DANIEL SIKAZWE, Lusaka
THE talk of December is climate change – in lofty places and in boardrooms, conference halls, hotels and science classrooms.
Twitter is bursting with comments from climate change activists and scientists. But then where it matters most – on the streets, in pubs, religious gatherings and other social events in Zambia and globally, there is a deadly silence.
Why are ordinary people not warming up to the climate change conversation despite the world’s 24th biggest gathering of government leaders, scientists and activists – the Conference of Parties (COP 24) in Poland?
There is an abandonment of information or communication democracy in the way climate scientists and journalists are telling the world about the gravity of climate change.
Scientists have not been good at communicating the information they generate while journalists barely have deeper understanding of climate science. Consequently, the general public cannot grasp the raw facts in science literature and governments are getting confused about how to act and when.
The emphasis on the global warming part of climate change, relegating the big freeze and other changes to the periphery of the climate change talk is so apocalyptic those feeling the heat don’t quite want to talk about it. They think it’s all talk.
Even though the science of climate change is wrought in laboratories, university campuses and research institutions, the power to save the planet lies in political hands. And politicians like to deal with what’s politically correct.
The knowledge about how to get politicians to speak the language of climate change has been available for decades but it has been pushed aside by scientists and journalists who have abandoned the practice of information democracy.
In 2002, for instance, the New York Times reported that the Bush administration (in the United States) had been advised by communication expert Frank Luntz that the administration should redirect the policy debate, language-wise to climate change and not global warming because global warming was an alarming term. Simply put, global warming represents the inadequacy of action among political leaders.
“Mr Luntz urges that the term ‘climate change’ be used instead of ‘global warming,’ because ‘while global warming has catastrophic communications attached to it, climate change sounds like a more controllable and less emotional challenge,” wrote Jennifer Lee, a New York Times reporter.
For climate change activists who generally come with great media connections and power, global warming is a more preferable term. Remember the famous former American Vice President whose documentary An Inconvenient Truth hit world media headlines? He preferred to call the condition a ‘climate crisis’. Some scientists to this day, call it ‘climate disruptions.’
There is another problem with scientists. They are overloading an already burdened citizenry with too much information. The rate at which information on scientific findings on climate change is being released is outpacing the ability of ordinary people to digest the data and engage in public debate.
In the run up to the 24th Conference of Parties in Katowice, Poland, several reports painting a gloomy picture of the future of the Earth have been published.
In August, a group of leading scientists published a report called Red Hot House in the American Academy of Sciences’. The report warned that if we do not act now to minimize the production of greenhouse gases, we could in the next few decades come to a point where whatever we do in the future will count for nothing.
This month, the UN Environment released an Emission Gap Report for 2018. The report said in 2017, total annual greenhouse gases emissions had reached a record high of 53.5 gigatones of carbon dioxide equivalent. The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) reported that the average global temperature for 2018 was set to be fourth highest on record.
We cannot be certain whether this data dumping is as a result of science working in the best interest of serving humanity and the earth from an impending calamity or it is sheer competition for research funding.
While these reports are being churned out at neck-breaking pace, there are strong voices within the scientific community which are not getting space in global media to be heard; the voices of scientists who quash the science behind the findings. They are the ones those in the IPCC call climate change skeptics, denialists, doubters, “contrarians,” and “professional skeptics.
The absence of these voices can be confusing for both the media and politicians – so much so that politicians and the media sometimes don’t really know what to do!
Some observers argue that scientific elitism has taken over the climate change science and debate.
Roy Spencer, a former climatologist at America’s famed National Aeronautics Space Agency (NASA), expressed this view.
“The scientific elitists who claim to speak for the climate research community have considerable disdain for the views of meteorologists like me. For instance, there was an American Meteorological Society conference in 2008 where tv and radio broadcast meteorologists were scolded by a panel of IPCC experts who told them not to express doubts about man-made global warming on-air,’’ he notes in his book The Great Global Warming Blunder: How Mother Nature Fooled the World’s Top Climate Scientists.
“An emerging view that leads to arguments against the climate change theory is that the leading scientists in the IPCC have underrated the Earth’s ability to cope with any human induced problems like greenhouse gases.
“The view asserts that the climate system is much less sensitive to our greenhouse gas emissions than the experts claim it to be. It also means that future global temperatures are about as likely to fall as they are to rise.”
Bjorn Lomborg, a statistician in a seminal book The Skeptical Environmentalist, argues that in the Holecene, a time period in the last 10,000 years has produced both hot and cold temperatures and the current warming is not even the worst there is, neither can the worst of temperatures be expected in the future.
He argues that dependence on the thermometer for measuring temperature has misled the world on climate change.
“We have only used thermometers systematically and globally over the past century and a half so if we want to learn about the long term development of the climate, we have to look for other ways of measuring temperature,” he says.
Lomborg says the world can learn more about global temperatures from rings around trees, the freeze in melted ice, the concentration of salts and acids, the load of pollen or trace gases in air bubbles.
Fred Singer, a distinguished environmental research professor at the University of Virginia in the United States as early as 2008, argued that “The IPCC does not apply generally accepted methodologies to determine what fraction of current warming is natural, or how much is caused by the rise in greenhouse (GH) gases.”
Generally the global media have abandoned their role of promoting information democracy by providing opportunities to promote debate to both sides of the climate change science. This position is epitomized by the global broadcaster when the BBC Trust declared in 2007 that it had held “a high-level seminar with some of the best scientific experts, and has come to the view that the weight of evidence no longer justifies equal space being given to the opponents of the consensus.’’ This declaration followed a report published by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change.
DANIEL SIKAZWE, Lusaka