Can Scientists Communicate Better About Climate Change? Part II

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Published on August 26th, 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 debated 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. In Part II, we explore how Conservancy donors have reacted to Climategate, whether the IPCC is a neutral or a politicizing force for communicating climate science…and where scientists should go from here to regain the trust of the U.S. public on climate matters.

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Let’s take an audience close to home — Conservancy’s supporters. Have Climategate and the controversy surrounding some of the numbers the IPCC has used hurt the case for acting on climate change among donors and trustees?

KAREIVA: Initially it created a little bit of flurry, but it didn’t change anybody’s mind. I got called to talk to a lot of trustees because it emboldened some of the skeptics, and that actually created an opportunity to open the discussion. I found it pretty useful because, if I were talking to the CEO of an energy company, I would say, “Look, there are mistakes made on both sides. It’s a confusing debate. It hasn’t been well managed, but let’s see what we can agree on.” And I would always draw attention to the fact that Rebecca brought up: that existing emissions are exceeding the worst-case scenario projections the IPCC is seeing.

HOEKSTRA: In some ways, it was good. It forced us to do what we should have been doing two, three, four years ago: to explain clearly why a change in climate matters to conservation, to people; what sort of risks it creates; what sort of changes we have already seen in climate and in the natural systems and places in which we’ve been working to protect for 50 years; and then what we as an organization must do to try to address it. I think it forced us to do our homework.

It was unfortunate timing, because it happened at a moment when we were actually trying to bring some big policy decisions to a positive close both internationally and in the United States. But if we had done that homework a few years ago, people would have better understood the issues.

SHAW: Many I talked to found it compelling for me to describe what the IPCC is: a membership of governments around the world, in which contributing scientists compile and summarize peer-reviewed studies, and that there’s no way for any one scientist to influence the consensus agreement that comes out of the IPCC.  It’s a huge ship that cannot be turned in another direction with information from one scientific study .

It really was helpful to them to hear the IPCC has been at it for 20 years and that it’s contributing scientists have been refining and getting its projections better, that its information gets more complex, more detailed and more comprehensive with each report. Interestingly, the previous reports have always underestimated, not overestimated, the impacts of climate change as we know from actual climate data that have been collected compiled since the IPCC was established.

Some climate scientists have argued the opposite: That the IPCC has politicized climate change by producing knowledge in a centralized way at a time when people are expecting science — not to mention everything else — to be much more open and inclusive. Has the IPCC painted climate science into a corner with its sense of overarching consensus?

CURRY: I think the answer is yes. The heritage of the IPCC has been in the context of the precautionary principle under the UN framework convention. The idea was for the IPCC to establish sufficient confidence in the findings to trigger the precautionary principle, and that really gave rise to the consensus approach. The message was: “Trust us. We’re the experts.”

With the IPCC 4th Assessment Report [released in 2007], that message was very influential, particularly in Europe. But now that approach doesn’t seem to be working anywhere. People realize that this whole issue is much more complex, and people want more transparency, more information, and they want to open it up to more public debate and not keep it in this sort of little elitist corner of the IPCC.

SHAW: I’m not an expert on the IPCC, as I was just recently appointed to be an author on one of the chapters for the IPCC’s working group on impacts, vulnerability and adaptation.

The IPCC was intended to provide the world’s governments with a current scientific view on the state of climate change and its potential environmental and societal consequences. It is an intergovernmental organization of 194 member  nations of the world with contributing scientists who are recommended and approved by each of those governments. The scientists rely on peer-reviewed literature to support their findings . They debate their consensus statements, and differing viewpoints within the scientific community are reflected in the report.

So does the IPCC have a structural tendency to politicize climate change? From my point of view, it’s the opposite. Climategate is a result of others politicizing the IPCC findings to their political advantage, not the other way around. It appears that the IPCC was blindsided by Climategate. I think a politicized structure would have had a much, much more comprehensive and immediate response to Climategate.

HOEKSTRA: I know that you’re not speaking from kind of a personal or official position of authority, but, to be honest, it sounds like a back-peddling excuse for an organization that, whether they meant to or not, was party to the politicization of this issue. So the IPCC might not structurally do it, but they didn’t keep themselves out of the politicization.

If the IPCC thinks they’re going to somehow get out of this by going back to their roots as a multi-governmental membership organization that actually is very conservative and only reporting with a “just the facts, ma’am” kind of attitude, I don’t think they can do that anymore.  The IPCC is in the mix, and it’s going to have to help.

So where do we go from here? How can climate scientists become more effective communicators and increase their credibility?

CURRY: The whole issue of transparency is something that nobody has disagreed with, and the Internet affords many easy ways to do that. The blogosphere has great potential for this also — it’s already carved out some middle ground, with the so-called “luke warmer blogs” and more discussion of policies.

We also need to open the whole climate field up to a much broader range of academics, including sociologists and philosophers and lawyers, to bring in their reasoning skills and perspectives. And somebody should do a study on the social psychology of the IPCC process and consensus. This whole field needs to become much more interdisciplinary.

KAREIVA: Randy is right: You have to diminish some of the arrogance associated with these pronouncements. Another venue for discussions is town meetings with question and answers. Some of us have had experience with such meetings when dealing with implementation of the Endangered Species Act, and those public meetings can help a lot.

The blogosphere can also have a town-meeting quality — you let the public have at it and ask questions and the scientists respond, but not in an arrogant way. It was very effective in the salmon world when I worked in that world for NOAA. This technique would make our communications a little bit less of “God speaking from the mountain of science and handing down the truth.”

HOEKSTRA: We also now have a terrific technological ability to really open the science up and let people look at it and explore it and start to draw their own conclusions. Climate Wizard is a great example of that. We can very much democratize access to the data, and people can start to formulate some of their own opinions just by seeing trends in data and matching it up to their own experience in the places that they live.

OLSON:  In some ways, my overall message is almost diametrically opposed to what Judy was saying: I feel there’s need for less academic input in terms of the broader aspects of global warming as an issue.

The highest priority is public relations, which is not the same as propaganda. The goal of public relations is to bring reality and perception into complete alignment. We know the reality is that scientists are very confident in their findings and that we should all be concerned about this issue when, in fact, the public perception is not in alignment with that. So that’s the challenge.

Climategate is a case study of the ineptitude of the science community to engage in public relations. The entire science community was blindsided. We need a SWAT team of professional communications people available on 24-hour notice, so that if another thing breaks like this, which it probably will, with climate skeptics suddenly pulling another trick like this and stealing some emails, immediately there are experts on the phone saying this is what you need to do. You need to cast the story in terms of someone committing a crime as opposed to scientists going to their blogs and saying: “Everybody relax. The reality is there’s nothing here, and the truth will come out.” Well, it took eight months for the truth to finally come out.

Wait — should scientists be leading with certainty, or uncertainty?

CURRY: I don’t think uncertainty and confidence should be equated. Confidence includes an element of trust, but the kind of behavior by scientists illuminated by Climategate really helped diminish the trust that the public had in climate science. By overstating your case, you risk losing people’s confidence because they don’t believe it.

OLSON:  What concerns me is too much of the blind leading the blind — too many people that are too academic involved in the communication side of things regarding global warming.

One of the fundamentals of storytelling is that lack of confidence is just not permissible.  An audience will not listen to you tell a story about your vacation last summer in Florida and then you suddenly say, “Now, wait a second.  Maybe it was in Alaska, or maybe it was in Australia.”  People disconnect at that point. So you have to lock onto the things that we are 100 percent confident in. When you take it beyond that to finer scale, you start getting into, “well, you know, we’re 70 percent sure of this and that.” That’s where you do lose the public.

We need to lock onto the things we know to be true and which the public can follow and not engage in a lot of the behind-the-scenes scientific disagreement, with a completely different academic language that the public can’t follow.

SHAW: I agree. Focusing on the scientists as communicators is a mistake in the long-term for developing a response in policy arena. We really need to take a hard look at the reliance on scientists in communicating the relevant information to policymakers and think about what other voices need to be involved to adequately convey the dangers of climate change

And there is no other highly complex science issue where we are challenging the scientific peer-reviewed process and demanding the kind of transparency and public input that is being demanded of climate science today. Is meeting this demand realistic given how highly complex the climate system and its science is? And there is also no other issue in science — in public health, environment,  medicine — where we expect the scientists  and scientific institutions alone to communicate the implications of scientific data and its uncertainties to human well-being.

The very complex nature of the climate change — the multiple sources and geographically-dispersed emissions, the complex interaction between the emissions the earth’s surface, and the intergenerational impacts — requires that we leave the science to the scientists. It also requires that we accept that the information will be politicized. Because it’s not like the ozone hole, where you had strong scientific evidence coupled with a policy action that impacted two or three types of industries. For climate change, absolutely everybody will be affected by policy action.

The decisions we have to make now are value decisions, given the preponderance of the evidence, that require more voices and institutions interpreting the implications of the science for our society. The focus on the scientific data and the uncertainty of the data is an easy distraction from making those decisions. As long as we keep the focus on inadequacies of the scientists as communicators and, there will be inaction.

(Image credit: bjortklingd/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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