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.