Thursday, June 08, 2017

Americans 'under siege' from climate disinformation – former Nasa chief scientist

When Republican Rob Woodall, a member of Congress, asked a high school student what students were concerned about, she said global warming. He replied that he supported research on humans going to space!

Hannah Devlin Science correspondent
Thursday 8 June 2017

Americans are “under siege” from disinformation designed to confuse the public about the threat of climate change, Nasa’s former chief scientist has said.

Speaking to the Guardian, Ellen Stofan, who left the US space agency in December, said that a constant barrage of half-truths had left many Americans oblivious to the potentially dire consequences of continued carbon emissions, despite the science being unequivocal.

“We are under siege by fake information that’s being put forward by people who have a profit motive,” she said, citing oil and coal companies as culprits. “Fake news is so harmful because once people take on a concept it’s very hard to dislodge it.”

During the past six months, the US science community has woken up to this threat, according to Stofan, and responded by ratcheting up efforts to communicate with the public at the grassroots level as well as in the mainstream press.

“The harder part is this active disinformation campaign,” she said before her appearance at Cheltenham Science Festival this week. “I’m always wondering if these people honestly believe the nonsense they put forward. When they say ‘It could be volcanoes’ or ‘the climate always changes’… to obfuscate and to confuse people, it frankly makes me angry.”

Stofan added that while “fake news” is frequently characterised as a problem in the right-leaning media, she saw evidence of an “erosion of people’s ability to scrutinise information” across the political spectrum. “All of us have a responsibility,” she said. “There’s this attitude of ‘I read it on the internet therefore it must be true’.”

Stofan resigned from her post at the top of Nasa in December, before the US election results. “It wasn’t anything to do with it, but I’m glad I’m not there now,” she said.


Throughout her career, Stofan has highlighted the role of planetary science in understanding the Earth’s environment and said it provided some of the most inarguable proof that atmospheric carbon dioxide leads to a warmer climate. She draws parallels between carbon emissions on Earth and the runaway greenhouse effect on Venus, a planet which once had oceans but is now a toxic inferno with surface temperatures approaching 500C.

The Earth is not destined for such an extreme scenario – even if all the CO2 were burned its oceans would not boil off completely – but Venus demonstrates the dramatic changes that can unfold when the fine balance of planet’s atmosphere is tipped.

“We won’t go all the way to Venus, but the consequences of putting more and more CO2 into the atmosphere are really dire,” she said. “There are models that suggest if we burn off all our fossil fuels, the Earth would become uninhabitable for humans.”


However, she dismissed the idea, popularised by Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, that mankind should be preparing to colonise other planets to avoid self-annihilation. “I don’t see a mass transfer of humanity to Mars, ever,” she said, adding that she had been concerned recently when a teacher told her that her pupils thought the climate “doesn’t matter as we’ll all go and live on Mars”.

“Job one is to keep this planet habitable. I’d hate us to lose focus on that,” she said.

No comments:

Post a Comment