Our research focuses on the population dynamics of plants and how they are influenced by impacts of natural disturbances and global environmental change. We are particularly interested in the interactive effects of fire, grazing and drought in grasslands and woodlands in southern Australia, and how climate change, fragmentation and shrub encroachment affect ecosystems.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Since when do elephants have trunks? Why climate science communication is failing us?

I had a really frustrating 'discussion' about the general topic of climate change today with a farmer from western Victoria. He was a great old bloke who has been on the land all his life. We got to talking about climate change and what evidence he saw for it. The fact that he can now grow wheat in an area once thought much too wet to do so made me think he'd recognise that things were changing. Surely there would be some reasonable explanation for this!!

Long droughts are pushing trees to the limit all over the world. Climate change
will affect rainfall patterns and intensify drought impacts in many areas.
(Photo: http://uanews.org/story/droughts-are-pushing-trees-limit)

Instead,  the general arguments for the changes he could acknowledge went along the lines of "climates have always changed, it's impossible for humans to influence complex systems like climate, scientists aren't even sure what is going on, why should we pay to reduce emissions because we (Australians) are a tiny contributor to global pollution, emission trading schemes will threaten jobs and wreck the economy, greens have an agenda that threatens the man on the land" etc, etc, etc.

His response is not unique. Far from it.

For me, it was frustrating because much of the discussion clearly related to belief systems. Sure, climate science is complex and not one that most people have a very good grasp on, but nor are other fields such as astrophysics, electrical engineering, dendrochronology, all topics the average Joe Blow doesn't necessarily have strong opinions on. Yet, in the case of climate change mitigation and adaptation, we've allowed non-informed/misinformed discussion to persist all the way from our political leaders through to the general public. This seems to be a failure of the science to adequately communicate why, how and where climate change is occurring. Regardless of what you believe, policy discussion and action should be based on evidence rather than self-interest, and it is then the job to tell people why you're acting the way you are.

I don't want to knock science communication per se. Indeed, in Australia, we are lucky enough to have the Climate Council, a superb means of disseminating scientific information about climate uncertainty, climate variability and climate extremes. However, I think there is a much greater problem and, after thinking about it for a while, I think it boils down to our general philosophy about learning and knowledge and its general role in society.

The Climate Council - a great source of independent
information about climate change in Australia.
see www.climatecouncil.org.au

Science communication is not just about communication of data and facts, although this certainly is immeasurably important. I think we should also view science communication as the task of teaching people enough scientific method and understanding to investigate and see the answer for themselves, and to understand the role of debate in that process. This clearly isn't happening very well in Australia.

Currently, much of the 'debate' I see is about the degree of persuasion that can be generated (by politicians, interest groups, etc) as opposed to informing a better scientific understanding of the problem and hence, the potential solutions. Hence, a genuine scientific understanding by the public, as well as informed decision-making by our politicians, almost appears an impossible dream at this stage.

What is currently missing in climate change discussions, like the one I had with the farmer, is anything on the specifics of the climate debate. This is probably the greatest failing of science communication but hints at a greater malaise about the role of science in society and how evidence-based decision making should be central to the debate. For instance, I use the following checklists in discussions with students and others when discussing climate change to see just what sort of understanding they have about the actual issue:

  • Can people say what the debate is about, what the competing claims are, and what evidence they depend upon?

  • What arguments do people come up with to support or criticise their positions?

  • Can people outline the extent and limits of our knowledge, and comment in an informed way on what reasonably accessible further evidence could resolve some of those uncertainties?

By and large, the answers to the above are skeletal, non-existent, or just plain wrong. How could we have let this happen in a well-educated, secular society? I'm not sure, but in a culture where sport rules and the latest gossip can be newsworthy, clearly we have a problem of engagement with intelligence and ideas.

One thing puzzles me the most.

It seems odd to be discussing and debating climate change without ever discussing any of its contents. Sure, the information is complex, there is lots of it, and there is uncertainty (in model predictions, species-specific responses, temporal and spatial variation). But, an analogy might be drawn from another field of science - biology.

To me, the current public discourse about climate is like discussing the biology of elephants and never mentioning that they have a long trunk. Until this is recognised, I'm not sure we are going to make much progress on dealing with Australia's understanding of, and response to, climate change, at least in the short-term. And this is a pity.

Understanding how the climate is changing (including the consequences of this for weather extremes and hence, human health and wellbeing) should be one of the most important discussions to be had in every household across the country! And science (and scientists more generally) needs our society's support and encouragement (not contempt) so that it can meaningfully contribute to figuring out the best way forward.

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