Communicating About Climate Science, Part II

By Chris Mooney | September 30, 2010 8:39 am

On Wednesday, I did a first post about climate science communication. But because many other issues arise in this discussion than are addressed in the video that I posted, I want to continue by addressing some additional points.

Here’s the first: How important is it for climate scientists, beyond being good researchers, to also be good communicators?

I would say very important–and some already are great communicators.

Richard Alley, for instance, is very dynamic, and very entertaining. (Just click here if you don’t believe me, to see his Milankovich cycle dance.)

I also recently listened to Greg Holland of NCAR do a radio satellite tour to talk about the 2010 hurricane season, sponsored by the Project on Climate Science. He did a great job being personable, getting the facts across, in different media markets across the country.

[Note: Singling out these two individuals does not mean that they’re the only good climate science communicators–they’re just two good examples.]

But many researchers don’t have these natural skills–and many don’t have the time or training to let them design a message, think about creative ways of delivering it, consider its timing, and so on.

But all of them can do the following. They can think, from the outset of a particular research project, about how it is going to be communicated. And they can work with communication professionals—here’s the money issue, those people need to be available—to come up with a strategy the professionals can then execute.

There can, and should, be a division of labor in most cases when it comes to the communication roles. The problem is that while we’ve got lots of great researchers in the scientific world, there is really not much of an identity for professional science communicators—and not much career prospects, either.

Question 2: How can climate scientists communicate on this issue without crossing the line and being seen as “advocates,” or losing their objectivity?

If you are working in a politicized area, as a scientist, you should know from the outset that anything you say is going to be given greater scrutiny, and even that you might well be attacked baselessly—not because you’ve done anything wrong, but simply because it serves someone’s strategic or political purposes.

In this context, scientists can’t flinch from communicating—but they need to go in with open eyes. In particular, being objective and careful about what you say, not getting baited into needless conflict, sticking to what you know needs to be gotten across, is critical.

There’s another point here. In a politicized area, scientists are always going to be accused of advocating for policy positions, and going beyond their expertise.

One way of dealing with this is to take the route of the old Office of Technology Assessment—provide a range of options based on the science, rather than explicitly taking a position in favor of one particular policy. Thus, you could talk about why the science shows that global warming is going to keep worsening if we don’t take action, but that doesn’t mean you’re endorsing a carbon tax or cap and trade.

Respecting this line between describing a problem on one hand, and advocating particular legislation to solve it on the other, should go a long way towards inoculating against criticism–or at least, the kind of criticism that actually sticks.

I’ll have another blog about climate science communication next week….


Comments (6)

  1. Statement by Dr. James E. Hansen
    Freedom Plaza:
    Equal Protection of the Laws

    We hold this truth to be self evident – all people are created equal. That truth is the basis for equal protection of the laws – a right guaranteed by our Constitution. “All people” includes young people, mountain people, poor people.

    Our government was instituted to protect the rights of all people. We are gathered here today to draw attention to the failure of our government to protect the rights of the people, and failure to provide equal protection of the laws. People have suffered a long train of abuses, invariably with the same objective – to enrich the few at the expense of the many.

    First, the government is failing to protect the future of young people, knowingly allowing and even subsidizing actions that benefit the few at the expense of the public and at the expense of all life sharing this Earth.

    Second, the legislative and executive branches of government knowingly propose actions that demonstrably and utterly fail to preserve our climate, and the environment for life.

    Third, our government allows and contributes to a great hoax, perpetrated on the public by moneyed interests, aimed at confusing the public about the reality of climate change. We are in danger of becoming the land for the rich and the home of the bribe.

    More than 200 years after the founding of our nation, we face a great moral crisis. Human-made climate change pits the rich and powerful against the young and unborn, against the defenseless, and against nature. The moral issue is comparable to slavery and civil rights.

    Solution for civil rights was provided by the combination of people in the streets and the courts, which provided equal protection of the laws and ordered desegregation.

    Brave people have been standing up in West Virginia, in Kentucky, in Tennessee, in Utah, in Australia, in the United Kingdom, around the world.

    But now is the time to go on the offensive. We should not be begging courts to forgive the brave people who protest. We must ask the courts to order the government to present plans to phase down fossil fuel emissions at a pace dictated by science, a pace stabilizing climate, preserving nature and a future for young people, providing young people equal protection of the laws.

    We can bring that case. But we can win only if the public understands the situation, sees through the lies of the moneyed interests, sees what is needed to solve the problem.

    As long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy, we will not solve the addiction. There will be more mountaintop removal, longwall mining, tar sands, deep ocean drilling, shale gas, seeking the last drop in the most pristine places.

    We must put a fee on carbon, collected from fossil fuel companies, with all proceeds distributed to the public. One hundred percent or fight!
    Most people will get more in the monthly green check than they pay in increased energy prices. Our economy and innovations will be stimulated. We will move to clean energies.

    A coalition is building for a carbon fee with 100 percent distributed to the public in a monthly check. In October this coalition will launch a campaign, Million Letter March, gathering letters showing that the people insist on an honest equitable solution. Please join the March.

    Let us resolve to have a rebirth – a rebirth of our nation, a rebirth of equality of opportunity, true equality — with a government of the people, by the people and for the people – all of the people.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001

  2. I think part of the problem is that science naturally lends itself to reserved language, whereas politics does not.


  3. kirk

    The ‘X cannot communicate’ trope is getting threadbare. Where X= [scientists, engineers, savants, idiots… box turtles] there are many, many classes in:
    Business and Professional Communication Skills:

    o standing in front of high quality PPT (3 bullets with 12 words each)
    o extemporaneous speaking (mostly LISTENING and PAUSING before speaking)
    o etc, etc,

    Since most of the dignified individuals in this set (even some bright box turtles) excel in classroom learning after all – some actually stand in front of classrooms full of students. That’s almost like an audience…

    Evangelize Toastmasters and reduce the whining by 3dB.

  4. Nullius in Verba


    I think Al Gore tried the Powerpoint slide approach. 😀

    The ‘X cannot communicate’ trope is usually a euphemism for ‘our argument has not persuaded people’.

    Your problem is that you need to convey an understanding of the science, not just the authority, unanimity, and certainty of scientists. It’s a difficult thing to do, especially if you don’t understand the science yourself – as most advocates don’t. So yes, you do need the scientists to be able to communicate, and I’m really not sure how much help the communication professionals can be in that. Techniques obviously borrowed from politics and advertising won’t work. (I’d also add, James Hansen’s antics flying all around the world to make speeches and get arrested really aren’t helping you, either.) I think you should consider the possibility that you’re (visibly) trying too hard.


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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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