"Blue Planet Blues"

Written by Paul Sutter on Friday, 20 April 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

What makes it so hard to talk about climate science? Of course the short answer is "politics", but why is it political, and why does that prevent us from speaking clearly about the subject? It's a perfectly respectable field of science, on par with physics, biology, chemistry, and all the rest (and it strongly overlaps with those fields anyway). And yet the subject is, for the most part, only hinted at or spoken about in the most oblique ways.

And I'm not just talking about COSI - science communication efforts across the world seems hamstrung by this topic. Are we afraid of upsetting audiences? Or donors? Or sponsors? Are we worried we might say something so offensive that we won't be allowed to continue our mission?

Probably yes, and probably for a good reason.

Astronomers can debate the nature of, say, dark energy for decades with basically nobody caring or even noticing, because the results of that discussion don't have immediate real-world consequences. It's of only literally academic interest. But our increasing understanding of the nature of the Earth's climate and humanity's impact on it drives major policy decisions, with ramifications totaling billions (trillions?) of dollars and affecting real human lives.

So yeah, it gets messy, real quick.

I think the breakdown in climate discussions occurs because sometimes we go too far. It's one thing to talk about the science: how we know that the Earth is getting warmer due to human activities. And it's totally cool to use scientific reasoning to forecast impacts on climate from decisions that face us now. But is it our place to advocate for certain policy decisions? I honestly don't know - it's an open question.

I do know that when we push a certain choice of what to do about climate change, we enter into the complex, emotional, highly charged world of politics. And when people's politics are threatened, they get defensive - if they don't like the policy, they're going to fight against it. And the first place to strike is at the base: questioning the basic science that led to that policy.

It might be that the climate well is so poisoned by now that honest discussions of the raw science are nearly impossible, and it's best to just stay out altogether. But maybe not. Maybe there's an opportunity to engage audiences with the fascinating, wonderful world of our study of the Earth's climate, and let them come to their own conclusions.

If we want to be known as respected, impartial facilitators of all science, perhaps we could start by being respected, impartial facilitators of all science.

About the Author

Paul Sutter

Paul Sutter

Paul Sutter is COSI's Chief Scientist. He is an astrophysicist and offers a wealth of knowledge about our universe. In addition to his COSI position, Paul Sutter is a Cosmological Researcher and Community Outreach Coordinator at The Ohio State University's Center for Cosmology and AstroParticle Physics (CCAPP).