Thursday, August 17, 2006

What we don't know

David Suzuki's latest column talks about how most of the public still knows very little about climate change:

"Recently, my foundation conducted a focus group about global warming to see where people are at in their understanding of this complex and challenging problem. The results? Let's just say they were disconcerting, to say the least... Apparently, according to the average Joe, global warming is happening because we've created a hole in the ozone layer, allowing the sun's rays to enter the atmosphere and heat up the earth -- or something like that. The cause of the problem is cars, or airplanes, or aerosol cans. No one really knows for sure."

The tone is a bit flippant, but the point is important. Those of us in the scientific community should not assume that all the headlines and all the films means people understand the very basics of climate change.

There's a segment of people working to communicate of the urgency of climate change who argue that educating the public any more about the science won't make a difference. The problem is, they are assuming most of the public has some basic level of knowledge. Unless you're under 30 or a scientist, it's unlikely you learned the basic concepts in any organized fashion (i.e., in school). The information is coming in small snippets in newspapers, on television, etc. It is not surprising that people still get the ozone hole and climate change confused. That's why we need things like the beginning of Gore's movie (that explaining the basics of the greenhouse effect).

Now, if only we can do something about the pop-up ads in the ENN page with Suzuki's column. Drag your mouse over the word "ozone", as in hole in the ozone layer, and up pops an ad for a home air purifier called an "ozone generator". Brilliant. The power of search engines I guess. They might want to point out the device won't help repair the ozone layer.


Jason West said...

Hi Simon

I agree that the ozone hole and climate change are very commonly thought of as the same problem. While there are interactions between the two, they are essentially separate problems. And the troubling part is that ozone depletion is essentially solved (or will be by continuing to adopt and enforce policies already in place), while climate change is far from solved - if people are confusing the issues, they may not understand the different messages they hear.

I guess we should be overly clear in talking with the public, even to the point of not even mentioning the ozone hole if we're talking about climate change. More primers on the basic science of climate change would definitely help. I think we also need to make clear that climate change is linked with energy use, and get people thinking about all the ways they use energy (and can reduce energy use).

But how do you do it, and will people listen?


Anonymous said...

Two things: a little knowledge is worse than no knowledge. Second, if scientists would cut off the lab speak and talk normal language that would help.

The reason the "warming sceptics" are so successeful: they translate the message of global warming making it a joke. Once it is a joke. The medium have changed. You know communication theory: the medium is the message.