What We Talk About When We Talk About Climate Change

Photo Credit: Jon Tyson

Recap by: Katherine A. Peinhardt

Transcript by: Joe Stormer

Some myths are more stubborn than others. Dana Nuccitelli, an environmental scientist and writer who’s a part of the team at Skeptical Science, is well aware of this fact; in his roles he regularly faces some of the most long-lasting climate myths head-on. On the latest episode of Warm Regards, we spoke about debunking climate change myths, and the changing media landscape for environmental topics.

Many experts like Nuccitelli agree that climate change coverage in the news has improved. There’s less one-on-one debating going on between climate scientists and so-called “skeptics,” a pattern that gave the illusion of division in the scientific community when it comes to climate change. This decline of the “pseudo fair-and-balanced” approach is a welcome one within the scientific community.

Print media is also doing better — keeping up a steady stream of content focused on climate change impacts and working to incorporate it into relevant stories on a regular basis. Organizations like Climate Feedback are even putting scientists on the lookout for news coverage, giving grades to articles and making commentary on inaccuracies or inconsistencies.

Skeptic or Denier? Re-claiming skepticism

But when it comes to climate change myths, the phrase climate denier is politically charged — some, like co-host Dr. Ramesh Laungani, use the term contrarian instead. But what about skeptic? Skeptical Science uses the term in a different way than it is often used today. Instead of the modern brand of skepticism, characterized by single-minded attention to the points in support of a given ideology, Nuccitelli notes that “a skeptic is anybody who’s keeping an open mind and looking at all the available evidence and weighing it accordingly… a lot of people who call themselves skeptics are not really skeptics.” It seems that the term skeptic needs a bit of re-branding; moving away from focused contrarianism to genuine evidence-based exploration.

Speaking of casting doubt on climate science, in recent months, Trump publicly stated his own contrarian views to his administration’s climate report. As a response, scientists like Dr. Katharine Hayhoe have appeared on news outlets like CNN to shed light on the biggest myths perpetuated by many current politicians — from myths about cold winters negating climate change trends to those implying that the report’s (unpaid) contributors were “in it for the money.” This conversation has revived questions around communicating the urgency of climate change in a so-called “Post-Truth” society. It begs the question: How do we get rid of, once and for all, the harmful “zombie myths” that seem to keep coming back?

One place to start is with the Skeptical Science Debunking Handbook, which helps readers to address of climate myths without reinforcing them. The handbook contains a set of tools to use in the moments like when the dreaded phrase, “I’m not a scientist, but…” begins all-too-often uninformed conversations on climate science and policy. Fighting stubborn myths requires a well-honed set of tools and an understanding of the psychology that underlies climate denial.

But even in an age of denial and contrarianism, a few bipartisan climate policies have come to the forefront, including a revenue-neutral carbon tax and the Green New Deal. Especially among younger people, the Green New Deal has kindled enthusiasm around climate solutions that cross party lines. Organizations like the Sunrise Movement have become the source of an ever-steadier drumbeat on climate science and policy coverage. Perhaps this progress comes down to finding shared values, from the economic to the social; and perhaps this is among the most important ingredients to successful climate myth-busting.

Episode Transcript

Transcribed by: Joe Stormer

[Instrumental theme music]

Jacquelyn Gill: Welcome to Warm Regards, conversations from the front lines of climate change. I’m Jacquelyn Gill, assistant professor at the University of Maine. Joining me this week is my cohost, Ramesh Laungani, associate professor of biology from Doane University in Nebraska. Today’s show is all about the news. We’ll geek out about a new study about the role of climate change and the earth’s biggest mass extinction, and then we’ll talk with Dana Nuccitelli about the climate media landscape. We’re also wrapping up with a new segment we’re trying out on the unexpected science of climate change and we’ll talk about some research on bears and berries that Ramesh has discovered for us. How’s it going out there, Ramesh?

Ramesh Laungani: It’s going well. It’s the end of the school year so students are in the depth of finals week, so that means I’m soon to be in the depths of final exam grading.

Jacquelyn: Yes, we call it grading jail.

Ramesh: Grading jail, exactly, exactly. So, yeah, this is a nice little break from that dynamic and so I’m excited to talk with Dana and I’m excited to talk about the biggest mass extinction, I guess.

Jacquelyn: Isn’t that a weird thing to say? So let’s take a quick detour. So just to set the stage, it’s 252 million years ago. Um, and imagine that your trilobite, because this is the last time on earth that we had these amazing creatures that many of us geeked out about when we were kids and still geek out about today.

Ramesh: Those are the flat cockroach-looking things right –

Jacquelyn: How dare you compare a trilobite to a — that’s rude. Now we’re going to get hate mail from the cockroach people saying that it’s rude that I said that that’s rude. So in this scenario, it’s actually not a good thing that you’re a trilobite because you’re about to go extinct and the reason you’re about to go extinct is because of something that’s going on in the oceans. We lose at this point about 96 percent of all marine species. The vertebrates on land get a little less attention; they’re not quite as diverse, but we lose about 70 percent of them as well. And you know, these trilobites had had made it through two other mass extinction events and they weren’t able to make it through this one. And this new study that’s just come out, you might have read about it in the New York Times or elsewhere, really sheds some light on the exact mechanisms behind this extinction. So it’s exciting from the perspective of understanding the science behind this ancient big event that really shook up the entire tree of life. Although it’s sad from the perspective of, you know, talking about mass extinctions; it’s kind of hard not to be sad, especially when we lose trilobites.

Ramesh: Yeah. I thought that the article did a really great job of explaining how the oxygen levels in the oceans were changing. And one thing I think that’s really interesting is the idea that there are different levels of oxygen in different parts of the ocean. I think most people think about oxygen in the water — like it’s homogenous, like the oxygen level in their fish tank. We all know organisms and in an aquatic environment need oxygen. And that little pump that you plug in does a great job of circulating that oxygen, but you can imagine in the scale of a whole ocean. There might be some, no pun intended here, hot spots and cold spots of oxygen. So that was really, really interesting because that’s also going to change which organisms stick around and where they and where they can get the oxygen they need.

Jacquelyn: Yeah. So basically the take home message is that these critters, like the trilobites are essentially asphyxiating to death over time. They’re really dying off because of a lack of oxygen. The role of climate change in driving this extinction is one of the big — I would say — advances that the study makes because what happens is the warmer water is actually able to hold less oxygen in it so you can have more dissolved oxygen in cold water. And so as the water warms, it is able to hold less oxygen and there’s sort of a kicker here and that the metabolism of the animals increases as the temperatures rise. So if you live in warmer water, you basically have to expend a lot of energy. And so you need more oxygen just to stay alive in warmer conditions. And so the needs of these organisms for oxygen is going up while the oxygen itself is going down. And that’s related to these warmer conditions. What I think is really cool about this is that it helps us to understand some of the mechanisms, not only behind one of the biggest mass extinctions in the history of our planet, but also we can take some messages from that in terms of understanding how species might be threatened as we move into a world where our oceans are getting warmer.

Ramesh: Yeah. I thought what was really interesting was the way that they approached this. They sort of rebuilt this Permian period with computer simulations and when we spoke with Kate Marvel on a previous episode, we sort of ended with this idea of world building and how important world building is — especially when studying climate change and particularly around models and our ability to gain insight about climate change from tweaking parameters and models. And I think this is a really great example of that. But I think the New York Times did a really great job of explaining that.

Jacquelyn: Yeah, it’s kind of like playing the Sims but for Planet Earth, right, but I guess where most of your population dies, so maybe not a good analogy there or not a very great Sims game. So one of the reasons I love this study is because it has so many — it’s something that takes place 250 million years ago and yet it has so much relevance to understanding the world today. And I enjoy that because one of the main reasons that I decided to study the past as a scientist is because I worry about the future all the time. We have this aphorism that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it and that’s true about the history of our planet just as much as it is about the people who live here; and we are pretty bad at this as a species. I would argue probably better than trilobites were, but we certainly aren’t that much better as Homo sapiens. We carry our history with us. It’s like this giant invisible suitcase and it gets bigger and bigger the more that we ignore it. And this is true for so many different aspects of our lives. I mean there’s this new field of epigenetics that even reveals that our health can sometimes have more to do with what our grandparents experienced as what we experienced ourselves as individuals. So we were literally carrying history around in our bodies. And I think part of the problem here with this disconnect is that time is relative. The way we experience time is relative. So as a species, a century is pretty much the upper limit of an individual human’s experience. So it’s a lifetime that encompasses several generations. As people we experienced time in moments and it sometimes feels as though time is accelerating. I mean if you imagine someone who was born in 1900 who lived until the year 2000. So imagine you’ve lived a century. Think about the amount of change that that person experienced in a single lifetime. Going from corsets and horse drawn carriages all the way up to the present and our reliance on social media and the 24-hour news cycle. The social freedoms and the changes in technology and just the increased pace of life just in one one lifespan would have been remarkable. And it’s no wonder that we have a hard time handling the concept that what happened centuries ago might be relevant to what’s happening now — let alone, you know, millennial or millions or hundreds of millions of years. And I once made the mistake of telling my students that we had red pandas in North America until relatively recently and they got really excited. They were talking about how we should reintroduce them into the wild and then they remembered that I’m an ice age ecologist and they asked me what I meant by recent and I had to disappoint them by telling them that I met “recent” in a geologic sense. So in this case, it was about 3 million years ago that the last red pandas were wandering around in North America.

Ramesh: I’m disappointed by that.

Jacquelyn: I know, isn’t that’s sad? In his book, The Time Before History, Colin Tudge argues that we must acknowledge that a million years is a proper unit of political time. That sounds reasonable to someone like me, but I think your average person on the street would probably just look at you like you grew two heads if you were to say that. And Carl Sagan said that to make an apple pie, you must first create the universe. I actually opened with this quote when I teach biology as a reminder to me and my students that the past matters all the time. So when you consider that politicians are thinking in terms of election cycles that might average two or four years, you can see that it’s an uphill battle to get people to think in terms of millennia or eons. The new cycle is even more fickle. Where attention spans might be measured in minutes or the relevant timescale is 24 hours — if you’re lucky. Some days I know it feels impossible for me to keep up even on that scale; there’s just so much going on. And yet the news — from the reporting of current events to investigative journalism — is so deeply ingrained in our social and political consciousness. In a way, broadcast and print journalists help shape our reality as much as they react to and report it. And I think that’s just as true about climate change reporting as it is about politics or the latest celebrity scandal. So I’m really excited to bring on our guest today, Dana Nuccitelli. He is an environmental scientist and writer. He’s actually got a background in physics, but you’ve probably known him best for his writing on climate change for the Guardian and for Skeptical Science. His specialty is in debunking climate myths and he’s here today to help us sort out the media landscape around climate change reporting. Thank you so much for joining us today, Dana.

Dana Nuccitelli: Yeah, happy to be with you.

Jacquelyn: To kick us off, what’s the report card on climate reporting these days? How are we doing? Who’s getting it right?

Dana: I think overall the reporting has improved in recent years. Back, you know, just a few years ago — it was pretty bad. We would get a lot of one-on-one and the cable news networks, they would have one denier in one climate scientist kind of debating each other, which would create a perception that climate scientists are divided on the issue — which created a very big misconception about how many climate scientists agree on human-caused climate change in the public. And that’s kind of gone away for the most part. There’s still a little bit of that one-on-one cable news program debating, but it’s not as frequent as it used to be. Print media is doing a really good job, I think, in covering climate change more frequently and more accurately. There’s also some good kind of climate scientist news-evaluating organizations. There’s one called Climate Feedback where when they see a high profile news article, they’ll (and especially if it’s got some questionable information in it) — they’ll ask their climate scientist contributors to kind of grade it and give it a rating about its accuracy. And so I think that’s kind of helped keep certain media organizations in check. And so they want to make sure that they’re not getting a bad grade from these climate scientists. So overall things have improved. I mean I wouldn’t give it like an A, but it’s definitely better than it used to be.

Ramesh: It’s fitting that we’re giving things grades during finals week,

Jacquelyn: [Laughing] We can’t even get away from it even when we’re not in class. That’s good to hear and reflects some of what I’ve noticed as well. As someone who’s really active on Twitter, though, I’m often accused of being in a bubble when I block people for being abusive online. And the climate conversation on Twitter and Facebook really feels pretty toxic as we’ve kind of moved away from this sort of pseudo-fair-and-balanced approach where you have a climate scientist and a climate skeptic debating each other. I feel like it still persists in a lot of ways in the social media landscape and I often see this sort of false conflation of criticism and skepticism with really just abusive behavior. And so thinking about skeptics and skepticism: you’re a part of Skeptical Science and we also use the term (one of many terms) for people who deny the science of climate change as skeptic or climate skeptics, but the term skeptic in your sense in terms of Skeptical Science is pretty different from how climate skeptics use it. So from this perspective, what does skeptic mean to you? How do you think of skepticism?

Dana: Well, I like to say that scientists are skeptics. I mean, a skeptic is anybody who’s keeping an open mind and looking at all the available evidence and weighing it accordingly. And so I think a lot of people who call themselves skeptics are not really skeptics. They’re only considering the evidence that’s convenient for their ideological beliefs. And so I try to be careful to only call people skeptics when they’re actually being skeptical; and if they’re not being skeptical — if they’re denying a certain segment of the evidence — then I think it’s apt to call them a denier.

Jacquelyn: Yeah. There’s a lot of resistance or debate or discussion about, you know, what we should call folks and certainly denier is pretty politically charged and in that people say that you’re equating someone to being a Holocaust denier or something along those terms. Yeah.

Dana: It’s a tricky thing because yeah, like you said, if you say the word denier — then often the discussion kind of gets off track of talking about the science that’s being denied. People start to get into an argument about whether you’re calling somebody equivalent of a Holocaust denier. So sometimes I’m writing instead of using the term denier, I’ll use the term contrarian or something along those lines just to avoid that debate about whether I’m insulting somebody by calling them a denier or not. But generally I prefer to use the more accurate term and if somebody is denying evidence then I’ll try to say they’re denying evidence and therefore that makes them a denier. But you definitely have to be careful to avoid that kind of argument about semantics.

Ramesh: It seems like that argument about semantics is also a diversionary tactic as well, right? To say, “Let’s discuss what you’ve called me rather than the evidence that I’m ignoring or utilizing.”

Dana: Sure. I mean, it’s much easier for somebody who’s not on solid scientific footing to get off on a debate about whether we’re being insulting and in general would probably rather avoid the scientific debate when the scientific evidence is not strongly on their side.

Ramesh: Right.

Jacquelyn: So climate’s been in the news a lot recently, particularly around the latest climate report. Trump got quite a lot of coverage for saying he doesn’t believe his own administration’s report. And then Rick Santorum was on TV and made headlines for suggesting that scientists can’t be trusted because of financial conflicts of interest — which is hilarious. And Katharine Hayhoe did a great job of debunking some of that, including the point that none of the scientists who contributed to that report were paid for that work specifically. So I’m curious, Dana; you’ve been a part of this landscape for awhile. What are the challenges of reporting about climate in this so-called “Post-Truth” world? Are these the same challenges we’ve always faced, just sort of repackaged with new faces or is the landscape about climate reporting shifting through time?

Dana: So it’s been pretty consistent overall over time. Um, we’ve always had to debunk myths, especially from politicians and other high profile figures that liked to propagate these very repetitive — we call them zombie myths because they keep coming up over and over and we think we’ve killed them and then they come up again in the media and we have to kill them again and they just never seem to go away. And we have to find a way to do that effectively without reinforcing the mess. So like, on Skeptical Science, we’ve got this thing called the Debunking Handbook that kind of goes through the effective ways to debunk myths without reinforcing them in people’s minds from various social science and psychological research that some really good scientists have done. That’s been really helpful for us because the last thing we want to do is reinforce the myth while we’re trying to debunk it. And that’s always a really big challenge. And another thing I always have to worry about is: when I see a myth, if I have to kind of evaluate whether it’s already reached enough people that it’s worth debunking bunking because when I’m debunking it I don’t want to draw more attention to the myth. If it’s kind of just hiding in a dark corner of the Internet and I’m writing about it on a relatively high profile media outlet and I could actually be bringing the myth to the attention of more people than it would have seen it. And so there’s always those sorts of challenges. I mean, the only thing that’s changed A LOT has been kind of the expansion of social media outreach and the reach of social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook. There’s been a problem where a lot of people have been seeing climate denial videos on Facebook. And there was one, for example, by Marc Morano of Climate Depot. It was really effective; he crammed a lot of myths into like a three-minute video. And according to Facebook it had like tens of thousands of views. And so I did a debunking of that at one point, just because it is seen by so many people, I felt that it had to be addressed somehow. But you know, that kind of the challenge we face is that — you know — so many people on Facebook and on Twitter kind of view things from their own bubble, their own circle of friends. It can be hard to penetrate that sometimes if they’re only viewing climate denial, and that’s one way that climate denial can be spread through these social media networks.

Ramesh: So Dana, you sort of talked about this idea of interaction between the size of the platform and drawing more attention to have myths in an attempt to try to debunk them. And, you know, recently CNN put out a video trying to debunk — I think — three or four common zombie myths as you’ve brought up. They highlighted their own coverage. They’ve also recently, like they bumped Katharine Hayhoe off of Anderson Cooper. She was brought on the next day but I think after sort of a loud yell from the Twitterverse. So why do you think CNN and these other broadly-viewed platforms seem to have these seemingly contradictory behaviors? You know, bumping a climate scientist, but then the next day putting out a video trying to debunk climate myths. I mean, why do you think that dynamic exists?

Dana: I think there’s a pull for a lot of media outlets to at least appear like they’re being balanced, which then can cause them to fall into the problem of false balance where (again) they’re giving equal weight to the climate scientists (or the 97 percent of the evidence) and then the climate contrarians (or the less than three percent of the evidence) because they want to at least appear balanced. Then they create this false balance where it’s 50/50 instead of 97 to 3. And I think CNN probably made that mistake when they brought on Rick Santorum, who, I dunno, [laughs] I guess he’s a regular contributor there, but he’s like the last person who should be talking to you about climate science. So I think once they made that mistake — which I don’t know why that made it — like Katharine Hayhoe is a great person to have on it. I think it’s a big mistake, big mistake when you have an opportunity to talk to Katharine Hayhoe not to actually bring her on the show. So I think when they saw that mistake and a lot of people criticized them for it on Twitter, then they kind of realized that they had to correct it. And so that is I guess one benefit of the reach of social media is that when a media outlet makes a mistake like that, people have the ability to kind of make them aware that we all think it was a mistake and give them the opportunity to correct it. We’re picking on CNN (they’re not the only one), but they are certainly an outlet that prides themselves on trying to be the kind of middle ground in politics. And, unfortunately, climate change is perceived as a political issue and so I think they feel like they have to give both sides there a chance to talk about climate science. Although I wish they would stick to climate policy when they’re talking to both political sides and then leave the science as it is. Like, I would prefer if they would say, “Here’s what the scientists say. Okay, Rick Santorum, we’re going to talk to you. What do you think Republicans should do about climate policy?” Instead of having him weigh in on how he thinks climate scientists are making a whole bunch of money on these reports that they’re not getting paid for it all.

Ramesh: Right.

Jacquelyn: Yeah, and I find that to be pretty common when I interact with skeptics or deniers on Twitter. If you go through the process of discussing or debunking the climate myths that they throw around, in the end it almost always comes down to, “Okay, well fine, the planet is warming and it’s our fault, but I don’t want you to take my SUV away.” Right? So fundamentally it ends up being a disagreement about the politics or the policy in terms of how we respond to climate change and it’s just so frustrating that we have to go through this little dance of, “Oh, it’s really about the science,” but in fact we both know that it really, at the end of the day what it comes down to is that there’s just disagreements about how we respond to that science. And I find that to be true like 90 percent of the time. I think we really just drill down. So I want to circle back to something you were talking about in terms of social media. It feels like a lot of the climate content is really coming out in places like Twitter and Youtube. I’m thinking about, again, Katharine Hayhoe’s Global Weirding PBS show and a lot of the debunking that comes after a statement; or someone like Rick Santorum comes on television and then there’s a whole discussion that happens in the social media landscape. As someone who writes about climate change and does a lot of this debunking yourself, I wonder how you feel about this. Do you think this is a good thing? Are there sort of perils to having this kind of parallel discussion about climate change that’s happening outside of, you know, investigative journalism or the broadcasting of events by people who are trained professionals in communication?

Dana: I think that’s just the media landscape that we’re in now that so many people get a lot of information from Toutube, from Facebook, from Twitter that I think we don’t have much choice but to go to those platforms and try to reach people there ourselves that way — like by making Youtube videos. I think Katharine Hayhoe’s Global Weirding series is great and she’s done a great job with that and I think quite a few people view those videos. And so if that’s where people are and that’s where people are getting a lot of their information in viewing videos, then I think it’s great for climate scientists to go directly there and to try to reach those people themselves.

Ramesh: So Dana, I have a question that I’m sure you’ve heard, or an argument that you’ve heard that they start off, “I’m not a scientist, but…” And then they sort of continue down that sentence, discrediting scientists. A) Have you sort of experienced that or heard that? And then, if so, why do you think that sort of — I don’t know — I see it as sort of false modesty. Why do you think that false modesty is sort of allowed to be leveraged to discredit science?

Dana: Yeah, certainly. I’ve certainly seen a lot of examples of that. The, “I’m not a scientist, but…” is like — immediately red flags go up warning, warning bells and sirens, like something really dumb is about to be said. It’s a really frustrating thing. It’s usually a politician saying it, because politicians realize that they’re not experts on the subject and yet usually it’s kind of their way to sneak in some science denial without trying to present themselves as expert. And yet it kind of gives them a way to reject the science anyway. And it’s. It is a really frustrating thing because you hear the words, “I’m not a scientist, but…” and you want to say, “Stop right there. Why don’t you go talk to some scientists or go read what the scientists have to say and then base your next statement on that, rather than giving an uninformed opinion based on your lack of information.”

Jacquelyn: What’s so interesting about that to me is you get that “I’m not a scientist” both in terms of this, like, false modesty, but also as a I’m not a scientist and therefore I’m an honest broker and you should trust me. I’m thinking about Rick Santorum’s comments that you can’t trust the scientists who wrote that report because of a financial conflict of interest. What’s interesting about that is there was a 2016 Pew Research Report that basically had Americans rank their amount of trust in different groups of people in terms of the perception about whether or not people will work in the public interest; and scientists ranked third. We’re like the third most trusted group of people in America to work in the public interest, and I think politicians were at the very bottom of the list. It’s almost like politicians know this on some level, but they’re trying to pretend that the opposite is true, right? It’s “You can’t trust the scientists, you have to trust the politicians,” and yet that doesn’t square with what we know about American perceptions of different groups of people.

Dana: Donald Trump had a comment along the lines of “Scientists have their own political bias, too” or something like that. And it’s true and especially when people are asking you who you trust about climate science information that most trusted source, not surprisingly is climate scientists. That is a challenge for people who don’t themselves trust climate scientists or don’t want people to trust climate scientists. They have to find a way to undermine that public trust. And so saying that climate scientists are biased or “They’re in it for the money” is this kind of a way to undermine the public’s trust of scientists.

Ramesh: Well, it’s interesting. I think that those sorts of arguments are often not made or not attached to other disciplines of science. You’re not hearing, “Well, I’m not a scientist, but that cancer research is x, y, z.” It’s just an interesting dynamic, right? If you’re trying to undermine the public’s trust in science, do you feel like climate change is an easy target or is an easier target than other branches of science?

Dana: That’s just an example of climate science having become politicized. I think it’s basically the two or three scientific fields that are politicized are climate science, evolution and maybe GMOs. GMOs and vaccinations are kind of equally distrusted on both sides of the political spectrum, but there’s not a whole lot of scientific fields that have become politicized this way. And unfortunately, I mean, it’s just a result of the fact that doing something about climate science requires some kind of political policy. When there’s a polarization about that policy, then it kind of trickles down to the science because if the science is wrong that we don’t have to do anything about the problem policy-wise, and so it’s really a political issue — an issue with the political solutions that’s kind of made this science become politicized and that’s why climate science is kind of treated differently than most other scientific fields.

Jacquelyn: So this must be challenging or at least interesting from a reporting perspective. So as someone who writes on these issues, you come from a scientific background. You have a really great column in the Guardian. Do you feel like you’re a science writer or are you writing about politics or have you had to have kind of a crash course in politics and economics and policy in order to write about climate science? What is it like being a writer who writes about climate change?

Dana: Yeah, it’s kind of been an interesting evolution. I mean, when I started out I was just trying to learn about climate science because I don’t have a climate science background; my background is in physics and astrophysics. And then when I got interested in climate science I just started to learn about it myself by reading books and peer review papers and articles and things like that. And I started writing for skeptical science and it was just all climate science and climate science myths. And then we always joke that in the early days of Skeptical Science, we thought in a few years the site was going to become obsolete because, you know, we’re debunking all these medicines; surely these things can’t last forever. People kind of realize that climate science denial is just — it’s rejecting the scientific evidence is so surely over time people will stop accepting these myths and we’ll just become obsolete. And sadly that was a really naive thing to expect and that didn’t happen. And so over time I just kind of gradually started to realize we can debunk these myths forever and ever and ever. And it’s not going to end climate science denial. And so, then we had to kind of think about, okay, what is the basis of this denial? And, okay, it’s based in politics and psychology. And so John Cook (who founded Skeptical Science and also had a physics background), he actually did a PhD in psychology or sociology or something along those lines — social sciences. He shifted in that direction and then I kinda did the same thing in my writing. I started to write more about social science and politics and policy because that’s really the basis of climate science denial and not the climate science itself. And so now I just kind of do a mix of everything. I write something about climate science and about economics and about policy and politics and social science, and it’s kind of been an interesting evolution just learning about these things as I go and changing the specific topics that I’m writing about related to climate change.

Ramesh: So as you’re writing and learning and writing, you’ve probably sharpened your arsenal of rhetorical tools in your reporting. Do you feel like with environmental reporting that you’re sort of preaching to the choir, you know — are the only people reading the environmental beat, are those that are already highly concerned about climate change in that Six Americas spectrum? Are they just reading it and like, “Yup, that’s another data point that tells me the same thing I knew before.” You know, it’s providing some more details but do you think you’re preaching to the choir with environmental reporting?

Dana: Yeah, that’s something I definitely often worry about because the whole point is trying to reach a wide audience that I’m going to hopefully be able to make some kind of difference with in terms of their acceptance of the science and the need for climate policy solutions. But, yeah, I mean if I’m only preaching to the same group of people every time and those are the people who already generally accept the science and the need for policy, then how much good am I doing? If that’s the case, the reading the comments on my articles — it’s not just the . . . I’m not just preaching to the choir. There’s also plenty of contrarians on there who like to give the choir a hard time in the comments that they write. That’s another group that I’m not going to be making a big difference with if they’re already kind of rejecting the science and so it IS always a challenge to try to find ways to reach a broader audience and an audience that’s not already engaged in climate science. I try to do things other than writing, like going around and giving presentations in my local area and things like that because I do worry that I am reaching kind of the same audience when I publish an article each time.

Jacquelyn: Yeah. It’s something we struggle with even in the show, trying to figure out who’s listening, what is the purpose, what is the point. And one thing I often come back to is the idea of the Six Americas. We had Jennifer Marlon on the show a while ago and we asked her something kind of similar and she said that basically, if nothing else, what we’re doing is we’re providing information and sort of ways forward for the people who were on that concerned end of the spectrum. So sort of mobilizing a base of people and motivating them to action is powerful. Even if we’re, you know, quote unquote “just preaching to the choir”, the choir is not necessarily full of climate experts. Having that conversation with her gave me a bit of hope that we’re not just sort of running on a treadmill and not getting anywhere. I did want to shift a little bit and talk a bit about policy too, because I know that’s one of your interests. And one thing I wanted to ask you about — as you’ve been kind of navigating this landscape, do you have a sense that policy is starting to be built around climate change to be resistant to these problems of belief that we’ve been talking about? So we often heard that the Paris Agreement was expressly designed to be robust to the 2016 election in the U.S. So in the event that we were to elect a denier who didn’t want to play well with others (which we did), the policy sort of reflected or was expressly designed around navigating some of these murky waters around around climate consensus. So do you have a sense that that’s true or that people are becoming smarter about policy in terms of, “You know, it doesn’t really matter what people believe” or “Let’s just focus on outcomes rather than motivation So we can talk in terms of economic benefits.” I’m just curious what your perspective is on this landscape.

Dana: There are certainly efforts in that direction. Like you said, the Paris Agreement was a good example because you know, they made it nonbinding and just kind of voluntary and tried to make it as easy as possible for all countries to get involved with and stay involved with. In terms of US policy, there are certainly efforts to, for example, do bipartisan solutions like, for example, a revenue neutral carbon tax is is an idea that’s supposed to get both conservatives and liberals on board with it because it’s a kind of a compromise solution. But there are also efforts just to get as many in particular young people on board with the Green New Deal concept is really gaining a lot of traction among the younger generation and that one is not particularly concerned about political spectrum. It’s just trying to get a lot of people excited about climate policy and climate solutions because right now it’s just kind of a placeholder and a framework for “This is what we’re going to do to make a really big program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and solve climate change.” And so it just kind of a conceptual framework right now and it’s getting a lot of people excited without worrying about political divides on the issue.

Ramesh: Yeah, so I guess that sort of leads to: what are the things that you’re excited about as you sort of view this broad climate policy landscape?

Dana: Yeah, I’m really encouraged about how much attention climate science and climate policy or getting in the media right now and in social media also, especially with like the Sunrise Movement which is pushing the Green New Deal has been getting a lot of attention and they have really good Twitter presence. You know, it used to be like if a climate science report came out or get like a day of news coverage maybe, and then everybody would move onto the next story. And over the past basically two months, it seems like climate science and climate policy have been constantly in the news, which has been great primarily because of the Green New Deal push and Ocasio Cortez is really pushing hard for a Green New Deal in the next Congress and the Sunrise Movement and things like that. So I’m really encouraged to see what happens in the next Congress in terms of at least setting up what the next push will be for specific climate legislation; if it’s going to be some kind of Green New Deal and it’s going to be like a carbon tax, it’s going to be some kind of mix of the two. It’s gonna be really interesting to see where that goes now that people are actually talking about climate policy once again, which I seems like it hasn’t happened in the last two years of things. It seems like everybody kind of gave up on actually having climate policy be developed and move forward over the past two years. And now that’s kind of seems that’s really changed and there’s a lot of momentum building behind finding a policy solution to the problem.

Jacquelyn: So with all of this going on, how do you decide what to write about? Do you find your interests and your focus shifting through time or do you just try to keep up with this sort of fire hose?

Dana: Yeah, it’s always a matter of trying to keep up with the fire hose and then seeing what catches my attention. Usually I try to write about something that I see some kind of news item about that’s in the news, but I feel like I can add some kind of useful insight or analysis to it myself that I haven’t seen elsewhere. So that’s usually what I’m looking for when I’m figuring out what to write about next. Because, yeah, with climate science there’s always tons of new research and there’s always, you know, politicians saying stupid things that need to be debunked and there’s, you know, climate economics that are important because people are always worried about the economic impact of climate policy and climate change. Yeah. It’s just a matter of filtering through the firehose and trying to find something that I think I can add some kind of useful insight or analysis too.

Jacquelyn: Well, we definitely appreciate your efforts both in the, in the Guardian and Skeptical Science and I always look forward to your hot take on what’s going on in the world, especially when it comes to things like policy where I feel like I’m also scrambling to keep up and as a scientist myself who increasingly is asked to comment kind of outside of my wheelhouse on the broad spectrum of climate-adjacent topics. I really appreciate the work that you do and I understand, you know, even coming from a climate science background, trying to keep up with all of the things related to climate is a challenge. So I think you do a great job.

Dana: Thanks. And also Yale Climate Connections is kinda my new home. It’s yaleclimateconnections.org. I very much encouraged people to go check that site out to.

Jacquelyn: Awesome. Well we’ll, wrap it up there and definitely encourage folks to check out all of these different projects. We’ll have links on our show notes to all of the places where you can read Dana’s writing. It was really great to talk to you today, Dana.

Dana: Yeah, you too. Thanks for having me.

Ramesh: Yeah, thanks so much.

Jacqueline: So now we’ll, we’ll close with a, you know — we’ve always struggled with how to end our shows. We’ve had some feedback from our listeners that you would like to hear a little bit more science from us as hosts. And one of the things that remission I have been talking about are all of the ways in which climate change affects our lives, maybe in unexpected ways, and we wanted to highlight some of that unexpected science for our listeners. So to kick us off, and this has nothing to do with the fact that for Halloween this year I went as the winner of the fattest bear contest for the Katmai Peninsula National Park. We’re going to talk about bears and berries. So Ramesh, she explained to me what the heck bears and berries have to do with climate change.

Ramesh: Yeah, so a really interesting study came out recently. I think it’s from Oregon State looking at how bears are shifting their diets in response to climate change. And when we think about bears, often many of us think about sort of an iconic photo of a fish jumping into a grizzly bear’s mouth. So that trophic relationship is sort of ingrained in a lot of us — that idea that Bayer’s walked down to a river and they wade in and they catch fish that are salmon that are swimming upstream.

Jacquelyn: I don’t even know if they catch them half the time as they just stand there with her mouth open yet.

Ramesh: Well, you know, there’s gotta be some success rate, but what’s really interesting in this study is when bears aren’t eating salmon, they are eating elderberries. And what’s really interesting about this work is these researchers noticed that because of climate warming and in particularly warm summers, the elderberries, we’re sort of blooming and showing up earlier. And they were overlapping with the time that the bears would normally feed on salmon. So normally the bears would eat the salmon at a particular time of year and then they would move on to the elderberries. And there wasn’t much overlap between those two food sources. But now because the climate is warming, the berries are showing up earlier and so there was a lot more overlap and so those bears are choosing to eat the berries, which sort of makes a lot of sense because, well, berries don’t move; they’re much easier to catch. And so now what’s really interesting is the bears are spending less time at the rivers, so salmon populations are going up. And so the really interesting way that climate change is affecting a lot of relationships that we, I think picture as fixed in nature — bears eat salmon. It was just a really cool study looking at how changing resources and changing resource availability in sort of the plant world can have these big cascading effects through bears now eating less salmon and those salmon are gonna — those salmon populations might change in response to that overlap.

Jacqueline: As an ecologist myself, one of the things I work on our interactions between animals and plants and how that’s affected by climate change through time. I have a million questions like A), what is this going to do in terms of those elderberries are they gonna get dispersed into new areas and start competing with other plants? What is the boom in salmon populations going to do for both freshwater and marine ecosystems, because we know salmon kind of moved back and forth between them. Bears eating salmon and walking away from rivers and pooping out those nutrients has a big impact on ecosystems. There was just a new study that came out recently that looked at the role that animals play in the carbon cycle, and having top predators around tends to keep more carbon stored in the ecosystem then if you don’t have those predators. And so just the shifting landscape of where these animals are going and what they’re eating has so many different interconnections and it’s exciting from a scientific puzzle perspective, but there could be all kinds of sort of unintended consequences of this dietary shift or maybe not. Maybe this is just part of the resilience of these species to climate change by shifting their diets with this new landscape. That could be one of the strategies animals have used to cope with climate change in the past.

Ramesh: Right. And then, you know, I think what’s interesting is this is not necessarily a good or bad thing; it is a change that is occurring that — You know, the reason we’ve deemed this Unexpected Science is that I don’t think many people think about, hey, flowers are blooming earlier, berries might be showing up and then, well, like I said, it’s easier for the berries to be eaten by the bears. And now like you said, if those salmon populations will go up, there’s a lot more salmon poop in the river too. So there’s a lot of changes that are gonna impact ecosystems and not necessarily good or bad, but just different moving forward.

Jacquelyn: Yeah. Always lots to do. I had a giggle because I feel like it always comes down to poop, which is something that we research in our lab quite a lot. #poopscience is for the win again. So that’s our show, folks. Um, we’re always looking for sponsors to help out our amazing producers who are currently running the show completely as volunteers. And we’re also toying with the idea of throwing together a Patreon campaign as one way to kind of fund some of the things we’d love to do. And we also love to hear from you, our listeners. Feel free to follow us on Twitter @ourwarmregards. You can email ideas or feedback about the show to ourwarmregards@gmail.com. Please subscribe to the show. You can find us on your favorite podcast service and, if you can’t, let us know so that we can get it there. Our show notes with links to the things we talked about and resources for further reading can be found on our Medium page for my cohost Ramesh Laungani and our producers Eric Mack and Justin Schell. Also big thanks to Joe Stormer who’s doing transcriptions of the show and those are starting to pop up on our older episodes. So definitely go back and check those out. And we also want to thank Katherine Peinhardt who is writing our Medium episode summaries. We want this to be your show just as much as it is our show. Thank you so much for listening. Have a wonderful rest of your week.

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A podcast about life on the warming planet. Hosted by @JacquelynGill and @DrRamBio. Produced by @612to651

A podcast about life on the warming planet. Hosted by @JacquelynGill and @DrRamBio. Produced by @612to651