Clinical psychologist Kathy McMahon suggests the right response is to throw a party and get to know your neighbours better. We’re doing too much self-selection, only hanging around with people with same views. Most neighbours won’t agree with you but they’ll finally know someone personally who has different take on reality.

    We need social scientists like never before. Have a listen to a fascinating talk by McMahon on Radio Ecoshock

    She talk is focused more on peak oil but general ideas apply to CC I think

  38. peter whitehead says:

    Scientists need to club together and employ an advertising agency. Putting the ‘six points’ works for the literate and the interested. The ad industry knows that you need to be BRIEF and use SHORT words.

    I used to write school science textbooks (eg THE EARTH, Oxford University Press). Key method is BREAK IT UP INTO SHORT PARAGRAPHS, HIGHLIGHT KEY WORDS.

    Here’s a first go at Richard’s 6 points:


    1. Is the world is WARMING? Yes

    There are many kinds of evidence: air temperatures, ocean temperatures, melting ice, rising sea levels, and much more.

    Human activities ARE the main cause. The warming is NOT natural. It is not due to the sun, for example.( We know this because we can measure the effect of man-made carbon dioxide and it is much stronger than that of changes in the sun, which we also measure.)

    2. The GREENHOUSE is well understood. It is as real as gravity.

    The foundations of the science are more than 150 years old. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere TRAPS heat.

    We know carbon dioxide is increasing because we MEASURE it.

    We know the increase IS due to human activities like burning fossil fuels because we can analyze the chemical evidence for that.

    3. Our climate PREDICTIONS are coming TRUE.

    Many observed climate changes, like rising SEA LEVEL, are occurring at the HIGH end of the predicted range.

    Some observed changes, like MELTING sea ice, are happening FASTER than the anticipated worst case.

    Unless mankind takes strong steps to HALT and REVERSE the rapid global increase of fossil fuel use and the other activities that cause climate change, and does so in a VERY FEW YEARS, severe climate change is inevitable.

    URGENT action is needed if global warming is to be LIMITED to moderate levels.

    4 The SKEPTICAL arguments have been PROVED WRONG many times over.

    The EVIDENCE is on many web sites and in many books.

    For example, the causes of natural climate change like ICE AGES are NOT LINKED to the current warming. We know why ice ages come and go. That is due to changes in the Earth’s orbit around the sun, changes that take thousands of years.

    The warming that is occurring NOW, over just a few decades, cannot possibly be caused by such slow-acting processes. But it can be caused by MAN-MADE changes in the greenhouse effect.

    5 SCIENCE has its own high standards. QUALIFICATIONS and EXPERIENCE matter. Would you trust a politician or media host to repair your auto?

    Science does not work by making claims on the television or the Internet.

    It works by expert scientists doing research and publishing it in carefully reviewed research journals.

    Other scientists examine the research and repeat it and extend it.

    Valid results are confirmed, and wrong ones are exposed and abandoned.

    Science is self-correcting. People who are not experts, who are not trained and experienced in this field, who do not do research and publish it following standard scientific practice, are not doing science.

    When NON-SCIENTISTS claim that they are the real experts, they are just plain WRONG.

    6 The leading scientific organizations of the world, like NATIONAL ACADAMIES OF SCIENCE and professional scientific societies, have carefully examined the results of climate science and AGREE with the discoveries.

    It is SILLY to imagine that thousands of climate scientists worldwide are engaged in a massive plot to fool everybody.

    It is also SILLY to think that a few minor errors ‘proves’ anything. Auto recalls do not prove that autos do not exist.

    The world needs to confront the challenge of climate change.

    The WISE CITIZEN should rely on good science sources such as:

    I’ve picked the UK met office site because it’s laid out clearly for a general reader.

  39. paulm says:

    We need leadership!

  40. peter whitehead says:

    Thinking further about the 6 points:

    Make this a website/facebook with six panels, each one with a picture of a young climate researcher- give name, qualifications, etc – hit the idea that scientists are old guys with beards.

    Put the point-statements in “” as quotes by the scientist pictured – of course, check they are happy to do this.

    Then give links to CLEAR additional material – graphs, etc.

    Think the way political campaigners do.

  41. John Mason says:

    Interesting way to look at it, Peter.

    I feel that there are multiple levels at which the communication can be tackled – tailored for differing attention-spans/degree of interest in the issues. This is of course how the Opposition operates – for the base Hoaxites you get the Daily Express whilst for those prone to being impressed with a screen covered in equations you get the Monckton performances, and so on and so forth.

    As a fellow Earth Scientist I like using the drastic changes of the past to project and contextualise those of the future. It is a powerful antidote to the oft-heard contrarian mantra, “the climate has always changed”. Indeed it has, but this time something rather unusual – unique in fact – accompanies that. There is a civilisation, nailed-down to the ground via matters of land ownership, national frontiers and so on, in the way.

    Cheers – John

  42. Re #1, and a legal strategy to force positive awareness and action on climate change. While I have nothing but enormous respect and gratitude for Jim Hansen, I suggest that the corporate powers blocking public understanding of global climate change would be perfectly happy to see the fight move to the US and international courtrooms. They have proven that they own those venues, basically. And now, witness the complete collapse of electoral financing regulation, these behemoths have a death grip on the US Supreme Court as well.

    Trying to win court cases will take many *years*, and will be a battle far easier for the corporations to defend and fund than expensive US national political campaigns every two years. We will know even less about the enemies of the Earth than we know now about the secret donors to the 2010 Obama overthrow. And then, *if* our collective green efforts manage to eke out a few legal victories, there remains the impossible task of enforcing the rulings in the teeth of massive corporate resistance, coupled with the right wing media barons and their puppets like Beck, Limbaugh, and the rest.

    By all means, help Jim Hansen try his strategy; just don’t assume it can work to any significant degree *in time*. Ditto for the hopeful notion that the American Congress can ever again be a force for positive action.

    As for educating the public, one must applaud the article and its six basic points. The ideas of Peter Whitehead and others also deserve a full hearing and a fuller trial. We however question the effectiveness of traditional teaching methods in this case, fraught as it is with angry denunciations of the very people we need to do the teaching. We think more graphs make our case harder to prove, not easier So we are developing an alternative method that has the potential to enable non-technically educated people, learning in private, at their own pace, and with their own children at hand, to quietly and calmly reach an understanding of these disastrous processes we have stupidly and greedily kicked off in the last 100 years or so.

    But as much as I personally prefer web-assisted self learning, we must I suggest acknowledge that Dan Miller in #28 and others who concur with him are correct.

    His clearly stated recognition that we have a communications problem more than a scientific one is IMO much more realistic, or at least points to programs that may stand a chance of awakening the sullen majority. Without some compelling connection to daily life, and to the prospects for the life of one’s grandchildren, how can we motivate enough people to take the time to learn the truth? And even more daunting, to shoulder the personal risk of being accused of being an “alarmist” or “socialist” or worse in doing so.

    But then, if we succeed in an effective public information and education program over the span of at least a decade, how will these newly aware citizens be able to take back control of the US Congress?

    Back to square one, folks.

    Leading this ancient Berkeley radical to conclude that even with a huge, sustained, well-funded, decades-long information campaign, it will ultimately require massive civil disobedience to force acceptance and enforcement of the emissions controls, carbon taxes, mandatory conservation rules, restrictive building codes, and emergency public health and security measures which will be needed to preserve civil society in just a few decades from now.

    This isn’t alarmism. It is a basic understanding of how history repeats itself, in every instance where civil and human rights come into conflict with property and wealth rights.

    Many here have asked where is our leadership? The leaders, friends, have all been corrupted, bought, or intimidated into silence.

    Ask instead where we can find the thousand Gandhis and Kings and Bella Abzugs who will simply say “stop”, and who will have the courage to speak the simple words to make it clear to simple people why it must be so, and why it must be now.

  43. This just in:

    As we ponder how to effectively educate ordinary people on the threat of human-induced climate change, some clever Brits have released *precisely* the sort of teaching tool we so sorely need!

    It’s a game! A non-pompous, accessible, easy to understand game, one with just the sort of visceral challenges and tradeoffs Dan Miller refers to in #26.

    Here’s what the NY Times has to say:

    Just don’t tell your kids and neighbors in the sullen majority that the scientific content comes from one of those Commie/Leftist/World Government Oxford University radical types…

    Game on!

    Greenhouse Gaseous