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How can climate scientists better communicate their work to the public?

ClimatePalooza 2014





Connecting scientists, scholars, policy makers, and the public to change the way we understand and discuss climate issues.


As part of an ongoing online discussion, the USC Annenberg Earth Science Communication Initiative has posed this question to friends, colleagues and others whose work our team admires. In anticipation of ClimatePalooza 2013, we will be posting these observations. If you would like to join the conversation, please post your response or reply via Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, or Email.


by Bob Sipchen (Sierra Club, Communications Director)

Scientists’ job is science, and they’ve been doing strong climate science for decades. Environmentalist activists have long understood the results of these scientists’ research, and recent polling suggests that the media and public are not far behind in grasping the facts of climate disruption and its potentially catastrophic implications.

Anyone reading this probably twitches with impatience at how long it has taken the cold, hard science of climate disruption to sink in, From a communicator’s perspective, however, scientists and their journalistic (and vice-presidential) intermediaries have actually done a better job than anyone could reasonably have expected of sharing this complex story with an ever-distracted public. Read More…


by Jonathan Parfrey (Climate Resolve: Executive Director, Founder)

At Climate Resolve we believe the “global” part of global warming is just as intimidating as the “warming” part. Today, most Americans feel overwhelmed and ineffectual in the face of the climate crisis. Therefore, this global threat must be made comprehensible by downscaling and humanizing the scientific information. Simply, Climate Resolve works to make climate change relevant in people’s busy lives.

We follow the following five-part communications framework:

1. Emphasize the LOCAL.

When travelers are asked where they’re from, they typically name a city. They’ll say “I’m from Los Angeles,” They don’t say “I’m from the West Coast, in the Southern California Bight.” People identify with specific places; where their home is located. Therefore, to be relevant, climate impacts need to be described down to the neighborhood level. I’m afraid the National Climate Assessment may NOT move the dial. By contrast, we believe city-by-city climate assessments may move the dial.

2. Put PEOPLE in the picture.

Polar bears are cool — but the fate of polar bears do not rise as a major priority in the lives of most Americans. Moreover, people learn life lessons in the form of stories, stories about people, people they relate to. Descriptions of glacial sea-ice and glacier melt simply don’t touch most people’s hearts. You need to put a human face in every report. Read More…


by Ben Sullivan (ScienceBlog.com: Editor, Publisher)

My serious answers are:

  1. Elbow your way onto Letterman, Leno, Conan etc. by any means necessary.
  2. Create a web site that shows, with humor, clay models of various towns, villages, ports, cities, etc. and the effect of rising tides. Pointedly low-tech. Like a Playdough port of Long Beach in a fish tank where only the tallest cranes remain dry, and all the Fischer Price workers are up to their waists in water. Live cam 24/7.
  3. Pass all communiqués through the Rudolf Flesch readability analyzer. Every single one.
  4. Create a kick -ass children’s toy and accompanying video game. Seriously, make this a fundraising activity and sink some $millions into the development. Anything half-baked will suck, but a compelling one will be great. Enlist the gamemakers themselves as evangelists. Read More…

by Chris Clarke (Natural History Writer and Environmental Journalist)

1) Break down the old order. Don’t wait for science and environmental writers like me to cover your work. (Though we’re glad to do it!) More and more scientists across all the disciplines you can imagine are skipping us middlemen and -women, and going right to the public. Start a blog. Write about your work where the public can read it. Promote your blog on Twitter and other social media. Engage in conversation. You’ll find there are people hungry for what you have to offer. Whether it’s through your institution or on a free public blogging tool, in your own name or pseudonymously, whichever mode best works in your specific setting: you have a printing press and you need to use it.

2) Speak the vernacular. There are concepts that are defined one way in the scientific world and another way in common speech. Where scientists might use the word “theory” to mean a rigorous framework of established facts, your readers will understand it as something like “hypothesis” or “arm-waving guess.” Make your work personal and accessible. That doesn’t mean dumbing it down: it just means being patient enough to explain the nuances when they arise. Read More…


by Josh Fisher (JPL Scientist, Water & Carbon Cycles Group)

People have become increasingly interested in climate science, both in terms of concern for the environment and society as well as pure curiosity for how the world works. However, in this era of access to massive amounts of information, it is difficult for people to know which bits of information are true/accurate, especially given financial motivations from some sectors to dispel false information. There is no better source for accurate information than scientists, specifically scientists directly working in climate science from reputable institutions such as NASA.

We scientists unfortunately have a well-founded reputation of being shoddy communicators—we tend to talk primarily in nerd-speak, full of jargon, and completely mind-numbing to a general audience. Read More…


by Vanessa Schweizer (Postgraduate Scientist, National Center for Atmospheric Research)

Climate scientists do a better job of communicating their work to the general public when they are prepared to engage respectfully with audience members who might question their message. So much more is learned when people feel that they are part of a conversation (or have been invited into one), rather than subject to a lecture that they’re not sure they find convincing. Now that we are past the stage where climate change can be averted, everyone must become involved in discussions of how to manage the consequences — and how much more climate change will be tolerable in the coming decades. Read More…


by Susan Hassol (Climate Change Communicator, NASA JPL)

The following appears courtesy of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Center for Climate Sciences. This interview between Susan Hassol and NASA JPL’s Sharon Ray and was originally published in May 2011. Click here for the complete interview.

People don’t understand the process of science. They don’t understand that it’s self-correcting, that it’s not a matter of opinion, that it’s a matter of evidence and fact. People always ask, “Do you believe in global warming?” Well, it has nothing to do with belief. It’s not a question of belief or feeling; it’s a question of evidence and fact. I don’t think people fully grasp that.

So I do think there’s some teaching to be done here, but it’s really very difficult because the public doesn’t want a science lesson. They don’t want to be taught. This is one of the things they think about scientists, I think, is that they’re sort of arrogant and elitist. They don’t want to be taught about how science works. Instead, they look at what they hear from scientists as being similar to the opinions they hear from others, people who are not scientists, like political figures.


by Carl Southwell (Risk and Policy Institute: President, Risk and Policy Analyst)

I looked at the question through a different lens…

Temperature Anomalies during the Past 1000 Years (Figure 1)

southwellessay

“Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” (1) Despite their seeming familiarity, these words aren’t an absurdist argument posed by a climate change denier. These words spoken by a disguised Chicolini in the bedroom scene from Duck Soup, however, do present a type of argument that works—but only for a very specific, receptive audience.

Yet, evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level” (2). Graphics like those displayed in Figure 1 provide compelling examples of evidence in support of the global warming associated with climate change. Read More…


by Larry Pryor (Associate Professor, USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism)

The U.S. public admires scientists, surveys show, but their work products less so. Somewhere, between laboratory and voting booth, causal connections have become severed and trust has evaporated. Scientists, individually, blame themselves, but the responsibility for bridging gulfs should rest most of all with their institutions, the AAAS, NAS, Royal Society and the gaggle of sub-associations that are passing the buck.

The stress of how to cope with climate has revealed how much science communication needs reform. Failures, from small to mega, corrupt the public sphere. An example of “small”: the inability of the science community to help our society comprehend temperature scales. Why must the average person in the U.S. be required to subtract 32 from Fahrenheit and divide by 1.8 to reach centigrade? Could we not at least have both measurements in our evening weather forecasts? Why have one standard for the technical elite and another for us commoners? Read More…

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2 Comments

  1. Important effort. Most of my thoughts are laid out in a recent WMO Bulletin piece and Dot Earth post on “The New Communication Climate” (WMO link is in the post): http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/31/the-changing-communication-climate/

    Could be a helpful resource.

  2. Visually using computer maps (GIS), preferably interactive, that show local impacts. Jonathan Parfrey has it right in his emphasis on the local. Display the results at as small a scale as can be projected with some reliability. TV news does this kind of a thing on a daily basis — can those who model climate change impacts get down to a smaller than global scale? The maps can be embedded in websites. People will respond better when it seems more personal to them — when the see the potential impact on their states/towns/neighborhoods. ESRI Maps for Office now allows maps to be created using cloud resources and interactive maps can be dropped into Word and EXCEL documents and PowerPoints. The base map could show details down to street grids or states or counties or you create the geography and leave it in the cloud and satellite imagery or climate change models could be overlaid on the base map as layers. If something like this could be made public on a website and people could play with it to show their areas, imagine the impact.

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