Tracing the History of Climate Change

This article, written by Shreyas Gadge, is a detailed analysis of a talk delivered by Prof. Iain Stewart ( Co-Director, Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability (3CS) at Ashoka University) at India Science Festival – 2022.

‘The situation is now such that it could be called ‘The Climate Wars’ owing to the battleground of information coming from all sides,’ says Prof. Stewart as he talks about tracing the history of climate change through the paradigms of communication and miscommunication. The challenge that has centered the stage in recent times is that of communicating complex science to non-technical audiences like the public and the politicians. This is not just limited to the issue of climate change but also arises while reaching out to the masses about the critical issues contested by science like the pandemic and such as everyone needs information from scientists. 

A clip from the BBC documentary ‘The Climate Wars’ by Professor Stewart highlights modern-day scientists who deny the increase in global warming levels and the connection of CO2 with climate change claiming scientific evidence. However, several graphs like the one measuring CO2 concentration at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii have suggested a rising incline in CO2 levels. It is surprising how the debates over climate change being recognized as an issue still exist when it was in 1965 that US President Lyndon Johnson had talked about climate change by saying, ‘this generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.’ The 1980s too saw the formation of committees to model climate change and improve the associated science under the presidency of Jimmy Carter such as the JASON committee in 1978 and the Charney report of 79. In 1980, Ronald Reagan, 40th US President brought Bill Nirenberg of the Scripps Oceanography Institute who pioneered a project that brought climate scientists together and interestingly enough, even the economists who framed the climate change recognition but in slightly different ways. One of the ways was by suggesting that the carbon dioxide is in fact good for plants and would lead to larger wheat fields and such important to feed more people. Another was a more frivolous one that this is a fundamental challenge that humans require to have scientists rising up and human ingenuity getting through this. 

Different approaches then spun out towards tackling climate change.

An approach that followed science and was characterized by the start of the International Panel Climate Change (IPCC) which is a global governmental association collective of scientists and climate experts who publish and review reports on climate science in a transparent manner which then get fed through the political system.

There’s also an alternative non-governmental IPCC who were contrarians or a group arguing against the science, led by Fred Singer. Some of the contrarians were meteorologists while most of them had absolutely no scientific or environmental credentials. This is how the battleground of two sciences was created with the conflicting views between short-term weather science by the meteorologists and the long-term averaging out of climate change by the climate scientists. This fundamental difference between weather and climate is usually the point of confusion for the public and the politicians. 

One of the most compelling aspects of the climate science debate is understanding geoscience and the historical geological record. Geologists have been a significant part of the push-up against climate change policies and climate action. One of the important areas is playing on the unfamiliarity of past geological changes such as mountains building, oceans opening, and closing, volcanic eruptions, and such. Climate has changed drastically in the past and we have to be circumspect about claiming that we can understand modern climate; becomes the school of thought. A piece of evidence through measurement of CO2 concentration from the antarctic over a period of eight million years shows the bouncing in concentration levels in and out of ice age between 180 ppm and 280 ppm. Whereas, the appearance of humans and evolution nearly two million years ago bring CO2 levels as we come out of the last ice age constantly rising up to 1900 ppm which is attributed to the human legacy. 

With tons of evidence, what is it that’s making the masses uncertain about climate change? A reason that falls parallel to the confusion induced by contrarians is junk science. Professor Steve describes junk science in the context of contradicting climate change with three instances – the non-establishment of cause and effects, statistical data unable to provide answers, and eventually to say that more research is needed. This misses the fundamental understanding of science as it focuses on proving or disproving rather than questioning and analyzing. Frank Luntz, George Bush’s advisor, mentioned the rejection of science due to scientific uncertainty by the public as a key part of the process to not recognize the issue.

While Professor Stewart believes that not all public is conforming to the way scientists think about the issues and a plot called ‘six Americas’ that views the public in six categories based on their political views and values with ‘alarmed’ and ‘dismissive’ being the extreme categories. This has put an understanding into the different kinds of confusions to be dealt with by making an effort to reach these different audiences. Needless to say, the way people look at global heating climate change is heavily tied to their political orientations.

Gradually, the proportion of people in these six categories is changing with a consensus towards being alarmed and a much wider collective of public engagement in the debates. Celebrities, Influencers, and Philanthropists like Leonardo DiCaprio, Greta Thunberg, etc are taking the climate change discourse to these different categories of people in a way that scientists haven’t. In order to catalyze new demographics, scientific institutions need effective science communication resources.

As rightly said by David Attenborough, ‘Saving the planet is now a communication challenge. We know what to do, we just need the will.’ 

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