IU panel examines the challenges in communicating climate change

Harvard historian of science Naomi Oreskes doesn’t accept the idea that climate change is too big and complicated for ordinary citizens to understand or care about. She points to maple syrup producers, birders, snowboarders and others who report first hand on a changing climate.

“All around the U.S. and the world, people are seeing climate change,” she said.

Naomi Oreskes answers a question during a panel discussion of climate change. At left are IU professors Scott Robeson from the Department of Geography and Phaedra Pezzullo from the Department of Communication and Culture.

Naomi Oreskes answers a question during a panel discussion on climate change. At left are IU professors Scott Robeson from the Department of Geography and Phaedra Pezzullo from the Department of Communication and Culture.

But the observations of ordinary people and the consensus of scientists haven’t produced the political will to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Oreskes and a panel of IU faculty explored that dilemma Tuesday in a panel sponsored by IU Bloomington’s Integrated Program on the Environment.

Part of the problem, panelists suggested, is that scientists work in zones of uncertainty, pushing the bounds of knowledge and investigating questions with no clear answers. IU geographer Scott Robeson said scientists may not talk enough about what they do know: As CO2 levels rise, the planet is warming, sea level is rising and the oceans are becoming more acid.

And there’s confusion between weather, which people see every day, and climate, which requires detailed measurement. “People have trouble understanding the scale of the planet,” Robeson said.

School of Public and Environmental Affairs professor Ken Richards said there’s also a complexity problem in social science and public policy. And some policy choices do matter, he said. For example, if the U.S. were to adopt a carbon tax, some uses for the revenue would be better than others.

“These things are complex,” Richards said. “They’re complex in the science and they’re complex in the policy. And the challenge is how to communicate it.”

James Shanahan, incoming dean of The Media School, began studying how science is communicated in the 1980s. Then, he said, there was an “alarmist” tone to environmental news and a sense that media would push for solutions. But news is cyclical, and media attention moved on to other topics.

With climate change, he said, features of media make the message less clear-cut. One is the bias for narrative, which favors uncertainty and multiple viewpoints. The story that a few dissenting scientists are challenging the consensus “is still a narrative,” he said – and media are unlikely to ignore it.

Moderator Jeff White, director of the Integrated Program on the Environment, asked Oreskes if there have been efforts to deliberately cultivate uncertainty about climate change.

Her answer: “Yes.”

Oreskes will present an IU Patten lecture tonight titled “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Have Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Climate Change.” She has written a book with the same title and a film based on the book was released in theaters March 6. No doubt she will answer White’s question with more than one word.

 

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