Journalists often get criticised for oversimplifying the science with climate change, but it’s not always so easy to understand the easy when you’re, um, not a scientist.

During the Copenhagen summit last year there was a very clever service available for journos, where 650 scientists from the American Geophysical Union offered up their brains for the picking on tricky science questions. They were available day and night for journalists covering the conference and only offered up facts, no opinions. A great resource.

Except, no one used it.

I made an attempt. When Wired picked up the story that it was being under-utilized, I decided to email in a few questions of my own. Nothing overtly challenging, just a few basic questions.

For example: Is there any one fact that you would show a climate change sceptic to help them better understand the issue?

The answer I received:

I would discuss with them the fundamental link between temperature, CO2, and that CO2 traps heat. As you are aware, CO2 is a heat-trapping gas and we are entering an unprecedented set of conditions with very high CO2 and doing so extremely rapidly. Have a look at Question 1.3 of the following link for a detailed explanation:

And one of the most compelling arguments for climate change is that ice core data provide evidence that CO2 levels are now higher than they have been in the last 800 thousand years and perhaps millions of years.

Also, I’d suggest they have a look at images of melting of the polar ice caps — these are very real images of the impact of climate change. For more info see here and here.

Another concern related to high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere is that this causes an increase in the levels of CO2 dissolved in the ocean. The result is an acidification of the ocean (ocean acidification), which can cause damage to coral reefs and other organisms.

Not a bad answer. It was from three different scientists, including Dr Helen McGregor at the University of Wollongong.

Unfortunately the formatting was all over the place, with weird fonts, spacing and links to Wikipedia, which made it even more confusing to read. But I guess you can’t expect completely tech-savvy answers, so that’s OK.

And now this service is back again. The press release I got a few weeks ago reads:

A growing number of climate scientists are signing up with the American Geophysical Union (AGU) to serve as sources for the news media of accurate scientific information about climate. So far, more than 115 climate specialists have volunteered for AGU’s new referral database. The database will enable AGU staff to readily match questions from reporters to experts in relevant disciplines. All of the scientists who have signed up to date are members of AGU, the world’s largest organization of Earth and space scientists, which has 58,000 members.

The new referral service will receive journalists’ questions and other queries via emails or phone calls to AGU’s press office staff, who will then pass queries along quickly to appropriate scientist-volunteers. This new service will match scientists to reporters’ queries primarily during business hours (East Coast USA) and will be ongoing.

… Questions should focus on science, not on policy, and should include a deadline so that responses can be returned with appropriate speed. Answers to questions will reflect the responding scientists’ knowledge and research and do not represent official positions of the AGU.

Climate scientists from 14 countries have signed up for the service to date. The volunteers can all communicate in English, and many of them are also fluent in other languages. So far, the expert pool includes speakers of German, Chinese, Spanish, and 15 other languages.

It’s a great idea, if it can be harnessed and used properly by journalists. So, I want to open the floor. What questions would you want answered? A specific question, which would require a specific, fact-laden response. I can always send them in and see what responses we get back.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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