It started off simply. An email from my conservative brother, distraught about cap and trade legislation that had passed the U.S. House. Just another in a long-running policy debate between him and his liberal older sister.
I admitted the legislation was flawed but not final: the Senate had yet to weigh in. And I asked him this question: “Given that this is an even more dire issue for the future of our children and grandchildren than any other, what ideas do you support for curbing greenhouse gases and creating a more sustainable society?”
That’s when for me, the conversation became surreal. Because it turns out my brother – like many other US citizens, mostly of a conservative bent -- doesn’t believe in global warming.
And so began a conversation that ultimately included my friend, Bob Grumbine – a real, live climate scientist I dragged in to counter what I believed to be bad science. I could turn this post into a play-by-play description of that conversation, but that’s not fair to my brother or my friend. Especially when my biggest insight was about my own ignorance.
So I write this as a thank you to my brother, who started the conversation. And to Bob, for clearly explaining the science behind the issues my brother raised, then pointing me to other knowledgeable resources.
Did the data sway my brother? I don’t know. One of Bob’s comments haunts me: “If you can't examine the science without letting fears about your wallet dictate whether you accept the science, you're really not going to understand the science.” We seem incapable of moving beyond ideology when it comes to the science of climate change. And general ignorance of science is a big part of the issue.
That would be me. I tuned out all things science long ago, certainly by the time I took high school chemistry. “We’re words people,” my father used to say. As if the ability to communicate effectively doesn’t apply to science or math. But I absorbed this because truthfully, science and math didn’t come as naturally – or interest me – the way language and history did.
So it’s hypocritical of me to point to the ignorance of the doubters when I’m just as ignorant about the science supporting climate change. It doesn’t help that the scientists who know the most write about it in ways that make it inaccessible to the average non-scientist.
There’s increasing discussion among scientists, themselves, about the need for communicating effectively with the general public. Michael Tobis, who blogs at Only In It For The Gold, says, “ I believe that increased alienation between experts and the public during the past generation, notably in America but also elsewhere, is the single greatest threat humanity faces.” And Randy Olson, scientist, filmmaker and author of Don’t Be Such a Scientist, asks, “How bad is the situation with scientists and their communication skills? Well, I think it’s at a crisis stage.”
I began reading Tobis’s blog at Bob’s suggestion. While I admit I’m completely lost reading some of his posts on climate change science, I appreciate his passion, which often comes across in humorous and irreverent ways. And I felt like he was talking directly to me when he said:
“I believe that the present topic is the keystone issue of the survival of civilization. I believe that the increased alienation between experts and the public during the past generation, notably in America but also elsewhere, is the single greatest threat humanity faces. It subsumes not just climate, but also food security, energy security, health, war and peace, and ultimately the preservation of any human accomplishment worth preserving. If we accept that humanity freely chooses its destiny, we had damned well better improve our competence. “[Italics mine.]
Tobis also pointed me to science teacher Greg Craven, whose YouTube videos led him to write a book, What’s the Worst That Could Happen? Although Craven clearly comes out in support of the science behind global warming, his book doesn’t try to talk nonbelievers to his side. Instead, he provides a way to do your own risk analysis, offering the supporting arguments for both sides.
I’m still not as knowledgeable as I’d like about the science of climate change. Thanks to Bob and others, though, I can at least explain why we should be concerned by a CO2 level of 385 parts per million (ppm), rising about 2 ppm/year, and why these increases cannot be attributed to normal warming trends.
It’s a start.