Communicating About Climate Science, Part III

By Chris Mooney | October 5, 2010 8:56 am

This is the third in a series of posts about communicating the science of climate change. The first post, here, simply put up a video about this topic from Climate Science Watch. The second post, here, addressed how important it is for climate scientists to be good communicators, and how scientists can protect themselves from being accused of engaging in “advocacy.”

Now, let’s go on to some more important questions:

3) Clearly, we have a large part of the public which doesn’t accept climate science. Is that who we should be trying to reach and convince? Or is it some other audience that should be targeted?

This is a critical question because it highlights that there are different subsets of the public, with different degrees of receptivity to mainstream climate science. In particular, the research by Anthony Leiserowitz at Yale University (and colleagues) has highlighted that there are really 6 Americas when it comes to global warming, and those who are what Leiserowitz calls the “dismissive” (we might call them the deniers) are the least likely to be moved or persuaded.

Sadly, the dismissives have been growing dramatically of late, from 7 percent of the public in 2008 to 16 percent in 2010.

What climate scientists ought to be doing—and climate science communicators ought to be doing—is targeting segments of the public that are not dismissive, that can be reached, but that so far have been informationally disenfranchised. They haven’t been engaged, but there’s great potential there. However, you need to reach them with the right message, one that speaks to them and makes them care about the issue.

Here, I think research and analysis by Matthew Nisbet of American University is really helpful. Because what Nisbet shows is that there are many different ways of communicating about climate science, and the particular “frame” that you choose has great implications for what kind of audience you’re capable of reaching.

There are at least 5 possible frames that I’m aware of—“scientific/technical,” “economic,” “ethical/religious,” “national security,” and “public health.” I don’t want to go into a ton of detail on each of them, because that would lead to a dramatically long blog post, and it has been discussed elsewhere.

However, the point to emphasize is that each frame has the potential to reach different audiences. E.g., a message about how addressing climate change will spur the growth of green jobs, and new innovative companies, is a message the investor class might listen to. And a message about how addressing climate change will help wean us off foreign oil, and prevent the destabilizing effects of mass ice sheet loss and the disintegration of low-lying countries like Bangladesh, can speak to those who care about our nation’s geopolitical standing and well-being.

4) Who speaks for climate science? Can they be full time communicators, or top scientists doing this work in their spare time? Must they have Ph.D’s to be credible? Or is that training actually a hindrance when it comes to navigating the media and communication sphere?

In my view, academia is far too full of technical experts, and far too devoid of expert communicators. I believe that scientists who are excellent communicators ought to be tenured on that basis, given sustainable careers, and encouraged to explore and innovate in communication techniques.

I also think that people who aren’t necessarily Ph.D.s themselves, but have shown great aptitude when it comes to communicating about scientific topics, should have the same kinds of opportunities available to them.

So the answer is not only that we ought to be developing science “translators,” but that we ought to be promoting and rewarding those who are good at it, within and as part of the traditional academic structure.

Let me give a great example. There’s an incredible YouTube video about climate change, “The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See.” It has been seen by some 3.7 million or more people. It was made not by a scientist, but by a high school teacher in Oregon, a guy named Greg Craven. It is a tremendous way of getting across why we have to do something about climate change—because it is creative, unexpected, funny, and personality driven.

We need innovative people like Greg Craven out there communicating climate research, even if they’re not Ph.D. scientists. They’re still a key part of the team. In fact, in many cases, they may be able to find new and innovative ways of communicating that are different from what scientists would be likely come up with–and Craven is a key case in point.


Comments (14)

  1. Nullius in Verba

    This sounds like an interesting approach. Let’s try it.

    Scientific expert talking technical to the public:

    Bangladesh is an example of a river delta. Erosion washes mud and silt down river, held in suspension by the speed of flow of the water. When it reaches sea level, the flow fans out, and thereby slows down rapidly, and the silt falls out of suspension on reaching the coast. If the sea bed is shallow and coastal erosion does not wash it away, this results in wide, flat delta-shaped plains almost exactly at sea level. The mud is soft and compressible, so the land sinks, but is constantly renewed by new material deposited on top. Flood prevention measures can interrupt this process, and result in land dropping below sea level. River silt is extremely fertile so deltas are popular areas to settle in agrarian economies, despite the disadvantages of recurrent flooding. The coastline is already in equilibrium with sea level rise. The current rate of 2-3 mm/yr has results in a fixed-size reduction in equilibrium area, that will now not change again unless the rate of rise accelerates. Recent satellite surveys have shown that Bangladesh is currently increasing in area, but this is a random process that can be expected to show temporary excursions in both directions. As sea level has risen over a hundred metres since the last ice age, this landscape is geologically ‘new’, and part of the continual natural cycle of land creation and erosion.

    Now the communications expert, with added framing:

    Bangladesh is disintegrating. Scientists say that the disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet could raise sea levels by 7 metres. Many of the world’s most populous cities and nations are closer than this to sea level, and many of the poorest too. The costs would run into trillions, and the suffering of the hundreds of millions of climate refugees made homeless would have a devastating impact on the economies of neighbouring countries as they struggle to cope. Many such areas are politically unstable, and their disruption would cause widespread unrest and security issues, raising racial and religious tensions in reaction to the necessarily massive increase in immigration. The loss of the most fertile land will lead to widespread malnutrition and impact already overburdened public health services. This is forecast for the next 50-100 years, unless urgent action is taken immediately. For the sake of Bangladesh’s children, we must act now.

    I think you can clearly see which is the more persuasive science communication. Can you spot all the frames?

    Greg Craven – wasn’t he the one who presented an updated version of Pascal’s Wager? Given that the argument was invented prior to 1662, is that really very innovative?

  2. FUAG

    Nullis, the first example doesn’t cause panic! What’s the point of writing something unless it invokes fear!?!?

    But, as we are continually told by the left, only the right invokes the “Politics of Fear” so it must be true!!! OMG… those poor children in Bangladesh!!!!!!!

  3. Chris, I know that your paring of frames to specific audiences was an example. I hope that no one would limit the economic frame to just some elite investor class. The libertarian view of economics, backed by self-serving corporate money, has been so successful at positioning environmental regulations as a job killing act that most of the public does not even question it. Consider California’s Proposition 23 on the November ballot, initially introduced by State Senator Dan Logue… need I identify him as a Republican… and supported by the Republican slate of candidates for statewide office as well as US Senate candidate Carly Fiorina.

    The economic message has to be targeted at those who are out of work, those who work in climate threatened industries, in other words, the most likely angry voters.

    We all understood Fram Oil Filter’s message, “you can pay me now or pay me later.” It was effective. Use google and figure out all of the fields where those words are sued to explain that simple concept: IT, construction, etc., etc. If Prop 23 passes, we may not able to afford paying later.

  4. Jim Ogden

    I think you’re making this too hard. I believe that the reason for a doubling of the “dismissives” is that they have begun to recognize that many things that we have been told about climate change are false or exaggerated. Here are just a few:

    1. Wind and solar energy are now economical? Actually the cost for land-based wind power is in the ballpark, but it’s intermittency makes it impractical as a mainstream source.

    2. Green energy will boost the economy and provide a net increase in jobs? Higher energy costs can only slow the economy and that will cost jobs.

    3. The Alliance for Climate Protection, headed by Al Gore, tells us that we can get 100% of our electricity from renewable sources, primarily wind and solar? Again, their intermittancy makes that impossible until we can find a way to store vast amounts of electricity.

    4. And how about the confidence in the predictions? Despite the East Anglia debacle this continues to be a problem. Certainly some people think that they must deceive the public in order to achieve their goals.

    If the message doesn’t become accurate and honest, the number of dismissives will continue to grow and action on climate change will founder.

  5. FUAG

    @3 “positioning environmental regulations as a job killing”

    Why has a country once dominated by manufacturing now been relegated to a position where it’s nearly impossible to be profitable at manufacturing on a large scale? I suggest it’s largely because we are competing with countries that don’t have strict environment and labor laws. So, assuming you agree with my assessment, there is no other conclusion than “liberal agenda = killing manufacturing jobs”.

    It’s easy for many of us to overlook this because we don’t live in a place (south, midwest) where an entire town becomes unemployed because the plant they all work at is sent oversees.

    If we have to play by different rules we can’t be competitive.

  6. Gonzo

    Two observations, for whatever they’re worth:

    First: Whoever you’re communicating with, the dire doomsday scenarios do not seem to be working for us. Some of the climate science crowd have claimed we will be losing coastal cities in the next couple of years. When that does not happen, despite failure to enact C&T or other global reforms, it destroys credibility.

    Its a fine line to get across the seriousness of the cause without overheated catastrophic predictions that are not only falsifiable but which, if falsified by non-occurrence cast doubt on the models. But we must strive to find that line.

    Second: We’re all going to be apologizing for a video of the denialists being blown into a red mist of bone and blood for a long time. Stay away from edgy stunts and please consider the “cross town bus” question. If you said/showed this/or gave your speech to a cross town bus would most of the people on board listen? Would they be offended? Would they “get” your joke?

    Aside from that, of course we have to convince those who are (a) not yet convinced; but (b) able to listen with an open mind.

    Regards, Gonzo.

  7. Nullius in Verba


    I agree, with one minor nitpick.

    First: I would note that all your predictions, catastrophic or not, must be falsifiable to be scientific. What they must not be is falsified.

    Second: My favourite comment was along the lines of “Be a warmist, or you’ll be a warm mist.”
    (I apologise if that’s in poor taste.)

  8. Gonzo

    Nulius: I really intended to use the word falsifiable. I do not think our side ought to have the hubris to think our models can predict results. This will turn out to be a lost decade of possible progress in the scientific world where the movement’s latching onto models with specific date-range identified catastrophe scenarios (none of which have come to pass so far) will destroy our credibility while letting everyone endorse a business as usual attitude.

    I remember coming of age during the “hole in the ozone” thing and I liked the approach there a lot more. We identified the problem, we professed an inability to predict exactly what the hole meant, but we posited that drastic departures from the “usual state of things” would likely be bad and hard to counter. And people were satisfied with that.

    I don’t think its wrong to say that CO2 increases lead to warming leads to weather extremes and leads to molten ice and rising ocean levels.

    However, it is a mistake to say that all that happens “in the next five years ZOMGWTFBBQ!!!!!”

    The last thing the movement can afford given the stakes is to screw this up by crying wolf anymore. Identifying the harm: “The gate is open and the wolf can get into the pasture…. we should fix that!” sounds a lot better to me than tilting at windmills “OMG! There it is! Its the wolf! Oh.. wait, maybe not…. wait! I see him again! Its the wolf! Just around the corner! Watch! You’ll see!!”

    See what I mean?

    BTW, ROFL at the “warm mist” but seriously, the first time I’ve heard office coworkers talk about climate issues in a year, and it was about that video. NOT. HELPFUL.


  9. huxley

    Chris Mooney: When I hear the word “frames” I think of George Lakoff called in to punch up the Democrats’ message so that it will be more effective with those yokels in Kansas who don’t seem to understand their own self-interest.

    However, that said, the frame that would work for me is “scientists being scientists,” not part-time advocates or activists. The largest problem facing the climate change movement IMO is that a fair number of people, including myself, no longer trust scientists to play it straight.

    Climategate wasn’t one but two setbacks. (1) Discovering that several of the top name scientists in climate change were playing fast and loose — bordering on criminality — with the data, transparency, and peer review. (2) Discovering that most of the scientific community responded by closing ranks, by excusing and whitewashing the cilmate scientists, then renewing their attacks on the skeptics.

    Had a hundred Richard Feynmans stood up then and denounced the shoddy practices of those climate scientists, it would have done much to undo that damage, but of course that did not happen.

    I would like to add something that’s not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the layman when you’re talking as a scientist. … I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you are maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.
    — Richard Feynman,

  10. Nullius in Verba


    I sympathise. But I think the original complaint leading to inaction was that doom in the distant future was not falsifiable now, (and we have seen environmental prophets before whose dire predictions had not panned out), which is why they switched to predicting more imminent catastrophe.

    If you want to convince, you need to make specific falsifiable predictions in the near term that can be explained no other way, and then see them come true. That’s hard to do. That’s why science is different.

    The “crying wolf” analogy is a good one. But the villagers are not saying “there is no wolf”, but “it will cost us a huge amount to repair all the fences, the diversion of effort will lead to other animals dying, are you sure it is worth it?” If we work at multiplying the flock’s numbers, then in the future we can survive a few being lost to wolves, but if we instead divert all our efforts to fencing, and thus set hard limits on our flock’s future expansion, then we will forever be vulnerable to disasters, of which there are many besides the wolves.

    We have to balance many risks and options, we face many other clear and immediate dangers right now, and we need to understand why a possible wolf in an unknown future is more urgent than anything else we face. Please, show us your evidence.

    And we can’t help noticing that it would put you in charge of all the fences and gates around us.

    Climate change (anthropogenic or not) has always been a problem for humanity and is well worth researching, and planning for. And I hope and expect that in 50 years time we will be doing things differently, with a better understanding. The question is one of priorities, for which we need accurate information about the state of knowledge.


    Very good! An excellent quote, which you can contrast with this:

    “On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but — which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.”

    Or if you like, the more pithy version of Professor Jones:

    “We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it. There is IPR to consider.”

  11. huxley

    Nullius in Verba #10: Ah yes! I know the first quote from Schneider well.

    Here’s a web page on the very same from a pair of aspiring climatologists who believe that nasty folks have quoted it out of context by leaving off the final sentence (which you include) thereby “completely changed” its meaning.

    Me, I saw a bit more nuance but no redemption with the extra sentence, and along with others said so.

    But our aspiring climatologists have absorbed the thuggish censoring habits of our climate scientist class. Six of my eight posts were deleted. Sort of amusing.

    My final comment, deleted of course:

    I’ll not bother any further here. Only a year ago I was defending global warming scientists to my more skeptical friends. No more. I can’t get straight answers or open debate from global warming advocates.

    Keep in mind that if your side is genuinely concerned about the perils of global warming you need support from laymen such as myself. It’s easy to see why your side has lost this support.

    At this point I’m convinced your side cannot make its case in the open. See you at the ballot box.

  12. Nullius in Verba


    When it comes to open debate, our host here is very, very good about it. Even though we definitely don’t agree, virtually all my comments get posted, and I’ve only ever had a handful blocked. (Not always for easily discernible reasons, but nobody’s perfect.) Even through some very extended back-and-forth arguments that probably tried his patience.

    I like the site, because you can actually get to talk with AGW believers, without the owner’s biases getting in the way, or it getting acrimonious. And we need communication and better mutual understanding if we are ever going to resolve this. One just needs to stay reasonably polite, civilised, and constructive.

    That doesn’t always mean you’ll get the answers you’re looking for, and Chris Mooney himself doesn’t participate in comments very often, (or change his mind significantly, that I’ve noticed), but it doesn’t matter. It’s the exchange of viewpoints I find valuable, and you can often get a good debate.

  13. huxley

    12. Nullius in Verba: Well then — hear, hear for this Discovery blog! Would that there were more such. I had had a bad run of experiences on climate change blogs when I wrote that bit in #11.

    Maybe things are not as dire as I had come to think. I hope not, because I am persuaded that there is some truth to the climate change arguments and I certainly believe it bears further study and debate.

    However, I am not persuaded that we must immediately rush through the current climate change agenda. I’d really like the climate change scientists to pull up their socks and do a better job of making their case to the layperson.


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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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