Changing the climate change discussion

If you’re the type who wonders why self-serving flapdoodle is winning the climate change public-opinion contest, I think you’ll enjoy reading through a roundtable that just finished up over at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Princeton’s Rob Socolow (of climate change wedges fame),  Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), and former marine biologist turned provocative Hollywood filmmaker Randy Olson have had a varied conversation that makes one overarching point:  It’s harder than one might think to counter distortion of science in the public arena.

I’m not going to recount their generally brilliant essays; you can read them  here. (To comprehend the conversation as a whole, I suggest starting at the bottom and reading up, as the essays are posted in reverse chronological order, i.e. most recent first.) I do think it worthwhile to restate a point I’ve made previously. I could reword it here, but I kind of like what I wrote before:

I do believe that the large environmental nonprofits — the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, Audubon and others — need to take some of their huge income streams and devote significant chunks of money directly to the task of making climate change uncool and stupid, in the way that cigarette smoking has been made dumb and unhip. Congress won’t aggressively act on climate change until public attitudes strongly support action. The ability of advertising — funny, smart, hip, multi-platform advertising — to change attitudes, and particularly political attitudes, has been proven, over and over again. … It’s time for the environmental lobby to pull money out of Washington and put it into a major, long-term, brilliant ad campaign focused on the most conceited, mean, greedy and uncool kid in school: Carlyle Dioxide.

The fossil fuel energy entities that have been pushing the idea that the science of climate change is horribly uncertain — perhaps even fraudulent —  use expert communicators (often politicians) and expert means (slick ad campaigns and a full-court media press) to get their message across to the public.  There is a full-fledged public relations campaign afoot, and it has persuaded many Americans that climate change is a mirage ginned up by pointy-headed academics and other crafty liberals to further the twin goals of undermining The Free Enterprise System and Ayn Rand’s reputation.

To explain the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real, caused by humans, and a major threat to the planet, we have had … Al Gore and a bunch of scientists who are, by and large, unskilled in communicating with a general public. By all mean, let’s work to  improve the communication skills of scientists. But let’s remember something: Scientists are and should be primarily creators of knowledge. Conveying that knowledge accurately to the general public is the job of others, including the media, of course, but also the advocacy groups that supposedly believe in the science underlies their causes.

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