02/10/2012 10:47 am ET Updated Apr 11, 2012

Shooting the Messenger Is Not the Answer

Note to readers: This post builds on the one taken down last week. Many apologies.

Yet another blog post commenting on the WSJ debacle about non-climate scientists' opinions versus climate scientists' opinions got me thinking (again) why the conversation about climate change is so charged. There are always conflicting opinions on many issues, especially those that have the potential to affect our way of living. But when a vast majority of specialists around the world agree on something, I would argue that they probably have a basis for that. Freedom of speech is an important part of the democratic process, but it should be used to bridge paths and not divide them. Having strong opinions about something is certainly warranted, and debate is welcome. However, it seems that when it comes to climate change, some not-so-civil behavior has become acceptable.

Just in the past couple of weeks, various articles have decried the personal attacks climate scientists have been receiving, simply because they do science that some people do not agree with or choose not to believe in. These articles (examples here, here, and here) describe (some in detail) what types of threatening emails and other acts climate scientists are being subjected to. Emails saying "I know where your kids go to school" and "you are nothing but a liar" are disrespectful at best and harassment at worst, which is unacceptable in any context. Why do some people feel the need to resort to personal attacks about climate?

A lot of misunderstandings about climate science stems from the scientific method itself. Science is almost never certain -- it mostly deals with probable causes and certain relationships, some stronger than others. In the case of climate, there is a rather large amount of uncertainty related to the actual warming we will see, since it largely depends on what people do in the coming years, but there is no uncertainty that it is getting warmer. This post gives a good analogy of climate science, in that it is not a house of cards that if one card (or fact) falls, the whole thing collapses. Rather, it is more like a jigsaw puzzle, where some pieces may be missing, and some may be in the wrong place, but one can still see the big picture. Why is it then, that so many people cannot see the jigsaw picture?

There are various reasons why one doesn't believe in global warming, and this post does a great job explaining the different types of climate change denial. There are those who follow a common human tendency to interpret the facts in a manner that agrees with their social (or political) group, in an unconscious behavior that leads to acceptance in that group. A recent study stating that media coverage and information from politicians and advocacy groups are among the most prominent drivers of the public perception of climate change seems to largely support this rationale (comments on that study here). But then there are those who consciously choose to not believe, purposefully "creating doubt about climate change, lobbying and campaigning against efforts to reduce the risk or even just to adapt to its effect". Somehow I don't see people in this group changing their rhetoric, and unfortunately, they are primary drivers of climate change perception. We are indeed stuck. How can we move from here?

Because move we must. In the end, this is not about what people think of carbon-reducing measures or lifestyle changes. It is not about the accuracy of climate models. This is about the real facts. The proof that temperatures are going up is here. Not accepting it is akin to looking at your thermometer before leaving the house, seeing it is 80 degrees out there, but putting on a heavy coat anyway -- and then sending an offensive email to the thermometer manufacturer. That's what the attacks on climate scientists amount to. The scientists state their findings, and are not responsible for the temperatures going up -- we all are. So it's up to us to fix our mess, and shooting the messenger is not a good strategy to accomplish that.