A scientist colleague told me recently that he had realized that talking to the press about climate change was not about education and outreach, and he was no longer sure of his role. During the 1990s at the federal research labs, there were initiatives to communicate science to the public. A common vehicle was a one-page popular summary of technical journal articles. An underlying premise of this public outreach was that there was one conversation, that of informing the public of meaning, value and societal importance. This naive notion of outreach did not recognize other types of conversations. Already in the 1990s, there was an emerging political conversation about climate change. There were also philosophical conversations about humans, nature, conservation and sustainability – some anchored in religious convictions. A more psychological conversation evolved about being responsible for doing damage to the planet.
As these conversations have evolved, scientists have thought more formally about communication. In one meeting of scientists, I said that every time a climate scientist wrote or talked it was potentially political. When scientists participated in interviews, blogged or sat on panels at the local museum, then there was almost certainly a political element that might be extracted from their words. Some of my colleagues were offended at my statement, maintaining that that they never spoke politically, only from dispassionate knowledge. I also maintained that most scientists are ill-prepared to participate in the political arguments.
On February 16, Secretary of State John Kerry framed climate change, the persistent warming of the Earth and its consequences, in terms of weapons of mass destruction. Secretary Kerry and President Obama reached for the seemingly easy comparison of climate change deniers to those who believed that the Earth was flat before the European sea exploration of the fifteenth century. This comparison motivated a predictable and easy response from those who consider climate change to be an exaggerated risk, with the public presence of that risk being maintained by a community of self-interested climate change believers – the warmists. So now we have the warmist versus the deniers. This is yet another type of conversation – tribal, you are wrong because of who you are.
One of the more prominent pieces that appeared in response to Kerry’s statements painted climate change deniers as mavericks of the past proved right by progress. Richard McNider and John Christy wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Why Kerry is Flat Wrong on Climate Change.” They maintain that, in fact, the scientific consensus of ancient times was that the Earth was flat, and it was the skeptical minority that motivated the thinking and exploration that proved the Earth round. They then walk through a list of failed predictions by prejudiced scientists who could be forgiven their follies if they were not so wrong and persistent in their message.
This recent kerfuffle, as one of my journalist colleagues calls it, was motivated by the Secretary of State. When the Secretary of State speaks, it is at its very root a political statement. I don’t have any way of knowing the calculation or preparation in the use of comparisons to flat earthers and to weapons of mass destruction. It is safe to say, however, that both were meant to make a point that was more political or rhetorical than scientific. The response by McNider and Christy shows the relative ease that these comparisons can be turned around. That is one of the attributes of political argument, the ability to twist and parry statements to make points, both substantive and not, to advance a political agenda.
If I were to take the time to analyze this fuss in my class on climate change, I would ask my students to look through the documents and identify questions from two perspectives. The first is scientific, using the principles of scientific investigation, what needs to be analyzed? The second is rhetorical, what forms of argument are used? I will accept Secretary Kerry’s statements as political. McNider and Christy write, however, as credentialed scientists. Yet the form of their argument relies on statements of prejudice, presentation of isolated information, invocation of disconnected facts to superficially bolster a point, fragmented quotes and easy personal conclusions that support their argument. These elements mark theirs as more a political than a science-based argument.
There is, however, a point made by McNider and Christy that caught my attention: namely, the claim of scientific consensus in the ancient world. But this point is actually difficult to substantiate because scientific investigation in the ancient world was so limited. In the basic teaching of science and mathematics, students are taught that Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the Earth about 200 BCE. This fact is generally touted as a scientific accomplishment that stood in contrast to the non-scientific belief that the Earth was flat. When the scientific and quantitative investigation of the natural world challenged the belief-based description in this way, it often ended badly for the scientist or mathematician, for example, Hypatia of Alexandria, who was torn to pieces by a mob during times of great religious conflict. It is easy to chip away at the idea of the scientific consensus in the ancient world being that the Earth was flat.
That question aside, McNider and Christy’s point put me in mind of the psychologist Gardner Murphy’s 1975 book, “Outgrowing Self-Deception.” Murphy maintains that we have two ways of ordering reality, “the way of science and the way of personal desire.” We are drawn powerfully to our personal desires because they in some way bring safety to our well being. In pursuit of this safety, we develop a personal imperative to believe that we are essentially correct or right. In our groups we share this rightness for collective assurance. This sometimes self-deceiving rightness often forms and aligns with society’s power structures, some political, some economic and some religious. It is, perhaps, a foundation of the tribal conversation.
In a late chapter of “Outgrowing Self-Deception,” Murphy offers a perspective on humankind rather than on the foibles of the individual. Murphy maintains that the scientific methods of Copernicus were frustrated by the underlying beliefs that the universe was “perfect” and a heliocentric model of the universe required orbits to be circular. Why? Circles were divinely perfect. Galileo’s observations challenged the human-imposed paradigm of the perfect universe and “force experimental physics into the center of the new knowledge as it forced the sun into the center of the solar system.” Charles Darwin, too, challenges the widely held perception that humans are different from all other living creatures. Through these and other examples. Murphy blames the often tortuously slow pace of breakthroughs in human thought on self-imposed deceptions, confrontation of power structures, and both individual and group imperatives to be right.
Today, climate change is often called the challenge of century, an existential threat and, according to Secretary Kerry, akin to a weapon of mass destruction. The fact that we have developed these types of conversation – political, philosophical or tribal, demonstrates that the science-based reality of climate changes stands as a fundamental breakthrough of human knowledge. We have the ability to transform the very nature of the planet – and we are doing so. Our individual and group perception of our place in the world is changed. We have to assume the responsibility of what we are doing to the planet. There is the responsibility of how we use the knowledge that we have generated of the ways the planet will change.
If we are to use the knowledge of climate change, then we challenge the familiar power structures of economies, politics, beliefs and perceptions. These challenges are consequential to a far larger portion of society than those of Copernicus, Galileo or Darwin. We, therefore, expect the conversations and the progress to be tortuously slow and conflated with arguments to maintain the power structures. To make the knowledge-based part of the conversations more effective, we must realize that we are in multiple types of conversations, set in the context of a fundamental change to the body of human knowledge. The political, economic and belief machinations will continue. Compared to those earlier times where we were merely trying to place the Sun in the center of the Solar System, the conversations about climate change are far more important. Those whose knowledge is based in the way of science need to find and to focus on the conversations that speed up the use of knowledge about climate change – to own and play their roles.
What do you think? We welcome your comments and debate.
[THE CONVERSATION is an on-line salon about sustainability issues that is sponsored jointly by the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, the Graham Sustainability Institute, the Michigan Energy Institute and the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan.]
Richard B. Rood is a Professor in the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences and the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan. He teaches atmospheric science and climate change problem solving. He has made research contributions in the fields of numerical modeling, data assimilation, and atmospheric transport and chemistry. He also has experience in the design, implementation, and management of software and hardware systems used in high performance computing. You can follow his blog here.