Our weekly "Communicating Climate Change" series will examine the challenges involved with writing on climate issues. It will often feature interviews with communicators, like last week's interview with Andy Revkin.
Let's imagine that you don't spend all that much time pondering the impending climate-related disaster. It's okay. You're not alone. Now let's say a headline pops up somewhere in your sphere of attention reading "Temperature May Rise 1.5 Degrees by 2080." You're curious. The first paragraph, though, contains the words "model," "estimates," and maybe "variability." No one will blame you when you glaze over and go read Tucker Max instead.
This might be the biggest challenge to the (generally) responsible climate reporter or writer: it's all just math. Global temperatures increased less than 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the 20th century; you can't really stand outside for a minute and be able to substantiate that fact. Same goes for sea level rise: between 1993 and 2003 the average sea level rose by about 3 millimeters per year. Try eyeballing that difference.
The essence of what Andy Revkin calls "slow-drip problems" is that there might be a stark before-and-after picture—think coastal Bangladesh existing and then not existing—but it is extremely difficult to explain the process itself. Within the climate change realm, the only news that should really be driving policy and public reaction are scientific studies on what we're doing to the world and how it will react, but those studies are really just a series of equations. Like this one:
Yeah. And that's pretty much the simplest climate-related equation in existence. Whoever hadn't already left is running for the door if you break out the actual math involved in this stuff.
Now, a lot of science-related news is, at its base, just math. A study on a new cancer drug is only even worth writing about if it reached statistical significance, and although particles crashing into each other at near-light speeds in the LHC sounds cool (well, if you're a geek) it's still just a mathematical analysis that will interpret those collisions. The difference, though, is that once you cut through that math in some of these other examples there is a conclusion that can stand on its own. The success of that cancer drug is news. Finding the Higgs Boson is (geeky) news. But updating an old sea level rise model with some new variables or information and learning that we might be mildly more screwed than we thought—and not just yet, but in 50 years or so—is a really hard sell as a news story.
I'll jump back into my interview with Revkin last week to find an answer to this issue (I promise once we interview a few more people I'll start quoting them too). "We grew up thinking about this as basically just another pollution problem, and it’s different. It’s fundamentally different," he said. The real story, instead, is that of energy policy. What this says to me is that every new bit of math that we want disseminated to the masses should carry with it the policy-related issues of the day that directly relate to the math. In simple, well-duh kinds of terms, the math needs context.
I do see this as different, though, from the standard fare of context. To tell the story of the new cancer drug, one explains what older drugs are available, how many people might benefit, how many people died of that cancer, and so on. To explain why a new model about radiative forcing or methane emissions from the permafrost is important, though, one might actually need to mention what things society is trying to do to ward off the problem. Cap-and-trade, Copenhagen negotiations, Cape Wind announcements and other distinctly policy-based stories have a place directly next to the latest climate model.
Connecting science to policy most likely would rub some of the climate modelers the wrong way, but I think it's the best way to move the reader past that slow-drip issue. "Okay, fine, it might be two meters of sea level rise by 2100, so what? Oh, if cap-and-trade passes that might represent the best chance to avoid those two meters. I get it."
Math is not a selling point in terms of getting and retaining readers, that much is clear. So don't force it; let the math drive the real story from the shadows.
Follow Dave on Twitter @davelevitan
Image via Wikimedia Commons, compiled by D. Levitan