Thursday, April 17, 2014

All Three IPCC Climate Change AR5 Technical Reports are Now Available

With the release this past week of the Mitigation volume, all three technical reports of the most recent IPCC climate change review, i.e., the 5th Assessment Report (AR5), are now available. A Synthesis Report will be released in October of 2014 that summarizes the main points of all three technical volumes.

The AR5 has been a major undertaking, with hundreds of scientists volunteering their time to reviewe tens of thousands of published papers and assessing their meaning, then writing it all up for others to read. Thousands of other scientists, interested parties, and even climate deniers reviewed the draft documents before they were finalized. Nearly 55,000 comments were received and addressed in the Physical Science Basis volume alone, with massive numbers of comments also being addressed in the other two technical reports.

The result is an undeniably comprehensive review of the state of the science. And the conclusion is clear - human activity is warming the planet, the consequences are extremely significant, and action must be taken now to minimize or reverse the inevitable ecological and economic impacts.

The reports and associated materials can all be downloaded and reviewed on the IPCC website. Previous posted have discussed some of the good and the bad about how IPCC is communicating the information.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

What the IPCC Gets Wrong With Their Latest Climate Change Report Communication

Graphic courtesy of NASA
As mentioned previously, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) rolled out the second volume of its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, on March 31, 2014. This was on top of the WGI report: The Physical Science Basis, issued in the fall of 2013. Last week I mentioned some of the things the IPCC did right, including their apparent discovery of YouTube as a communication device. This week I'll take a look at what they could have done better with their videos.

First, the fact that they have videos at all is a sign the IPCC is at least trying to reach the public. The videos are professionally produced and include vignettes of stunning visuals interspersed with explanatory statements by key scientists in the Working Groups. So far, so good. But, and there is a big but. In fact, several. Here are a few:

1) At about 7 minutes and 30 seconds into the WGI video (The Physical Science Basis), Dr. Thomas Stocker, co-chair of WGI, comes on camera to state that "we have three key messages..." He then clearly and succinctly states that:
  • The warming of the climate system is unequivocal and based on observations and multiple lines of evidence,
  • Human influence on the climate system is clear, and
  • Continued greenhouse gas emissions will cause more impacts in the future
Wonderful. Except most of the viewers stopped watching the video when the first scientist came on camera. So it's a major problem that he doesn't say this until more than 80% into the 9:19 minute video. It should be the first thing they say in the video, then repeated at least once more to reinforce it. The reasons why will become evident below.

2) At 9:19 minutes for the WGI video and 12:04 minutes for the WGII video (Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability), the videos are too long for the general public.

3) The audio is sometimes hard to understand, as sound quality is variable. It is essential that the voices are easy to understand by anyone listening.

4) The videos, while available on YouTube and the IPCC website, are not distributed widely enough to engage the general public. Not once have I seen them pop up on Facebook and other "popular" outlets.

Which gets to the crux of the issue. The target audience for the videos appears to be other scientists and policymakers. That's fine, to a point. Some policymakers are too lazy to even have their staffs read the Summary for Policymakers and would prefer a video. But policymakers, especially in the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia, simply are not going to start making policy unless their constituents, i.e., the people, you know, like us, start understanding that there is a need to press the policymakers. Sorry, this is a fact of life.

Which means the IPCC and other outlets need to use videos to reach out and engage the populace. And these videos just don't cut it. For example, the WGII video shows many impacts and attempts at adaptation around the world, but most are from developing and/or highly vulnerable regions. That's fine, in fact, essential, given that they may be disproportionately impacted. But the real drivers of action will be the aforementioned "Big 4" (US/UK/Canada/Australia). These are where the most influential people live, and also where the most egregious climate denial lobbyists are active. These are the people that need to understand the dire need for action. And they simply aren't going to be become activists by flashing only places that they can't relate to as exemplars of impact. They need to see how a warming planet impacts them, with "them" being the millions of people living in the Big 4 who generally don't have to worry about their parched climate getting even drier, or their sinking island sinking faster, or the next Super Typhoon. They need to see what impact it will have on the price of food they buy in the local supermarket, the cost of electricity for their houses, and on immigration patterns. In short, the populace needs to feel that this global problem will have local impacts right there in River City, or whatever place they call their back yard.

So, my recommendations to the IPCC and others is to stick with video because it is the medium most likely to be seen and understood. But make shorter videos that hit the points earlier and are focused on impacts more relevant to the populace of the Big 4. Make the videos Facebook-friendly. Get them out there where everyone can share them. And use language non-scientists can easily understand. Use memes if you have to.

But reach out directly to the public, for it is they who will stimulate the policymakers into action.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Communicating Climate Change: How the IPCC Gets it Right, and How They Get It Oh So Wrong

Graphic courtesy of NASA
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) officially rolled out the second volume of its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) on March 31, 2014. Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, the report compiled over the last several years by Working Group II of the IPCC, provides in excruciating detail the future risks of our changing climate. While they don't exactly put it this way, their findings can most succinctly be summarized as "humans are creating severe negative impacts to our planet, and we are sorely unprepared to deal with it."

This Working Group II (WGII) report follows on the heels of last fall's WGI report: The Physical Science Basis, which examined (again in excruciating detail) the physics, empirical measurements, and voluminous data that unequivocally demonstrate we are warming our planet, mostly due to our reliance on fossil fuels and the associated emissions of carbon into the climate system.


And by that I mean that it is great that the IPCC has once again summarized the data since the last time they summarized the data, which of course covered the data that had been produced since the time before that. As the AR5 suggests, this is the 5th time the IPCC has produced these voluminous reports over the last 25 years. We're warming our planet. And that is not a good thing.

And yet, we haven't taken any substantive action to deal with that scientific fact. Mostly because there are vested interests out there spending millions of dollars intentionally denying the science and blocking discussion of policy options. So is the IPCC getting the scientific point across or not? Let's take a look at some of the things the IPCC has done right, and then a few things they need to do a whole lot better.

Doing right!

More time spent with the rollout of the report: Unlike past reports, the IPCC seems to have finally realized that they can't just have a press conference, hand out a 2000+ page report, and start planning on the next round of reports due in 7 years. This time they actually tried to get national and international media outlets interested. This wasn't always successful, but it needed to be done.

Individual scientists are more open to doing media: One of the biggest problems in the past is that scientists tended to be gun-shy about doing media. Let's face it, they had good reason. The media, even the best intentioned ones, generally do a horrific job presenting science. But some scientists - Michael Mann is probably the best known at the moment - have been willing to risk attack to be interviewed. And yes, I mean attack. Mann especially has been attacked by climate deniers, both the professional lobbyists and their amateur denier followers. But speaking to the media - and the public itself - has become mandatory in order to counteract the disinformation campaigns.

Hey, Did you see it on YouTube?: One of the best communication devices IPCC has employed on this go-around are videos. Even the IPCC has discovered YouTube and provided professionally produced videos highlighting key scientists in the Working Groups, basic concepts, and the main conclusions. Bravo! [Ah, but it isn't all good. See below and next post.]

Needs a lot of improvement!

I have several of these so I'll split them over a couple of posts. Let's start with the obvious.

2000 pages are good, but how about something for me?: The reports by necessity are long. After all, they have to synthesize thousands of papers published since the last review. Since only die-hard scientists will read (and understand) the full reports, the IPCC provides a Summary for Policymakers for each WG report. While that is great for policymakers it really is worthless for most of the general public. What IPCC needs to do is provide a one or two page Summary for People, written in plain language, that highlights the major principles and conclusions. And write it for me - I watch The Big Bang Theory, not study it.

Here is what a Summary for People might look like:

WGI: The Physical Science Basis

Point 1: The climate system includes the atmosphere, the oceans, the ice, the plants, the animals, and even the rocks and soil.

Point 2: Energy from the sun warms our planet.

Point 3: Our atmosphere keeps the surface of the planet about 30 degrees C warmer than it would be without it.

Point 4: While more than 99% of the atmosphere is made up of Nitrogen, Oxygen, and Argon, none of these materials has any effect on the temperature of the planet.

Point 5: A handful of trace gases are responsible for maintaining our temperature at a livable level. The most important of these gases, called greenhouse gases, are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4, and water (H2O).

Point 6: While water is the most important on a short-term basis, carbon dioxide is the most important greenhouse gas for determining the long-term temperature of our atmosphere.

And so on. Keep it to one or two pages.

The point of this Summary for People is that most of us, like, say, 99.99% of us, don't need to know the aforementioned excruciating details so carefully discussed in the full report. And even the Summary for Policymakers is too technical for a general public whose main responsibility is to raise their family in a complex world. To be honest, it's clear most policymakers can't understand the Summary for Policymakers either (nor can their staffs). And some policymakers don't care anyway since taking action requires taking responsibility, something that they don't really want to have to do (especially in an election year).

But, and here is the take-home message for this post, it is the people who will tell their elected representatives to stop avoiding reality and start doing their jobs, i.e., figure out how to deal with the fact that we humans have been turning up the dial on the heat of the planet. It is us people that will put pressure on those policymakers to actually make policy, and do so before that heat dial goes all the way up to 11.

So come on, IPCC. Let's take the science to the people directly. And let's do it in language the people can understand. Let's heed the advice of writers, where there is a oft-repeated mantra to "kill your darlings." Writers should delete unnecessary language even when, and perhaps especially when, they've fallen in love with a particular turn of phrase. The IPCC needs to kill its darlings. The scientific language is fully necessary for the technical reports; it needs to be shaved in the Summary for Policymakers; but it needs to be left by the wayside in the Summary for People. And a Summary for People is absolutely necessary.

I'll end this post here but want to delve into the videos IPCC produced for the rollout of the reports, so I'll deal with that in the next edition. Be sure to come back.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Book Review – Am I Making Myself Clear? A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public by Cornelia Dean

I periodically review books that address the issue of communicating science to the public. Today's book is Am I Making Myself Clear? A Scientist's Guide to Talking to the Public. A much needed book for scientific and non-scientific communities alike. Written by science writer (and former New York Times editor) Cornelia Dean, the book makes the case that scientists need to make “their work more accessible to the media, and thus to the public.” This doesn’t come naturally to most scientists, and so the book gives some practical tips on how scientists can accomplish this goal.
Dean starts with “an invitation to researchers” to put aside their natural reticence and distrust of the media and help themselves and journalists get the key messages of their science across to the public. Because there are plenty of people out there who don’t hesitate to misinform the public about the science in order to protect their own interests (e.g., the climate change debate). In ensuing chapters she provides some insights into how scientists can better “know your audience,” help educate and work with journalists, and how to get the message across on radio and TV, online, and in the courtroom. She also offers tips on writing books, writing Op-Eds and letters to news outlets, and writing about science and technology in other venues.
Two of the most valuable chapters actually have to do with how journalists cover science issues. In “Covering Science,” Dean notes some of the differences in style and communication between journalism and scientific writing. These differences set up an inherent conflict. Scientific researchers view journalists as being superficial, insufficiently concerned with accuracy, focused on controversy, and even “ignorant.” In turn, journalists view researchers as boring, “caveating things to death,” prone to incomprehensible jargon, and incapable of drawing a definitive conclusion. In “The Problem of Objectivity,” Dean discusses the limitations of journalistic “balance” in which one opposing voice is given equal weight to the thousands of proponent voices because both sides are represented. This journalistic trait is exploited by, for example, climate change deniers, who know that TV interviews with one scientist and one naysayer (even if he is a non-scientist) looks to the public like “two sides” of a debate, even when the science is overwhelmingly in favor of one view. Given that it is often difficult for a journalist to know the state-of-the-art of the science, this opens the door for imbalance, ironically, in their effort to provide balance.
Perhaps the most valuable chapter to scientists is “The Scientist as Source.” Here Dean provides some practical hints as to how scientists can best interact with journalists. Again she encourages scientists to put aside their hesitations to speak to the press and to embrace the opportunity to get out a message that accurately reflects both the research itself and the ramifications of that research to the public.
“Am I Making Myself Clear?” is quite readable, as one might expect from a science journalist. I recommend reading this book along with Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s Unscientific America and Randy Olson’s Don’t Be Such a Scientist. All three books are useful to the scientist to help him or her relate better to the public, and to the public at large to better understand how science works.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Climate Scientists Talking to the Public

Graphic courtesy of NASA
One of the more emphatic debates these days is whether scientists should talk more with the public. Traditionally, scientists do their science in the lab or the field, toil for weeks or months (or even years) over analysis, and then write up their findings for publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals to be read only by other scientists.

The public sees none of this. They usually can't access the journals because they don't have a subscription. Not that it matters; scientific writing is generally incomprehensible to anyone outside their field of study, never mind the public. In any case, single papers are only pieces in a very large puzzle, and who outside of a few academics has the time to work on a puzzle that size? Well, no one.

So where does the public get its scientific information? Largely from the news media, who generally, okay, let's be frank, do a lousy job of communicating the science as a whole. Usually a single paper is presented as if it is the entire puzzle, not the one piece. And tomorrow's piece, presented just as breathlessly by a media geared towards sensationalism, may seem to totally contradict yesterday's piece. Add to this the fact, yes, the fact, that there are parties out there who intentionally try to mislead the public. The obvious example are lobbyists paid to protect their benefactor's interests by standing in the way of policy changes that could negatively impact the short-term bottom line. By now I think we all know some blatant examples.

Which leaves scientists. The traditional "do science, let others communicate it" mantra just doesn't work any more. Science is part of everyone's life...every single day. That's a good thing. But with the virtual cesspool of blogs, where anyone can saturate the internet within hours with the most inane non-scientific drivel, the public is inundated with information. As Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum noted in their book, Unscientific America, on the internet "there’s tons of information available, but much of it is crap.” So to counteract that crap, scientists have to step up and communicate the facts of science directly to the public. This isn't a new idea. Carl Sagan did that with his original Cosmos series (recently resurrected with Neil deGrasse Tyson), and the above-mentioned Chris Mooney discussed it in a 2010 Washington Post Op-Ed.

The idea has gotten new legs in recent weeks in an effort to get the facts out about man-made climate change. Penn State climate scientist (and co-author of the "hockey stick" paper) Michael Mann recently wrote a New York Times Op-Ed called "If You See Something, Say Something," a play on the post-9/11 warnings in many of the nation's subway systems. Phys.Org discussed the pluses and minuses in a recent post, saying "Climate scientists want to interact more directly with the public." Others have also tackled the issue.

Let's be blunt -  there clearly is a need for scientists to ensure the public gets an accurate picture of the science behind man-made climate change and other scientific issues. But how to do it? At the very least it's important for scientists to become more accessible to the public. Get a Facebook page to highlight your research, tweet your latest findings, Google Plus your research. Ah, but here's the rub. Do it in a way that isn't going to come off as overblown gibberish readable only by those who have spent years learning the jargon. Drop the "sciency talk." Talk to us in language we use every day. The public doesn't need to have every detail so that they can replicate your research. We just need to understand what is happening (e.g., the planet is definitely getting warmer and we are the main cause) and what it means (e.g., it could make George Strait's song about "Oceanfront Property in Arizona" sound like a good investment opportunity).

In short, scientists need to remember that they are part of the public too. Share your work.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

House Hearing on Chemicals in Commerce Act Shows Politics in Action, not TSCA Reform

Yesterday, March 12, 2014, the House Environment and the Economy Subcommittee held a hearing on its version of a TSCA reform bill. As noted last week, a discussion draft of the Chemicals in Commerce Act (CICA) was released on February 27th. The bill reflects the "business first" leanings of the House Republican majority, which shouldn't be surprising given how that majority lumped environmental issues with economic ones in naming their subcommittee.

It wasn't difficult to figure out which witnesses had been called by each political party. Some represented various corporations and trade associations of industry, while others represented worker unions and health advocacy organizations. All provided their input on the CICA discussion draft. You can read the full witness list and their written testimony, plus watch the video of their oral testimony at the hearing here. A background document and the full CICA discussion draft are also available. You can read analyses of the bill and hearing here and here. An NGO analysis of the bill can be read here. See my earlier article for other NGO and trade association feedback.

All the usual posturing occurred during the hearing. Industry representatives assured the subcommittee that industry wants the public to believe chemicals are safe. NGOs and health advocates expressed concern that neither CICA nor the Senate's CSIA would adequately protect public health and the environment. House members mimed their party's assigned positions.

If that sounds cynical, it is. But it accurately reflects the lack of seriousness by the House to address the problem. TSCA is broken. Everyone agrees that TSCA is broken. They may differ on how much and how best to proceed, but they agree that reforming TSCA is necessary, and that it should be done now. The Senate's Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA) at least tried to keep the main focus on fixing the inherent problems with the severely outdated and often ineffective existing chemical law. While the CSIA includes none of the pre-market testing originally advocated by health and environmental advocates, it does give EPA some additional flexibility and authority to ask for new data. The Senate's CSIA isn't perfect, but most stakeholders agree that it is a step in the right direction. And it's workable.

In contrast, the House's CICA doesn't even bother to pretend that its goal is to assure chemical safety. It's clear that the House CICA has three goals.

1) Roll back the very few industry concessions in the already industry-friendly Senate CSIA.

2) Further undermine EPA's authority to take action to protect human health and the environment.

3) Throw red meat to the most rabid supporters of the Republican party.

So cynical, yes. And that is a shame. The House held a series of hearings to "collect information on TSCA," so looked like it was taking this issue seriously. As shocking as it was to see the lack of knowledge by many members of the committee on issues in which it claims oversight, the draft bill that resulted from all those hearings is even more disturbing. It reflects an out-of-control partisan attack on the health and safety of all Americans. As such, industry should be rejecting CICA rather than giving it lip service. If industry wants to avoid the patchwork of state bills regulating chemicals, the renewed efforts by NGOs to enact those state and local bills, and the absolute loss of public faith in industry veracity, then industry should be telling the majority that runs the House to issue a new version of CICA more in line with the modified CSIA currently being negotiated in the Senate.

If TSCA isn't modernized this year, it won't be modernized. Ever. It's time for the House to stop playing political games and start doing their job. This is about public safety, not making political points.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

House Issues TSCA Reform Discussion Draft - Mocks Attempts at Chemical Safety Modernization

On February 27, 2014 the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce issued a "discussion draft" of what it calls the Chemicals in Commerce Act (CICA). In doing so it mocked the bipartisan efforts by the Senate to modernize the nearly 40-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and showed that partisan politics still rules the lower chamber of Congress.

In short, the CICA is a step backwards. The press release headline from Ranking Member and long-time advocate for chemical safety reform Henry Waxman says it all: "Rep. Waxman Statement on Republican TSCA Reform Bill Draft." While the Senate bill, dubbed the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA) received demonstrative support from both parties and largely would enhance the ability to ensure chemical safety, the House CICA, in Waxman's words, "would weaken current law and endanger public health."

The NGO Safer Chemicals Healthy Families lists several deficiencies with the bill. They describe the draft thusly:

Well, the chemical industry interests are reaching deep into their bag of tricks with the draft “Chemicals In Commerce Act” released by Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) this week. Who do they think they’re fooling?

This draft is a vehicle for more secrets, more safety data loopholes, and faster introduction of untested chemicals—all disguised as “reform” of a badly outdated 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act.

The Environmental Defense Fund, which supports the Senate's bipartisan TSCA reform bill, described a scenario in which the USEPA would have to prove not only that a chemical put on the market was dangerous, but also find a replacement for it before any action could be taken to remove it. And that was only the first of a series of "Major Problems" with the CICA draft.

Even the American Chemistry Council, a strong advocate and heavily involved in the writing of the bipartisan Senate version of the bill, was lukewarm on the House Republicans draft. In an perfunctory press release, ACC touted the Senate bill while giving boilerplate praise to Rep. Shimkus' williness to hold hearings. The House draft bill got some discussion at the chemical industry sponsored GlobalChem conference this week, but it was clear the Senate bill is the preferred path forward.

So what happens next? The House plans to hold at least three hearings on its CICA draft, which at least shows a willingness to move forward with a bill (a positive step). That said, the House Republican CICA reflects the Republican history of attempting to restrict EPA's ability to protect human health and the environment, something the Senate bipartisan CSIA bill has tried to correct. After all, the entire reason we are discussing chemical safety reform is because the current law, TSCA, makes it too difficult for EPA to regulate chemicals. The House bill would make that problem worse.

But the chemical industry wants TSCA reform. They don't like having to deal with 50 different rules from 50 different states. Industry knows that failure to reform TSCA will be the impetus for NGOs to heighten their advocacy for severe state-based restrictions on chemicals that are deemed unsafe. Industry knows that the Senate bipartisan bill dropped all of the major requirements the NGOs wanted, thus making this the most industry-friendly bill industry could have hoped to achieve. Industry also likely knows that the House CICA bill is a non-starter designed to pander to the tea party wing of the Republican party and can't possible pass in its current form.

The most likely scenario, therefore, is that after some political showmanship on the House side, the Senate bill - with potentially significant "tweaks" to address issues already raised - will be passed in the Senate and sent to the House. Once there it is almost certain that enough votes would appear to pass the bill and finally update TSCA. Why so certain? Because industry has a bill that puts very little burden on them while giving them something to tout in press releases. Industry will tell House Republicans to pass the Senate bill. Democrats will vote for it because it does take measurable steps to improve health and safety.

Once the modified CSIA is law, the Republican-led House will go back to their obsessive attempts to defund and otherwise restrict EPA's authority, while the House simultaneously works to insulate industry from scrutiny. Industry wins both ways, but at least with the CSIA in place the public also gains some additional power to ensure the safety of chemicals. It isn't great, but it's better than what we have now.

Book Review – Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum

I periodically review books that address the issue of communicating science to the public. As suggested by its title – Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future - this book acknowledges the limits of the public’s understanding of science and how science works. But I felt the book was most powerful because it focuses on the role of scientists in disseminating scientific information.

The first two chapters give a very nice background on the role science has played, from its high funding and close relationships with policy-makers soon after World War II, to its period of low funding and disconnect from policy-makers, to the more recent “war on science” (the topic of Mooney’s previous book).

Much of the main part of the book looks at the intersection of science and other institutions. Individual chapters look at science as it relates to politics, to religion, to its portrayal in Hollywood, and to journalism, all within the subcontext of C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” theme. In short, different ways of thinking, and different needs, affect the interaction of the two institutions in the dyad. For example, whereas the needs of the media are episodic, science is more incremental. So every incremental finding coming from scientific studies can be picked up by the media and presented as if it is a revelation. Except it might suggest the opposite of yesterday’s revelation. No matter that the two studies merely looked at different parts of the picture and support the full knowledge base, the media assume each piece stands on its own. This can be, and usually is, highly confusing to the public. Similar conflicts in the messaging occur between science and religion, scientist depiction in film (usually as a stereotypical caricature), and politics.

One chapter discusses the role of blogs. As newspapers and broadcast media have been eliminating science coverage, at least 1000 science blogs have sprung up. While blogs can help disseminate information broadly, the authors say “[t]he problem with the internet is obvious to anyone who has ever used it; There’s tons of information available, but much of it is crap.” Misinformation thrives, and those who want to manipulate the debate can publish whatever they want, and unfortunately, usually do. Much of it is biased, inaccurate, or outright fabrication. Which is why blogs may be useful for rapidly getting the word out, they cannot be relied upon for an accurate assessment of the science itself. The exception, perhaps, are blogs written by the scientists themselves.

The authors refer repeatedly in the book to Carl Sagan, an astronomer who was also a stellar communicator, but whose popularity was often seen by other scientists as an indignity (i.e., to traditional scientists who preferred to do their science and leave the communication to others). But in the end the authors of Unscientific America, one a journalist and the other a scientist, assert that disseminating the science to the lay public, to the media, and to policy-makers is an “integral part of the job description of scientists themselves.” Essentially, they say that it should be part of every scientist’s responsibility to communicate the science accurately, and to make sure that the science is not misrepresented by those who would misuse it.

The book is eminently readable and surprisingly insightful. The book is definitely worth the read.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Climate Change Evidence and Causes: A New Communication Tool from Two of the World's Foremost Scientific Organizations

A new report was issued on February 26, 2014 by two of the world's foremost scientific organizations: The US National Academy of Sciences and The Royal Society in the UK. Climate Change: Evidence and Causes documents the science behind man-made climate change, and does so in a manner that is more accessible to the lay public. From the web page:

Written by a UK-US team of leading climate scientists and reviewed by climate scientists and others, the publication is intended as a brief, readable reference document for decision makers, policy makers, educators, and other individuals seeking authoritative information on the some of the questions that continue to be asked.

The report goes a long way toward communicating the science. It presents the technical issues in a concise, clear, "Question & Answer" format. Each question is answered with a highlighted conclusion followed by a longer explanation, which usually includes one or more relatively simple graphics that make the data more easy to understand. Overall, the report is a good example of how to communicate science.

What I like about the report is that it clearly states the questions that most policymakers and educators want to know. The first question: Is the climate warming? The second: How do scientists know that recent climate change is largely caused by human activities? These two fundamental questions are answered clearly. Yes, the climate is warming, and the reason we know that human activity is the major cause is summarized.

It's common for the public to be confused on a variety of climate change related issues, in part because of the complexity of the science but also because of the organized disinformation campaigns of lobbyists. The National Academy and Royal Society present the answers to these questions. What role does the sun play? Is the current level of CO2 unprecedented? Does the rate of warming vary from decade to decade (and why)? How confident are scientists that the Earth will warm further over the coming century?

Every major question is addressed in a way that can be understood by scientists and non-scientists alike. And the answers are clear - the planet is warming and human activity is the primary cause.

To help get the word out, a  live webcast and discussion of the report release is scheduled for Thursday, February 27, 2014 from 10:00-11:30 am EST. More information can be found on the release web page.

While this report, along with the recent and forthcoming more extensive reports from the IPCC and other scientific bodies, won't stop the lobbyists from misrepresenting the science, it does do a good job getting the science across to a wider audience. It is likely still too technical, however, for much of the general public. Therefore, it is imperative that other organizations, video producers, science writers, teachers, and other communicators take this information and make it even more accessible. Communication doesn't stop with issuing a report. It starts.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Is the recent cold weather due to climate change? Richard Alley and how to communicate the science (video)

Recently, much of the United States was hit with excessively cold weather. Immediately the chorus of "skeptics" fluttered onto to every media outlet to decry that global warming couldn't possibly be real because, after all, it's cold outside. In winter. While the rest of the planet is actually warmer than normal. So how do scientists communicate to the public that human activity is warming the planet when there is so much noise?

One way is to repeat that the IPCC has increased its confidence that we are warming the planet. It is unequivocal. Then point them to the IPCC reports. Of course, at over 2200 pages, there is a good chance that the public isn't going to read the report, or even the 33-page summary. Even if they tried, the reports are just too technical for the general public.

So how do we communicate the science to the public in an era of "skeptics?"

One way is by video. There are many short, informative videos that get across the basic science. I'll provide some examples of those in future posts. For this post take a look at the following video of Dr. Richard Alley being interviewed on CNN by Christiane Amanpour.

Dr. Alley is a quintessential scientist in many respects. His wild hair, beard, and nerdy glasses epitomize what many people think scientists should look like (minus the white lab coat). Alley is renowned for the high level of his scientific research and exhibits the excitement and animation of a man who loves his work. He also tends to talk in terms the public can understand. He's a scientist for the public, in a crazy sort of way.

On the flip side, at nearly 8 minutes long, the video is on the outer edges of the time most people are willing to listen to an interview. Especially an interview of a guy sitting in a chair. That said, Alley is able to make several succinct points:

- the cold weather we've been getting is mostly just weather

- climate change is happening now

- while some people (colder areas) might enjoy a warmer planet, other people (warmer areas) are already at the limits of their ability to live in their climates (so...warming will make their locations unlivable)

- like saving for retirement, if we start now to reduced carbon emissions the process is much easier and cheaper than waiting until the last minute (age 65 or catastrophic climate change)

Overall, Dr. Alley's video provides some useful tips to other scientists who are seeking to communicate science to the public. And that is what they should be doing.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Communicating Science - A TEDx Talk by Sheril Kirshenbaum

I ran across the following video recently and felt that it does a very good job of identifying some of the problems scientists experience communicating their science to the public. Even better, it provides some simple ideas on how to communicate better.

Sheril Kirshembaum is co-author with Chris Mooney of the book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future. She is also the author, appropriately enough with Valentine's Day upon us, The Science of Kissing. As the Director of The Energy Poll at The University of Texas at Austin, Kirshenbaum focuses on how "to enhance public understanding of energy issues and improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public."

Here's the video:

As scientists we are used to talking to other scientists. Traditionally we've left the communicating-to-the-public part up to other people. We've even frowned on the idea of being "popular scientists" (think, Carl Sagan). But with the ability of any blogger or lobbyist to saturate the internet with misinformation, the need for scientists to communicate science has become a necessity. Kirshenbaum and others (think, Michael Mann) are helping to make that happen.

And so will we. More to come.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

"Epic Fail" in Communications - Dealing with Chemicals in an Emergency

Chemicals are all around us. Mostly they make our lives easier. Without them our lives would be, in many minds, primitive. But sometimes chemicals suddenly become a bad thing. Like the West Virginia spill that dumped a chemical known as MCHM into Elk River and contaminated water supplies for weeks. The spill reemphasized the importance of having good emergency response plans and communication. It also reemphasized that such plans and communication are woefully lacking.

Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), has written extensively on the "epic fail" in West Virginia and on chemical communication issues in general. I'll let you read his series of blogs on the subject.

One point Denison brings out is the inadequacy of Material Safety Data Sheets, commonly called MSDSs. He delves into the difficulties caused to first responders by lack of up-to-date information...even to the point of not knowing there was more than one chemical involved in the spill. This is not a new problem. In fact, it is tragically common.

MSDSs list basic information about the chemical, such as name, identifying information, basic physical-chemical properties, toxicity, and environmental toxicity. They also list basic first aid steps, how to fight any fires that involve the chemicals, storage, and disposal. Or at least this is what they do in theory. In reality, many MSDSs hold the name of the chemical as confidential business information. The basic properties are often missing. And toxicity and environmental toxicity data are usually limited to, well, no data. What toxicity that do appear are often outdated, some based on tests that were conducted decades ago. Just as often the actual study reports for any data cited cannot be located in the files. Or maybe can be located after a delay. If pressed.

There has been some improvement. In some cases. In 1998 a voluntary program called the High Production Volume Challenge resulted in the compilation of a large amount of health and safety data for the 2000 or so highest volume chemicals. Mostly these data were sent to EPA, made available on a website, then ignored. [EPA did try to do screening risk assessments, but this process seemed to change every few years.] Being voluntary, no requirement to update MSDSs was included, and mostly they weren't. Then in 2007 the REACH program in Europe required extensive data for every chemical in commerce. REACH did require that MSDSs (called SDSs in Europe) to be updated with actual test information.

However, as the West Virginia situation shows, most MSDSs remain a jumble of missing information and boilerplate warnings designed to limit the manufacturer's liability in the event of a problem. They are more insurance requirements than they are assurance of safety and proper handling. Saying "may cause skin irritation" but not having any actual data that demonstrates skin irritation isn't particularly meaningful. Are the data available to make this judgment, or is the catchphrase just there in case someone gets irritated? Either way, the MSDS is not doing what it is supposed to be doing - give reliable information that informs the user.

As Congress moves closer to reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), will they make MSDSs useful? Or simply continue the illusion?

[Note that the House held a hearing on February 4th in which they essentially said that a TSCA reform bill (likely a tweaked version of the CSIA) will be decided this year.]

January 9, 2014, spill of multiple chemicals into West Virginia’s Elk River, it’s b - See more at:
January 9, 2014, spill of multiple chemicals into West Virginia’s Elk River, it’s b - See more at:

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Confidence of the Dumb

Recently I was reading a lively piece by Tom Nichols in a blog called The Federalist. Nichols was lamenting "The Death of Expertise." The piece is a worthy read that, unfortunately, won't be read by most of the people who need to read it. Feel free to pause your attention and go read it now (as long as you come back here for the rest).

I won't rehash what Nichols has so eloquently said. But I was struck by one section he calls, "The Confidence of the Dumb." Along with his observation that too many people believe their uninformed opinion is just as valid as his highly informed expertise, this section captures the essence of the biggest communication problem facing scientists right now. He says:

"There’s also that immutable problem known as “human nature.” It has a name now: it’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which says, in sum, that the dumber you are, the more confident you are that you’re not actually dumb. And when you get invested in being aggressively dumb…well, the last thing you want to encounter are experts who disagree with you, and so you dismiss them in order to maintain your unreasonably high opinion of yourself."

I think there is more to it than just the need to avoid admitting dumbness. Looked at in a slightly different way, the confidence of the dumb can be described as the arrogance of ignorance. People don't like to appear ignorant, even when it is clear that they are. So they create a world around them in which their "lack of knowledge" is simply redefined as "superior knowledge." Voila! Problem solved. No longer to do they need to learn anything. Fact is whatever they decide is fact, even when it is counter to fact. Perhaps especially when it is counter to fact.

Once people decide that whatever they claim is "real enough," they gain utter confidence in their ability to state this new reality. It is why people on the internet can state emphatically and with great confidence that man-made climate change is a hoax, or that "chemtrails" are a secret plot to spray chemicals on an unsuspecting populace, or that any number of other conspiracy theories with no merit are somehow "real" and that they, the uninformed, know this and all the experts who say otherwise are part of whatever plot necessary to fulfill the conspiracy. Constructing this alternate reality relieves them of the danger that learning actual facts may demonstrate they are wrong.

This is where the arrogance of the ignorant takes over. Having completely invested their self-worth in a fantasy world, there is no going back. To do so would be to admit their heightened self-worth was misplaced. The only option is to put on the bravado of confidence. A swagger to hide the insecurity.

Which presents a problem for scientists. In our training we are taught to identify and define any uncertainty. We not only document it, we quantify it. Uncertainty is how we see where the gaps are that need further study. In contrast, climate deniers (and chemtrail conspiracists, etc.) state with absolute certainty things that in actuality have very little certainty. In most cases, they state with certainty things that have already unequivocally been demonstrated as false. Then they repeat. And repeat again. Repeat it enough and it becomes truth. Or so it seems.

We'll discuss more on how to deal with the confidence of the dumb, and more specifically the arrogance of the ignorant. To give you a sense of how difficult that is, try arguing with someone who insists that Elvis is alive.

[Photo Credit - Daniel Stockman]

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Reforming TSCA - Protecting the Public from Chemicals and Uncertainty

TSCA reform. You've probably heard about it. After all, we've been talking about it for nearly 40 years. And yet nothing has changed. With Senator David Vitter (R-LA) announcing that he will run for Governor of Louisiana in 2015, the current attempt to reform TSCA may or may not actually happen.

For those new to the idea, TSCA is the Toxic Substances Control Act. It was passed in 1976 to fill in a massive gap in our nation's regulatory framework. TSCA requires that new chemicals undergo a review prior to being manufactured for the market. However, very little data are required to be submitted, and no health and safety data are required. Therefore, that "review" must be done by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) using a series of models to predict the potential for toxicity, environmental fate, degradation, and virtually all the other key properties. EPA then models potential exposure to workers, the general public, fish, and animals and plants. If EPA thinks there may be a problem (based on all of this modeling and very little data), they can ask for additional data or deny the application.

Oh, and the EPA must do all this within 90 days or the new chemical can be manufactured by default.

Given the large number of new chemicals offered every year (between 1000 and 2000), the lack of substantive data in many cases, and the short time EPA has to make a decision, it isn't surprising that the vast majority of new chemicals are allowed to be manufactured.

For the roughly 63,000 existing chemicals already on the market when TSCA was passed, the law simply grandfathered those chemicals onto a TSCA Inventory. The assumption was that these chemicals must be safe because they were already being used. With the exception of a several chemicals that were later shown to have very high hazard, very little has been done to evaluate the risk from these existing chemicals.

Most chemicals are safe. That should be made clear. We use chemicals dozens of times in every day life. They are in our shampoo, our soaps, our kitchen cleaning solutions, the keyboards we type on, and the monitors we stare at all day long. Without chemicals, life as we know it would be something none of us has ever known. And most of those chemicals can be used safely, assuming we use them as they are designed.

On the other hand, maybe some can't. Enough cases have arisen of chemicals suddenly being discovered to be hazardous under normal use conditions to confirm that sometimes chemicals are not safe.

So how do we know?

In future posts I'll take a look at the two core issues - ensuring safety and communicating that safety to the public. I'll also take a look at the current bill in Congress that attempts to reform TSCA. The Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA) is a bipartisan measure that presents the best opportunity for improving the control of chemicals in the United States. It's not a perfect bill - far from it. But it is passable and does make some needed changes. Can Congress drop the partisan games long enough to pass on something they largely agree on? Will Senator Vitter's gubernatorial bid help or hurt the cause? Can it be done before the 2014 mid-term congressional elections, the result of which will almost certainly doom industry to an onslaught of advocacy group attacks and a hodgepodge of state-based regulation?

What do you think?