Saturday, July 3, 2010

Communicating the science of climate change

The scandals over email leaks at the University of East Anglia and the dodgy data in the Fourth Assessment of Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have undermined public confidence in the scientists and how they conduct science.

An article published in Nature Vol. 466 page 7 has got scientist debating and reflecting. It is abundantly clear that is certainly not enough for scientists to lay out facts very, very clearly. Building public trust demands that scientists take seriously their role as leaders honest brokers.

The scathing attacks on scientists and the scientific basis of climate change has no doubt contributed to a vicious storm of public skepticism. There is a great deal of gaps in our current knowledge and there are many uncertainties in our models of future climate scenarios.

The premise of our call for concerted global action must not be undermined by questions about how we collect analyze and communicate the evidence. In particular, unnecessary restrictions on access data or sharing information on how the data was analyzed raise suspicion about scientific integrity and erode public confidence.

Scientists must recognize that climate change issues resonate with the general public, the business community and politicians on a variety of levels. Although facts matter, scientists must strive to engage the public in plain language and with accurate, credible and timely information whenever possible.

Public communication is important to raise public awareness and mobilize collective action. The use of the media, public lectures and policy briefs is certainly critical but not sufficient to elicit behavioral change at the scale needed to forestall dangerous climate change.

Work from social science (including the ‘diffusion of innovations theory’, ‘agent-based models’ and ‘social contagion models’) shows that a more effective way of transmitting new ideas is by influencing through near peers – a wide but homogeneous community. Public-health experts are aware and apply these ideas. I am not sure many climate scientists are exposed to these ideas.

As scientists, our knowledge and understanding of the impact of the Earth’s changing climate is not complete and will never be complete. And it does not have to be complete. The fact that scientists cannot understand fully or predict exactly the impacts of climate change could very well be our most potent argument for decisive and robust action to change how we live.

1 comment:

  1. Great post.

    I almost wonder whether climate scientists need to stop trying to debate/"convert" the strongest climate deniers and instead focus on the undecided general public.

    I really see that those who deny climate change are something like the skeptics who claim we never went to the moon, or that vaccines cause autism, etc. It's an irrational disbelief, almost a conspiracy theory, and I'm not sure we'll ever change their mind. Instead, we need to convince the moderate people that our science is the very best there is.

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