Making climate change science easier to understand

Posted: April 6, 2009 in science & technology
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Polar bear, courtesy of Lars K. Jensen at Flickr under a creative commons licence

Dave Levitan posted on Red Green and Blue under the title “Communicating Climate Change: Making the Science Accessible” thoughts on making climate change science easier to communicate. Pointing out how difficult it is for the non-scientist average citizen and even politician (although they have highly paid advisers to brief them) to understand the complexities and intricacies of climate science, he points to a a letter in the journal Science (unfortunately paid access only) by Thomas Bowman.

Major news outlets continue to disseminate confusing and misleading denial arguments, and well-meaning scientists and journalists struggle to articulate the realities of climate change to those who will shape the planet’s future. Communicating climate change is a difficult task, especially since some of the changes like rising sea levels are long- term and therefore not subject to immediate experience. In some sense a sea change of a different kind is needed before the public and policy makers truly can catch up to the science.

To overcome confusion, misunderstandings and lack of knowledge, Bowman calls for a common language when discussing some of the more abstract ideas surrounding climate change. It could include standardised inclusive terms like “carbon dioxide-equivalent” instead of just carbon dioxide (which would allow the inclusion of all greenhouse gases) or more powerful tangible images such as the melting ice sheets or the potential for stronger hurricanes (rather than graphs showing methane concentrations over the last 30 years).

As Bowman’s letter states, policy-related discussions involving global warming rarely stick to the science: “Unfortunately, politicised debate has overshadowed scientific understanding in public discourse.” His suggestions to standardize the language of climate change might help, but finding ways to arouse the public on what lies ahead for the planet have yet to be discovered.

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