Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Communicating Climate Change

In an effort to combat misinformation about climate change during the UN negotiations in Cancun this week, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) -- a non-profit scientific organization with more than 58,000 members -- launched a Climate Question & Answer Service for journalists. The program is part of a recent effort by scientists to be more proactive in communicating the science of climate change to the public, but it draws a line at questions of policy. In reality the line between science and policy is slightly fuzzy, and scientists need to formulate a coherent strategy to have any chance of success.

Climate scientists have come a long way in their thinking about public relations since the release of the last report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007. At a press conference in Paris associated with that release, lead author Susan Solomon of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declined to comment on how society should respond to the climate crisis. "I honestly believe that it would be a much better service for me to keep my personal opinions separate," she said. Her response is now regarded as one of the greatest missed opportunities to frame the public debate about climate policy. Solomon and the IPCC team went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for their work, along with Al Gore.

Given the persistent misinformation and outright falsehoods perpetuated by some media outlets and politicians, the new question and answer service is a step in the right direction. Journalists who are unsure about how to report on some technical issue -- or who are confronted with unsubstantiated claims from global warming skeptics -- now have the ability to fact check. As part of the pilot program, more than 700 PhD climate scientists volunteered to answer questions from a shared email box over a period of 10 weeks around the UN negotiations in Cancun. But the "AGU explicitly requests participating scientists not to comment on policy", and questions "relating to policy, ethics, and economics will be returned to sender". In other words "just the facts". Unlike these scientists, politicians and media pundits are not constrained by the facts -- so ultimately this approach may still be a losing strategy.

I have several ideas for a more successful media strategy by scientists. First, the answer to a question about policy does not need to be political to be useful. For example: "Over the next several decades society must dramatically reduce its emissions of heat-trapping pollution into the atmosphere. How this is accomplished, and on what timeline, are questions that must be answered by policy makers." Second, scientists should try to frame climate change as a form of debt being left to future generations. The same conservatives who are concerned about passing a $14 trillion national debt to their grandchildren are also opposed to any action on climate change. Finally, rather than talk about "avoiding the worst impacts of climate change", it's time to focus on the inescapable impacts that we will see in our lifetimes. For example: "No matter what we do now, by the middle of the century the global climate will warm by at least 4 degrees Fahrenheit. The only thing we can control now is the sort of planet that our grandchildren will inherit from us."

By re-framing the debate about climate change policy, and by shifting the focus to the immediate impacts that are both certain and unavoidable, scientists can jump start the necessary response by society. When people understand that it is "too late" to avoid severe impacts during their lifetime, they just might skip over the denial, focus their anger, and begin bargaining.