I do the odd bit of science communication but I usually focus on my weather work as its more fun than climate change. That said, climate is obviously a really important issue and things are not looking good – that applies to the scientific findings, the political reaction or public opinion of the science. Here are a few thoughts on the later of these issues.
The problem – what’s going wrong with climate change communication?
The academic community is agreed (and justified in their view, despite the CRU emails theft) that our climate is changing and that the current change is almost certainly a result of the way our civilization developed. Things are also very likely to get worse.
However, a quick look at the top five books in the “Global Warming” category on Amazon.co.uk (as on 15/12/2009) provides an insight into the popular perception of climate change:
1) “The real global warming disaster: is the obsession with ‘climate change’ turning out to be the most costly scientific blunder in history?” Christopher Booker.
2) “Heaven and earth: global warming – the missing science” Ian Plimer.
3) “An appeal to reason: a cool look at global warming” Nigel Lawson.
4) “Our choice: a plan to solve the climate crisis” Al Gore.
5) “Air con: the seriously inconvenient truth about global warming” Ian Wishart.
4 of these books question the mainstream scientific view on climate change with Al Gore’s book being the obvious exception. But only one is written by a working scientist, Ian Pilmer, and he is a geologist, not a climate scientist. The scientific arguments presented in these books are almost exclusively ones that have been around for years and have been proved wrong or not as important as claimed. They are Zombie arguments – no matter how many times they are shot down they get right back up and used again despite being plain wrong. Amazingly, Pilmer – the geologist – uses the “volcanoes produce more CO2 than humans” argument which should be easy for him to check. In short, these books are not scientifically reliable but are still published and bought in large numbers.
One of the few credible books written about climate change from a sceptical point of view is by Bjorn Lomborg. He is an academic, an economist, and his discipline recognises books as a valuable publication in an academic career. Indeed, he has developed his media and academic profile via his books and conferences on global issues, not only looking at climate change. His arguments are valuable and need addressing even if they are not what most environmentalists would like to hear – dismissing people off-hand as ‘deniers’ runs the risk of giving them a Galileo complex and developing more public support. That said, though, another high profile economist, Sir Nicholas Stern, has also published an accessible book on climate change and takes quite a different view to Lomborg.
Where are all the credible climate science books?
There are several books that present the science well and try to glimpse into the future. The most optimistic is perhaps ‘The Hot Topic’ by Sir David King (co-written by Gabrielle Walker, a journalist). King is a scientist, a chemist, but was also Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government from 2000-2008 so knows a lot about climate science from that role. His opinion is that technological advances will play a big role in allowing us to combat climate change without a massive amount of hardship to individuals. This would be very nice but I’m not sure what the evidence behind this view is.
Most other books on this topic are written by journalists (George Monbiot and Mark Lynas, for example) and are often towards the ‘we’re doomed!’ end of the climate change literature spectrum. This could, of course, be the way we are heading and it is certainly more likely than the ‘everything will be fine’ end. This style of book probably turns people off; no-one wants to hear about bad things that are quite likely to happen in the future.
So where are the books by people working in this field? Well, Mike Hulme has written a book called “Why we disagree about climate change: understanding controversy, inaction and opportunity” – I’ve yet to read it but it sounds like an important contribution, if a little exclusive/academic. It’s pretty rare though. I’ve heard that Jim Hansen is working on a book too.
Maybe the science is a little too dry or dated to make good popular science? The major breakthrough in climate science happened in the 1850s when John Tyndall discovered the warming effect of CO2 in the atmosphere. The recent big advances have been in the field of climate modelling on high performance computers. I think it would be quite difficult to write an engaging book aimed at a general audience on how important this subject is.
In my opinion, though, the main reason that the vacuum exists is because most climate scientists have no career motivation to write such books. There is very little professional recognition for publishing anything other than papers in scientific journals. For a climatologist to put themselves on the line as the public face of academic climate research is not worth it in terms of career payback or the celebrity and potential backlash that would go with it.
Climate scientists have engaged with politicians for many years and generally do not shy away for engaging with the media but, for the scientists at the coal face, there is little to gain from proactively engaging the public.