The public deserves the full picture on climate change
Simplistic stories and cliche pictures of polar bears have failed to engage people in the true debate, says Nasa scientist
Like many of the important issues facing society, climate change involves a complex intersection of science, culture and politics, and a huge array of consequences impinging on a wide range of vulnerabilities. Yet on all sides, people are bombarded with simplistic slogans, misleading headlines and soundbites shorn of the caveats that make them valid.
The media is the main conduit for people to learn more, but the disconnect between the need for education and the journalistic mission to provide news means that climate stories are often missing the context needed to understand the bigger picture.
Similarly, many photographers working in environmental fields have become frustrated at the limited palette of images used to illustrate these stories. One described it as “extreme weather all the time and a polar bear”. None of this does justice to the complexities of the issue and instead reduces it to the level of cliché.
Anyone trying to glean a full picture from traditional sources faces a daunting task. Indeed, many people will recognise quickly that there is a huge amount of information that is never made explicit. Stories about results from climate models never describe what a climate model is, descriptions of dramatic new observations rarely discuss what makes them interesting, and commentaries on policy debates seldom rise above reporting the partisan posturing.
Given some of the missteps that have occurred in recent decades, in how mad cow disease and vaccines have been dealt with by both the government and the media, there is a latent mistrust of statements from authority about science – whether they are from the academic world or the government. This in turn leaves the field wide open for peddlers of disinformation to fill the blogosphere and opinion pages with conspiratorial fairytales that take advantage of some people’s confusion.
A few years ago, I helped start the blog RealClimate.org, which allowed the public and working scientists to interact directly and to provide some of the missing background for stories that hit the headlines. But, over the years, it has become clear that there is a hunger – at least among some readers – for more than what a few ephemeral blog postings can provide. Yet few people have the time or inclination to go back to college, and most books on the subject are either dry technical treatises or political calls to action, neither of which are particularly conducive to greater general understanding.
So is there room for a new approach? I think the answer is yes, and it lies in recognising that people need to be engaged in the subject, given access to the how the information is obtained and trusted to deal with the complexities and uncertainties that still abound.
Great imagery – whether from photography or satellites – can be immensely useful in drawing people into an issue and revealing subtleties that would otherwise escape attention. Direct access to the scientists can build respect for the logistic, physical and intellectual challenges they face in the field and in the lab. Eschewing the polemics in favour of objective explanations can provide a welcome respite from the constant bickering that all too often passes for debate in climate change discussions.
One manifestation of this approach is a new book, Climate Change: Picturing the Science, which photographer Joshua Wolfe and I have put together. The book brings together our two communities to demonstrate in words and images how we are exploring what is happening now, what happened in the past and what might happen in the future. We don’t expect this suddenly to transform the public’s understanding of the science or the policy debate, but it is a resource that many will hopefully find accessible and useful. Citizens deserve a more mature discussion, and together, scientists, journalists and photographers should provide it.
•Gavin Schmidt is a climate scientist at the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and co-author of “Climate Change: Picturing the Science“, published this month by W. W. Norton.