Elizabeth Kolbert recently interviewed Jane LubchencoÂ (pictured), appointed by President Obama as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Kolbert comments that when Lubchenco was appointed the reaction among climate scientists was an almost audible sigh of relief. During the Bush administration the work of NOAA staff was frequently ignored or even suppressed, and Lubchencoâ€™s appointment was seen as a sign of the new administrationâ€™s resolve to finally take NOAAâ€™s work seriously.
Kolbertâ€™s first question concerned the US climate impacts report that came out a few weeks ago which Hot Topic covered here. She asked Lubchenco what message she hoped people would take from the report. Her reply:
â€œI think the take-away message is that the evidence is in: Climate change is real, itâ€™s causing changes in our own backyard, many of those changes are increasingly challenging to society, and therefore there is urgency in moving ahead with reducing heat-trapping pollution as soon as possible.â€
Kolbert noted that nevertheless during the debate on the Waxman-Markey Bill there were some congresspeople calling global warming a hoax. So there still seems to be a communications gap.
Lubchenco replied that the report is helpful in providing credible information, solidly-grounded in good measurements, and that it corresponds with what many people are experiencing, as well.Â Her sense of the US is that there is a movement towards increasing recognition of the reality of climate change, and the fact that it is affecting the things that people care about.Â What also needs to be communicated is that something can be done about it, and that both individuals and governments should be making that clear.
On communication of science she comments:
â€œBeing in this job has only reinforced the importance of communicating scientific information in a way that is understandable and relevant to the decisions being made, with concrete examples, and in as unequivocal a fashion as possible, while still remaining true to the nuances that are important. And I think all too many scientists assume that everybody knows what they know, and especially members of Congress, and members of the administration.â€
She adds that more scientists need to become bilingual â€“ able to speak the language of science but also able to speak the language of lay people when talking to non-scientists.Â Not always easy to do, she acknowledges, but very important.
Whether better communication would have any effect on the views of some members ofÂ the US Congress who, like our own Rodney Hide, actually use the word hoax may be doubted, but generally speaking the principle is of great importance.Â As the scientists whom Obama has brought into his administration continue their already notable efforts to interpret the science of climate change to the public at large it will surely become much more difficult for malevolent forces of denial to prevent the actions so urgently needed.
In the course of the interview Lubchenco commented on what the Presidentâ€™s commitment to science means to scientists:
â€œThis is definitely a new era. I think the president set the tone in announcing his science team so very early on in the series of appointments. The president made it clear that he thought that good government depends on good science, and it was his intent to restore science to its rightful place. NOAA is a stellar science agency, and there are superb, outstanding scientists here who are delighted to be valued and supported, and eagerly awaiting the new policies that the administration is in the process of prepping to ensure that the integrity of science is protected. I think that there is wide enthusiasm for policies that will really provide good guidance and ensure that science is not constrained, is not politicized.â€Â
Incidentally in the same interview but on another theme Lubchenco, a marine ecologist, has some interesting things to say about ocean acidification, which she describes as â€œthe equally evilÂ twinâ€ to global warming. Kolbert asked her why what is happening to the oceans doesnâ€™t seem to be penetrating popular consciousness. Â She replied that oceans for many people are still out of sight, out of mind, and there is a lack of appreciation of how important the ocean is in the whole climate system, and what the real risk is. The need is pressing to significantly ramp up research monitoring and research programs on ocean acidification.Â Â Â Â We may perhaps hope to see this crucial matter figuring more openly in US policy discussions.