Communicating About Climate Science, Part I

By Chris Mooney | September 28, 2010 8:06 am

Lately, I’ve done a lot of events focused on communicating about climate change–like this one (which alas is behind a wall). No wonder: It’s a key problem, especially in the wake of ClimateGate.

Because I’ve done much preparing for these events, but have hardly gotten to say everything I wanted to say, I plan on blogging some of my further thoughts over the coming week or more.

But first, let me embed one result of all of this preparation–a video that just went up on ClimateScienceWatch, in which I and climate scientist Ben Santer discuss aspects of the communication problem.

Incidentally, I think one of the responses I give here–regarding alternative communication opportunities–is inadequate. I have more to say about this, and will soon:


Comments (10)

  1. Somite

    The problem is not with the communicators. The problem is with the media still permits/promotes that a hack can contradict Ann Druyan on matters of climate change.

    It is not a problem with the scientist’s communication skills. It is the dishonesty of those that want to muddle the message and manufacture doubt.

  2. Schiller Thurkettle

    Climatology is on the horns of a dilemma: how to communicate its message when it can’t get the science right.

  3. Schiller – I disagree about your skepticism, and I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is:

    I haven’t found many on the other side who are willing to do the same thing.

  4. I sort of agree with Somite, until we can get the media to stop thinking that a 95%+ consensus on one side needs to be “balanced” by a 5% minority on the other side, people are still going to get the wrong message.


  5. I think that there is a deeper problem than just the communications skills of our leading climate scientists. It feels to me that we are in the middle of another cycle of anti-intellectualism and it may need another Hofstadter to document it. Unscientific America, as well intentioned as it was, did not have the breadth to truly characterize the problem.

    Tied with the Limbaugh, Beck, Palin rhetoric, we have a distrust of many of the institutions in our world: but especially education and government. The mayoral candidate in my home town who describes climate change as “junk science” takes the same attitude toward the government that he wants to lead.

    I am beginning to think that Jane Jacobs (Dark Age Ahead) was an optimist.

  6. Nullius in Verba

    Brian #3,

    I’ve already got a ten year bet on with someone else, but what would it prove if somebody did/didn’t bet with you? There are lots of possible reasons why they might not want to engage in bets with a random stranger off the internet besides lack of confidence. Not least, that we have no idea if such a person is the sort to keep to their word.

    But just for fun, here’s a prediction by a certain media mogul that you can offer odds on if you like.
    “Not doing it will be catastrophic. We’ll be eight degrees hotter in ten, not ten but 30 or 40 years and basically none of the crops will grow. Most of the people will have died and the rest of us will be cannibals.”
    I’ll offer to stake an arm and a leg that it’s not going to happen.

    Rhacodactylus #4,

    You meant 85% vs 15%, surely?

    Wes #5,

    We feel much the same way, but in the other direction. But as each millenarian cycle comes and goes, we find ourselves still here, and still progressing.
    I don’t see progress going away any time soon.

  7. genealogymaster

    The problem is that these scientists are afraid of scrutiny of their work. That raises questions if your work can’t be checked then why should I take your word for it and those emails do speak for themselves. There needs to be an investigation to see did they destroy emails we don’t know and how about peer review? We have no idea what they did.

  8. klem

    The most effective way to communicate this to the public is on an individual basis. Just get the person alone, play some grey sounding background music, and tell them climate change is real, then have them drink some kool-aid, keep repeating climate change is real, more kool-aid. Repeat this process for about 48 hours continuously, allowing almost no sleep or food. In no time they will be effectively communicated. They will Believe.



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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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