Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Scientists Connect the Dots from Identifying to Preventing Dangerous Climate Risks

Misconception-based learning replaces a myth with a fact by explaining the origin and fallacy of the misconception. (Credit: John Cook) Click to Enlarge.
Last week, over 20,000 Earth scientists gathered at the annual American Geophysical Union (AGU) fall conference.  They shared their scientific research, ranging from identifying the causes of past climate changes, to estimating the risks of the changes we’re causing now, to how we can successfully communicate the need to mitigate those risks.

Richard Alley (the host of Earth: the Operator’s Manual) summarized the scientific community’s consensus about the threats of abrupt climate change from various potential “tipping points.”  Scientists aren’t too worried about a huge methane burp from the ocean or shutdown of the thermohaline circulation (which would cause dramatic cooling in Europe) happening anytime soon.  On the other hand, a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and large associated sea level rise are becoming increasingly worrying.

This tied into paleoclimate research presented by Aaron Goldner.  Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were at similar levels to today’s (400 parts per million) 15 million years ago during the mid-Miocene period.  However, the Earth’s climate was very different.  Geologic records give us estimations that sea levels were 25–40 meters higher than today, global mean temperatures 3­–6°C hotter, and there was very little sea ice relative to today.
Today, we’re already seeing Arctic sea ice vanish at an alarming rate. The worry is that we may be approaching a tipping point that kicks us into a climate regime with significantly less ice, higher sea levels, and hotter temperatures, like the mid-Miocene or mid-Pliocene when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were similar to today’s, but for an extended period of time. We’re on the verge of entering a hot climate state not seen in tens of millions of years.
There’s uncertainty about just how bad these impacts will get, and how fast.  Stephan Lewandowsky gave a talk discussing the problem that although more uncertainty translates to greater risk and urgency, people perceive the opposite.  People often think we don’t need to act until uncertainty is gone, but that means letting the problem get worse in the meantime.  As Andrew Dessler said in one of his AGU talks,

Uncertainty is the hammer policy advocates use to smash scientists over the head.

The Communication Problem
Scientists John McCuin, Katharine Hayhoe, John Cook, Daniel Bedford, and Scott Mandia reported success in climate education through misconception-based learning.  People form mental structures of the world, and debunking a misconception can leave a gap in those structures.  As it turns out, people would rather have a complete but incorrect understanding of the world than an incomplete but more correct understanding.  Thus, the most effective education and communication must explain why a person’s misconceptions were formed and why they’re incorrect, replacing the mental gaps with factually correct information.

Read more at Scientists Connect the Dots from Identifying to Preventing Dangerous Climate Risks

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