OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Science alone is inadequate to guide social response to climate issues, experts say

09/30/2010

CORVALLIS, Ore. – An effective response and social acceptance of the reality of climate change will not be accomplished by scientists delivering ever-increasing amounts of technical information to the public, researchers say in a recent report, and new approaches are needed.

Societal action in response to climate issues needs to better merge the cultures of environmental science, social science, philosophy, religion, and even the creative arts, the experts said. Needed changes will only come when communication efforts are “more diverse, more personal, more interactive, more compelling, and more participatory,” they wrote in their commentary in Frontiers in Ecology, a professional journal.

“We need new synergies among different groups of experts to inspire people to action,” said Mark Hixon, a professor of zoology at Oregon State University, and one of the authors. “This discussion may start with scientific research by universities and governments, but science can’t do it alone. We need everyone involved, our religious, moral and ethical leaders, our social scientists, our economists, our artists.”

The report was written by scientists from OSU, Michigan State University, and American University in Washington, D.C.

In the past, scientists too often have been content to work in relative isolation, publish studies, deliver technical reports, and entered partnerships “only to amplify their own voices,” the authors wrote.

“If public communication is defined as a marketing campaign to sell the public on science, to re-brand the climate debate, to support ‘pro-science’ political leaders, or to trump ‘deniers’ and ‘anti-science’ advocates,” the researchers wrote, “then such strategies will likely fuel polarization and public disengagement.”

The authors of this commentary said that the science community has largely reached consensus that climate change is real, is exacerbated by human activities, and is causing detectable effects around the world. But an appropriately strong response is still lacking, they said, especially in the United States.

They identify four academic “cultures” that all need to play a major role in a more thoughtful and engaged discussion about these issues. Environmental scientists can provide the data and models to help understand the forces at work and help predict their effects. Philosophers and religious leaders could help guide discourse about what is good, what is right and what is of value.

Social scientists could help others reach the public in ways that are effective and useful in decision making. And the creative arts – writers, poets, film makers, journalists – should play a more important role in humanizing the issues, provoking action through stories that inspire and evoke emotion.

The federal government could assist, Hixon said, by requiring studies on climate change to have a specific mandate for public outreach and interdisciplinary research. Universities could help play a role in organizing all of these elements, and reach out to local media, school districts, faith-based institutions, museums and the arts communities.

“We have to step away from the path of denial, and we can’t afford to despair,” Hixon said. “We have the potential to act, but this is not simply an issue of science. We have to embrace more elements of society and get everyone discussing these issues, feeling like they are a part of the solution.”

The authors of the commentary concluded that, “The urgency of the moment is matched only by the magnitude of the opportunity for meaningful change.”