Al Gore makes it look easy, but understanding the finer points of global warming is hard. For a little more than two years, RealClimate has offered meaty posts about the latest research and controversy in climate news, written by 11 climate scientists. Plenty chatted with NASA atmospheric scientist Gavin Schmidt, one of the blog’s founders, about how his field is covered—by Hollywood, Congress, and the popular press.
The name RealClimate suggests that a lot of what people read is about a “fake” climate.
Absolutely, yes! I came up with the name. And that’s exactly right. You don’t get medical advice from your mechanic, car advice from the baker, recipe tips form the school crossing guard. If you want to know about climate science, you ask climate scientists.
How did RealClimate start?
It was at the end of 2004. As climate change was moving up on the agenda, it seemed obvious that the mainstream scientific community was getting its ass kicked in terms of the use of science in the public discourse. People were publishing all sorts of rubbish, and nobody was pointing out how illegitimate it was. People were abusing the science left, right, and center.
Earlier that year there had just been that movie, The Day After Tomorrow, and the climate science community had a very confused response to that. So over that summer I and some like-minded colleagues were thinking, how could we do it better? It was definitely the summer of the blog, and we thought, that’s a good way of doing this rapid reaction, of being able to educate journalists.
Why target journalists?
I’m not so silly as to believe that having one blog is going to re-educate the entire populous. It’s good for scientists to sometimes talk directly the public, but I don’t think that’s ever going to be the dominant mode of information transport. Reporting science in general in the popular media is very difficult: not having a shared context from which to work, having to start from scratch with every story, only having a couple of columns to explain something tricky. Most reporting is done by press releases, which make everything much more dramatic. What we’re trying to do is provide the context so that journalists won’t be starting from scratch every single time. And from the feedback we’ve gotten so far, it’s actually worked quite well.
I’ll say! Technorati ranks you guys at 866 out of millions of blogs. Did RealClimate take off right from the beginning?
It’s been a pretty steady climb. This month was our biggest month ever. We get roughly 30 or 40 thousand unique visitors a day. It’s quite gratifying. When we first started we’d get lots of abusive, non-substantive comments. Now we just delete those straight away. We think of it as a party at our house: we’re willing to talk to people, but when they start to get drunk and break things, they get asked to leave.
Has media coverage of climate change improved?
Up until recently, stories on climate change were all about the controversy over what the science says. Now, I think I’m detecting a shift much more towards, ‘OK, the science is in, what does it mean? What’s going to happen in the future? How can we do anything about it?’ Those stories I think are much more interesting.
A recent article in The New York Times said Al Gore exaggerated the science in An Inconvenient Truth. What did you think of the film?
I thought it was great. I saw it in a packed theatre in New York City. These are just civilians, watching it, intrigued. It’s the most science they’ve been shown since they left school, and nobody fell asleep. If it had been me presenting it, the science would have been a little more nuanced, but then nobody would have watched it.
Has there been any reaction from the Bush administration about your blogging?
Never. There was that hearing last week with Jim Hanson talking about NASA’s suppression of links to media—that was all going on the same time that I was blogging continuously and yet nobody said anything to me. That was odd. All the things that he alleged were true. For awhile there they tried to insist that every time I talked to a reporter, I’d have to dial into some conference line to make sure that somebody in public affairs could make sure to listen in, but I refused to have anything to do with the system. The new NASA policy is that we can talk to anybody we want to.
Story by Victoria Hughes. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in April 2007.