Part of being a science communicator is hoping a natural disaster kills as many members of the audience as possible, as soon as possible, with as much media exposure as possible. As a communicator myself, I’d like nothing better than for thousands of middle-class white people to die in an extreme weather event—preferably one with global warming’s fingerprints on it—live on cable news. Tomorrow.
The hardest thing about communicating the deadliness of the climate problem is that it isn’t killing anyone. And just between us, let’s be honest: the average member of the public is a bit (how can I put it politely?) of a moron. It’s all well and good for the science to tell us global warming is a bigger threat than Fascism was, but Joe Q. Flyover doesn’t understand science. He wants evidence.
So we’ve probably reached the limits of what science communication can achieve. At this point only nature herself can close the consensus gap—or the fear gap.
Cognitologist C. R. R. Kampen thinks the annihilation of a city of 150,000 people might just provide the teaching moment we need:
You see, consensus is so often only reached after a painful confrontation with evidence.
Knowing this, I hope against knowledge of her expected track that Cyclone Ita will wipe Cairns off the map. Because the sooner the lesson is learnt by early confrontation, the better one more population will be suited to anticipate and mitigate the vast weather and climate (+ related) disasters that lie in the immediate future and to lose all distractions on the way.
(Let me dispel, right up front, a common and perhaps forgivable misinterpretation of this family of argument: no, Kampen doesn’t mean to suggest the destruction of a single city would be sufficient. That’s just a silly strawman. Like all scientists, Kampen is acutely aware that a single data point, such as the deletion of Cairns, would not even be attributable to man-made global warming with any confidence—let alone would it prove the planet was worse off, taking all metrics into account, under BAU. What we’re talking about here is a possibility which, with luck, would start a conversation on climate action, not end one.)
One thing science communicators have learned the hard way is that simply blurting out the truths you know isn’t good enough. Some ideas need to be framed more carefully than others. (Dan Kahan might say “scientifically.”)
Unfortunately, Kampen’s writing is almost naïve in its candor. One can only hope the forces of anti-science never hear about it, because it’s veritably ripe for their favorite rhetorical tactic: cherry-picking, or ‘quoting.’
Let’s pretend, solo ad argumentum, that I’m on the Monckton side of the Subterranean War on Science. Now let me inform you that Dr Kampen once wrote:
I hope against knowledge of her expected track that Cyclone Ita will wipe Cairns off the map.
Wow. Taste the difference? By the simple trick of telling people that Kampen hopes they die without saying what he writes next (wherein he clearly explains that it’s for their own good), a rhetorician with no conscience—like a denier—could simultaneously make Kampen look like a sociopath and pander to the false stereotype of the greenie-as-armchair-genocidaire.
That’s what we call, in science communication, an own goal.
To sum up, here’s a list of “Do’s” and “Don’t’s” for those times when you just wish the climate would hurry up and vindicate the science by killing people:
• say so
• always return to the real issue: the dangers of the denialist agenda
[Edited for fanatical accuracy. —BK]