A respected climate scientist, Richard C.J. Somerville, emeritus of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in a thought-provoking article, offers six principles that could help get around the science literacy challenge.

Richard Somerville

His ideas, reflected in a recent Climatic Change editorial comment entitled “How much should the public know about climate change?”, rely in part on the public’s willingness to “confront the challenge of climate change wisely” by learning and accepting the underlying science.

Somerville’s column points to science as “a process, a way of regarding the natural world, and a fascinating human activity.” He cautions against teaching climate science as merely an exercise in memorizing, for instance, the volume of dry atmospheric air consisting of carbon dioxide (0.038%). Many more important — and certainly more captivating — things to learn about the climate, he writes.

Somerville says he favors a “constructivist learning theory” going back to the 20th Swiss epistemologist Jean Piaget and others: the teacher as a supportive facilitator rather than as a didactic lecturer … “a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage.”

One challenge he points to is that the “major change in current educational practices” he thinks warranted could take years … or more.

Given what he describes as “a well-funded and effective professional disinformation campaign that has been successful in sowing confusion,” Somerville writes that “The more urgent task for us scientists may well be to give the public modern guidelines for recognizing and rejecting junk science and disinformation.”

Without force-feeding today’s students detailed climate change knowledge, perhaps better to offer “guidelines for recognizing and rejecting junk science and disinformation,” Somerville wrote. His prescription, in the form of six principles:

“1. The essential findings of mainstream climate change science are firm. The world is warming. There are many kinds of evidence: air temperatures, ocean temperatures, melting ice, rising sea levels, and much more. Human activities are the main cause. The warming is not natural. It is not due to the sun, for example. We know this because we can measure the effect of man-made carbon dioxide and it is much stronger than that of changes in the sun, which we also measure.

2. The greenhouse effect is well understood. It is as real as gravity. The foundations of the science are more than 150 years old. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat. We know carbon dioxide is increasing because we measure it. We know the increase is due to human activities like burning fossil fuels because we can analyze the chemical evidence for that.

3. Our climate predictions are coming true. Many observed climate changes, like rising sea level, are occurring at the high end of the predicted range. Some observed changes, like melting sea ice, are happening faster than the anticipated worst case. Unless mankind take strong steps to halt and reverse the rapid global increase of fossil fuel use and the other activities that cause climate change, and does so in a very few years, severe climate change is inevitable. Urgent action is needed if global warming is to be limited to moderate levels.

4. The standard skeptical arguments have been refuted many times over. The refutations are on many websites and in many books. For example, the mechanisms causing natural climate change like ice ages are irrelevant to the current warming. We know why ice ages come and go. That is due to change in the Earth’s orbit around the sun, changes that take thousands of years. The warming that is occurring now, over just a few decades, cannot possibly be caused by such slow-acting processes. But it can be caused by man-made changes in the greenhouse effect.

5. Science has its own high standards. It does not work by unqualified people making claims on television or the Internet. It works by expert scientists doing research and publishing it in carefully reviewed research journals. Other scientists examine the research and repeat it and extend it. Valid results are confirmed, and wrong ones are exposed and abandoned. Science is self-correcting. People who are not experts, who are not trained and experienced in this field, who do not do research and publish it following standard scientific practice, are not doing science. Whey they claim that they are the real experts, they are just plain wrong.

6. The leading scientific organizations of the world, like national academies of science and professional scientific societies, have carefully examined the results of climate science and endorsed these results. It is silly to imagine that thousands of climate scientists worldwide are engaged in a massive conspiracy to fool everybody. It is also silly to think that a few minor errors in the extensive IPCC reports can invalidate the reports. The first thing that the world needs to do to confront the challenge of climate change wisely is to learn about what science has discovered and accept it. The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report at www.ipcc.ch is a good place to start.”