The Skywriter

How should scientists communicate about climate?


How should scientists communicate about climate?


By 1Sky blogger Janelle Corn, Ph.D. See her bio at the end of this post. -- Luis

Alex Bea recently posted a review of a publication (.pdf) that will help us all communicate more effectively about climate change. This led me to consider how I, as an ecologist, might add to the discussion about effective communication.

I thought I might find some answers in a recent special issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, "Effective Communication of Science in Environmental Controversies." Check it out; the Ecological Society of America has made it open-source for broad dissemination. A press release from the ESA was highlighted in several news round-up blogs.

What can we do for the environment? What can individual scientists, agencies and institutions do to improve the quality of environmental decision-making? These are among the questions explored by scientists and communications experts in this special issue.

After reading the articles in this issue, I was left disappointed. They addressed items of importance (only) to academic ecologists, and not surprisingly, there were suggestions made by scientists for scientists. Rather than nuts-and-bolts of themes we should emphasize, they concerned themselves with how to find time and money for getting involved in the public debate, and how to protect their prestige. I hope I'm not being too harsh here, but they certainly lack the passion that I've witnessed elsewhere.

Additionally, these peer-reviewed papers took some time to reach publication. The conference was held almost a year ago, and climate change, media events (think "Climate-gate"), and policy are in a completely different place today.

I examined the words of climate scientists who have been at the forefront, whom I have heard speak recently and blogged about. What can we learn from these scientists, speaking to the public?

The answer can be found in the summaries and links I provide in my posts. Two themes are being emphasized when climate scientists speak, and we should all follow their lead:

  1. The science is settled: climate change is occurring, it is due to human-caused burning of fossil fuels, and we no longer need to engage with the global-warming denialists. They (the denialists) are a relatively small proportion of the population, they will not be convinced, and their support is not necessary for us (American, global citizens) to take action against climate change. It is past time to move on.
  2. The biggest roadblock (other than our senators and the money from Big Oil and Dirty Coal!) to finding support for action against climate change is economic concerns. The "policy" or "action" message must address "equity." When speaking out for action, we need to speak to the economic concerns of that massive "middle," who care about doing something about climate change but are afraid of the cost to themselves and their families.

Steve Running said,

...It's going to take time. For people we know who are employed in the 'dirty energy' sector, we need to assure them that their jobs are not at risk. It's going to take time to transition to clean and renewable energy sources, and their jobs will continue to be necessary in the short term. However, it's their children who will need to be pointed in a new direction under a climate and energy bill...

Robert Fri said,

Consider potential equity implications when designing and implementing climate change limiting policies, with special attention to disadvantaged populations. Some low-income/disadvantaged groups are likely to suffer disproportionately from adverse impacts of climate change, and may also be adversely affected by policies to limit climate change. It will be important to monitor, and to consider options for minimizing, adverse impacts upon these groups (e.g., by providing relief from higher energy prices to low-income households and by actively engaging representatives of poor and minority communities in policy planning efforts). Major changes to our nation's energy system will inevitably lead to job gains in some sectors and regions, and losses in others. Policy makers could help smooth this transition through additional, targeted support for educational, training, and retraining programs.

Interesting, isn't it? These are leaders in climate science, who are actually out there communicating. And this is what they say: forget the denialists, and never forget the cost concerns.

Janelle Corn, Ph.D., is an ecologist and wildlife biologist living in Western Montana. She has lived and worked in the western U.S. for 30 years, and is currently an activist for addressing climate change before it's too late. Her new blog is Natural History Now. The author's opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the 1Sky campaign.

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