[Vision2020] Cliche Pictures of Polar Bears Fails to Engage People in True Debate On Climate Change: NASA Scientist Gavin Schmidt

Ted Moffett starbliss at gmail.com
Sat Jun 13 14:35:13 PDT 2009


 The public deserves the full picture on climate change

Simplistic stories and cliche pictures of polar bears have failed to engage
people in the true debate, says Nasa scientist
Gavin Schmidt
guardian.co.uk <http://www.guardian.co.uk/>, Thursday 14 May 2009 08.00 BST
Article history<http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/cif-green/2009/may/14/nasa-scientist-climate-change#history-byline>

Like many of the important issues facing society, climate
change<http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/climate-change>involves a
complex intersection of science, culture and politics, and a huge
array of consequences impinging on a wide range of vulnerabilities. Yet on
all sides, people are bombarded with simplistic slogans, misleading
headlines and soundbites shorn of the caveats that make them valid.

The media is the main conduit for people to learn more, but the disconnect
between the need for education and the journalistic mission to provide news
means that climate stories are often missing the context needed to
understand the bigger picture.

Similarly, many photographers working in environmental fields have become
frustrated at the limited palette of images used to illustrate these
stories. One described it as "extreme weather all the time and a polar
bear". None of this does justice to the complexities of the issue and
instead reduces it to the level of cliché.

Anyone trying to glean a full picture from traditional sources faces a
daunting task. Indeed, many people will recognise quickly that there is a
huge amount of information that is never made explicit. Stories about
results from climate models never describe what a climate model is,
descriptions of dramatic new observations rarely discuss what makes them
interesting, and commentaries on policy debates seldom rise above reporting
the partisan posturing.

Given some of the missteps that have occurred in recent decades, in how mad
cow disease and vaccines have been dealt with by both the government and the
media, there is a latent mistrust of statements from authority about science
– whether they are from the academic world or the government. This in turn
leaves the field wide open for peddlers of disinformation to fill the
blogosphere and opinion pages with conspiratorial fairytales that take
advantage of some people's confusion.

A few years ago, I helped start the blog
which allowed the public and working scientists to interact directly and to
provide some of the missing background for stories that hit the headlines.
But, over the years, it has become clear that there is a hunger – at least
among some readers – for more than what a few ephemeral blog postings can
provide. Yet few people have the time or inclination to go back to college,
and most books on the subject are either dry technical treatises or
political calls to action, neither of which are particularly conducive to
greater general understanding.

So is there room for a new approach? I think the answer is yes, and it lies
in recognising that people need to be engaged in the subject, given access
to the how the information is obtained and trusted to deal with the
complexities and uncertainties that still abound.

Great imagery – whether from photography or satellites – can be immensely
useful in drawing people into an issue and revealing subtleties that would
otherwise escape attention. Direct access to the scientists can build
respect for the logistic, physical and intellectual challenges they face in
the field and in the lab. Eschewing the polemics in favour of objective
explanations can provide a welcome respite from the constant bickering that
all too often passes for debate in climate change discussions.

One manifestation of this approach is a new book, Climate Change: Picturing
the Science, which photographer Joshua Wolfe and I have put together. The
book brings together our two communities to demonstrate in words and images
how we are exploring what is happening now, what happened in the past and
what might happen in the future. We don't expect this suddenly to transform
the public's understanding of the science or the policy debate, but it is a
resource that many will hopefully find accessible and useful. Citizens
deserve a more mature discussion, and together, scientists, journalists and
photographers should provide it.

•Gavin Schmidt is a climate scientist at the Nasa Goddard Institute for
Space Studies in New York and co-author of "Climate Change: Picturing the
Science <http://www.wwnorton.co.uk/book.html?id=2264>", published this month
by W. W. Norton.
Vision2020 Post: Ted Moffett
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