On "Thin Ice" and the climate science-politics collision

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The documentary film "Thin Ice" shows the work of some of the scientists who are advancing understanding of global climate change -- a problem that now must be dealt with in the arenas of politics, public policy, the media, and public opinion, where scientific literacy is not high, and where norms and values can be very different from the world of science.

See the "Thin Ice" website for more information and to rent or buy the film.

"In recent years climate science has come under increasing attack, so geologist Simon Lamb took his camera to find out what is really going on from his climate science colleagues. Simon followed scientists at work in the Arctic, Antarctic, Southern Ocean, New Zealand, Europe and the USA. They talk about their work, and their hopes and fears, with a rare candour and directness.

"Thin Ice is also the human face on climate science and scientists. It provides an accessible backdrop for the science of 5th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released on September 27."

My remarks after a recent screening of the film in Washington, D.C., to an audience from several environmental conservation organizations (lightly edited for posting):

This is the second time I’ve seen this film and I liked it even better the second time. It’s good to see a film that shows scientists at work, speaking for themselves and showing something of their process. We don’t see enough of that and it would be great if we had a society that was more interested in it.

I also like the aspect of the film that’s like a quest, an investigation, looking for answers – that narrative, and the personal voice of the director. And I think he does a very nice job of staging the ideas and information to take you through the subject.

It’s incomplete, of course. I thought it could have been stronger on the climate modeling. It has very much the polar-regions orientation to it. It’s about change in the climate system and doesn’t focus on climate change impacts. But for what it covers I think it does a pretty good job.

One of the really remarkable things about global climatic disruption, as a public issue, is that it’s science-driven. The fact that it’s even a policy problem comes to our attention through the work of these highly specialized scientific experts. Ordinary ‘civilians’ who are not climate scientists can hardly understand what they’re doing on a technical level – although I think the climate science community over the years has made a heroic effort to synthesize and communicate their findings in ways that broader audiences can understand.

Science is really the bedrock of this issue. And -- apropos of how dismal Washington politics is right now, and how discouraging it can be for people who are actually trying to get something done with the politics and policy and management aspects of the climate change problem – I think people who are really into the science have an advantage. People who intrinsically love and are fascinated by the ongoing advance of scientific understanding have something going for them.

I’ve been working on climate change since I first came to Washington 25 years ago. Politicians’ attention to it waxes and wanes, media attention to it waxes and wanes, but the science continues to develop. At some point society is going to have to deal with the implications of what they’re finding.

As for the function of this film, I’m not sure how it would be received by various kinds of audiences. I don’t think it’s going to persuade the hard-core unpersuaded, I think it’s more a piece of popular science education for people who are already inclined to be receptive.

The hard-core unpersuaded – the contrarians, or, in the political world, what I refer to as the global warming denial machine, have reasons to reject the science. They have what can be described as ‘motivated reasoning’. Even if they pick up on everything that’s said in the film, they have defense mechanisms that can cause them to reject it.

Some of that is politically driven. I think, broadly speaking, it’s that really following through on the implications of the climate science calls for doing things – it implicates our entire way of life, it implies a strong role for government policy. There are things that people just do not want to accept, and it’s easier for them to deny the scientific assessments than to come to grips with the implications.

I think that good science education and communication are essential and I think, on the whole, the climate science community has done a good job at that – although most scientists aren’t very good at communicating with civilians. And with the recently released IPCC Working Group I assessment report on the physical climate system, you can see that the IPCC is really lacking in a communication strategy that works. That leaves a lot of the field open for denialists to try to undercut the IPCC findings.

It’s important for scientists to learn how to educate and communicate better, and it’s important to emphasize for the general pubic the importance of paying attention to the most credible scientific experts. We rely on expert credibility in a lot of areas of our lives and climate science is also a matter of expert credibility. People should pay attention when these guys are tugging on society’s sleeve and saying ‘pay attention’.

But dealing with global climatic disruption as a policy and management problem goes way beyond anything the science community can deal with. Their role is fundamental – they’ve identified and are diagnosing and characterizing a problem that needs to be dealt with in completely different arenas – the arenas of politics, of policy, of media, of public opinion, where scientific literacy is not high. And where there are different norms.

You look at what I call the collision between the world of climate science and the realities of Washington politics – those are two worlds that are really hard to bring together. Yet they have to be brought together in some positive way in order for this problem to get dealt with. Right now you can’t even get an intelligent discussion of the problem among the highest-level elected officials, let alone a coherent way of dealing with it.

There are different norms, different standards of evidence, different concepts of what accountability means, and many different agendas running – self-interested agendas, political agendas, toxic agendas that can be indifferent to or even antithetical to the norms of science.

I’ve been working on this for a long time, currently through the public interest watchdog project Climate Science Watch, which is a program of the Government Accountability Project. In earlier years I was with those who called on the science community to make themselves more ‘relevant’ to public opinion and policymakers and to communicate better. But I think it’s long been obvious that the overwhelming problem is on the political receiving end of the science. It’s not a problem that scientists can solve, no matter how well they communicate. It’s a political problem and has to be dealt with as such.

(at the World Wildlife Fund, October 3)

Earlier posts:

As sea ice melts in a warming Arctic, walruses outpace politicians

New Greenpeace report documents machinations of corporate-funded climate denial machine

IPCC Summary for Policymakers and some good commentary

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