Mentioning the phrase “climate change” in public conversation has become a verbal grenade, sending people scurrying for cover from the political shrapnel. Climate scientists who engage with the public find themselves in a political war zone, barraged by hate mail, harassment and even death threats.
That vitriol makes climate scientists think twice before discussing their work outside the scientific community. That’s a shame, because climate scientists need a stronger voice in public discussions. A 2016 Pew survey found that two-thirds (67%) of U.S. adults believe climate scientists should play a major role in shaping climate policies. In contrast, just over half of Americans believe that the public and energy industry leaders should lead climate policymaking, and under half of Americans believe the same thing of politicians.
In short, Americans expect climate scientists to lead the public discourse on climate change.
Unfortunately, this kind of scientific leadership still isn’t the norm. In fact, climate scientists seem like a faceless demographic. How many news articles have you read with the phrase, “climate scientists say…”, as if climate researchers are a unanimous collective of anonymous experts? I’ve even seen articles that paraphrase the research without mentioning the people who authored it, as if the research conducted and published itself.
When an article refers to opinions of climate scientists without mentioning them by name, it strips climate scientists of their identities and personalities, intentionally or not, and makes it easier to dismiss or attack them.
That’s what I suspect, anyway. It’s a hypothesis I can’t really test. But, I can ask friends some general questions about climate news. In a definitely-totally-scientific Facebook poll, I asked whom friends trusted to provide accurate information, and whether they knew any climate scientists. Fifteen people responded, which is too small a sample size to do any real number-crunching, but their answers were incredibly insightful.
Without further ado:
Most people said they paid attention to climate issues, with only three saying “no” or “not really.” The most frequently given news sources are social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and news aggregators. Specific news sources are NPR (the most frequently mentioned), the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian. Other answers include documentaries and the Bible. One person listed NASA, NOAA, and the IPCC.
I’m encouraged that almost everyone is interested in climate issues, but was surprised how prominently social media is relied upon for information. I’ve always used Facebook just for entertainment and keeping in touch, so this was a reminder that Facebook is a popular news source as well.
A lot of friends get news from “traditional” news outlets, and I’m glad to see NYT mentioned, which has had some stunning climate coverage over the past few years. But only one person listed primary sources – that is, news produced by actual climate scientists, like that in NASA, NOAA, and IPCC news releases.
Unsurprisingly, nobody said they get their climate news from scientific journals. I say “unsurprisingly” because the journals are often paywalled and the papers are becoming increasingly unreadable even if you have a postgraduate degree in the field.
Just to summarize: people are interested in climate science, but they’re generally not getting their news from climate scientists or scientific organizations.
- Bill Nye (3 mentions), engineer & science communicator
- Neil deGrasse Tyson (3 mentions), astrophysicist & science communicator
- Leonardo DiCaprio, actor & environmental activist
- Bernie Sanders, Senator
- Al Gore, former Vice President & environmental activist
- Possibly Al Gore
- NOT Al Gore
- Elon Musk, businessman & engineer
- Warren Buffett, businessman & philanthropist
- Bill Foster, Congressman & physicist
- Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany & chemist
- Steven Chu, former Secretary of Energy & physicist
- Van Jones, news commentator & activist
Science communicators like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson are both widely trusted figures. While both have STEM backgrounds, though, it’s important to note that they’re not climate scientists.
Al Gore pops up frequently, but not always in a good way. One responder noted, “I never listened or understood him,” and another specifically mentioned not trusting Al Gore. It’s political polarization at work. As one responder noted, “I don’t strongly trust any politician.”
Four other responders would disagree, though, since they mentioned Al Gore, Bernie Sanders, Bill Foster, and Angela Merkel as trusted sources of climate information. So it’s a bit of a crapshoot.
It’s worth making a chart of how many public figures who were mentioned fall into each category of occupation:
Of the five politicians mentioned, three have a scientific background (Bill Foster, Angela Merkel, and Steven Chu, who is the only currently full-time scientist mentioned). But not one person mentioned a specific climate scientist. The closest respondents got was the lone commenter who didn’t mention a specific person at all, noting instead, “I’m more likely to believe researchers I’ve never heard of”. That’s a pretty clear indication that climate scientists are a faceless demographic.
- Peter Gleick, hydroclimatologist
- Roy Spencer, meteorologist & climate change denier
- James Hansen, climatologist
- Michael Mann, climatologist
- Charles Keeling, atmospheric scientist
- “The dude who came up with the theory that the Earth warms and cools in cycles dependent on its orbital parameters…I think his name starts with an M.“
This is where things get interesting. A majority of responders could not name a famous climate scientist, even if they self-identified as closely following climate news. And the scientists named are a mixed bag – the one responder who named probably the three most prominent climate scientists (Hansen, Mann, and Keeling) was a fellow graduate student. In another case, a responder who self-identified as leaning far left politically named Roy Spencer as a famous climatologist – but he’s a noted climate denier with extreme right-wing leanings. A few other responders named their own professors. But, even responders who have studied climate change academically can have difficulties naming famous scientists, as one commenter wrote:
“Why do I have multiple textbooks on climate change sitting next to me and can’t think of one?”
Question 4 (optional):
I got a good mix of responses: 8 self-identified as Democrat, 5 were Republican, and 2 didn’t answer. That’s an impressive number of Republicans willing to answer questions on climate change posed by a climate science graduate student. Several people who self-identified as right-wing were still concerned about climate change. One example:
“Climate change is a social issue that affects everyone and no one person is going to take responsibility for it unless public policy tells them to do so. But other than that I’m a Republican.”
In fact, most of the responders who identified as right-leaning did so with a similar caveat, clarifying that they were Republicans who cared about the environment. Most of these right-leaning responders answered via private message.
That kind of response interested me for a couple of reasons: 1) they imply they’re breaking party lines by voicing a need for climate action, and 2) Most of these right-leaning responders answered via private message, so they seem more hesitant about publicly expressing their views.
One respondent answered:
“Climate change is not a partisan issue and part of the problem is that we keep acting like it is.”
I get that sentiment. I really do. Every climate scientist I know hates the undeserved political stigma of the phrase “climate change.” The partisan divide on climate action deserves a blog post of its own, but for now, let me argue that while climate science is non-partisan, climate change is. After all, anything that impacts some groups of people (developing countries; impoverished people; coastal dwellers; arid regions) more than others is by definition a social issue, and therefore a political issue. But, the key question here is how to fix climate change, not whether or not it exists.
Still, there are hints that the political divide is weaker than you might think: right-leaning respondents still expressed a need for climate action. But there are two caveats: 1) they usually implied that they were breaking party lines by doing so, and 2) most Republicans answered via private message, so they seem more hesitant about publicly expressing their views.
It’s OK to be a Republican in favor of climate action. In fact, it’s GREAT! Plenty of climate scientists subvert the stereotype—just ask Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, atmospheric scientist and outspoken evangelical Christian, Dr. Kerry Emanuel, tropical climate scientist and Republican, or Dr. Richard Alley, glaciologist and Republican. All are influential scientists who reconcile climate change with right-leaning beliefs.
This survey showed that 1) respondents generally don’t get news from climate scientists, and 2) often can’t name a climate scientist at all. That needs to change. However, since there are few incentives (and lots of risks) to step outside the ivory tower, that change is going to be slow.
Even so, there’s good news. Earth scientists – including climate researchers – are among the most publicly engaged scientists of any STEM field. Over 50% of earth scientists regularly talk with citizens or use social media for outreach. I’m an earth scientist, so it’s great to see us leading the way, but I hope we can raise that number to 100%.