24 May 2005

A Spoonful Of Science Helps The Climate Change Go Down

by Rusty Rockets

Surfing through the mainstream media these days gives one the impression that a fair degree of consensus exists regarding climate change. It's getter hotter´┐Ż, Glaciers are retreating´┐Ż, Sea levels are rising... - it all seems to be a pretty straightforward we're-all-gonna-die sort of scenario. But let's leave the fear factor aside for a moment and consider how complex issues like climate change are reported in the media, and more importantly, how governments make decisions about such complex issues.

In 1950's science fiction movies, there was usually a scene where white-coated boffins would earnestly sit down with the President to brief him on how to defeat the flying saucer menace. This sort of direct communication channel between the laboratory and the seat of power is still thought to exist by many people. It's generally assumed that governments are fully conversant with complex scientific issues and act accordingly, dutifully consulting with scientific experts when necessary. But this has never been the case and nowadays decision-making that involves science is informed more by politics than scientists. Climate change is a good example of how science is often either missing or completely misinterpreted in policy-making.

Recently, scientists hotly pursued by the press, informed us that our atmosphere is dimming due to the by-products of fossil fuel emissions not only producing greenhouse gasses, but particles (aerosols) that affect the properties of clouds. As a result, it was reported that less solar radiation was reaching the earth's surface because the sun's radiation was being reflected back into the atmosphere. A good thing apparently as this phenomenon has so far provided relief from the full effects of global warming. Unfortunately, any short-term relief that this may have provided was short lived. A new study then revealed that the dimming trend is now in reverse, and as a result, the earth will be subject to global brightening1. This trend, we are told, reveals that the cloud pollutants shielding the Earth's surface from greater solar radiation are decreasing. Why? Well again there is little agreement on this, but there is yet more doom-and-gloom to this story. While particles previously shielding us from solar radiation are diminishing, greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide are not. Some greenhouse gasses have an extended life span and can hang for a century or more. So in this respect, some scientists are claiming we are already committed to an unacceptable rise in global temperatures in the future. But climate change is just as much an argument about whether humans are the cause of it as it is about whether global warming is happening at all. The collective body of scientists who comprise the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change2 (IPCC) claim that human activity does contribute to the problem. But how much are we contributing to what might otherwise be naturally occurring changes? What can we do about the melting polar ice caps? Is the earth dimming or brightening? And if it's dimming does that mean I can keep using fossil fuels? Or is it the other way around? Science is not supposed to be a realm of ambiguity and uncertainty. It is supposed to be the impartial final word. The truth is that the hard scientific facts that filter down to most of us are merely snapshots of an ongoing process conducted in relatively politically neutral social spaces, which are then politicized and popularized.

Richard Dawkins3, best known for his writings on evolutionary science, argues that we should all become more knowledgeable about science. Well I couldn't agree more, especially since 40 percent of Americans think that early man shared the Earth with dinosaurs. The dimwitted public is thus captive to the authoritarian and agenda setting voices of the politician and the media. With Joe Public having a less than adequate understanding of science, politicians can, and do, cherry-pick scientific research to strengthen their case for climate change policy.

Academic Roger Pielke4, of the University of Colorado's Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, takes the view that politicians are hijacking scientific discovery for their own ends, and getting away with it because of our faith in indisputable 'scientific fact'. Pielke says that the interface between actual science, and mediated science, is the difference between the meaning and significance of findings. But forget politicians, they're in the dark as much as we are, and scientists should be left to do what they do best. It's true that science should be conducted in as neutral a space as is possible. And scientists probably feel at home in a vacuum anyway. However, being free from the framing and spin-doctoring of government and political advocates can only last so long, as those ideas have to emerge at some point, and once in the public realm developments in science are fair game. While many of us like to keep pace with scientific developments we often miss some of science's subtleties and are, on occasion, guilty of glossing over the fluid and transient nature of the physical world. This is the kind of stark realization that many have no doubt had to face of late, after being confronted by the increasingly un-simple reports on climate change that may leave many bewildered. If the public are to contribute to scientific debate and eventual policy direction at all they are going to have to be properly informed. This leaves the bulk of the responsibility to journalists. There is no question that scientific consensus promoted by the mainstream media affects public attitudes on climate change, which in turn establishes what politicians can get away with.

The public needs to become more science savvy, as well as being skeptical of any scientific consensus on climate change, especially when it is quite likely that it is informed more by politics than science. In the cold light of day, reason tells me that we, the public, are at the wrong end of the science information loop. Regardless, I turn on the PC, pick up the newspapers and assume my public duty of taking a spoonful of science to help the complexity go down.


  1. Nature Magazine (2005). Clear skies end global dimming. Available: http://npg.nature.com/news/2005/050502/full/050502-8.html
  2. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2005). http://www.ipcc.ch
  3. Dawkins, R. (1996). Richard Dimbleby Lecture: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder. [online] Available: http://www.simonyi.ox.ac.uk/dawkins/WorldOfDawkins-archive/Dawkins/Work/Articles/1996-11-12dimbleby.shtml
  4. Pielke, R. (2003). The Significance of Science. University of Colorado's Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. Available: http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/admin/publication_files/2003.15.pdf

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