How Should Climate Scientists Talk About Climate Change?


Photo via Seed Magazine

Do climate scientists seem too angry? Mathew Nesbit, a professor of communications, has an interesting piece in Slate today arguing that they do, and that it's going to have a negative impact on the public's understanding of climate science. It's a pertinent topic, as a recent editorial in the esteemed scientific journal Nature has described the current situation climate scientists are in as a 'street fight'--with climate scientists in one corner and skeptics and a misinformation-prone media in the other. My gripe with the Slate piece is that its making a pretty sweeping generalization about climate scientists--I don't think I'd necessarily call the general tone of the thousands of climate scientists out there as angry. There are certainly instances of anger, as the quotes collected in the piece demonstrate, but my impression of the scientists' recent reactions to the ongoing negative PR is that they've been relatively level-headed in demeanor. Michael Mann spoke calmly and at length in a slew of interviews, Phil Jones stepped down pretty quietly to allow for investigation, etc. That's been my perception.

Regardless of that, Nisbet raises a question that's exceedingly important to consider. Namely, how best should climate scientists communicate their findings to the public?

He says that getting heated and showing up on the talk show circuit or casting aspersions will only alienate the public from climate issues. I agree.

If they remain uninvolved in the communications process, as has been the standard, then they can let the data speak for itself--but their findings are apt to get misconstrued and distorted by a mass media that often has conflicting interests. But if they communicate their ideas to politicians, and suggest policy, charges of politicizing science are sure to get bandied about. Then there's Nisbet's idea:

Climate skeptics hope to erode this trust by drawing scientists out into the open of political debate. Instead of going on the counterattack, scientists and their organizations should employ their communication capital by partnering with opinion leaders from other sectors of society and engaging with local communities through public meetings and social media.

By creating a public dialogue on climate change in cities and towns across the country, they can make the issue more personally relevant without getting mired in ideological differences. In these contexts, scientists and their community partners can talk about climate change as more than just an environmental problem. They can frame the issue in terms of national security, religion, public health, or economics--with an emphasis on policies that would lead to societal benefits rather than sacrifice and hardship.

Here's the best part: These partnerships with opinion leaders, from clergy to CEOs, would do far more than educate the public; they would educate scientists, too. By getting out of the lab and away from their echo chamber of like-minded views about climate politics, researchers would learn how other people view climate change, and what should and can be done about it. In the end, scientists are better off as community-based diplomats than cable news and blogosphere culture warriors.

Which I think is a fine idea, but even it of course stands to be criticized--especially the notion of scientists' engagement with business leaders may serve to strengthen the misguided notion that climate scientists serve to profit by pushing the theory of climate change.

And that's the tricky part--people trust scientists because many conceive of them as working nobly in isolated, ideology-free settings bent on data-collecting missions (or something like that). Any time scientists venture into the public sphere with a perceived agenda, that trust diminishes. I don't have any great suggestions on how to combat this occurrence--maybe Nisbet's suggestion is still among the best options, though Climate Progress's Joe Romm often argues scientists should work on their messaging and PR skills to get better at relating science directly to the public in the first place. Perhaps a conflation of the two would be beneficial.

I'm curious--Do you think climate scientists have seemed to ornery? What's the best way for climate scientists to relay their findings to the public? Perhaps we can forward on some suggestions . . .

Also, civil comments please--it's been getting a little out of hand down there lately.

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Tags: Global Climate Change | Global Warming Solutions