Science on Gore's Impact and Message

Science magazine runs the following news report on Gore's Nobel prize and his impact on the policy debate and public opinion. The article quotes Steve Schneider, Michael Oppenheimer, Robert Watson, and other key scientists who note the immense importance of Gore's work on climate change over the years.

Climate researchers have known Gore as the rare policymaker who brings scientists in--and listens. When he visited Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, as a senator, recalls geochemist Wallace Broecker, "he said, 'I don't want a tour. I just want to sit around a table with some of your climate people.' " While Gore was writing his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, recalls atmospheric chemist Michael McElroy of Harvard University, the then-senator spent 2 hours on the phone nailing down a "pretty subtle chemical point" about ocean acidification. "He came into these issues with a visceral feel that this was an important issue," says McElroy, "like the Vietnam War had been when he was a young man."

Schneider thinks the award to both Gore and IPCC recognizes their dual roles in promoting climate science. "We provide the credibility the Gores and Blairs and Schwarzeneggers need," he says of the panel. And Gore's treatment of that science? "He did a pretty good job of communicating complex scientific information to a lay audience," says McElroy of Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth. "If it was a scientist doing it, it would be different. But I don't think there were any glaring errors." The publicity, Broecker says, accomplished far more than IPCC's scientists could have done on their own: "Gore put it in a way that people listened. We're much further along to meaningful action [to cut emissions] because of him."

To close the article, I am quoted offering the following observation, along the lines argued this week at this blog and elsewhere:

The end result has been an explosion of media attention and, in the United States, unprecedented political debate and even emission-cutting legislation. But it's not over, warns political communications researcher Matthew Nisbet of American University in Washington, D.C. IPCC and Gore may have raised awareness broadly and stoked concern among the already environmentally attentive, but by Nisbet's reading of the polls, the broad support for emissions cuts that will hurt is nowhere near there. Activists, he says, need a new message.

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Among people doing the real work of building change, the value of Gore's work is obvious. Also obvious is the need for reaching deeper into audiences that have not yet heeded Gore's call. That may require new messengers and some new elements to the message.

My reading of the polls is a bit more nuanced. The broad support for government limitation of emissions and incentives for new research is solidly there.

Some folks are simply unaware that the costs of doing nothing are greater than the costs of doing something. They don't need a new message, they simply need become more informed and to think more carefully about the risk calculus.

By Thelonius (not verified) on 21 Oct 2007 #permalink

Michael Tobis has a post on his blog about a highly slanted poll he received. Between the problems with framing science and the problems with framing polls, the following idea occurred to me:

Start a movement to insist that all polls include an option on each question: "the question is improperly framed. By "insisting" I mean everybody who's part of the movement does that in all their polls, refuses to participate in or accept the results of any poll that doesn't, and actively encourages everybody else to do the same. It might just catch on generally.