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News that oozes: Panelists tackle challenges of communicating climate change

The slow, incremental unfolding of the evidence for global climate change is one reason it has been such a difficult subject for journalists to cover, and for the scientists who try to explain it. To put it another way: "This is a story that doesn't break, it oozes," said Boyce Rensberger, director of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at MIT.

Rensberger's remark came in the introduction to the first of four panel discussions that made up last week's "Disruptive Environments" conference, held at the MIT Museum. The opening panel tackled the topic of "Communicating Climate Change: Science, Advocacy and the Media."

MIT's Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric science, spoke as part of the climate-change panel. Emanuel had attracted worldwide attention and controversy in 2005 when, just a few weeks before Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, he published a paper that predicted an increase in the intensity of hurricanes as a result of global warming.

When it comes to explaining complex scientific work to the media and the public, scientists are "not very well trained," Emanuel said. Science is built on nuance and incremental progress, he said, while conveying the information to nonspecialists makes it necessary to boil things down into relatively simple terms. "You're reduced to using metaphors," he said, and that invites criticism from other scientists because no metaphor is exact. "Science is by nature equivocal," he said, and that often gives people a misleading sense of uncertainty about its conclusions.

Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at University of California, San Diego, wrote a widely quoted report in Science in 2004 in which she studied the published scientific literature on climate change and found, to her surprise, not a single paper that dissented from the consensus that climate change is happening, and is human induced. "As a historian of science, it was kind of a shock to me," she said. "It has the quality of plate tectonics literature after 1973," she said--that is, something that had once been very controversial but has now become firmly established.

The panel also featured Andrew Revkin, environmental reporter for The New York Times, who, as Rensberger said in his introduction, has probably written more stories about climate change than any other journalist, and Kevin Conrad, the ambassador of environment and climate change for Papua New Guinea, who made headlines by confronting the United States for its inaction on climate change at an international meeting earlier this year in Bali.

The Disruptive Environments conference was organized by students and faculty from the graduate program in History, Anthropology, Science, Technology, and Society.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 16, 2008 (download PDF).

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