Two decades ago climate communication missed a huge opportunity. We can’t afford to let that happen again.
Spurned by scientists who ignored his advice to communicate clearly, Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton became the Darth Vader of climate change. Let’s take that advice now, before it’s too late.
Once upon a time there was an individual with powers so mighty he could have singlehandedly shaped the American climate movement into a permanent voice of world leadership. For 25 years he offered communications advice to the science world. He was the best, but he was ignored. Fed up, he basically became the Darth Vader of the climate crisis. He drifted to the dark side, becoming a bonus for the early climate denial camp.
The individual was blockbuster techno-thriller author Michael Crichton. After earning an MD degree from Harvard in 1969 and working as a postdoctoral fellow at the Salk Institute, he moved to Hollywood. By 1995 he was the first person to ever simultaneously have the №1 book, №1 movie and №1 TV show in the U.S.
The climate story for Crichton begins in 1975 when, just before leaving the medical world, he published a short paper in the New England Journal of Medicine titled “Medical Obfuscation: Structure and Function.” His writing was concise and powerful, pointing out how the communication of science suffers from one key word: obfuscation, the practice of making things unclear or confusing.
The paper went largely ignored.
By the 1990s the issue of global warming was becoming more prominent. The nations of the world formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Every few years the IPCC puts out a report on climate change, accompanied by a Summary for Policymakers, or SPM, intended to be the short, “easy-to-read” version of the report.
The concept is good, but the execution has been poor. In 2008, John Sterman, director of the Systems Dynamics Group in the MIT Sloan School of Management, reported on an experiment he conducted with 212 MIT graduate students where they summarized the basic…