AGU Fall Meeting Day 1 – Education And Science Outreach

The past days I’ve been at the AGU Fall Meeting interviewing scientists and experts, going to presentations, visit poster sessions, checking out exhibitions, and meeting a lot of interesting folks. Basically I’m gathering information and content on a lot of climate science and science communication related subjects.

Via my Twitter account you can get the latest updates on what I’m up to. You can also follow the AGU hashtag. Next to using the contact form on Real Skeptic my Twitter account is the most reliable way to get in touch with me.

For every day of the Fall Meeting you’ll see an article from me about interesting sessions, exhibits, and other goings-on at the Fall Meeting. 

AGU 2016 Fall Meeting

But first let me give a short introduction to the AGU Fall Meeting. For those who aren’t familiar with the Fall Meeting there’s a good introduction on AGU’s website:

With approximately 24,000 attendees in 2015, AGU’s Fall Meeting is the largest Earth and space science meeting in the world.


The technical program includes presentations on new and cutting-edge science, much of which has not yet been published, meaning you’ll return to work with knowledge you can’t get anywhere else.

With more than 1,700 sessions in 2015, Fall Meeting’s scientific program spans the Earth and space sciences, offering something for everyone no matter their scientific discipline. The meeting offers a unique mix of more than 20,000 oral and poster presentations, a broad range of keynote lectures, various types of formal and informal networking and career advancement opportunities, and an exhibit hall packed with hundreds of exhibitors showcasing new and relevant research tools and services that meet the professional needs of our attendees year after year. Join us in 2016 for another dynamic experience.

Fall Meeting Day 0

Officially the Fall Meeting starts on Monday. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to do the Sunday before the meeting starts. There was already an interesting lecture on Sunday: How Do We Choose a Landing Site on Mars. If you missed this session, like I did due to other prior engagements, you can watch it via AGU on-demand. It might also become available on AGU’s YouTube channel. Though it can take months before the content is available there. You can find the AGU on-demand program here.

ED11E: Climate Literacy: Science and Solutions in Multidisciplinary Higher Education I

This was the first session I attended and it was far more interesting than I expected.

The first presentation of this session was ED11E-01 Current State of Climate Education in the United States: Are Graduate Students being Adequately Prepared to Address Climate Issues? by Emma Kuster. Through the survey they did they found that in the South West of the United States only 60% of students received any climate education. Agriculture and engineering, two professions that we need to deal with global warming, only receive climate education in 50% of the cases. Part of the problem is that course catalogs mention climate courses, but often either aren’t offered, haven’t been taught in a while, or aren’t offered regularly.

The effects of this lack of education got underscored by the presentation ED11E-04 Changing Minds about the Changing Climate: a Longitudinal Study of the Impacts of a Climate Change Curriculum on Undergraduate Student Knowledge and Attitudes. They followed students at the B.A. and B.S. level and found that climate science education shifts student’s attitudes to accepting global warming. At the same time it buffers them from misinformation that might shift them back to a less accepting stance (tested 2 years after the course).

Though teaching climate science isn’t easy as highlighted by the talk ED11E-08 Through the minefield: teaching climate change in a misinformation-rich environment. Teaching isn’t about pouring knowledge into students. Students arrive with their own set of ideas and preconceptions into the classroom. The interesting thing is that there is a partisan divide on accepting or not accepting global warming. Though both sides have their own incorrect beliefs. You can’t correct these incorrect beliefs with the standard approach of explaining the science. You not only need to address the myth directly and refute it. You also need to address how the science is being distorted or misrepresented.

John Cook – Making Sense of Climate Science Denial

Jim Hoggan further highlighted the tribal nature of beliefs around global warming in his presentation ED11E-07 I’m Right and You’re and Idiot — Jim Hoggan discusses the toxic state of public discourse and how to clean it up, by changing the communication climate. When he started out he thought it was about misinformation, but he learned he was “totally wrong.”

The goal of those that create and spread misinformation is to polarise and divide us. The idea behind this is to kill the debate and not to foster it. You want to not convince the public about being right, you only need to convince them that everyone is defending their own priorities. So leaving the impression that nobody is telling the complete story. Get people to see the climate debate in a tribal context and you undermine science communication.

We need to stop looking at people rejecting climate science as an information deficit problem. In ideology motivated or tribally polarised debates facts don’t change minds. It’s more about rebuilding trust and learning to talk climate science in a way that involves and resonates with the people who disagree with you. Really good communication is more about listening than talking. It’s more about understanding the rejection than to get people to understand the science.

The rest of the session mostly focussed on how to engage students, the effects of teaching climate science, and good practices for teaching science facts. The presentation ED11E-02 Fun Teaching: The Key to the Future Climatology had some great examples of how you can engage younger students with cheap (or free) materials and teaching aids.

ED11E-03 Climate Impact and GIS Education Using Realistic Applications of Thematic Datasets in a Structured Lesson-Based Workbook talked about how the website is used to teach data analysis. One of the truly interesting talks was ED11E-05 Negotiating the Paris Agreement with the C-Learn Climate Simulator in an Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Climate Change Course. In it they used the C-Learn Simulation website to role-play international climate negotiations.

This role-play included a Greenpeace and ExxonMobil lobbyist next to the country roles. Each of these roles got a budget of fake money with developed countries having more and developing countries having less. Lobbyist also had money they could spend, but the fossil fuel lobby had the most.

Student’s only managed to reduce warming to 2.6C during their first role-play session. Students were so disappointed by the results that they asked for another session to see if they could get it down to 2C of warming. The class was so exited that they wanted to get it down to 1.5C of warming. A very interesting teaching tool that engaged students and created a better understanding of the complexities of international negotiations.

ED12A: Climate Literacy: Science and Solutions in Multidisciplinary Higher Education II

This session was kicked-off by Peter Sinclair with his presentation ED12A-01 Successful Climate Science Communication Strategies. He gives one of his video as an example of good communication:

How Reliable are Satellite Temperatures?

This video is so effective in communicating the science that James Delingpole saw the need to attack Sinclair’s video with an article on the website Breitbart. Don’t be deterred if you get attacked by people who deny the science behind global warming. It can be a good indicator that you got the messaging right.

During Stephan’s presentation ED12A-02 Countering misinformation and demagoguery in an age of uncertainty and “post-fact” politics: Climate change and beyond we get some insight into the fake news phenomenon and how it influences voters. It turns out that correcting misinformation for a candidate didn’t have an effect on voters intention or how they felt about a candidate. Facts and correcting misinformation seem not to have an effect on voting.

An interesting point that Stephan brought up is that viral articles on social networks are more likely to be false than not. It’s rare for factually stories to be shared widely. I consider this a big problem as it means that the false information reaches for more people than the factual correction.

Another point that Stephan points out is that polarisation between democrats and republicans isn’t symmetrical. Republicans have polarised more than democrats. This has as a result that rejection of science is more pronounced on the right than the left. This effect holds true across several science fields like the safety of vaccines, GMOs, and of course global warming. This phenomenon indicates it’s all about politics so it needs a political solution.

To break through all this you need effective communication and the presentation ED12A-03: The place of drama in science touched on this subject. As most science communicators know effective science communication is hard. But it can be learned.

Communicating science is not the same as doing science. You use a different toolkit for communicating science to a lay audience than the one you would use fora technical audience. For scientists you include all the technicalities and caveats. But don’t do that for a lay audience as they interpret it as uncertainty and it causes doubt no matter how established the findings are.

Evidence tells us that good communication is emotional and personal. So lets not be afraid to use your emotions and feelings to communicate about climate change. Tell your stories, make it memorable, and convey your emotions. If possible make it dramatic.

This session also included the presentation ED12A-04 Communicating and countering misconceptions about the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming. John Cook mentions that the first myth was that there is no consensus on global warming. Scientists responded to this by quantifying the level of consensus in several studies. Now the backlash is to ask the question “why bring up consensus?”

The consensus is constantly attacked by climate science deniers because consensus is a gateway belief for a lot of people for accepting that the world is warming. The myth that there isn’t a consensus is the most used climate myth in conservative op-eds.

The more prominent the strength of the consensus has become in the media and stated by politicians, the more it gets attacked. Unfortunately this has reduced the effect consensus messaging has had on public beliefs (only a 10% increase over 6 years). Studies have shown that if you combine consensus messaging with misinformation it negates the effect of the message. Without misinformation it increased perceived consensus by 20%.

If you present people with misinformation about the consensus you see an reduction of about 10%. It has no effect on the left but it reduces up to 20% on the right. You can counter this effect by explaining the technique of using fake experts to make it seem there’s no consensus or a low consensus. It completely negates the effect of the misinformation across the political spectrum. This very clearly demonstrates that people don’t like it when they’re being misled.

Another important point was raised in ED12A-05: Showing the Good Side, Too. Communicating the worst case scenarios, showing how bad global warming actually can be, horrifies people and gets them to turn off. The main focus shouldn’t be on communicating that the consequences could indeed be bad. But talk about the technologies we already have and how feasible it is to implement them. We could switch away from fossil fuels in a couple of decades if we put our mind to it. The potential is there and this is a hopeful message you should tell. Giving people hope and a sense that they can do something motivates them into action.

What touches on this hopeful message was the presentation ED12A-08: The Extent to Which Different 100% Clean, Renewable Energy Transition Scenarios can Reduce World Carbon Dioxide Levels to 350-400 ppmv by 2100.

The interesting thing here is that we could reduce the projected energy use by 2050 by 42%. Bringing it back to current usage by just electrifying everything that for example uses fossil fuels. Cars with an internal combustion engine only use at most 20% of the energy in petrol to move the car. This alone can give a big saving in energy usage as electric cars are far more efficient.

There was also an interesting point on nuclear energy. Building a nuclear plant takes about 10 to 19 years. Wind farms only take 2 to 5 years to build. We only have a carbon budget of 350 to 375GT-CO2 that we can emit if we want to stay below 1.5C of warming. To stay within that budget we need to reduce emissions 5.3% per year for the next 15 years. Which makes nuclear impossible as the main solution to cut our emissions, it simply takes too long to build the needed nuclear plants.

There was also a point of criticism towards existing nuclear plants as they’re expensive to run. The same money you use to keep them running is more effectively spent on wind or solar. If you run the numbers you’ll find out that it’s cheaper to do this and it reduces CO2 emissions. However there was a caveat: as long as there are no subsidies involved or large maintenance projects needed you might be able to get it cost efficient and let current plants be part of the solution.

Sharing Science Communications Clinic

This year the folks of AGU’s Sharing Science Program are again represented at the Fall Meeting with science communication, outreach, and policy content. If you want to visit them they’re in Moscone West in room 2001A. You can find a list of their events here with more details in their announcement post.

I visited them in their room in Moscone West for a short chat. This was during their Sharing Science Communications Clinic where they were giving one-on-one support to write plain-language abstracts. Helping scientists tell their stories, give tips on accessible graphic, and how to make their media more engaging by using for example animation.

They have some fun and also extremely useful materials. Like their Watch Your Words handout:

Poster sessions

Unfortunately I didn’t have a moment to truly explore the poster hall this day. This meant I only had a few moments to visited a couple of the posters that I knew where being presented. Walking the poster hall is always highly recommended as you bump into a lot of interesting scientists and posters.

Stephan Lewandowsky with his poster: Using bets to reveal people’s opinions on climate change.

John Cook with his poster: Using MOOCs to Debunk Climate Misinformation for a Global Classroom

Sarah Green with her poster: Matter and Energy Flows in Climate Education – Climate topics in undergraduate chemistry textbooks

PA14A: Independent Science and the Role of Private Sector Funding in the Geosciences II

Industry funding is a hot topic this year at the AGU Fall Meeting. With the funding of bad science and because of the debate about the ExxonMobil sponsorship for the AGU Fall Meetings.

This session started with the presentation PA14A-01 Environmental Defense Fund Oil and Gas Methane Studies: Principles for Collaborating with Industry Partners while Maintaining Scientific Objectivity by Steve Hamburg. His group conducted a study measuring methane leakage from wells and other industry sources. However this requires access to private and corporate property. To not let this influence the research he has the following advice:

  • The research must be led by academics
  • Employ multiple independent measurement methods where possible
  • Seek input from independent scientific experts
  • Make all data public to ensure transparency
  • Publish results in peer-reviewed journals

The presentation PA14A-02 Valuing and Maintaining Independent Research with Private Sector Funding by Ronald G Prinn highlights the importance of industry funding in research. He raises the valid point that private funding is making important research programs in the geosciences possible for years. It’s about common interests in understanding and solving a particular problem. However, it is essential that the independence of the researchers is maintained. Important key points are transparency about the relationship. Control of the research agenda by the researchers. And no private sector censorship of publications.

There’s a problem with not accepting any private funding raised during the presentation PA14A-06 AGU, Science and Engagement with the Energy Industry. Which is that federal funding is getting lower for science research. In my opinion this is an extremely important point especially with the attacks by science deniers towards the funding of for them inconvenient programs. We need private funding to keep science programs running and to make important research possible.

Naomi Orekes does however talk about some real potential dangers from private funding in her presentation PA14A-07 Understanding the “funding effect.” However, there is a problem with suggesting that funding might distort research or findings. A lot of scientists see this as offensive as they see themselves as objective.

This despite evidence that private funding can and has distorted research. What the tobacco industry did is an example of what can go wrong. Scientists played a key role in manufacturing doubt thanks to the research they produced for the tobacco industry:

Naomi Oreskes – Using Scientists As Merchants Of Doubt

Studies show that funding does influence the conclusions scientists draw. Even for peer-reviewed research. There is substantial evidence of skewing effects of private funding in many different domains. The alarming finding from that research is that even trivial gifts to physicians like golfballs or pens can affect which medications they prescribe.

However, it doesn’t mean private funding or support isn’t possible. But you should disclose your data sources. Disclose where you got your samples from. And especially be open about any funding you get. But the rules journals have for these good practices do not have any consequences attached to them if they aren’t followed. This needs to be addressed.

Peter C Frumhoff had a point that attracted my attention in his presentation PA14A-08 On the Acceptability of Funding from Fossil Energy Companies. Organisations who fund bad research and contribute to disinformation campaigns do this while saying they support the science. Exxonmobil is an example of this as they say that they accept the science behind global warming. But the message internally is different and they fund misinformation.

The presentation PA14A-09 Exxon and AGU; Denying Deniers A Platform by Alan Robock drives home the point that this is what the controversy surrounding ExxonMobil sponsorship of the AGU Fall Meeting is all about. But the AGU does allow free speech and open discussion about these kinds of funding questions and issues.

Friend of the Planet Awards

The day ended with a little get together to relax and talk future plans. Though for me it was a little less relax and a bit more future plans as I used it as an opportunity to interview several scientists for a video I’m working on.

During this get together NCSE presented the Friend of the Planet awards to Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University, Dana Nuccitelli and John Abraham for their work at the Climate Consensus – the 97% column to the Guardian, and John Cook for creating and maintaining the website Skeptical Science. These awards are well deserved.

Credit: Dana Nuccitelli

Final thoughts

Last Monday and Tuesday were very long days for me and it has delayed my articles about the AGU Fall Meeting. However, I should be able to release all of my notes for the past few days somewhere tomorrow. The reason for the delay is that I’m gathering a lot of material for new content which has left me with little time for writing.

But, enough about that. What were the highlights for you during Monday? Which presentations, exhibits or posters grabbed your attention? Is there content we should look up on AGU on-demand? Or is there something scheduled the coming days that’s definitely worth a visit?

Collin Maessen is the founder and editor of Real Skeptic and a proponent of scientific skepticism. For his content he uses the most up to date and best research as possible. Where necessary consulting or collaborating with scientists.