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Separated and Unified: One Earth

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 5:07 AM GMT on February 07, 2013

Separated and Unified: One Earth

Revision Posted: 20130224

In the previous blog I introduced the idea that the way we do scientific research has a significant impact on how we communicate science. In scientific research, we try to isolate problems that can be investigated to study cause and effect. In the traditional notion of science, we set up laboratory experiments where we can control all parameters, change one parameter, and measure how the others change. In the study of the Earth’s weather and climate, we are not able to make such controlled experiments, so we focus on specific features, for example hurricanes, or we focus on specific events, for example, ice-age transitions. In this approach, we reduce - we break the whole up into pieces. Then when we write and talk about our research, we talk about these reduced problems, the pieces. Given 100 scientists, we talk about 100 pieces of the Earth’s climate, not the climate as a whole.

There is another attribute of the scientific process that strongly influences communication – uncertainty. The scientific method provides us with a piece of knowledge, and a description about how certain we are about that particular piece. When we take the pieces all together, we end up talking about many pieces of the Earth’s climate and that each one of those pieces is uncertain. Sometimes we remember to say that all of those pieces fit together, but day-to-day we are not very good at putting the puzzle together. We just assure our audiences that they can be put together.

It is natural when we try to communicate that we seek metaphors and analogies. The whole conversation of the Earth warming due to carbon dioxide increasing in the atmosphere is called the “greenhouse” effect. This metaphor works to communicate with the idea that many people understand that it gets warm in a greenhouse. The metaphor extends to the glass or plastic in the greenhouse being like carbon dioxide; it lets solar energy in, and it traps the thermal energy that comes from heating the plants and the soil. Other metaphors include climate dice and the warming climate as weather on steroids.

These metaphors are intuitive and communicative, but they also add more pieces to the puzzle. When working with journalists, they search out such metaphors; they ask additional questions to break down the problem into communicative pieces. We are constantly in a process of identifying pieces and more pieces. We go through this process trying to make a complex system understandable. We forget that all of the pieces are defined by us to help us to investigate and to communicate. The pieces are not in any sense fundamental truths.

A motivation of this blog and the previous blog comes from the comments and the continual back and forth over one piece of data versus another, one study versus another. I am fully aware that focusing on isolated pieces of information and uncertainty is a tactic in argument and debate. Those using this tactic will dismiss what I write here. However, those who are scientists and those who are trying to communicate about the use of climate knowledge in policy development, preparedness planning, and adaptation planning need to rethink how we frame and communicate complexity. We need to communicate the essence of complexity in a better way than connecting together a myriad of pieces that have been built individually.

In my previous entry I wrote that we only have one climate. We have this one climate, and it is warming, and weather events exist in this one, warming climate. Weather events don’t exist in either an old, cooler climate or a new, warmer climate; they exist in our one, warming climate. To study weather events, however, scientists have to construct ways to isolate the event. Those constructions are to help us; they are defined by us; they are not in any sense fundamental truths. They queue up, however, how knowledge will be communicated in both the scientific and non-scientific realms. Communication is entangled in the constructs of scientific research.

I entitled the previous blog “One Climate.” Another idea that is discussed in the blog comments is whether or not, say, the impact of a storm is because of climate change or because we have too many people living in too many houses too close to the ocean. This focus allows those who want to dismiss the importance of climate change to do so. But again, climate and people are not really separated from each other. We have evolved with our climate, and we change our climate through how we scrape and pile the land and how we place our energy waste in the air, water, and soil. We are part of the biology, and the biology is part of the climate. People consume energy, and the waste from that energy consumption causes the planet to warm. Just because people choose to live in places and in ways that make them vulnerable does not make climate change any less real or any less consequential. It only tells us that we could make better choices. It also tells us that the warming climate will force us to make different choices. So our one climate is part of our one Earth.

As I think about climate change and our future, it makes more and more sense to frame the problem in terms of this inherent complexity. Reduction into disciplines and isolated problems is necessary to assist investigation, thinking, and communication. However, we need to be vigilant in recognizing that the pieces that come from the reduction are not in and of themselves representative of the whole. They are part of the whole. Communication and addressing climate change is a process of tying the pieces together in ways that find successful ways to represent the complexity, which can emerge into paths of behavior that allow a sustainable, one Earth.

Figure 1: Light folds (skilpaddene) are small, responsive light sculptures that seem to breathe in glowing and dimming light when left undisturbed. By Meghan Reynard

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The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.