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Environment

Distilling the Essence of Climate Change Complexity

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I am teaching two journalism classes this semester, with climate change being a main focus these past few weeks. We had an obvious news peg in Sunday's big climate march and the gathering of world leaders this week in NYC. Students in both classes have received climate change 101 lessons from me--where the body of science stands, who the largest carbon emitters are, the known and projected impacts, the tricky (global) politics, the wicked nature of the problem, and so on. It's a lot to take in for the uninitiated, which includes nearly all my students. Additionally, they have to navigate the shouty public conversation. So imagine what happens when they come across an op-ed (in a major newspaper) headlined, "Climate Science is Not Settled." The Wall Street Journalcommentary by a respected scientist generated finger-wagging reactions and a stern rebuke from some in the climate science community. Others were more measured. To someone who is already struggling to make sense of a complex science, the WSJ article is puzzling. At least this was the response from one of my students who emailed the class listserv yesterday:

I would be interested to know everyone's thoughts on this article about climate science. Everything I read seems to make the issue more confusing/complicated!

I did not assign the WSJ op-ed, which emphasizes the mysteries still haunting climate science. The student came across it on her own. But I am sure many can identify with her overall sentiment. Climate science is a complicated field. Just think how much bandwidth has been devoted to the "pause"--I mean "hiatus"--wait, I mean "slowdown." You get the idea. Fortunately, for guidance I can direct my student to this stellar essay just published by Tamsin Edwards, a climate scientist and excellent science communicator. (Follow her on Twitter.) Edwards notes:

Complexity and uncertainty create extra difficulty for experts in explaining their results, and for non-experts in understanding them. Climate science is not sound bite science.

For a quick understanding of what we know about climate change--and what we don't know--this lucid essay by Edwards is a terrific primer.

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