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Google Takes on Climate Change Skeptics with New Technology Effort

The search giant has brought together a team of 21 climate researchers to improve the way the science of global warming is communicated using new media

Mar 18, 2011
Google Earth image

Climate change skeptics who have created a political megaphone in Washington may finally meet their match in the world's largest search engine.

Google.org, the technology giant's philanthropic arm, has hand-picked a team of 21 fellows working in climate research to improve the way the science of global warming is communicated to the public and lawmakers through new media.

"We are seeing very clearly with climate change that our policy choices are currently not grounded in knowledge and understanding," said Paul Higgins, a Google fellow and an associate policy director for the American Meteorological Society.

The Google Science Communication Fellows program named its first round of participants on Tuesday. The announcement could not have come at a more timely juncture.

On Monday, an annual Gallup poll on the environment reported that nearly 20 percent of Americans surveyed believe the effects of global warming will never happen, up from 11 percent three years ago, while fewer respondents are concerned about climate change than in the past.

A day later, House Republicans in the Energy and Commerce Committee voted unanimously against three amendments offered by Democrats that would accept that climate change is occurring; that it is largely due to human activity; and that human-made warming poses a threat to public health and welfare.

Democrats on the panel, all of whom voted for the measures, tied the proposals to larger GOP-backed legislation seeking to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

That global warming is doubted by large swathes of the country — despite a consensus among climate scientists worldwide that says otherwise — underscores the large gap between the data and America's understanding of it, scientists say.

'They're Just Trying to Make Noise'

"The uncertainty argument, that we really don't know what is going on and that climate scientists are corrupt, has been reasonably effective in the last few years," said Andrew Dessler, also a Google fellow and a climate scientist at Texas A&M University.

"We don’t know everything about the climate from a scientific standpoint and there are uncertainties, but they are uncertainties over whether climate change is going to either be bad or really, really bad," he told SolveClimate News.

"People who are opposed to regulation ... [are] not trying to prove that climate change [science] is wrong. They're trying to prove that there is an argument going on," he said. "They're just trying to create noise."

Higgins of AMS said that depending on their political beliefs, lawmakers have used skepticism or affirmation of climate science to stall or advance progress on partisan policy issues — such as the EPA's "tailoring" rules or cap-and-trade schemes for controlling greenhouse gas emissions.

For him, passing or rejecting the House amendments is less important than whether lawmakers actually understand climate science and are thoughtfully considering the risks of inaction.

"If we were well informed as a society — and if policymakers were well informed — then they would be taking the risk that climate change should be taken seriously."

Higgins pointed out that the Google fellowship is geared just as much toward influencing those who believe that climate change poses serious consequences, but may not yet grasp the science.

"The vast majority of people don't know and understand the details of climate science," he said. "The science of climate change spans 20 to 30 disciplines and sub-disciplines, at least ... It is an enormous amount of information, and distilling it is a bit of a challenge."

Kelly Levin, a senior research associate at the World Resources Institute, a conservation group, said she hoped the Google program could tackle that challenge by engaging wider audiences in the scientific discussion.

"Given the pace and scale of human-induced climate change, it is of great importance that climate change science, and the urgency of addressing the climate change problem, is communicated effectively to the public and decision makers," she said.

She added: "Involving the public more directly in the scientific process could increase the acceptance of ideas and help scientific advancements inform governmental policies."

A More Accessible Approach

Throughout the year, the Google fellows will sharpen their new media skills, learn data-sharing technologies and improve communication strategies to lend a more accessible approach to climate science.

Following a workshop in June, fellows will have the chance to apply for grants to support projects fostering scientific dialogue. Future participants will take on other socially relevant topics tied to science and the environment.

"The public's understanding of science across all disciplines is extremely low, because the scientific community is really siloed from the community in general," Amy Luers, Google's senior environment program manager, told SolveClimate News.

"If the scientists understand [data] in a different way than the public does, it is impossible to see how this information is going to be integrated in the way it needs to be to make policy and management decisions," she said.

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