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Asteroids, climate change and hyperbole

Science communication is a delicate balance - but there is always a danger of someone highly invested in a particular aspect of science indulging in hyperbole and causing the opposite reaction to the one they intend. 

Arguably, the most dangerous topic for this is climate change. Getting our response to climate change right is crucially important - global warming and its consequences is something we have to take action on. But, as Al Gore demonstrated in the past, making overblown statements on the subject can have a negative impact on getting the message across.

The latest indulgence in this line, which made the news on 15 April, was from palaeontologist Robert DePalma, who apparently said at a screening of a documentary he made with David Attenborough 'What's going on in the world today is terrifyingly close to the scale and timeframe of the end-Cretaceous extinction.'

He was referring to the asteroid impact that wiped out most of the dinosaurs - in fact it did far more, destroying three quarters of the animal and plant species on Earth over a timescale of just a few years. Now, climate change really is causing extinctions. But even with the worst predictions, its impact would not come close to the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event - and we are doing a lot to make sure that the worst predictions don't come true.

To be fair to Dr DePalma, he probably wasn't only talking about the impact of climate change, but the wider destruction of the environment caused by humans, which is responsible for a considerable amount of species loss on top of warming from greenhouse gasses. However, his comments led to newspaper headlines like "Climate change 'like asteroid hitting Earth''.

We have to consider the environment more. We have to get climate change under control. But telling the world that the sky is about to fall in is not the way to get people on your side. It's the same problem as then protests by Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain that prevent people getting to hospital or using green electric trains. All this badly thought out communication does is to turn the public against you. By all means get the facts across - but exaggeration is not the way to do it. Science should always be clear and accurate: this is essential if we are to maintain trust. It's not about misrepresenting reality to achieve a goal. 

This has been a green heretic production.
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