As an environment and film studies student at Loyola University, I have had an amazing opportunity to learn about the communication of environmental issues. I find myself talking about and observing the ways people around me approach environmental issues. With my peers and professors, who recognize global climate change as a real threat, we often find ourselves getting ramped up about what is happening, why things need to change, and how. However, a relatively large portion of the American population still choose not to recognize what is at stake due to the skepticism and perhaps unclear communication about the issue. Skepticism is important in the consumption of information, however the skepticism that exists in regards to climate change is something I find slightly disturbing while at the same time intriguing. When analyzing the issue on a deeper level though, it makes sense that there is a lot of confusion surrounding the issue partially because the information and analysis is often changing due to new evidence and due to the language used by scientists. I’ll be diving into these sources of confusion to provide a more clear picture for our followers interested in knowing about climate change.
Environmental issues faced today are multi-faceted, including layers of ideas debated by scientists, media, policy makers, the general public, and others. In addition to this, a whole web of changing scientific studies and information exist and often produce confusion. Moreover, in science, there is always a level of uncertainty that is recognized by scientists, but not always made clear to the public. This uncertainty can be framed in different ways to the public through various media outlets. With so much information and often misinformation about environmental issues flooding various media outlets, it can be difficult to determine what exactly is going on and what to choose to believe.
This past fall, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its report on their findings regarding Global Climate Change. Established by the United Nations in 1988, the IPCC works to provide the world with current and concise scientific information about climate change. The panel consists of thousands of scientists who contribute on a voluntary basis from 195 countries worldwide. Due to the scientific and intergovernmental nature of the panel, the IPCC presents a unique opportunity for rigorous scientific information to be provided to policy makers and the public alike. The governments involved, including the U.S., Brazil, Uzbekistan, and Japan, acknowledge the authority of the content produced. These details along with the voluntary basis under which scientists are involved allows the work to be policy-relevant while at the same time remaining policy-neutral. With so many scientists across the world, people can trust that they are not working towards a specific agenda as some sources like to suggest; they are simply presenting the facts.
The IPCC report is 5,000 pages and fortunately the much more approachable and shorter Summary for Policy Makers has been released to the public which summarizes the study and highlights some of the most important data uncovered during the course of the research. This report reveals the increasing certainty scientists have on the notion that global climate change is anthropogenically induced, or is originated through human activity. IPCC’s last report in 2007 stated with 90% certainty that climate change can be linked to anthropogenically produced greenhouse gases. The most recent (fifth) report in 2014, states a percentage increase to 95% certainty. The significance of this change should not be overlooked. The panel shifted from 90% certainty, which is synonymous with “very likely”, to their current position at 95% certainty. This 95% certainty is synonymous with “extremely likely,” referring to the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists about two main things: climate change is occurring, and human activities have influenced it. In fact, 97% of climate scientists agree, while the general public still debates the mere reality of and factors contributing climate change.
Scientists rarely, if ever, support a theory or phenomena with 100% certainty due to the ever-changing body of knowledge as well as the very nature of the scientific method. The scientific method guides the process so that nothing can necessarily be proven in science; instead information is dynamic. Through the scientific method and a process of elimination, scientists study a phenomena and the possible contributing factors, constantly re-evaluating relevant and possible factors. Thus, by definition, a level of uncertainty exists in all fields of science. Climatology offers no exception. Climate scientists can observe what is occurring, research, and make predictions about what is likely to happen but in reality the true effects are unknown. Couple this detail along with scientists’ use of “weasel words” such as “the data suggests…” and phrases of the like as well as the inability of scientists to determine 100% certainty. This language often is used inaccurately in the media and can confuse the general public (and policymakers) about the science.
Through the scientific process and a rigorous peer review process, scientists maintain a body of knowledge that is not politically driven. Scientists use a subjective and tactical approach in order to collect unbiased observations as explained in the last paragraph. In order to get scientific research recognized as credible, the report then must pass through the highly scrutinous process of peer review where others in the field review the work and either attest to its credibility or deny it as erroneous. This process ensures unbiased and accountable research. Now, after the research report has been conducted, written, and reviewed by peers, the non-scientist community may then interpret that knowledge produced. Once media outlets and the public interpret the information, if controversial, emotion and political views can be developed such as is the case with climate change. The level of acceptance on certain issues such as climate change depends largely upon where people receive their information and perhaps, how well they understand it and how it was produced.
In a 2013 survey conducted by Yale, it was found that the amount of Americans who believe global climate change is not happening has risen seven percent. Although the amount of people who believe in climate change has not decreased, the number of those who said “don’t know” decreased by six percent between 2006 and 2013. This suggests that those who were previously unsure or on the fence have shifted gears onto the side of disbelief. This represents a clear disconnect in the conversation of climate change; as scientific certainty increased, the public certainty decreased. Why is this? As project director Anthony Lieserowitz reasons in an interview with Live Science, this may have to do in large part with the framing of environmental issues in the media. When uncertainty of the issue is introduced and more specifically highlighted in the news, doubt justifiably accumulates within the general public and trust between the various layers of those involved becomes compromised.
We as individuals have a responsibility to better understand the issue at hand in order to promote change. Once there is a better understanding of the issue, there can be better communication and action to reverse negative consequences. Being active by sharing information and innovations has huge potential to promote change. Involvement in community action is a great way to do this. Community action presents a unique opportunity to combat global climate change and consequently the current paradigm that goes along with it. In Green Light’s case, each incandescent light bulb exchanged for a CFL uses less energy. With the involvement of New Orleans’ residents, volunteers, and our generous funders, we’ve been able to swap out over half a million incandescents for energy efficient CFLs. This saves residents over 226 millions pounds of carbon dioxide, over 200 million kWh, and over $23 million on electricity bills. Our program reduces energy use on a community level, and thus reduces the amount of harmful emissions into the atmosphere. And with our backyard vegetable garden program, we reduce our food miles collectively (with each individual’s backyard garden) in New Orleans, reducing the energy use to transport produce, and all the other benefits of backyard gardening. Scientific uncertainty about anthropogenically induced climate change has become smaller and smaller, which means individual and community action to combat and mitigate climate change should become larger and larger to reduce harmful impacts.
The one overarching theme I have learned through my education at Loyola and would like you to get out of this blog post is to constantly question the information you are receiving and the credibility of that source (including this blog post!) Research, connect the dots, and don’t hold on to the first piece of information because it very well could be misleading. Although there may be uncertainty in science and mixed messages in the media, understanding the issues and the language, informing others, along with being involved in community and individual action can add up to make a huge difference even if the policy has not been put in place yet. I recognize this blog post as a form of media outlet with a specific frame and encourage readers to remain skeptical about the contents because it is important to take information received through media with a grain of salt. With that being said, I also encourage you to look at the science of global climate change through the IPCC report over any news anchor or blog writer and develop your own understanding and framework.
Written by: Erin Knowles, Green Light Intern Spring 2015
“No one can do everything, but everyone can do something” -Mike Lucado