Two weeks after the 2016 election, the New York Times conducted an interview with the President of the United States. When asked about the issue of climate change, he famously stated, “I’m not sure anybody is ever going to really know.”
Sometimes, it feels that way. Amidst the extreme political polarization of the past decade, climate change has become an increasingly controversial topic in American politics.
Some protest the use of coal as an evil of mankind, while some write blaring headlines about government conspiracies. Semantics, of course, are as important as ever -- terms like “climate denier” and “warmist” are used to vilify those of differing beliefs.
The search for the truth is thus made ever more difficult by accusations of lying and ignorance on all sides, which further thicken the web of mixed messages faced by voters.
In an attempt to clarify the matter, believers in climate change frequently cite the consensus statistic -- that 97% of climate scientists agree that humans have a role to play in the warming of the earth’s atmosphere.
But where are these scientists? Other than from Bill Nye the Science Guy, it is all too rare that we hear confirmation or rejection of claims from people on the ground.
This is not due to a lack of scientific data on the earth’s climate, however; papers analyzing extensive data collected by satellites and sea thermometers are frequently published in journals like Nature.
Instead, the lack of clarity comes from a self-perpetuating gap between the scientific community and the general public: researchers publish papers that must be actively sought out and use terminology inaccessible to large sectors of the population. Without having heard from the scientists directly, citizens grow weary and skeptical of their claims.
In the end, media outlets end up with broad authority on the public’s perception of climate change.
Though, on occasion, they provide real platforms for scientific debate (which often dissolves into mudslinging and shouting matches), they are much quicker to run clips of political speeches and conduct panels between journalists.
There are, however, scientists who wish to change that reality.
Benjamin Santer is an atmospheric scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California, who has studied climate science for over four decades.
In an interview for IVN, he tasked scientists with a mission:
“[Climate change] is an existential issue, and scientists have a responsibility not just to do the work, but also to find creative ways of talking about what they do and what they’ve learned and why it matters to others.” - Dr. Benjamin Santer
Dr. Santer believes that the active involvement of scientists could drastically change the current conversation about climate change. Beyond just researching, his colleagues need to work on “translating that scientific understanding into plain English.”
Climate change has been a hot topic in American politics for decades now. Of late, though, the mainstream media has lost its credibility as an analyst of climate change data.
The influences of sensationalism and partisanship on the media have led to the adoption of fundamentally different assumptions across networks -- from FOX News’s unanimous “debates” to The Guardian’s open climate change activism, the conversation about climate change is no longer a conversation, but an occasional clash of ideologically inconsistent worldviews.
But recent reports of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s idea for a televised debate between scientists on the issue of climate change suggest a turning point. Time has proven that five-minute news segments do not serve as adequate platforms for debate.
If this “robust discussion” could be an opportunity to hear at length about the research people dedicate their lives to, it should absolutely be seized.
“Climate science has been elevated in public and political discourse,” says Dr. Santer. “There are now opportunities to educate -- to tell people about the science we do and the outcomes if we do nothing.”
As voters, we must approach issues with an open mind and give credibility consistently where it is due, not on a case-by-case basis according to our political beliefs.
It has yet to be seen where the rumors of a government-sponsored climate change debate will take us. All that we can hope is that the truth will emerge.