What’s Hot in Climate Science Today? Communicating

San Francisco–Here at the 19,200 scientist American Geophysical Union fall meeting, you can sample any aspect of Earth and planetary science that you like. The proceedings provide, among other things, a dream roster for Hollywood disaster movies in the making. You’ve got volcano experts, earthquake experts, hurricane experts, and on and on.

But you also have a new and different focus: Scientists out here, especially climate scientists but also those who study natural hazards and many other fields, are increasingly dedicated to figuring out how to reach non-scientists with what they know. They’ve learned the hard way, through events like “ClimateGate,” that it doesn’t just happen automatically. If anything, it un-happens.

They’re growing convinced that if they don’t get themselves and their knowledge out there, someone else—like, say, Marc Morano—will be conveying the message about climate science instead.

Yesterday a session I participated in, called “Communicating Climate Science,” was packed with over 200 people. We literally had to move a wall at the Moscone Center to fit everyone in the room safely and ensure it wasn’t a fire hazard. The other panelists were climate science communications trainer and consultant Susan Joy Hassol and science communication practitioner (e.g., he’s a scientist who does it) Richard Somerville of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

I started out with an overview that surveyed scientific illiteracy in general and the public’s strange views of climate science in particular. It’s not just that only 49 % of the public thinks it’s warming out there due to human activities (vs 84 % of U.S. scientists). Moreover, large majorities think “the hole in the ozone layer and aerosol spray cans contribute to global warming.” On basic climate literacy (what’s the greenhouse effect, ocean acidification, etc) 40 percent of Americans get a C or D, and 52 percent get an F.

But perhaps that’s partly understandable when you consider how often scientists aren’t. Hassol gave a memorable overview of the many wonk words that climate scientists use that backfire in communication with the public—or just fail completely to convey what scientists actually mean. “Anthropogenic,” for instance. How many times, she noted, have you heard someone try to sound smart and say “anthropomorphic” instead? And those are the ones that are trying to get it right.

Other words that backfire or have different meanings than scientists think? “Radiation.” “Errors.” “Models.” “Theory.” Oh, and especially “aerosols.” When people hear about aerosols, Hassol emphasized, they think of spray cans. What a perfect way of reinforcing the widespread misconception that climate change has something to do with the hole in the ozone layer.

Hassol also covered another pet peeve: The standard IPCC usage of terms like “likely,” “very likely,” etc, to attribute degrees of certainty to various findings. I know scientists like being able to quantify how sure they are while still employing the English language—but is the public really cognizant of the underlying percentages? Hassol argued that when average folks hear such language, they often get the impression that scientists are less certain than they really are.

Somerville, meanwhile, took on the challenge of communicating when there’s a “dark side” trying to thwart every effort. He gave a roster of bogus denialist arguments, including the claim that there’s a conspiracy to suppress legitimate scientific dissent with respect to climate change science. As Somerville noted, climate skeptics like to paint themselves as Galileos struggling against the establishment, but in reality, “Historians of science will tell you that the odds of Galileos are extremely small.” (That was a laugh line.)

The other panelists, and those in the room, seemed to concur with my suggestion that one of the problems here is what you might call asymmetric warfare. As Mike Mann has put it, debating climate skeptics is kind of like “a battle between a marine and a cub scout.” Scientists are constrained in communicating, in a way that many climate skeptics aren’t, by various professional and scholarly norms. So how can they be expected to respond in the media with one hand behind their backs, given the kinds of scurrilous claims often made against them?

It’s a difficult problem, but what’s clear is that there is going to be a new wave of attention paid to addressing it. That in itself will engender a trial and error process and, surely, some innovations. As I explained to the scientists assembled, communication isn’t rocket science—which is to say, it isn’t nearly so intellectually challenging as the work they already do. However, it is a bit like jujitsu—you need well honed instincts and fast reflexes. Those must be developed.

In the end, the new focus on science communication may not yield dramatic changes to the nature of the public debate overnight. Not on an issue as nastily contested as climate change. Misinformation, once unleashed, won’t simply vanish. Polarization, though it may decrease, won’t quickly go away either.

At the same time, though, scientists will be racking up small victories. They’ll be winning over audiences in public talks and local media interviews, even as they train their students to do likewise. They’ll be starting out blogs, like skepticalscience.com (which was much praised yesterday), and initiatives like the Climate Science Rapid Response team.

We don’t know precisely what it will all add up to, but will it be a net positive?

Very likely. 


Thanks for being part of the workshop last Tues.; I was there and it was excellent. Very much hoping that they will do it again next year, and since time is such a constraint for meeting attendees, I’m hoping that they’ll run it twice, as well as in a larger space, assuming that the panelists would be willing to do it 2x.