Communicating climate science

After swearing off climate conferences for the past year, I’ve just returned from the first day of the Climate Futures Forum, held at Te Papa here in Wellington, NZ. I was inspired to go to the Forum because it is aiming to be discussion-based as much as it is presentation-based, which I find to be an interesting and potentially powerful model. While we began by, necessarily, touching on the state of climate science, I found the most interesting discussions to be about communicating climate science.

I have thought a lot about communicating climate science. Before I formally researched climate, I was interested in climate policy issues; as such, I have tried to think about how my research can contribute to positive changes in climate policy. Increasingly, however, I became frustrated with the mismatch between the level of understanding of the climate system in the scientific community and the level of understanding of the threat of climate change in the general public. Like many scientists, I responding by retreating into the bubble of research.

At the Forum, I had the pleasure of both talking to Erik Conway over lunch and, subsequently, listening to his talk. (Those of you who have read Merchants of Doubt may be familiar with what I’m about to write – but I must admit I had not read the book, so I’m not sure how much of his talk is from the book itself.) I recently have been caught up with the idea that communication of uncertainty is the key problem facing scientists: if we could just figure out how to make sure people do not discount science because of error bars, we would be set! With this idea in mind, I tried to pick Erik’s brain for his thoughts, which he offered (Don’t start with the uncertainty in your story. That’s called lead-burying in journalism). The thesis of his talk, however, woke me up to how narrowly I’d been viewing the issue. He argued that the problem is not with the science, it’s not with communicating the uncertainties, and another IPCC report will not lead people to take action on climate. The science is probably as clear as it ever needs to be for the sake of public policy, since uncertainty is inherent in science. Rather, we need to explain why addressing climate change is critical from a values perspective. The idea of environmentalism as socialism, as an excuse for government to stick its hands in Average Joe’s life, has become surprisingly prevalent, and clashes with many Americans’ views about liberty, government, and rights. I don’t necessarily share their values, but I also recognize that the current communication strategy of more, clear science is not working. Instead, we must be able to argue why preserving our climate close to its present state – and, relatedly, preserving human societies that have been constructed in a relatively stable climate regime – fundamentally matters.

One other thought from the Forum: two journalists, Fred Pearce and Brian Fallow, had opposing viewpoints about the approach scientists should take when communicating with the public (via the press). The former argued for a greater openness about uncertainties; the latter advocated keeping the message simple and easy to understand, since journalist, editor and reader all have a short attention span (and, generally, a lack of expertise.) My jury is still out on this one – but it is a critical question to think about before talking to the media about science.