Patrick Brown has a recent blog post about whether, or not, the IPCC claims that we have 12 years to avoid catastrophic global warming. As his post highlights, there are a number of problems with this claim. Firstly, the IPCC says nothing about catastrophe; it simply presents a synthesis of our current understanding and describes the various possible impacts of different levels of warming. Describing something as catastrophic is a judgement that the IPCC has never made.
Another issue is that the 12 years is simply based on how much longer we can keep emitting at the current rate until we’ve used up the estimated carbon budget that would give us a reasonable chance of keeping warming below 1.5oC. If we fail to keep below this carbon budget, then we will have largely guaranteed more than 1.5oC of warming, but this doesn’t mean that catastrophe will suddenly ensue. Some people are probably already experiencing things that they would regard as catastrophic, and the impacts of warming beyond 1.5oC will almost certainly be more severe than if we stay below 1.5oC. However, there isn’t some kind of hard boundary between everything being fine, and catastrophe.
So, stating that the IPCC claims that we have 12 years to avoid catastrophe is clearly not true. However, there is something that bothers me about this. As a scientist, I think it would be wonderful if all you needed to do to get the public, and policy makers, to recognise that there is some issue that might need addressing is to provide them with information. However, it’s well known that doesn’t work; simply filling a knowledge deficit is not an effective way to get people to accept the need for some kind of policy.
Getting the public to actually engage with some issue requires more sophisticated communication strategies, one of which might involve coming up with some catchy phrase that sticks in people’s minds. Such a phrase will, by definition, be a simplification that will almost certainly be wrong in some sense. How does one decide if it’s wrong in some acceptable way, or wrong in some unacceptable way? Should we judge things on the basis of the goal of the communication, or is that not a valid way to judge some rhetoric? What role should scientists/researchers play in determining whether or not some phrase is acceptable?
To be clear, I don’t know the answers to any of the above, and I’m not suggesting that the 12 year framing is acceptable. In fact, I think the claim is both not true and potentially sends the wrong message (it could lead people to conclude that it will be too late if we don’t do something within 12 years, which is not correct). However, I do think that this is a complex issue and that it’s worth recognising that communication strategies are sometimes being used to get people’s attention and may do so in ways that scientists may not always feel comfortable with. I don’t think that this means that scientists should never criticise a communication strategy, but I do think we should be aware of the fact that simply communicating information is not – by itself – an effective communication strategy.
Although I agree with much of Patrick Brown’s post, I don’t agree with the final paragraph, which says
In my experience, the primary reason that people skeptical of climate science come to their skepticism is that they believe climate scientists are acting as advocates rather than dispassionate evaluators of evidence.
It may be true that many who are openly “skeptical” claim that this is the reason, but – in my view – this is mostly a convenient excuse. As far as I can tell, even if all scientists behaved absolutely impeccable, those who are “skeptical” would simply find some other reason to justify their “skepticism”. This isn’t to suggest that scientists shouldn’t be conscious of how their public behaviour might be percieved, it’s simply a suggestion that it isn’t really all that big a factor when it comes to why some people are “skeptical”.