Alternative Title: A Shameless Plug for XKCD
Although 97% of the world’s scientists agree that human-induced climate change is not only real, but poses a serious threat to the world’s future, many people in the general public disagree. Looking only at the United States, a 2016 Gallup poll found that 57% of U.S. adults do not perceive global warming as a serious threat. This points to serious flaws both in how the public views science as well as how scientists communicate to the public.
In an age where the internet allows us, as scientists, to communicate with a global audience, our methods of doing so can still be confusing. Often we use jargon-rich language instead of translating into layman’s terms to explain the problem. We also tend not to use the best info-graphics to aid in our explanations because most of us are not artists or graphic designers. The result can lead to both the public not taking us seriously as well as the public not fully understanding what we’re saying. Obviously, I am generalizing here— there are many examples of science being explained clearly both in words as well as infographics, one of which I will shower with praise in this blog post.
The popular argument against the severity of current human-induced climate change, “But Earth’s climate has changed before” is, in my opinion, an excellent example of science not being explained clearly to the general public (although I’m sure some of the blame also rests with certain individuals over-simplification of science).
The statement above is technically correct. It is a fact that Earth’s climate has changed before. Geologists have recorded numerous climate changes in geologic history. The most geologically recent occurred in the Pleistocene, when the Earth was ~4ºC colder than it is today. We know from world-wide geological observations that much of the Northern Hemisphere was covered in massive glaciers. This is a period we as geologists like the refer to at the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) and it began coming to an end ~20,000 years ago.
What the above argument fails to take into account, however, is the rate of climate change and that is what makes it so problematic. Yes, we’ve seen past climate changes but those have occurred over very long timescales. To use our above example, it took the Earth over 10,000 years to warm an average of 4.3ºC from the LGM. In the last 100 years, we’ve accomplished a fourth of that with fossil fuel CO2 emissions. By telling ourselves, “Its okay, Earth’s climate has changed before” we are ignoring the real problem: that although Earth’s climate has changed before, it is currently changing at an alarming and unprecedented rate.
Randall Munroe, a physicists and author of the the comic XKCD, recently came out with an excellent illustration of how geologically recorded climate changes are very different than the beast we’re dealing with today. This comic clearly illustrates data using easily understood vocabulary and anthropological/historical references. I think this comic in particular is a shining example of what we as scientists should strive for when it comes to communicating global issues to the public. We need to place these problems into a vocabulary and context non-scientists understand and care about. To do this, the inarticulate or artistically-handicapped of us need to seek collaborations with artists, writers, and graphic designers because we can’t just rely on the few, like XKCD, to communicate to the public and popularize science. Its needs to be a field-wide effort.