COMMUNICATION:

A burning question: Why don't climate scientists sound more worried?

Correction appended.

SAN FRANCISCO -- If the threats posed by climate change are so grave, then why don't scientists discussing those risks sound more worried?

This was the question addressed by science historian Naomi Oreskes, of Harvard University, in a provocative session at the American Geophysical Union conference. The session was titled "400ppm CO2: Communicating Climate Science Effectively."

Oreskes' idea for the talk sprouted at a lecture at the AGU conference two years ago, when an audience member stood and asked that basic question, she said.

In response, Oreskes developed the following hypothesis: "One reason people don't entirely believe what we are saying is that our tone doesn't match our words. So we sound unauthentic, or even dishonest," she said.

The researcher pointed out that if a building is burning, anyone aware of that will scream or sound an alarm to get the attention of those who might be in danger. Similarly, a sincere and serious marriage proposal is delivered in a tone of voice different from a lecture, one that makes the recipient take heed.

But scientists, governed by a culture of rationality, relate their message "in the tone of tomorrow's weather forecast," she said.

This may be a reason why the general public -- not climate skeptics, but those who do not have particularly strong feelings about the risks of climate change -- have not heeded the warnings posed by climate scientists.

Oreskes pointed out that the basis of modern science stems from what is seen as a rational approach to the world, and thus emotion has often been seen as antithetical to good science.

Is emotion 'a necessary ingredient'?

Yet, she went on to say, recent work by University of Southern California neuroscientist Antonio Dimasio has shown that emotion is actually a necessary ingredient in making what are seen as rational decisions.

Climate scientists should feel more comfortable attaching some emotion to their findings, she said.

"[We can] begin to accept the legitimacy of discussing things that are upsetting and of sounding at least a little bit upset about them," she said, "and to realize that it should not discredit us as scientists to take on board the emotional response that our work, in fact, legitimately provokes."

The audience, consisting of many climate scientists, appeared open to this proposal.

Kevin Trenberth, a climate researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and a regular communicator with reporters and the public, noted another tactic scientists might use, relying on tapping into the audience's emotions.

"Sometimes you don't have to get upset, but what you say can get the audience ... excited about it," said Trenberth.

Oreskes also suggested that climate scientists could learn from more traditional storytellers such as journalists and documentary filmmakers, who are familiar with structuring dramatic nonfiction narratives.

At the same session, Myles Allen, a researcher at the University of Oxford and a lead author of a chapter of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on the physical science behind climate change, dismissed the idea of a carbon tax as a means of solving the problem of dangerous greenhouse gas emissions (ClimateWire, Oct. 1).

"A carbon tax is a great way to cook the planet slower," Allen said.

Emotions rise over carbon tax alternative

Allen's alternative policy proposal, which he outlined in the talk, was to mandate carbon sequestration by companies that extract fossil fuel.

Given that there is a carbon budget that the world cannot exceed if it wants temperatures to stay below a certain level, companies that extract fossil fuels would be required to capture and store a given quantity of CO2 for every new unit they extract.

The quantity they must store would be based on how much sequestration would be needed to keep the Earth under that total limit.

The cost of that sequestration would ultimately be passed along to consumers, so it would have an effect similar to a carbon tax. Yet since the policy would be based on the maximum amount of warming the policymakers agree is allowable, and a set amount of emissions associated with that, there would not be a risk of having the tax set too low or high, said Allen.

The audience seemed less enthusiastic about Allen's proposal.

In the question-and-answer session, Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Center on Climate Change and the Environment, called the talk "entertaining" but said such a policy would demand that the world place its bets in the carbon capture and sequestration basket, possibly missing the opportunity for other, better technologies that might come about in the future.

Over Twitter, Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, called Allen's idea "misguided" and pointed out that it contradicts the entire discipline of energy and environmental economics.

James Hansen, the prominent climate scientist, formerly of NASA, who now heads a new climate science and policy program at Columbia University's Earth Institute, offered his own advice at the session.

Hansen said he views his efforts at climate science communication to have failed, since the world's governments continue to allow and encourage the use of fossil fuel.

His message: Stop telling people to change their light bulbs and instead tell them to get involved in policy.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified James Hansen as the head of Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

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