Can Scientists Communicate Better About Climate Change? Part I

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Published on August 13th, 2010  |  Discuss This Article  

From the leaked emails of Climategate to the data woes of the IPCC, it’s been a year to forget for climate scientists…at least in terms of the public’s perception of their work. How could a couple of pilfered emails and a handful of misread data counterbalance the weight of decades of science? Why isn’t the certainty of scientists about the fact and dangers of climate change translating into public trust? Could that very certainty be working against climate science credibility?

To learn more, Cool Green Science asked five scientists — Georgia Tech’s Judith Curry, a climatologist who has been in the forefront of engaging climate change skeptics in the blogosphere; USC’s Randy Olson, a scientist turned filmmaker who directed the movie “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy” and wrote the book “Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style”; and the Conservancy’s Jonathan Hoekstra, Peter Kareiva and Rebecca Shaw — to discuss how climate science communication went so very wrong…and what it’s going to take to fix it.

In Part I, they debate just how bad scientists are at communicating…and how much Al Gore is to blame for creating unreasonable expectations about the certainty of climate change science.

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Why should scientists even be communicating with the public about climate science? Aren’t there too many minefields?

OLSON: Scientists carry the big stick in mass communications. They speak with a voice of authority, and if they can be properly used and coached, they are the voice that the public will respond to.

But we need to make sure first that they’ve got the right facts. Second, we need the right scientists as spokespersons. And if scientists are going to talk about certainty, they need to embrace humility and cautiousness to build trust.

CURRY:  People ask me, “Well, how can these skeptics be converted?” and I say, “Well, that’s completely the wrong tactic, and that’s not what I’m doing when I engage with them in the blogosphere and elsewhere.” I’m trying to answer questions and help build up some trust in the process of science and scientists themselves because, as Randy points out, humility is important.

There’s a certain level of haughtiness and arrogance sometimes among scientists. When groups of scientists appeal to their own authority, you get these letters from National Academy members saying, “We’re the important people. You should be listening to us.” That doesn’t play very well with the public. They want to understand, and they want to be able to trust people.  So I think engagement is really important.

I’ve also learned quite a bit through engaging with skeptics. The discourse has become so polarized — mainstream scientists versus skeptics — but there’s really a distribution of ideas.  I get very concerned when people who have slight differences in approach from the IPCC orthodoxy start to get labeled as “skeptics.” That’s wrong. Communication and engagement are very important, but we have to be humble and we have to acknowledge the uncertainties, and then we’ll be trusted.

KAREIVA:  Not all scientists should communicate with the public, because some scientists will just never be really effective communicators, just like some scientists aren’t really good teachers. It’s a learned craft, but also there’s a little bit of an innate talent for it. I don’t think all scientists should jump into the fray. If you’re either impatient or have a very thin skin, you won’t enjoy it.

OLSON: I came out to Hollywood as a scientist 15 years ago, and one of the crucial things that I learned from going to film school and making a few feature films is the importance of casting. You learn this working with actors. You can’t put bad actors into a movie and over the course of three or four weeks teach them how to be good actors. I’m hearing a lot of people think, kind of naively, that we can run these communications workshops, and suddenly scientists that are utterly hopeless can be turned overnight into great communicators.

We need greater prioritization on finding the right spokesperson. Here’s an example: I’m currently working with the Union of Concerned Scientists, and we took video clips of science spokespeople who had appeared on TV talk shows. I got a dozen of my Hollywood friends out here, directors, agents, casting directors to look at the four clips and score them on six different criteria from 1 to 10, and the overall scores came out around 4 and 5. Nobody was impressed with any of these people, and these were some of the best spokespeople we have. We can do a whole lot better — it’s just a matter of priorities, putting more resources into it.

Judy Curry, you wrote in 2003: “Reducing uncertainty is probably not the appropriate goal.  We should instead focus on increasing credibility.” Have you changed your mind? Hasn’t the last year shown that these two concepts — uncertainty and credibility — are very tightly tied together?

CURRY: Well, no, I haven’t changed my mind about this at all. I agree with my statement more profoundly now than I even did back in 2003, but I think that at this point that trust is more important than certainty in terms of the public understanding and acceptance regarding climate change.

This is a very complex problem. Some of the confidence levels in the IPCC report have been overstated. There’s a lot of ignorance about what’s going on and what might happen in the future, and that uncertainty needs to be acknowledged. We need to allow a plurality of views and to debate the science. This shouldn’t be a threat to policymaking if it’s done right.

But by trying to isolate a certain group of people and call them “skeptics” and then put too high a confidence level on the scientific findings, I think that’s how we lost the trust of the public. The scientific findings weren’t any different before than after Climategate, but people got an inside view of what actually went on behind the scenes in terms of building that consensus and decided they didn’t really trust it.

OLSON: I think I take exception to your statement that people got an inside view through Climategate. What they got was the Fox News version. Unfortunately, scientists didn’t know how to combat that perception, and only now, in the last few weeks, has the truth come out that there wasn’t that much really to Climategate in terms of scandal. The public really didn’t get much of an insight into the scientific process, and it doesn’t seem to me overall that the scientific system is that unhealthy.

But the science community is just massively vulnerable to these attacks because scientists are utterly inept at communicating to the broad audience. There’s the sophisticated discussion of global warming, which involves all these blogs and massive discussions on what the IPCC is about. But the general public doesn’t still quite know what the IPCC is.

Mostly what the broad public knows is one thing only, and that’s the Al Gore movie [“An Inconvenient Truth”]. The movie was a big, brave, bold experiment, but it was a giant failing of the science community to allow Al Gore and Laurie David and Lawrence Bender to come along and take over the messaging of this science issue to the broad public. What we ended up with was a non-science group that promoted their version of global warming, which involved a great deal of reaching into the future and making alarmist predictions, while the scientists just sat there like a bunch of kids and were so excited that Al Gore was coming to their rescue.

The science community had the ability to make those predictions more responsibly. I would have hoped we would have spent more time instead building trust, as Judy is saying, by looking at all the successes that the climate science community has accomplished and not reaching so far into the future with alarmist predictions. We’ve paid a price for those predictions since 2006 because we’ve been dealt four years of not having the giant hurricanes and super warm winters Al Gore and others predicted.

KAREIVA: I would put a slightly different slant on it. One, I think the IPCC and the scientists didn’t break down their communication of the uncertainty or the science into enough steps, and it all got lumped together.

The future projections — with all of their uncertainty — got lumped in with the solid evidence that humans are indeed having an impact and are warming the planet with our emissions. By failing to break down the story into chapters, it’s almost like the whole chain of evidence and logic is tainted with the uncertainty that applies primarily to the future projections — the last chapters of the story. We should have said: “Humans are warming the planet. This has been solidly demonstrated. There are risks associated with that. Here is how we are going about estimating these risks.” And that’s where you then start getting into the uncertainty.

The second thing, which gets lost, is that there was and is a huge disinformation campaign about climate change. You had Frederick Seitz, the ex-president of the National Academy of Sciences, and William Nierenberg from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography lending their voices to all these authoritative-looking reports — and they weren’t peer-reviewed — that just massively and disingenuously attacked the climate change science in totally improper ways. We can’t ignore that this disinformation campaign has had a major impact on the public discourse.

OLSON: One of the miscues of “An Inconvenient Truth” was the arrogance with which it brushed aside the disinformation campaign and the skeptics and projected the message that there is no debate.  I heard that from so many people around 2006, 2007 and 2008.  As I made my movie “Sizzle,” people asked me: “Why would you even talk about there being controversy? There is no debate.”

Maybe there is no debate among scientists, but in public perception, when you have that much noise coming out of Fox News and everywhere else, you have to call it a debate.  In a social context, it absolutely was a debate. It was very arrogant for Gore to imply otherwise. And I think by doing so he really lit the fires of the skeptic crowd that really paid off in Climategate.

CURRY: This is not settled science. There are some basic things we have confidence in, but there are a lot of things that we know we’re uncertain about, and then there are the unknown unknowns. We don’t know if there are some big surprises in store for us from the sun or something with the internal oscillations of the ocean that could really dominate the climate of the next century. Science is not an answer. It’s really a process, and there’s lots more work to do on climate change.

HOEKSTRA: In hindsight, we made a mistake by letting the idea of consensus be the reason people should be concerned about climate change. Instead of saying, “let us show you data, let us show you trends, let us help you understand this issue,” we latched onto this idea that there’s consensus and there’s no need for debate. Well, consensus is very easy to destroy, and we’ve seen that happen now. As soon as some scientists started standing up and saying, “I’m not behind it,” we lost.

We missed an opportunity to play to our strengths and really help educate people about the science. I think back to the old toothpaste commercials, where 9 out of 10 doctors recommended some toothpaste for fighting cavities — they at least allowed that there was one dentist who wasn’t going to recommend that toothpaste. We didn’t even do that. We spent three years not talking about the climate science, and now we find ourselves in a panic trying to get everybody up to speed on a very complicated issue that they don’t have background in and frankly probably don’t have that much interest in.

SHAW: I guess I’m a little confused by the conversation because I’m wondering which uncertainty we’re talking about and which uncertainty actually matters as it relates to the IPCC and how it compiles information from scientists around the globe to come up with a report every five years.

The IPCC is not a renegade, vigilante band of geeks that ignore this distribution that doesn’t reconcile with their propaganda. It’s just an amazingly conservative international body of the world’s governments that compiles information that’s been peer-reviewed.

I wonder about the focus on the scientists and the IPCC in bolstering information about climate change as opposed to focusing on other credible sources that could do that when the scientists can’t do it very well. I think there’s a lot of uncertainty that our greenhouse gas emissions might be far above anything that’s ever been considered by IPCC, and so, even if the IPCC considers a lot of models and they consider a lot of information and there is variance in the way different people model it, it all goes in the same direction. The IPCC estimate is a very conservative estimate.

So I wonder if the battle we’re losing isn’t the one of uncertainty or the one of credibility, but the one of effectively communicating how truly conservative the IPCC estimates are and how great the consequences are if they’re right. How important is focusing on uncertainty or credibility when both of those can be tainted any which way in the media on any day? Shouldn’t we be focusing on what do we know and how it does have meaning for how we deal with uncertainty every day? And shouldn’t we focus on the things we need to do to reduce risk today that won’t be painful, so we can avoid some of the outcomes that scientists project?

CURRY: There are a whole host of scientific uncertainties out there, but uncertainty is a two-edged sword. It’s plausible that the worst-case scenario could be worse than anything that the IPCC has looked at. On the other side of the coin, the unknowns about solar radiation and the ocean circulation could swamp the greenhouse warming signals in the next century. We just don’t know.

But science shouldn’t be the only driver for the political decisions. Given the uncertainty, we should start talking about a range of robust policy options that can accommodate that kind of uncertainty. This means that we have to talk about values and equity and justice and sustainability and a whole host of other issues. Let’s take the dialogue away from the science as we figure out what to do about the risk of climate change.

SHAW:  I couldn’t agree more with that. One of the biggest problems is that there is so much reliance on science to communicate this stuff effectively, but when you really get down to what we need to do, it’s those folks that work in policy who understand the uncertainty and who need to be holding the messages and communicating about how you do policy going forward in the context of uncertainty. I think relying on the scientists to do this is a non-starter.

Next: Is the IPCC helping or hurting efforts to educate the public about climate change? And can climate scientists get any better at communication…or should they even bother?

(Image 1: Greenland’s Iluslissat Icefjord breaking into the Atlantic Ocean, September 24, 2008. Image credit: Tim Norris/Flickr through a Creative Commons license. Image 2 credit: cactusbones/Flickr through a Creative Commons license. Image 3: Lord Monckton (left), climate change skeptic, wearing several climate change stickers on his back at the COP-15 conference, December 2009. Image 3 credit: Matthew McDermott/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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2 Responses to “Can Scientists Communicate Better About Climate Change? Part I”

  1. LTH says:

    A good source of information for those who are new to the discussion and even those who feel they know quite a bit is the website skepticalscience.com/.

  2. billgeo664 says:

    Truth is a rare and powerful thing. When I hear that evidence of Climate Change (really Global Warming)includes drowning Polar Bears it makes me ill. If this is a measure of the rate of change (real change, not just data noise or variation)then we might as well say goodbye to our loved ones because our species will be gone from much of the earth. Couldn’t it just be sun spots or just a cycle. First of all the evidence for climate change is not conclusive nor does it show rapid change. So I recommend that truth reign and maybe we can make better more informed decisions. OK my off-the-cuff theory is that the currently weak magnetic field is very weak and may be allowing increased solar radiation to hit the earth. Also we (humans) have not experienced a magnetic reversal and one is due.

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