Somerville Part 2: Six public guidelines for recognizing and rejecting junk climate science and disinformation

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“Unfortunately, the world needs to take firm action about the threat of man­made climate change within the next decade,” says climate scientist Richard C. J. Somerville. “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…Thus, the more urgent task for us scientists may well be to give the public guidelines for recognizing and rejecting junk science and disinformation." (Part 2 of a two-part guest post; also see Part 1)

Foreword by Rick Piltz:

In Part 1 of this two-part re-post from the journal Climatic Change, Richard Somerville said that widespread public ignorance of the science of climate and climate change results from a failure in science education. He concluded that a major change in science education is needed, but that “implementing such profound change is not easy, and completing the task will take many years at best.” In Part 2 he discusses the urgent immediate need for climate science communication to bolster public understanding and counter global warming disinformation. The science community has a special responsibility to step forward and provide leadership on the issues Prof. Somerville raises in his article, the concluding portion of which is re-posted below:

“How Much Should the Public Know About Climate Science?”

An editorial comment

Richard C. J. Somerville
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
University of California, San Diego
La Jolla, California

Climatic Change, published online 21 October 2010.

This article is published with open access at Springerlink.com.

…Unfortunately, the world needs to take firm action about the threat of man­made climate change within the next decade. Figure 1 summarizes recent research showing that 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. Realistically, there may be no chance to educate the general public in depth about the science so quickly.

Fig. 1 Emissions pathways to give a 67% chance of limiting global warming to 2C 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.

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.

  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 www.ipcc.ch is a good place to start.

© The Author 2010

Earlier CSW posts:

New study finds striking level of agreement among climate experts on anthropogenic climate change

Letter from 255 National Academy members on Climate Change and the Integrity of Science

Open Letter to the U.S. Government from U.S. Scientists on climate change and the IPCC reports

Somerville: A response to climate change denialism

Dr. Ben Santer and Chris Mooney on communicating climate science

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One Response to Somerville Part 2: Six public guidelines for recognizing and rejecting junk climate science and disinformation

  1. Pingback: The BRAD BLOG : 'Green News Report' - November 11, 2010

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