The recent snowstorms in Washington, D.C. led to more than closed schools, postponed events and shovel-sore muscles. The unusually cool atmospherics became a hot metaphor in the argument against climate change. After all, how could the climate be warming and there be all this snow?
The back-and-forth was captured in a story on Fox News:“It’s absurd for the ‘anti-science side’ to say we’re in a cooling trend when we’re in an overall warming trend,” says (Joseph) Romm of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “Heavy snow is not evidence that climate science is false,” he added, noting that “the snow we’ve seen is entirely consistent with global warming theory.”
But Patrick J. Michaels, senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and state climatologist for Virginia for 27 years, disagrees. “Global warming simply hasn’t done a darned thing to Washington’s snow,” he wrote on National Review, adding that “if you plot out year-to-year snow around here, you’ll see no trend whatsoever through the entire history.”
The battle between science and politics also was the subject of a recent NPR “On the Media” story on the now-debunked link between a measles vaccine and autism. Here is what Dr. Richard Horton, editor of the British medical journal, The Lancet, had to say:
“We used to think that we could publish speculative research which advanced interesting new ideas which may be wrong, but which were important to provoke debate and discussion. We don’t think that now. What we don’t seem able to do is we don’t seem able to have a rational conversation in a public space about difficult, controversial issues, without people drawing a conclusion which could be very, very adverse.”
The most disturbing part of what Dr. Horton said, because it seems to be true, is “we don’t seem able to have a rational conversation.” For communications professionals this is at best a caution, at worst, a call to arms. Most of our work is focused on adding context to the actions of our clients.
But context — be it scientific, medical or financial — requires an ability to see in three-dimensions. How can we succeed when our public discourse is locked in black-and-white? It demands we be more precise.
When the LA Times took another look at the D.C. snowstorm it did just that:
“Increased snowfall fits a pattern suggested by many climate models, in which rising temperatures warm the world’s bodies of water, leading to more evaporation. Climate scientists say the amount of atmospheric moisture has increased, which they predict will bring more rain in warmer conditions and more snow in freezing temperatures.
‘All you need is cold air and moisture to meet each other’ to make snow, said Jay Gulledge, senior scientist for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. ‘And with global warming, the opportunities to do that should be more frequent.’”
The misunderstanding and misuse of the word “warming” in the “global warming” warning undercuts its value as context. Perhaps “change” as in “climate change” is more effective, but, based on Mr. Michaels said to Fox News, that may be lost, too.
The most effective argument at a time when science is so willingly dismissed may not yet have been made. But just because the task of adding depth and perspective to political, social and commercial conversations has gotten difficult doesn’t mean it cannot be fought and won.