Climate Cluster III: Climate Science Communication and Skepticism

Why is climate change a hot button issue? Through an interdisciplinary conversation, this panel will explore the heated dynamics of climate politics. We will discuss many dimensions of climate science and politics and their relation to one another, e.g.: ideological polarization, climate ontology and epistemology, climate communication and scientific literacy.


Ronnie Lipschutz, Professor of Politics, UCSC

Chaone Mallory, Assistant Professor, Philosophy, Villanova University

Mark Snyder, Ph.D., Earth and Planetary Sciences, UCSC, Assistant Project Earth Scientist and Lecturer

Wednesday, May 25, 2011 | 4:30-6:30 PM | Engineering 2, Room 599


Climate Cluster III: Climate Science Communication and Skepticism
SJWG Rapporteur Report
25 May 2011
Moderator: Licia Peck
Ronnie Lipschutz, Professor, Politics, UCSC
Chaone Mallory, Assistant Prof, Philosophy, Villanova University
Mark Snyder, Lecturer, Earth & Planetary Sciences, UCSC

Q1: What do you know and how do you know it?

Mark: Studies climate systems using climate models. Fundamental question is how do greenhouse gasses enter atmosphere and how do we know it? We can use paleontological historical records to infer what past climates were like. We can also use isotopic tracking to determine a range of past carbon dioxide levels. How do we look to the future? We look to climate models. There are uncertainties associated with such models because we do not understand these processes completely, for example representation of clouds. We deal with these uncertainties through parameterizations, using expert judgment. Though there is uncertainty, we do know that temperature is indeed increasing. Question then becomes narrowing uncertainty.

Chaone: As an interdisciplinary-trained environmental philosopher, the kind of data we draw on and how we do it is different than natural and social scientists by thinking about the relation of bodies in place, i.e. the phenomenological experience in addition to empirical observations. Part of what counts also include what counts as knowledge, stories and narratives. In her work, she interrogates the knowledge and power, and who is included. Specifically, she explores TEK, traditional ecological knowledge, in native American cultures.

Ronnie: He is originally a trained in physics and energy but now his research has more to do with ontology. What are the assumptions that people bring to the table when they hear and process knowledge? How do we understand this process that we call science and what it generates. What do people bring to the table as foundational beliefs?

Q2: Why is the consensus of most scientists accepted in some arenas and discounted in others?

Ronnie: Politicizing is not a bad thing as it points to the fact that shape of politics is strange and gets back to foundational beliefs. Do you believe in God or something transcendental? Science becomes somewhat transcendentalist in that if you don’t subscribe and act, you die! Rather than life or death it is really a matter of deep seeded belief and meaning. For some reason climate change has become one of the ideological splits broadly, similar to how communism/capitalism were a split in past, perhaps much more than it deserves. What kind of role is it becoming?

Mark: To take Ronnie’s analogy of science as a religion, skeptics play the role of the heretic, by attacking small points that the average person doesn’t know. Skeptics might come from science background but not climate science and don’t usually conduct research but rather scrutinize science that is published.

Chaone: What material interests or psychological investments are threatened by accepting that climate change is real and we know it is happening? Agrees with Ronnie that if climate policy is political, that’s not a bad thing as it forces us to become explicit about the fate of the planet. If we acknowledge this, we can talk about the kinds of values we want to come down on.

Ronnie follow up: Using the term “interests” is problematic, because there are two sides. Secondly, he thinks more is stake than interests as we are talking about the long term benefits to people if we address this problem now. The problem lies at the level of meanings. Not just a question if it’s good for me or not but draws on the question of why am I here?

Chaone: Clarifies her thoughts on “interests.” Deeply invested in anthroprocentrism. Ronnie feels a worldview of anthropocentrism is very valid since we are the only species that can cause such destruction.

Mark: Belief in God or religion allows people to not be concerned about this. Are skeptics and deniers preventing some research from being conducted? Very difficult to justify validity of research in light of this.

Q3: How do you think your work might influence politics?

Mark: From a funding perspective, what we research is somewhat politically driven (i.e. NSF). Something that will be useful with politicians requires some dialogue. Long term projections of 30, 40 and 50 years are not aligned with politicians term cycles so thus they kick the can down the road. California has initiated this kind of
long-term thinking.

Chaone: Recognizing the politics in our knowledge process is important. References Val Plumwood, ecofeminist, perspective on care and respect of research in politics. Suggests that the role of non-natural sciences in influencing politics is less clear. What can philosophers contribute to this debate? Part of this is taking voices seriously, especially those outside of the traditionally authoritative powers.

Ronnie: “Why are academics so eager to give advice to politics when there is no indication that politicians listen?” Has to do with politics of research enterprise and retail politics (i.e. what goes on in DC). The kind of research that has impact is likely research that fits one or another proclivity out there and is used for political ends. With respect to philosophers, if he gets into debate with economist, he cannot debate solidly. However, if he debates an economist about ethics, he will have a leg up over the economist. This is where the argument needs to take place and there is a role for it. Simply, he does not think his work has an influence on politics. If we lived for 1000 years, we would have a very different perspective on this topic. There is a disconnect between time frames and valuation. Especially since people say, “the future never does anything for me.”

Q4: How does time come into play in your thoughts on climate change and science?

Chaone: Do we need to accept the fact that the future is always discounted? Is that the essence of being an economist or politician? Do we have a moral obligation to future generations? What are the properties and characteristics of a right holder? Presenting other scenarios than “politicians are never going to get on board.” Can we train the next set of politicians to consider this?

Ronnie: Very pessimistic. Politics as we understand it in democratic societies are driven purely by the next election. Public policy has a longer view but as a rule is rooted in economic terms and is constrained by the election cycle. An example: the best thing the president could do would be a $6/gallon tax on gasoline. He assures us that no one that did that would stand a chance of winning the next election. He has trouble seeing the way out of this. Time does play an important role. Our material interests play a big role also. We violate our biocentric beliefs hundreds of times every day. Must be deeply embedded in the norms of everyday life such that we don’t do those bad acts anymore.

Mark: He thinks of timescales of models and conditions in the future. Based on how economics, politics, technology transfer effect the world and thus the future world. Interesting that these more social science fields will influence the material and natural world.

Q5: In what ways does it matter if the public trusts the institution of climate science?

Mark: Believe in the public ranges from deniers to believers. In looking at those in between, those that are open to convincing, the trust is very important. For example, IPCC climate gate was a very specific way to create distrust in science. Clever and targeted way to do so. His climate change media training says that we should project a positive image going forward and that there are things we can do to improve the situation. Frame climate science to address the issues important to the target audience, i.e. jobs. Then you enter the role of advocate. Do we want to cross into that world and should we cross into that world?

Chaone: Who is the public? What are the spaces of the public sphere? The norms of social behavior are part of that space. We need multiple angles in approach.

Ronnie: Says Steve Schneider was trying to straddle the science/public advocate roles and it was a challenge. Once you cross the boundary into public advocacy you face rules. Communicating the bad stuff seems to work i.e. opportunity does not gain as much traction as fear. It’s about framing and telling persuasive stories people will accept, which sounds a lot like social engineering and propaganda. He points out that we are subjected to this everyday through advertisements, etc.

Q6: Can you make a recommendation as to how your discipline can help?

Mark: Physical science needs to focus on communication

Ronnie: He’d like his field to stop studying climate change and start focusing on environmental justice.

Chaone: Wants more study in philosophy and wants it taken seriously. Wants voices to be heard.

The panel was followed by a question and answer session with the audience.

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