“Scientists are working on it.” is the wrong message

May 15, 2007 at 7:47 am | Posted in Book reviews, Children, Climate change, Climate science, Communication, Global warming, Science | 2 Comments

This globally warm generation is, quite rightly, not to be soothed with attempts to pass the buck to others. Tracking remarks in America and Britain that refer to communicating climate change information to children, I notice two common approaches:

Scientists are working on it LCD blue

  • adult tries to reassure child with talk and by deferring to experts
    • the problem and its solution are viewed as separate from me
    • the problem is left to scientists “to solve”
    • this message is repeated whenever events in the news cause panic attacks (due to uneasy feelings that perhaps the scientists do not know what they are doing …)

We are all working on it Wood

  • adult reassures child with action and demonstrates how to channel feelings, effecting a transformation from powerlessness to action
    • the problem and its solution are viewed as involving me
    • the problem can be addressed by me—every little helps—and everyone who can should participate in solutions
    • action to combat climate change is taken at individual, business and government levels
    • this leads to children asking:

What are you doing, Mummy? Wood

Which is exactly what children should be asking adults!

(The students reading my blog tell me which message they would rather hear. You can guess.)

Deference to experts is fine when it is NASA’s space program we are talking about: it is non-crucial to the future health of the world, and we can “leave it to scientists”. However, leaving climate change solutions to scientists is an easy way to avoid grappling with the thorny issue that we all need to change our habits. Me too! Economists, philosophers, psychologists and policymakers (all the P’s) need to be involved as well. Climate change is not just about physical science: it involves our way of life—our lifestyle choices—and changes that need to be made. A multidisciplinary approach is needed.

Abdicating our responsibility leads to inadequate responses by eliminating the need to learn more, and by feeding the business-as-usual paradigm. It also leads to the natural conclusion that we can blame scientists if the problem worsens. That is not helpful. It is selfish and wrong.

© Spratti compost cartoon ~ special commissionPersonal attitudes can be refocused to work in favour of combatting climate change. There are loads of green-greener-greenest initiatives by business: every day it seems new ideas and products are announced, so keep your eyes peeled for them kids!

This week, you may laugh, as I am researching the purchase of a new compost bin, with expert advice from my good friend Sarah 😉 who reports with glee:

This spring I was able to dig in three compost bins worth of compost into the veg patch !!!


Rather than tarring all consumerism with the same bad for our futures brush, further adaptation to divert spending patterns towards products that are good for the environment in one way or another, is more socially acceptable and can be fun!

Luxury goods and celebrities have kudos and play a valuable role in the climate challenge. Look at Leonardo DiCaprio, HRH the Prince of Wales, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, for starters 😉

Below is an example from The New York Times Sunday Book Review of Children’s Books that triggered my post today (see first paragraph):

Stormy Weather

Published: May 13, 2007
What do you tell a child when a natural disaster darkens the news? “Things like that don’t happen here.” “The grown-ups in charge have it under control.” And when it does happen here, and the grown-ups in charge haven’t a clue, there’s Plan C: “Scientists are working on it.”

The Crisis of Global Warming

By Al Gore
Illustrated. 191 pp. Viking. Paper, $16. (Ages 11 and up)

In “An Inconvenient Truth,” “here” is the whole world, and hard-working scientists bring both bad news and good: Humans are changing the atmosphere in ways that will harm the earth, but we can delay or modify the effects if we act soon. That double-edged message has found a large audience as a slide show, a film and a book for adults. Now comes a book version for children 11 and up — or, as the cover puts it, “Adapted for a New Generation.”

Adapted how? For starters, this book is better organized than the original, with a table of contents, chapter headings and an index — useful features that the adult edition lacked. It is also about 40 percent shorter. Much of what has disappeared is Gore himself; his autobiographical musings are gone, replaced by a brief introduction. Fair enough: Readers who barely remember the 2000 election will care more about Gore’s message than about the personal journey that led him to spread it.

What remains is most of the “good parts” of the movie: enough geoscience to explain the basics of climate change, and a travelogue of parts of the world where global warming either poses a threat or (Gore suggests) has already taken hold. The beleaguered polar bears are here. So are shrinking glaciers in Switzerland and atop Mount Kilimanjaro, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and deteriorating coral reefs. The main culprit is carbon dioxide; the solution, a grab bag of technical fixes. “We have everything we need to begin solving the climate crisis,” the book concludes hopefully.

The science, as far as it goes, is well supported, but some foibles remain from the film. Gore pegs recent hot spells and extreme weather like Hurricane Katrina to global warming a lot more confidently than most climate scientists are ready to do. Many experts suspect that the recent run of hot summers is due to global warming combined with an upward swing in natural temperature fluctuations. A swing back could cool things off for a while, even as overall warming continues. Gore is also mighty optimistic about the ease of reining in humanity’s appetite for carbon-spewing combustion.

The big question, however, is whether the book’s intended audience still needs it. The DVD of the film is required viewing in many schools. Politicians, news editors and curriculum developers are piling onto the green bandwagon. The next generation has plenty of inspiration; what it needs now is nuts-and-bolts information for school reports and debates. Who is doing the science, and where and how? How do researchers analyze satellite data and computer models? What is likely to happen in the near future? This book doesn’t tackle those questions, but someone must.

Time to prepare some answers to those questions for you, kids.

Read the other book reviewed in this piece here …



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  1. Composting is astoundingly underappreciated and even misunderstood by many ‘townies’, who would rather have fruit and veg marinaded in expensive manufactured chemicals than grown in the free goodness of stuff they’ve thrown away. Someone even asked me recently ‘yes, but where would I put it all? There’s more lawn than flowerbeds…’ They’d forgotten that grass rots and packs down pretty quickly, and putting the clippings in a compost bin rather than a refuse sack seemed like extra effort! Why? Because habit commonly overrides ‘common’ sense. That’s one of the biggest hurdles we face.

    The book review is interesting, but still distracts from the most important point. Sure, it’s useful to examine who’s doing the research and how, but the real message is, ‘Most scientists agree that our lifestyles must change now or face disastrous consequences in just a few years.’

  2. As you’re well aware, I’m much more focused on the scientific details — that’s what I do. But you continue to hit the emotional side of the issue, much better than I do, with real power. “What are you doing, mummy?”

    If we adults don’t get our act together, it’s those kids asking wide-eyed questions who will bear the consequences. They deserve better.

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