If you watch TV, read the newspaper, or listen to the radio, you know that climate science has become a uniquely controversial and polarizing topic. The interesting thing is that the scientists who conduct climate research think that there is no controversy. In their view, it’s crystal clear: the Earth’s climate is changing, this change is caused by anthropogenic activity, and humanity must make modifications if it is to prevent these changes. End of story. As a climate scientist, I completely agree that there SHOULD be no controversy … but there is.
Some popular books with different perspectives on climate communication.
There are various contentious explanations for the existence of climate change denial. Some authors, like Chris Mooney, believe that this is because it is a highly complex subject that requires too much background knowledge. Others, like Naomi Oreskes, believe it is because there are too many businesses and political lobbying groups involved. Still others believe that scientists can’t be trusted and there is some hidden personal benefit derived from climate change mitigation. Regardless of the reason, all of these issues can be addressed if scientists can become more aware of their audience and their use of language and ultimately learn to communicate more effectively. Chris Mooney, Naomi Oreskes and others are slated to present their perspectives and ideas for solutions for more effective climate communication in my upcoming session at the AGU Fall Meeting, Scientist Participation in Science Communication.
A little bit of background: in late 2009, you may recall that 160 MB of confidential files from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit suddenly appeared on the Internet. This consisted of over 1,000 emails and 3,000 documents that included everything from journal manuscripts, to computer source code, to casual conversations between friends and colleagues. As can be expected when most of us write emails to friends, we don’t think too much about our vocabulary and the phrases that we use could easily be taken out of context and misconstrued to mean something else. This is exactly what happened to the scientists at CRU – the “trick” they used to calculate a result was suddenly being spun as “magical illusions used to confuse the public about climate change.” Of course, these scientists have all been cleared of any wrongdoing by an independent Science Assessment Panel, but not before gaining the attention of media outlets and politicians the world over. The real question is: why should it matter?
Twenty years earlier, in 1989, the Montréal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer came into effect. This was the result of scientists discovering that a large hole in the ozone layer appeared every spring over the Antarctic. Scientists were able to explain the theory behind its existence and make observations confirming that it was recurring every year. After lobbying policy makers, the Montréal Protocol was drawn up to limit the production of ozone depleting substances and, since then, 196 countries from around the world have ratified this treaty. Although regulating ozone depleting substances is a very different challenge from regulating greenhouse gases and the political climate was very different 20 years ago, this is still a great example of how science can inform policy and ultimately makes the world a better place.
So why can’t a similar approach be taken to mitigate climate change? Why hasn’t the Kyoto Protocol for the Stabilization of Greenhouse Gas Concentrations in the Atmosphere been anywhere near as successful? A big part of the answer is one that all scientists hate to admit – we are poor communicators.
Scientists were effective at communicating the cause, impacts, and potential threats of depleting the ozone layer. For one reason or another, we have not been effective at communicating the cause, impacts, and potential threats of climate change. The irony of the whole situation is that scientists spend a lot of time communicating. We publish articles in scholarly journals, we write technical reports, we produce protocol documents, and we even teach science classes to hundreds of students. Here’s the catch: we never stop for an instant to consider our audience. Everything that we write, say, or do is almost exclusively directed to other scientists. We are stuck in a world where “positive feedback” and “anomalies” are not considered jargon but are common, everyday phrases with a distinct scientific meaning (an entertaining discussion of how these phrases are perceived by the public can be found here). It is for this reason that, when we do go out on a limb and try to communicate with a non-science audience, we are not only confused by their lack of understanding, we are frustrated that our message hasn’t gone anywhere. If that message is suddenly mixed in with thousands of other conflicting statements in every available medium, there is no chance for effective communication.
Thankfully, at NEON, we are more than aware of this problem and are already developing plans to address it. When NEON was in the initial planning stages, education and outreach were identified as absolutely essential for the success of the project. It is for this reason that there is a Chief of Education and Outreach in NEON’s executive management – something that is, unfortunately, not very common at large research institutes. Great care has also been made to ensure that we are as transparent as possible to the scientific community – if our emails ever get hacked, we shouldn’t have anything to worry about. NEON is also unusual in that our team of scientists covers a very broad range of subject areas, so we are already forced to regularly communicate with a diverse audience. Furthermore, the very fact that NEON’s communications plans are still in the development phase provides an unprecedented opportunity to create modern, scientific communications strategies. I encourage everyone, members of the scientific community and the public at large, to write to us with your suggested contributions – understanding our audience is key here and you, the reader, are part of that very audience. By becoming more effective communicators, we can minimize some of the debate present in the media and, ultimately, help solidify our scientific messages.
The bottom line is that we still have a lot to learn when it comes to communicating science … but we’re getting there. In my next post, I’ll endeavour to strike a more positive tone by focusing on some of the communication efforts that are currently underway by some scientists (such as Gavin Schmidt’s Real Climate Blog) and institutes (such as the American Geophysical Union’s Climate Science Q&A Service). In addition, I’ll provide some of the highlights from my upcoming session at the AGU Fall Meeting: Scientist Participation in Science Communication (program below). If you’re going to be in San Francisco on December 7th, you won’t want to miss it!