Climate Change: A fundamental shift of our place in the world
Richard B. Rood, University of Michigan
This blog appeared originally in the Michigan Journal of Sustainability, The Conversation: Climate Change: A Fundamental Shift of Our Place in the World.
A scientist colleague told me, recently, he had realized that talking to the press about climate change was not about education and outreach, and he was no longer sure of his role. During the 1990s at the federal research labs, there were initiatives to communicate science to the public. A common vehicle was a one-page popular summary of technical journal articles. An underlying premise of this public outreach was that there was one conversation, that of informing the public of meaning, value and societal importance. This naive notion of outreach did not recognize other types of conversations. Already in the 1990s, there was an emerging political conversation about climate change. There were also philosophical conversations about humans, nature, conservation and sustainability – some anchored in religious convictions. A more psychological conversation evolved about being responsible for doing damage to the planet.
As these conversations have evolved, scientists have thought more formally about communication. In one meeting of scientists, I said that every time a climate scientist wrote or talked it was potentially political. When scientists participated in interviews, blogged or sat on panels at the local museum, then there was almost certainly a political element that might be extracted from their words. Some of my colleagues were offended at my statement, maintaining that that they never spoke politically, only from dispassionate knowledge. I also maintained that most scientists are ill-prepared to participate in the political arguments.
Recently, Secretary of State John Kerry framed climate change, the persistent warming of the Earth and its consequences, in terms of weapons of mass destruction. Secretary Kerry and President Obama reached for the seemingly easy comparison of climate change deniers to those who believed that the Earth was flat before the European sea exploration of the fifteenth century. This comparison motivated a predictable and easy response from those who consider climate change to be an exaggerated risk, with the public presence of that risk being maintained by a community of self-interested climate change believers – the warmists. So now we have the warmist versus the deniers. This is yet another type of conversation – tribal, you are wrong because of who you are.