Why Communicating Science is So Money

Gavin Schmidt

I’ve been meaning to thrown in my congratulations to Gavin Schmidt of NASA and, who is the first recipient of the American Geophysical Union’s new $ 25,000 annual prize for the year’s top climate science communicator.

Yes, you read that right, $ 25,000! (Full disclosure: I am on the board of directors of the American Geophysical Union, but I did not select Schmidt for the prize or have fore-knowledge of his selection; nor was I involved in the creation of the prize, which is funded by Nature’s Own.)

Schmidt is a very worthy choice— has revolutionized climate science communication online since its inception in the mid-2000s. And Schmidt has built from that platform to become a major commentator, and a lucid one at that, on outlets like CNN.

But at least as newsy as Schmidt’s choice is the creation of this prize in the first place.

Why Questionable "Science" Gets Published, Pounced On in the Media, Retracted, Causes Resignations…Rinse and Repeat

An editor resigns after a journal publishes a paper that seems to trash the scientific consensus on climate change—but is heavily criticized by top scientists. Where have we heard this kind of story before?

From my book The Republican War on Science, reporting on a 2003 hearing held by Senator James Inhofe designed to bash climate science:

The very day before Inhofe’s hearing, the editor in chief of Climate Research, the small journal where the Soon and Baliunas paper originally appeared, had resigned to protest deficiencies in the review process leading up to the paper’s publication. Several other editors also subsequently resigned…

Where else have we heard this kind of story before?

Communication Fail: Why the IPCC Must Do a Heck of a Lot Better in 2013

Regular readers know I’m pretty critical of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change–particularly when it comes to how this expert body communicates climate science. Basically, my view is that any organization that holds a key climate meeting in Copenhagen in winter is pretty clueless about the politics and public perception of this issue. [See Correction Below.] But even worse is that IPCC has shown far too little investment in communication or public outreach (although lately that is beginning to change), and has handled crisis communication moments—like the Himalayan glaciers flap—terribly.

Now, before I get too many ticked off emails: I know the IPCC is the leading expert source for climate science assessments, and deservedly so. I know that the scientists who volunteer to work on its reports do a heroic job. I recognize and commend all of this. But it simply isn’t enough in this day and age—and it is in the communications sphere where the IPCC’s scientific excellence simply has not been matched.

S&P Downgrades Planet Earth, Citing Unbalanced Carbon Budget, Reckless Political Debates and Role of “Deniers”


Washington, D.C.—In a move that came as a shock both in this city and throughout the planet on which it is located, Standard & Poor’s late Monday downgraded Earth from its unique HHH rating—the only one in the galaxy—to HH+.

The coveted HHH rating—meaning, “extremely habitable”—has become indefensible, the ratings agency said, due to continuing failures to balance the atmospheric carbon budget and an increasingly toxic political debate that renders better policies unlikely any time soon. 

Atmospheric carbon inputs continue to outweigh carbon outputs (or sinks), leading to a growing and unsustainable carbon ‘surplus,’” wrote S&P. “Unlike fiscal surpluses, this surplus is very dangerous and is already triggering rising temperatures, heat waves, droughts, and extreme weather patterns.”

Under the new HH+ rating, the Earth is still considered “highly habitable” for humans. However, S&P also changed the planet’s outlook to “negative,” suggesting the possibility of further downgrades. 

Critics Cite Dearth of Spaceships

Criticism came fast and furious.

“A Little Knowledge”: Why The Biggest Problem With Climate “Skeptics” May Be Their Confidence

Last week, an intriguing study emerged from Dan Kahan and his colleagues at Yale and elsewhere–finding that knowing more about science, and being better at mathematical reasoning, was related to more climate science skepticism and denial–rather than less.

Kahan’s team simply structured a survey in a way that no one—to my knowledge, at least—has done before. In a sample of over 1,500 people, they gathered at least four different types of information: how much scientific literacy they possessed (e.g., how well they answered questions about things like the time it takes for the Earth to circle the sun and the relative sizes of electrons and atoms), how “numerate” they were (e.g., their ability to engage in mathematical reasoning),  what their cultural values were (how much they favored individualism and hierarch in the ordering of society, as opposed to being egalitarian and communitarian), and what their views were on how serious a risk global warming is.

The surprise—for some out there, anyway—lay in how the ingredients of this stew mix together.

When It Comes to Expertise, You Can Always Fight a Guerilla War

You know how conservatives always have those big sign-on letters, listing X number of experts who disagree with evolution, or don’t think global warming is human caused?

You know you know what I mean. You know it drives you completely crazy.

In this post, I want to tell you why it works. To do so, I’m going to build on a recent article I did in The American Prospect, explaining how the Democratic Party in the U.S. today has become the chosen party of academics and experts–but that conservatives have more than enough allied experts of their own to keep it…interesting.

Rush Limbaugh Seizes--and Freezes?--on "ClimateGate"

For some time, it has been clear that “ClimateGate” has a dramatic meaning for the political right in the U.S. Somehow, “ClimateGate” gave those conservatives who had long been resistant to dealing with global warming a new license to dismiss the problem entirely. As a non-conservative, it’s hard to wrap your mind around how this could have occurred—after all, “ClimateGate” wasn’t a real scandal–but recently, I’ve come up with what may be a better understanding.

The inspiration came from checking in on Rush Limbaugh and noting, in more detail than I usually do, the particular flavor of his dismissiveness. Limbaugh took a call recently from one Michael Hillinger, a New Hampshire resident who had made news by asking GOP candidate Mitt Romney a question about whether he accepts the science of climate change (Romney said yes). Based on these statements, Limbaugh bade “Bye By Nomination” to Romney; he also had this “exchange” with Hillinger:

Debating Michael Shermer (and Bjorn Lomborg) on Climate Risks

On my latest podcast, I had the fortune of hosting Michael Shermer, who is the founder of Skeptic magazine and author of the important new book The Believing Brain. Shermer is also a self-identified libertarian, but one who drew much attention in 2006 when he dropped his global warming skepticism and embraced the scientific consensus that we’re causing climate change to happen.

However, oddly, Shermer still isn’t really worried about global warming. He falls into roughly the same camp as Bjorn Lomborg, arguing that it isn’t likely to be a big deal and will be something we can manage. Here is Shermer’s summary of Lomborg’s answers (in the film Cool It) to two key questions that one must confront if one accepts global warming is happening and caused by humans.

Q: How much warmer is it going to get?

A: Probably a little, very unlikely a lot.

Q: What are the consequences of a warmer climate?

A: Debatable depending on how much warmer it will get, but very likely the consequences will be minor.

Now, this baffles me. I don’t understand how anyone could be so confident warming would be on the low end of the projections, and not that big a deal.

When I had Shermer on the show, it was not my goal to debate him about global warming…

Breaking: TransCanada Keystone I Pipeline Shut Down Indefinitely Due to Safety Concerns

Following a string of oil spills, TransCanada’s Keystone I tar sands oil pipeline has been indefinitely shut down, and banned from restarting operations. Today, the Pipelines and Hazerdous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued a Corrective Action Order, which stops use of the pipeline until the regulator determines that safety problems have been corrected.

In the order, Jeffrey Wiese, associate administrator for pipeline safety at the Department of Transportation, wrote: 

I find that the continued operation of the pipeline without corrective measures would be hazardous to life, property and the environment. Additionally, after considering the circumstances surrounding the May 7 and May 29, 2011 failures, the proximity of the pipeline to populated areas, water bodies, public roadways and high consequence areas, the hazardous nature of the product the pipeline transports, the ongoing investigation to determine the cause of the failures, and the potential for the conditions causing the failures to be present elsewhere on the pipeline, I find that a failure to issue this Order expeditiously to require immediate corrective action would result in likely serious harm to life, property, and the environment.

The Keystone I pipeline has spilled 12 times since beginning operation less than one year ago. Late last year, TransCanada had to dig up portions of the pipeline when abnormalities were discovered.  

Will the IPCC Be Ready to Communicate About Its Fifth Assessment Report?

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the world authority on the science of climate. But at the same time, it has been increasingly beset by controversies that call into question its approach, and its preparedness, when it comes to communication.

Essentially, the IPCC releases highly technical reports, fairly infrequently, that get an initial flurry of mainstream media attention and then get attacked viciously until the next report comes out. And when attacked, IPCC has opted for an ill advised strategy of “hunkering down,” as Andrew Revkin puts it. Indeed, following “GlacierGate”—when a very real error was found in one of IPCC’s reports—IPCC came off as defensive and was very slow to admit the mistake.

Following the various “-Gates” of 2009 and 2010, a cry went out in many circles that we need to improve climate science communication. As a result, all kinds of communication innovations are now going forward, many of which are ably summarized by Revkin in a recent article in the Bulletin of the World Meteorological Organization (which was central to creating the IPCC itself in 1988).

But where does IPCC fit in the context of this innovation wave? It still seems to be dragging.


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