What Keeps Climate Scientists Up At Night?


Right at the very time when the scientific community is more certain than ever of the causes and risks of climate change, we get a reminder that confusion and denial still hold a good chunk of the population.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the state of the science of global warming, to be released later this week, confirms that our planet is warming. The mean global temperature has risen by almost 1°C since pre-industrial times, with increasing temperatures over land and sea. The evidence is also in the melting glaciers and ice sheets, and retreating sea-ice. The warming cannot be explained by natural causes alone. 

We already know that carbon pollution is reaching dangerous highs. The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases are now higher than at any time in human history, and at any time for at least 800,000, if not millions of years.

So these are the findings of science; science which gives us antibiotics and aeroplanes and countless other wonders of modern life.

Yet, the distance between the public’s understanding of the basic facts of climate change and that of the scientific community remains large. Where at least 97 per cent of climate experts believe that carbon pollution, now at higher levels than ever, is generating highly risky changes in planetary environment, the proportion of the Australia public is closer to 60 per cent, according to The Climate Institute’s latest Climate of the Nation survey.

Why this gap?

Perhaps a simple reason is the anonymity of the hundreds of scientists behind reports like the upcoming one form the IPCC. Scientists are, to most people, anonymous, rarely seen "in the raw", as people doing a job. Their work is too complex and fantastic for most people to engage with.

Psychologists have long noted that we are more likely to trust people who like us. The IPCC itself is a largely faceless institution — easy prey for conspiracy theorists. This is despite the fact that the process by which its reports are written is one of the most open and transparent of any institution on Earth.

It has to be said that most scientists would probably rather remain anonymous; allowed to get on with their work outside of the highly charged media environment.

We saw just in the last two weeks, as The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, The Wall Street Journal, and others in the Murdoch fold misreported key facts from leaked copies of the draft IPCC report, and left out many others.

The situation is now so bad, the history of climate journalism so replete with error in some quarters, that some senior scientists now refuse to be interviewed for fear their words will be mangled.

As a small step towards bridging the gap between the general public and scientists, we asked a number of climate scientists to take part in a vox-pop video. From Honours students to professors, they were given a chance to talk unscripted, about what they do, why they do it, and what they see as the way to cross the divide between science and action.

What we see in these snapshots are people doing a job because nature intrigues them; because they cannot leave a problem unsolved.

They are, in UNSW Professor Matt England’s words, "nerds", fascinated and amazed by what makes the world tick, and what will happen if we continue to change the environment. But watch the videos and decide for yourself.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.