Climate rapid response communications team gears up

Scientists get off the sidelines to right media wrongs

Last week, Dr. John Abraham of St. Thomas University helped launch a “climate rapid response team.”  CAP’s Sean Pool  Interview Abraham about this effort in this Science Progress cross-post.

It’s not easy being a climate scientist these days. They live in a world where well-funded organizations collude to spread lies and misinformation about their discipline, and where political pundits and elected officials alike engage in blatant harassment to promote an anti-science political agenda. Conservative pundits such as Mark Morano, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh have called for climate scientists to be “publicly flogged,” to commit “hara-kiri,” and worse.

Sadly, despite the rancor and conspicuous absence of any data or actual science, these fossil fuel-funded tactics have proven effective at swaying public opinion. Poll results have shown a marked decline in Americans’ belief in global warming, from a high of 85 percent in a 2006 poll to 63 percent during the summer of 2010.

Surely some of the blame must be shared by traditional media outlets for elevating the spurious claims of television weathermen and ex-governors to the same level as peer-reviewed, data-driven, scientific analysis conducted by credentialed experts. Others blamed climate scientists themselves for not being better organized to defend themselves against the onslaught of well-funded and well-organized public relations professionals.

But who can blame them? Scientists have never been particularly good at communicating with the media”” historically it’s not really been their job. Scientists are trained not to shape public opinion but to examine the natural world. But that may have to change the longer climate science remains in the crosshairs of the fact-free conservative punditocracy. According to science historian Spencer Weart, “we’ve never before seen a set of people accuse an entire community of scientists of deliberate deception and other professional malfeasance. Even the tobacco companies never tried to slander legitimate cancer researchers.”

To fight back, 40 scientists have come together to form the “climate rapid response team.” Led by Dr. John Abraham of St. Thomas University, the rapid response team is an informal group of scientists who have decided to put their spare time to use fielding media questions about climate science, and even going up against hostile anti-science audiences. Science Progress had the opportunity to catch up with Dr. Abraham on the phone earlier this week; what follows is excerpted from our interview with him. (Note that Dr. Abraham’s responses are paraphrased, except where marked with quotation marks.)

What is the purpose of this rapid response effort?

Think of it as a matchmaking service to provide high-quality climate scientists from around the world to members of the media”¦Almost all of the scientists on our team are practicing climate scientists in academia.

Are you guys doing any training to prepare these scientists for potentially hostile media engagements?

No, we’re just aiming to deliver rapid, high-quality science information, in scientists’ own words.

Any worry that having climate scientists wade further into the political quagmire could politicize the issue further? Or even undermine the discipline? Or are we already past the point of no return?

You know this is something that climate scientists are always discussing””on a daily basis. Contrary to how we have been portrayed by some media stories, the purpose of our effort is not to politicize, it’s to provide highly accurate and timely information”¦We [scientists] are more comfortable staying in the ivory tower and discussing the science amongst ourselves, but we clearly need to get better at communicating to the public.

Why has climate science become so political? Why do you think conservatives are so skeptical, even hostile, toward climate science and those who practice it?

I think conservatives are more opposed to the solutions, rather than the science itself. That is to say, I think their ideological opposition to Big Government perhaps biases their view toward the science. Of course, the irony is that cap and trade has been used successfully to reduce smog for decades.

Is there still uncertainty in climate science?

Yes, but not about the basics. Whether or not the planet is warming, and whether human activity is driving that”¦these are not really up for debate anymore. Where there is still some uncertainty is over the degree, the rapidity, and the social reaction. We just don’t know what emissions path we are going to be on in the coming decades””whether humanity will get it together to reduce or not.

How are you going to communicate that uncertainty to people honestly? In a world where the conservative media has taken a very hard-line, anti-science stance that speaks often in terms of absolutes, how do you fight back without sinking to the same level?

A metaphor that I like to use when it comes to uncertainty and risk is the loaded revolver. Look, you’ve got a revolver. The more greenhouse gasses you put in the chamber, the higher the likelihood that your next shot is live”¦it’s a probability issue. Risk is something that our economic and political system deals with all the time.

Climate scientists didn’t ask for this attention. It just happens to be that climate science stands above other scientific disciplines in the severity of its implications for human destiny. Climate scientists didn’t charge headlong into the realm of politics with an ideological axe to grind. Rather, it was politicians and energy lobbyists that waded into the realm of climate science wielding a pro-fossil fuel agenda. So long as climate science remains so relevant to our politics, climate scientists have a moral obligation to defend their discipline from the kind of blatant misinformation that has dominated our news for the past 12 months.

Though some purists may hold to the belief that scientists should not wade into the quagmire of public opinion politics, Dr. Abraham has higher hopes for what his efforts could accomplish. “Deep in my heart I really wish there was some civility to this,” he shared as we were concluding our interview. “The vitriol that flies back and forth is not helpful. You will hear from me no vitriol. You’re not going to hear me demonizing anyone. You’re going to hear me communicating the science. If we can bring a civil but candid discussion to the media and the public””that is a success.”

Sean Pool is assistant editor for Science Progress, CAP’s online science policy publication, and Climate Progress. Ben Kaldunski also contributed to this article.

22 Responses to Climate rapid response communications team gears up

  1. john atcheson says:

    If you are going to debunk stuff, use simple language.


    The climate is warming. Humans are responsible. These are facts, not subject to debate.


    “Whether or not the planet is warming, and whether human activity is driving that…these are not really up for debate anymore:

  2. J. Bob says:

    Interesting graph. Looks like the last 8-10 years the global temperature has leveled off. If CO2 levels are supposed to be going up, why is the temperature “stalled”.

    Maybe we are seeing one of those 50-60 year cycles coming into play, as shown below. If that’s true, it might be time to get out the wool Union suit.

    The Hadcet or Hadcrut3 data was filtered with a 40 year Moving Average & Fourier Convolution filter.

  3. Rob Honeycutt says:

    The bullets in revolver metaphor is fantastic. That is definitely one middle America will be able to relate to.

  4. Raul M. says:

    Gee I might learn some things.

  5. Mike Roddy says:

    Good one, Sean.

    Abraham did a great job deconstructing Monckton, but the public is more likely to get their bad information directly or indirectly from Watts, Lindzen, Cristy, Michaels, etc. That group doesn’t lie as blatantly and comprehensively as Monckton or Lomborg, and have become successful go to voices that cast doubt in the media.

    I’d be interested in how Abraham’s group will deal with them, or other soft deniers like Pielke and Curry. The deniers who are quoted at Heartland conferences and CEI position papers have become more clever in their use of language. I respect Abraham’s inclination toward civility, but at some point very critical language that includes pointing out bad data is going to be called for. The real scientists will have to remember that communication problems have occurred due to the oil companies’ awareness that lies told with passionate language are often more credible than truth that is hedged.

    It’s proper for scientists to be offended by those who are telling lies, distorting their work, and accusing them of being tribal grant seekers or whatever. Scientists are human, and will be more respected when they show it. Distance and equivocation are often interpreted as condescension or a lack of conviction.

  6. Brad Hudson says:

    Looks like J. Bob is your first customer.

  7. paulm says:

    #2 JBob, Its leveled off because you think it has not because it has.
    How can you look at the graph you link to and think that the temp has leveled off?
    I look at that graph and see the temp rising and rising.

    Great post.
    Its time to racket up this agenda. Its time for the criminal obstructions to be be heard in court. Its time for action on tackling this emergency. Its time for Obama to declare a State of Extraordinary Emergency to move on this issue in a timely manner.

  8. Michael T. says:

    I also think this NOAA graph should be shown more often because it is easy for anyone to read and understand:

    Global temperature & CO2 concentrations 1880-2009

  9. Lou Grinzo says:

    While I’ve used the Russian roulette analogy quite a few times, there is one problem with it (aside from the hideous imagery): It gives people the impression that it’s possible to stay on a BAU path and, well, dodge the bullet. That’s simply not true.

    To be fussy about it, if someone played RR by spinning the cylinder once and then pulling the trigger over and over with the gun to his head, it would be more accurate, as more bullets don’t mean an increased probability of disaster happening eventually (which is 100% with at least one bullet in the cylinder), but an increased probability of a disaster happening on the very next trigger pull, i.e. sooner rather than later.

    Still, it is a very riveting analogy that gets through to a lot of people.

    The other one I use is driving toward a brick wall at a high rate of speed. We’re close enough that even very hard braking won’t avoid an accident, but we still have a choice of hitting the wall at 20MPH or something higher than our (still rising) 100MPH or somewhere in between.

    Both analogies also overlook the fact that we’re already experiencing impacts, so the onset of impacts is not the discrete event the analogies imply.

  10. Tom Yulsman says:

    Michael T. refers to an graph from NOAA that very clearly shows the relationship between rising CO2 and temperature. Here’s another graphic that I think readers of this thread might find useful:

    It’s a visualization, based on a GISS graphic, portraying the warming over the past ~30 years in what I think is a new and compelling way. (It actually looks a bit like a Piet Mondrian canvas!)

    The first graphic you will see on this post consists of three panels originally produced by GISS showing temperature anomalies for every month through October. The one below it is, I think, a more convincing way to display the same information. I’d be curious to hear what people think.

  11. David says:

    It’s about time that scientists started standing up for the science. There are no shortage of people and organizations out there harassing scientists, distorting their words, and outright lying about the state of the science. And while virtually everything the denialist industry says is eventually proven to be false, they know that it’s too late – the networks of ideological bloggers would have already spread the false information twice around the world. Responses need to be fast, and they need to be directed at educating the media so they know enough not to become complicit in the denialist echo chamber.

    Thanks for your tireless work.

  12. Colorado Bob says:

    Climate Response team –
    There are 2 main debates going here.
    A. Debating the science
    B. Debating the debaters

    If a denier can get what suits them, they will stay with “B”.
    “B” let’s them burn daylight, which is the objective here.
    Endless words on what some 87 year old man said is a perfect recent example.

    Because when you’re on debate “B” you ain’t telling folks the Russians lost well over 41,000 people, and 39% of their grain harvest, due to a 6 week heat wave that has no equal in the records .

    As for debate “A” , somewhere in the AGW theory is the original hypothesis, that is some 30 years old ?
    Restate what the predictions from that original hypothesis said. It’s a great baseline against observed events, which happen to be flooding in on a scale that is just scary.

    This debate began about the atmosphere, it has shifted more to the oceans, and the land, and the changes that are really beginning to take hold there.
    Get more of those people in , the Coral Reef community , pine beetle people.
    They got all the proof these days.

    That’s my 2 cents.

  13. John Mason says:

    The Irish band, Moving Hearts, did a fantastic song on the “are you feeling lucky?” theme some years ago: Hiroshima Nagasaki Russian Roulette… I found a version on Youtube:

    One of the most powerful songs of the past 30 years IMO.

    Cheers – John

  14. Nemo says:

    Meme Wars

    It seems to be the case that the reason the scientific community is struggling to get policymakers to follow up on the science of global warming is because they have attempted to use their science as the primary marketing tool. Among possible reasons for the lack of success could be that policymakers follow their powerbase’s opinion, and that opinion need not be built on scientific truths, but more typically is built upon a mix of economic and political power.

    Marketing folks have understood for some time now that political power can be created from holding a dominant meme. A dominant meme can be any idea, no matter how inane, that captures public imagination and drive (or often, drive to laziness). A harmless example is LOLCats. Religious or racist bigotries are nastier versions of the same pattern.

    The dominant meme approach often works because of a feedback loop in the way information disseminates, particularly now in the age of the internet. The internet essentially has search engines and top twenty lists as its gateway. Therefore, the way to maximise exposure to an idea is to ensure that it ranks highly on search engines and similar. The way to ensure that an idea ranks highly on a search engine is to plaster as many internet pages as possible with as many instances of that idea as possible. Roughly, the “density per unit of internet” (however unscientific this measure might seem) is what drives proliferation through repeated exposure. A dominant meme is one that ends up with sufficient proliferation to hog the rankings on search engines.

    Various corporations recognised this pattern long ago, and have also realised the ease with which dominant memes can be engineered through paying people to tag enough web pages and blogs with comments that promote such ideas. These dominant memes, through their high exposure, influence the (typically lazy) public opinion, and as a result politicians can end up negotiating according to a powerbase that was constructed. Sowing doubt about global warming is a process largely pursued by paid deniers according the principles of manufactured dominant memes.

    Since the scientific community cannot sensibly challenge the economic power of these corporations, the other option is to challenge their political power. To do this requires manipulation of the politicians’ powerbases away from denier memes. That in turn means that the scientific community must generate dominant memes that capture the public imagination. To be clear about this, dominant memes need not be anything to do with the truth, they are simply hooks on to which catch public viewing time and curiosity. Once hooked, the meme creator has about 10 seconds in which to sustain curiosity. Sustaining concentration beyond that requires significant work. Which is why dominant memes that are short, simple, stupid, and involve emotional appeals tend to win hands down against attempts to promote allegiance to complex scientific evidence that require complex actions to be undertaken.

    Suggest the scientific community should therefore enlist the help of the creative community in seeking to develop meme seeds.

  15. Michael T. says:

    Tom Yulsman @ 2:02 pm

    The NOAA and NASA graph are both striking. I found the NOAA graph on the “Global Climate Change Indicators” page:

  16. Andy says:


    Don’t confuse the annual measurements (blue) with the decadal averages (red)

  17. Prokaryotes says:

    The clathrate gun hypothesis is the popular name given to the hypothesis that rises in sea temperatures (and/or falls in sea level) can trigger the sudden release of methane from methane clathrate compounds buried in seabeds and permafrost which, because the methane itself is a powerful greenhouse gas, leads to further temperature rise and further methane clathrate destabilization – in effect initiating a runaway process as irreversible, once started, as the firing of a gun.

  18. J. Bob says:

    #15 Andy
    I prefer annual over the decade measurements. You will obviously note, they contain more information.

    You could wonder over to:

    Global Temps->Comparing Global Temps

    for a better composite view of current temperatures series. But a better idea would be to look at some of the long term data located on:

    that goes back 200+ years. You might get a better appreciation of how recent temperature compares to the past.

  19. Phila says:

    I prefer annual over the decade measurements. You will obviously note, they contain more information.

    Hourly measurements contain even more information than that, and prove that temperature rises and falls naturally in a 24-hour cycle.

    Which is a roundabout way of saying that you seem to be missing the point of decadal measurements.

  20. J. Bob says:

    #18 Phila,
    no, I’m not missing the pt. of looking at “quantized” decade data. But you seem to be missing my point about the information difference between decade & annual data.

  21. David B. Benson says:

    J. Bob — To avoid becoming lost in the sea of high frequency (horly, annual) variations, some form of low pass filter is desirable. It aids in seeing the overall trend. Decadal averages are one form of low pass filter.

    In any case, various statistical tests demonstrate that at least 15 years (usually) of annual data is necessary to confirm a trend. Note that in the NOAA/NCDC graphics linked in previous comments the overall trend is positive and this is statistically significant.

    We have quite a serious problem looming:
    You like to eat, do you not?

  22. J says:

    #21 David
    While decadal averages are interesting, they are only one of many tools available to look at information.

    Speaking of low pass filters, did you note the low pass filters in my #2 post ref., comparing the MOV & Fourier 40 year filter. That is an example of using other mathematical tools besides stats, to squeeze as much info out of a signal as possible.