Sorry, it's Malignant: Why Scientists Need a New Approach on Climate Change

05/16/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The world's scientists are struggling with the unsettling feeling that the more they talk about climate change, the less progress they make. In fact, in some opinion surveys they're losing ground. But before we start dumping on the public for its scientific illiteracy or unwillingness to take the long view, consider this scenario:

You're sitting in the doctor's examining room, on one of those absurd benches. The doctor comes in and gives you the worst possible news, that you have cancer.

The doctor takes the time to explain why she thinks you have cancer, and the level of confidence she has in the test results. She explains the biological process of cancer, what's known about how it starts and how it spreads. Don't let your senses deceive you, the doctor warns. You may feel okay now, but this disease will kill you if nothing is done, and we've got to start fighting this right now.

Then she walks out without telling you what your treatment options are.

This is essentially what the scientific community has been doing to the public about climate change. The scientific consensus that global warming is real and caused by humans remains unshaken, but the public consensus is fragile enough that it trembles based on a snowy winter or a set of indiscreet e-mails.

Scientists generally try to avoid making unwarranted assumptions in their work, but when they move on to communicating with the public, they repeatedly leap to a demonstrably false conclusion. As pioneering social scientist (and our colleague and mentor) Daniel Yankelovich points out, scientists persist in believing that if they just give the public the relevant facts, people will be able to sort them out, think through the policy options, and start making decisions.

In the real world, that's not what happens. Being inundated with information about a problem doesn't help people sort out different ways to address it. The public can and does come to firm, workable decisions, but the process takes a lot more time than most scientists believe. Information matters to the public, certainly, but other things matter too: values, confidence that the people advocating change understand and respect your point of view, a sense of inclusion in the decisions.

All those things aren't part of the classic "scientific" model of knowledge, but they are part and parcel of the way people make decisions about complex, unfamiliar problems.

Or, think of it this way:

You chase the doctor out into the hallway and ask, "But how do we fight this? What treatments are there? What choices do I have?"

The doctor leads you into another room. "Don't worry, the answers are all somewhere in here," she says. "Let me introduce you to the sales representatives of the radiology machine manufacturer and several competing pharmaceutical companies, who will try and sell you their solutions. Those half-dozen people over there are from the insurance industry, and they'll be having a parallel discussion of how much you can afford. We also have a wide selection of promising experimental procedures that will take years to develop."

"And if those aren't enough options," she continues, "these folks here are a spiritual healer, who will offer you crystals and a selection of herbs and spices, along with the owner of the largest leach farm in Louisiana. I don't really recommend you listen to either of them, but they'll both be shouting at the top of their voices during the entire process. Plus, they come up first in Google searches."

The scientific community -- and the climate skeptics, for that matter -- believes this is an information battle, and that with a few more charts and graphs, people will become lay scientists, and everything else will fall into place. That's not the way this is going to work.

So what does the scientific community need to do? We'd suggest three steps:

Connect climate change and the energy crisis. Obviously, these two things are connected, but too few people in the climate science world spell it out. World energy demand is projected to rise 40 percent over the next 20 years, mostly because of rising demand in developing countries like China and India. A billion Chinese buying cars and Ipods has enormous and obvious implications for both oil prices and climate change.

Step up to the plate as a credible, neutral explainer of the choices. This debate comes down to a few practical choices about how we get our energy. What kind of power plants do we build? What do we use to fuel our cars? Those are the choices people can grapple with. They're practical, not theoretical. You can sum up the pros and cons pretty quickly. These are our treatment options. And they're decisions society will have to make. Unfortunately, neither the media not the political leadership has taken on this task. This leaves a void science can fill. The scientific community could serve the nation by helping Americans understand our options for addressing our energy and climate challenges -- no spin, no hyperventilating -- just lay out the choices with their pros and cons.

Don't ignore economics. Believe us, nobody else is viewing this as a purely scientific debate."How much will this cost" is a perfectly legitimate part of the discussion. So are the economic benefits of moving to alternative energy, and the potential costs of doing nothing and letting climate change and energy shortages reshape our planet. If there ever was a case for an interdisciplinary approach, this is it.

This all comes back to one of the fundamental roles of the scientist in society: not just to find out the facts, but to explain what they mean to the rest of us. If the world fails to solve this problem, it won't be because we failed to understand the diagnosis. It'll be because we failed to understand our treatment options. We expect doctors to help us understand and weigh those options, and to respect our right to make the final decision. It's only fair to expect climate scientists to do the same.