Climate Change Makes No Sense

Posted on March 30, 2013

It used to be easy. We blew a hole in our atmosphere allowing more of the sun’s rays to reach the earth. As a result we had “global warming.” we probably couldn’t repair the hole but we could stop making it worse if we tried. A clear narrative that made intuitive sense.

Then things got complicated. We learned that global warming was too simple and that the impact of CO2 emissions is to alter the whole climate. And the climate is complex to explain and understand. Climate change forecasts go out decades but we know that even relatively short-term (3 months) forecasts are cast as ‘experimental’ and can be widely wrong. Scientists explain that such forecasts are not wrong, they are ‘probabilistic.’ While doubtless correct, this is not intuitive to most people. It comes across as a cop out where, because nothing is ever 100% certain, no forecast can ever be wrong. How can we maintain confidence in long-term complex climate forecasts when relatively short-term weather forecasts prove so inaccurate? These are difficult questions that need easily understandable explanations if they are to be credible.

And climate change can cause all sorts of weather events, not just warming. It’s exceptionally hot; there’s a drought. It’s due to climate change. It’s raining harder than usual; we have floods. It’s all due to climate change. We have had a storm of the sort that only happen once every hundred years. No it’s not that the average chances have come round; it’s climate change that increases the probability of such things happening. It’s exceptionally cold for the time of year. It’s climate change and how it interacts with other complex forces. How is the average person to make sense of such explanations?

The communications around climate change have become confused and risk losing the support of the public. Most people have neither the expertise nor the inclination to try to understand all the complexities of climate science. Belief in climate change depends on trust. And that trust is being eroded as communication becomes more complex and as every single weather event is linked to climate change.

If we are to continue to gain support for major changes to the way we live and for continued investment of private and public money in climate mitigation and adaptation efforts, the narrative has to be credible and has to make intuitive sense to the general public. All that risks going out of the window as scientists have tried to communicate every nuance of complexity; as activists latch on to every weather event as evidence of climate change; as the simplicity and intuitive appeal of the ozone hole and global warming have given way to a Babylonian cacophony in which it is the simplest task for those who are against the climate issue to wreak havoc.

If the battle against climate change is not to be lost, we need change. Scientists need to find ways of reducing the complexity of climate science and probabilistic models to something that can be easily grasped by the average person. Activists need to understand that effective messaging is simple, makes intuitive sense and does not over-reach. As we all know, trust is hard to build but easy to lose. Sadly, there are too many uncoordinated voices speaking for climate change. The cause may yet become drowned in the noise.