the observatory

The banality of ‘What We Know’ about climate change

Can a "boring" AAAS report change the global warming conversation?
March 27, 2014

Earlier in March, the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, the most prominent scientific society in the US, launched a campaign aiming to change the national conversation about climate change. The result was “What We Know,” a report sans scientific jargon and coupled with a few videos designed to function as a ‘state of the union’ on climate change.

After all, while a majority of Americans now believe climate change is happening, polls repeatedly show that the public feels global warming isn’t urgent and is “overplayed” by the media. “This new effort is intended to state very clearly the exceptionally strong evidence that Earth’s climate is changing, and that future climate change can seriously impact natural and societal systems,” said Dr. James McCarthy, a professor oceanography Harvard in a press release coupling the report. It also includes a striking precedent: that scientists, along with the media, have a responsibility to not only convey information, but to convey it in a way that resonates with the public.

The New York Times’ Justin Gillis, called What We Know “sharper, clearer and more accessible than perhaps anything the scientific community has put out to date.” But after that first glowing review, fellow science writers declared the project a failure. While it clearly corrects the idea that scientists haven’t reached a consensus, the report has a big failing: It doesn’t have enough feelings.

“If scientists are looking for a clearer language to express the urgency of climate change, there’s no clearer word that expresses that urgency than FUCK,” wrote Brentin Mock at Grist, in a post titled “Please, scientists: Tell us how you really feel about climate change,” that begged researchers to get more emotive when talking about the effects of their work. “We need scientists to speak more of these non-hard science truths, no matter how inconvenient or how dirty.”

At Slate, Bad Astronomer blogger Phil Plait writes that the report lacks “a sense of urgency.” “Facts don’t speak for themselves; they need advocates. And these advocates need to be passionate,” he wrote. And at Discover, Tom Yulsman criticisms the group’s use of images. “Cliché B-roll can’t change the fact that a talking head is still a talking head,” he writes. “Nor will people necessarily listen, let alone understand or care, simply because those talking heads happen to be scientists.” The critique echoed in legacy media, with Time‘s Bryan Walsh writing, “It’s hard to see one more blue-ribbon report moving public opinion on climate change, even one that carries the imprimatur of the AAAS.”

Using emotions to evoke interest and urgency is a tricky balance, one more easily juggled by bloggers than scientists. Plait even uses the emotionally charged word “advocates”–though the AAAS acts as an advocate for science, science itself has always valued facts over emotional charge. Even as they released the report, the AAAS balked at their foray into advocacy. “As scientists, it is not our role to tell people what they should do,” reads the introduction. It’s a line they’re willing to cross only out of urgency: “[W]e consider it our responsibility as professionals to ensure, to the best of our ability, that people understand what we know,” they continued.

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Still, the justification for releasing a report–one that contains no new information–is that ‘just the facts’ haven’t been a good enough story to educate people on climate change.The facts also have to be told compellingly. There are other ways of creating a narrative surrounding the facts of climate change that doesn’t distort, but is compelling. A day after AAAS released their campaign, the White House launched a climate website consisting of an interactive slew of maps run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The site is still in development, but using different data sets, readers can navigate the different ways that coastal sea rise has affected landscapes–the kind of personal responses to climate change that AAAS was trying to elicit through its report.

Hopefully it’s only the first stab at what will be many creative projects from the scientific community that will help journalists tell stories about climate change that connect with their audiences.

Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis.