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Nobel Prize winner demands more honesty from peers in green debate

Truth before fear

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Scientists hoping to educate the public about environmental concerns could do themselves and the public a favor by abandoning hyperbolic scare tactics in favor of straightforward talk, according to a prominent scientist.

Steve Chu, the director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and a Nobel Prize winner in physics, chastised some of his peers for presenting speculative worst case scenarios in their discussions on environmental issues. Researchers often come up with gloomy possible forecasts about changes in environmental conditions and talk about them as fact. Such tactics do little to help the public understand the true nature of the "green debate."

"I think more scientists have to explain the risks (of global warming and the like), and do it in a way that is intellectually honest," Chu told a group of venture capitalists and scientists visiting the lab this week.

Rather than trying to incite action through fear, the scientists should be clear about what their data indicates. For example, instead of presenting an extreme change in conditions as an inevitable outcome to the public, researchers should discuss the range of possibilities they're seeing and let Joe Average decide how he feels about the results. As Chu sees it, the public can judge how seriously they take the difference between there being an 90 per cent chance and a 50 per cent chance that, say, Greenland will melt away. Give them that shot instead of presenting Greenland's liquidity as a certainty.

Still, Chu fears that the public has yet to grasp the extent of the challenges facing the environment. He pointed to British Columbia which has "lost 40 per cent of its pines" due to warming. "The Rockies and Sierras are also starting to lose huge amounts of watershed trees." Without trees, you end up with floods and general craposity.

"I don't think the public really knows about this stuff to the extent that they should," Chu said. "You need a steady drumbeat of scientists who are willing to go out and talk to the public. I am doing my share. I'm out twice a week."

In addition, the government needs to take a firmer stance against lobbyists.

The homebuilders association, for example, will go to Washington and lobby against putting new materials in homes that cost a bit extra upfront but pay for themselves quickly as energy savers. Why? Because the materials add "one-tenth of one per cent" to the cost of new homes. "So that is a loss of a competitive edge against already built homes," Chu noted.

"Policy makers have to be told to just forget about these guys," he said.

Chu's comments came during a talk on the work that Berkeley and others are doing to improve energy efficiency in a variety of markets. ®

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