Perhaps you’ve heard of the Royal Society? Although you wouldn’t really know it from the name, the Royal Society is a group of skilled scientists, originally in the United Kingdom but these days they operate the entire world round. It was the first society of its kind in modern history, and the story of how it came to be and how it influenced the world is itself fascinating, but that is a story for another day. Suffice to say that it is a very well respected scientific institution.
The Royal society of New Zealand, on March 8th, hosted a workshop on geoengineering and its implications to New Zealand. Geoengineering? Yeah, I had no idea what that meant either. But the press release helpfully explained that bioengineering refers to climate change control by methods other than reduction of carbon emissions. Examples they list of this kind of technology include shooting reflective particles into the atmosphere to reduce sunlight to the earth, and pumping carbon dioxide and iron atoms into the depths of the ocean.
Call me crazy, but most of these ideas sound pretty extreme – not to mention pretty irreversible! My initial gut reaction to hearing this was of revulsion. It’s the same kind of feeling I get from people who live extremely unhealthy lives and then ‘fix’ it by taking pills and having surgery. But I thought a little more about it1, and I realised that it would be totally unfair of me to dismiss it for that reason. Climate change is a huge problem facing our generation. Unimaginably huge. To dismiss potential improvements because I, in my house with running water in my first world country, find them an unpleasant thought is absolutely unforgivable when those most affected by climate change don’t even get a say in the matter. If pumping carbon into the oceans will save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living in poor coastal areas, then I think we who could implement these solutions have a responsibility to give them genuine consideration. Who knows, perhaps some of these extreme solutions may be of benefit after all.
The thought the remains in my mind when considering all this though is: Wow, the people who are actually trying to Do something about climate change are getting really desperate! Some of the things they are now proposing to deal with it will have huge negative consequences, without a doubt. Can you imagine what it would be like living in a world where there are twice as many clouds blocking out the sun? And yet they persist, because other less extreme methods could not be pushed through into legislation and at the end of the day, they feel that they have to do something. I actually fully support their efforts, if not any particular proposal.
I think perhaps that the biggest barrier to the human race actually doing something about climate change is the feelings of the public. A huge number of people still deny climate change, and an even greater number don’t fully realise the implications – what climate change will mean for their lifestyles. I think perhaps that the number of people who fully understand the impact climate change will have on them is similar to the number of people who fully understand quantum mechanics – a small (but growing) number indeed. And it is pretty certain that the media have had a big role in this.
The vast majority of what people know about climate change comes not from scientific papers (obviously. Scientific papers are a bitch to read, even for scientists who know the language), and not from talks or presentations given by scientists, but from the media, newspapers and television news shows. And the picture they have presented us with is extraordinarily skewed. The view held by the vast majority of all scientists who have researched the problem of climate change is that: Climate change is real. Human activities are causing climate change to accelerate. At the current rate, sea levels will rise to unacceptable levels, destructive weather phenomena will increase in frequency and in severity. And yet the story you get from listening to the media is much different. The impression one gets from the media however is that there is a huge scientific war being waged between dissenters and assenters, leagues upon leagues marching on either side. This would understandably make you think that the proclamations of either side should be viewed with a grain of salt, and greatly undermines the credibility of the vast majority of scientists in the public mind. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the media is implicit in greatly downplaying the effect climate change will have on its readers/listeners/watchers lives.
The way in which the media has given this impression is by giving vastly more airtime to deniers of climate change than to assenters, despite the numbers on each side. The public is led to believe that the deniers have a lot of sway and legitimate points, but in reality all the evidence points to the majority view2. They do this for many reasons. It first of all simply makes a better story to show the lone battlers, fighting for what they believe in against overwhelming odds. Those people also tend to have more to say, and will say it in such a way as to communicate more effectively with the public, untrained in science. If I was cynical, I would also say that the content of newspapers and news programs is under the control of people who have commercial interests in no meaningful legislation being made to combat climate change.
So yellow card to the media for misrepresenting scientific knowledge! Personally, I believe that for as long as the media is the way in which scientific knowledge is communicated to most people, they have a responsibility to represent it accurately and fairly, in the same way that journalists are tasked to tell the news. However, I have a yellow card for scientists in this affair also – they are also to blame! They have codified their knowledge, and abstracted it from everyday experience, and hidden it away behind strange language and indecipherable figures. And then they have turned around and complained that people don’t understand them any more! Big surprise scientists. Now that it has been made clear how important it is to convincingly communicate your work to the public, you need to start thinking of ways to do it better. MUCH better.
How might that be done? I don’t have all the answers but I think it ought to start with some kind of direct communication between scientists and public, not so the scientist can talk to the public but so the public to talk back to the scientist! I think it is really important scientists get feedback directly from the people they are communicating to. This will help them to learn what they’re doing wrong, and how to improve. What are your views on this, readers?
 This is my absolute favourite, best trick I have. I can’t overstate how useful thinking more about things is. You should always be the first person to challenge your own views – if you don’t other people will surely do it for you! Maintaining a high level of credibility is best done by having good knowledge of and respect for every side of an argument.
 Disclaimer – there are many more issues at play in this particular debate, among them and particularly evident in the climategate incident was people without specialist knowledge and experience interpreting data and methods and getting things wrong. However I am focusing on the particular role of the media.