Climate Scientists Provide Q&A Service to Better Inform the Media

November 17, 2010

The scientific community has made it clear global warming is occurring mainly as a result of human activities, and that it poses severe threats to human welfare.  Despite this more and more lawmakers seem to be finding it politically advantageous to be seen as climate change “skeptics” denying the findings of scientists.  Recently incumbent and newly-elected conservative members of Congress have been threatening to forcibly overturn the Environmental Protection Agency’s finding that greenhouse gases present a threat to human health, or to delay the agency’s ability to regulate global warming pollution.  Many, but not all political global warming deniers associate themselves with the ultra-conservative Tea Party movement.

Meanwhile many scientists seem reluctant to fight back, due largely to an understandable reluctance to enter politics.  For trained science professionals who have devoted their careers to objective study of the Earth, the idea of advocating for or against a political ideology is far from appealing.  At the same time, many would argue there could be no nobler use of science than to better inform the public about complex and important issues affecting society.  Thus scientists at the American Geophysical Union have arrived at a compromise: without taking political stances or advocating specific policies, the AGU has vowed to simply make it easier for media outlets that report to the public to get the correct science on climate change.

The AGU is the largest group of Earth and space science professionals in the world, boasting more than 58,000 members.  In order to make the findings of these scientists more accessible to the media, the AGU plans to establish an online Climate Q & A Service.  Though it has yet to get completely off the ground, the project mission states the service will, “enable high-quality climate science reporting by connecting the media with….expert climate scientists with quick turnaround and peer collaboration.”    

The Q & A Service is not a completely new idea: it was first launched last year to help inform reporters covering the Copenhagen negotiations on climate and global warming.  The AGU is now resurrecting the project, which is more important than ever at a time when sorting climate science from spin is increasingly difficult for the public.  By making the findings of scientists more readily accessible to the media, the AGU hopes to de-politicize the issue of how human activities impact the climate. 

Last week a Los Angeles Times story described the Q & A Service and similar initiatives as an attempt by climate scientists to “push back against congressional conservatives who have attacked the concept of global warming.”  But the AGU has since clarified such reports are inaccurate. 

Some individual scientists may choose to advocate for policies they feel are required to slow worldwide climate change.  Well-known NASA scientist James Hansen, for example, has long been outspoken about the need for policymakers to aggressively take in the challenge of curbing carbon emissions.  According to Hansen swift action is needed to avoid global warming “tipping points,” beyond which it will be impossible to restore the climate to a state hospitable for human civilizations.  Yet despite the outspokenness of individual climate scientists, the AGU as a nonpartisan scientific body seeks only to provide quality information about climate science to a wider public audience.  

Of course the success of the project will depend to a certain extent on the media’s willingness to seek out scientific information, and to accurately report on climate scientists’ findings.  But the Q & A service seems like a positive step that could help counter the mainstream press’ tendency to get complex scientific issues wrong.  With national and international debates raging over climate policy, it’s a timely moment for injecting a bit of cool-headed fact into hugely politicized debates arguments. 

Photo by Soham Banerjee

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