Reach out about climate

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
481,
Page:
5
Date published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/481005a
Published online

Where political leadership on climate change is lacking, scientists must be prepared to stick their heads above the parapet.

Consider the following as a statement of national ambition: “The Federal Climate Change Action Plan presents a strategy for launching a transformation in public attitudes and behavior towards climate-change risk. Key state, industry and nonprofit sector allies stand ready to build on the federal strategy to create and sustain a national climate-change risk reduction campaign. The national campaign will increase the public understanding of the risk; advance effective national, state and local climate-change policy; and deliver financing and other incentives to help citizens mitigate climate change. This national climate-change effort — led jointly by the federal government and key national partners — will fundamentally change citizens' expectations and behavior.”

That is the wording of a US federal action plan produced last summer, with just one change introduced by Nature: the original was not about climate change but referred to indoor radon — a naturally occurring radioactive gas that contributes to lung cancer. Sadly, the altered statement is politically impossible in today's United States. Yet it would be an entirely sensible response to the vastly greater global and local risks posed by climate change as described in the international scientific literature and in national impact analyses conducted by the US government itself. Indeed, it would be a welcome response by any government.

“2011 was a bad year for political progress in tackling climate change.”

With US politics in gridlock, Europe in financial turmoil and minimal progress at the climate conference in South Africa in December, 2011 was a bad year for political progress in tackling climate change. In addition, surveys of public opinion show a declining belief that climate change is an urgent problem. Clearly, the need to make the public aware of the threat has never been greater. In the face of climate-change contrarians and denialists, some of them with political clout and voices amplified by the media, climate scientists must be even more energetic in taking their message to citizens.

Communicating risk

The radon-awareness campaign offers lessons to climate-change communicators. The health risk of radon is unlike the risks of climate change, being uncontroversial, local and directly identifiable. But, like climate change, the risks are not immediately apparent and they are easily ignored. Whether to invest in mitigating measures is the individual's decision, but in the case of radon the US government — like many others — has decided that it has a duty to advise and encourage homeowners to make the changes.

Such campaigns need a strategy for communicating risk that will persuade citizens to spend their own money. Those already involved in risk communication will be familiar with the strategies recommended by the World Health Organization to deal with the dangers of indoor radon: identify core messages, understand and engage with your target audiences — both direct (householders) and indirect (such as teachers and bankers) — through surveys and in-depth discussions, develop information sheets and websites, use trusted networks and ensure that your message is coherently delivered across multiple channels.

So what can climate scientists learn from such strategies? What should their core messages be? Should they relate current trends in local weather to the predicted trends, or show what the 'four-degree-warmer' world — which on current emissions trends lies ahead of us — actually looks like? Either way, there are freely available online resources to call on. Some countries have produced national climate-change impact studies. For example, a 2009 US government report examines both regional and economic sector impacts under high- and low-emission scenarios (see go.nature.com/9fnsk1) in measured tones — here the numbers tell the story.

Those wishing to draw attention to disastrous but entirely possible futures can use reports of an international meeting in 2009 that put together multidisciplinary studies of a world that warms by 4° C or more this century (see go.nature.com/mj8c8f), and on a summary produced by the UK government (see go.nature.com/zu2frk).

As many scientists as possible should convey these messages through outreach to local or national organizations, the media, in blogs and in policy discussions. Even better if one can be extra-creative and provide people with interactive tools to explore the possible scenarios, such as the energy-pathway calculator launched last month by David MacKay, chief scientific adviser to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (see go.nature.com/1wfvnx).

A more taxing and wearying task is to actively counter misrepresentation — whether in the form of crass errors made by politicians and public figures, or more subtle assertions that require detailed examination. The latter can be scientifically revealing, as discussed by climatologist Ben Santer at last month's meeting of the American Geophysical Union (see video at go.nature.com/mwwleu).

Two challenges face those who communicate the science of climate change to the public. The first is to make the messages from models and observations as vivid as possible while maintaining scientific probity — avoiding the blurring of dispassionate discussions of the science and the equally important individual right of advocacy. The second is to find the right ways of conveying uncertainties without losing grip on the central, generally agreed, conclusions. Training in communication is advisable (see, for example, climatecommunication.org). Those who engage with the media could do worse than take on board the maxims of the late Stephen Schneider's 'mediarology' website: know thy audience, know thyself, and know thy stuff (see go.nature.com/dehvsf).

Even if governments find it difficult to achieve the same clarity of national action on climate change as they can for radon, scientists and their organizations need to do more to help citizens engage with the issues and not be misled by travesties of the evidence. Let that be a resolution for 2012.

Comments

  1. Report this comment #35614

    Russell Seitz said:

    ?The Federal Climate Change Action Plan presents a strategy for launching a transformation in public attitudes and behavior" is less " a statement of national ambition" than a celebration of totalitarian intent.

    Far from promoting bipartisan action on climate change, editorial endorsements of social engineering as a policy tool alienate politicians and constituencies that rightly oppose the rise of the nanny state.

  2. Report this comment #35617

    Russell Seitz said:

    The proceeding comment should read :

    "The Federal Climate Change Action Plan presents a strategy for launching a transformation in public attitudes and behavior" is less " a statement of national ambition" than a celebration of totalitarian intent.

    Far from promoting bipartisan action on climate change, editorial endorsements of social engineering as a policy tool alienate politicians and constituencies that rightly oppose the rise of the nanny state.

  3. Report this comment #35626

    Curtis Covey said:

    Does Dr Seitz mean that any government attempt to educate people and change their behavior implies "totalitarian intent" and "the rise of the nanny state"? Is the (actual) Radon Action Plan that bad? What about anti-smoking campaigns?

  4. Report this comment #35645

    Russell Seitz said:

    May suggest to Dr.Covey that there is an unsubtle distinction between risk warnings in a free society and making " transformation in public attitudes and behavior " a " statement of national ambition."

    If he does not approbate social engineering imposed in the name of the precautionary principle, his argument is with this leader's author not me.

  5. Report this comment #35646

    Carl Safina said:

    Celebration of totalitarian intent? Nanny state? Hyperbolic, mocking words can be a tip-off that the writer is anti-science and anti-rational, and filters everything through a rigid political ideology. Science finds things out about what's really going on. Informed people and informed policy align with what's really going on. Otherwise, we get (as we often do) policies that are not aligned with reality. To the extent that public understanding and public policies are not in line with reality, aligning them will indeed require "transformation in public attitudes and behavior," based on our best understanding the world. Only science can point us in the right direction. Without science and clear, accessible scientist-communicators, politicians can't get it right, journalists can't get it right, law can't get it right, religion can't get it right, Hollywood can't get it right, and the political ideologues who roam these comment pages will be delighted.

  6. Report this comment #35648

    Russell Seitz said:

    Carl SAfina's view of the Nanny State may not appeal to trans-fat deprived New Yorkers and dwellers in the London Panopticon ,but his splendidly hyperbolic attack on duck hunting in the name of marine conservation certainly illustrates the tendency of environmental zeal to expand into an authoritarian plenum.

    Their are few greater impediments to bipartisan climate policy than the tendency to reduce the environment to an excuse for societal intervention.

  7. Report this comment #35660

    Rodrigo Perin said:

    Given the extent of the problems associated with climate change, it seems to be missing the point to attack the call for a much needed campaign of scientific instruction as an incursion in the 'nanny state'.

    The links and scenarios haven't been extensively discussed in the editorial but probably should help Mr. Seitz to achieve some insight on what a business-as-usual attitude is leading to world to (considerably worse than a nanny state, worth reading).

    Inaction and denial are poor substitutes to reason and information. 'Societal intervention' is an clearly exaggeration for aiming to change expectations and behavior through information. In fact societal intervention correlates better with current misinformation spread by corporate media. If only scientists could be equally effective in conveying current knowledge on the issue of climate change. Instead scientific information is actively blocked for the sake of economic and political convenience, a poor state of affairs that explains why radon currently registers as deserving a greater effort on the government's part.

  8. Report this comment #35661

    James KM Brown said:

    Wearing warm clothing instead of turning up the central heating, wearing a T-shirt instead of turning on the air-con, driving a more economical car, taking public transport instead of using a private car, having a quick shower instead of a long bath, eating locally grown food where possible: those are reasonable things to do to reduce the pace of climate change. That's what's meant by "transformations in public attitudes and behaviour". They're not "totalitarian intent" or "social engineering". No-one would lose anything from such changes in behaviour except possibly the oil companies.

  9. Report this comment #35720

    Russell Seitz said:

    The ease with which corporate disinformation has supplanted science in the climate wars owes much to the indifference of climate communicators to popular- and populist- indignation at the elision of social engineering and science policy.

    Advocates of social transformation are at risk of being perceived as authoritarian whenever they elide their own voluntary lifestyle changes with national imperatives, for many view the erosion of personal liberty as a threat more existential than the expansion of their carbon footprints, and consider energy, food, or transport rationing social engineering incarnate.

  10. Report this comment #35727

    M Spiering said:

    Shawn Lawrence Otto's "Fool me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America" contains some useful pointers as to how public debate of climate change and other contentious issues may be re-focused on science to bring about policy changes that begin to reflect it.

    The author contends that in recent decades scientists and, therefore, science have become disengaged from public discourse. He states several reasons for this lack of engagement, such as that scientists commonly endeavour to appear above-the-fray objective, but also because there are few practical incentives for such engagement?faculty appointments and tenure are often largely decided based on grants won and papers published rather than public outreach and education.

    To be an engaged "citizen scientist" while also maintaining productive research career has become a challenge for many across all areas of research because of this structure and tight funding, and also because such activity seems at present to hold little prestige among peers.

    Although the former may not change in the foreseeable future, Nature could use its clout to address the latter, for example, by profiling scientists who actively go out to the public (at schools, public forums, discussion boards, etc.) to advocate for science, including explaining its process and discussing thorny topics that are now so often misrepresented and contentious (at least in the US), such as climate change, vaccination risks, and funding of infrastructure and public services.

  11. Report this comment #35790

    Rodrigo Perin said:

    In a recent post Bill McKibben helps make it clear why it is so difficult to get any political decision to account for climate change: "The Chamber of Commerce spent more money on the 2010 elections than the Republican and Democratic National Committees combined, and 94% of those dollars went to climate-change deniers. That helps explain why the House voted last year to say that global warming isn?t real."

    Making such facts public as well as disclosing the contributions received by politicians might need to be combined with effective scientific instruction if serious action is ever to take place in terms of policy. Unfortunately, individual action (such as driving a more economic car) is unlikely to restore the arctic ice, species extinct or large extents of now infertile soil, but then, nothing will, and this needs to be made clear sooner rather than later.

  12. Report this comment #35884

    jean nutson said:

    It's time politicians take the issue of climate change serious and accept the fact that our actions can be blamed and linked to the adverse changes that occur in our planets ecosystem and inculcate plans of conserving and preserving our planet in their policies and not seeing the issue of climate change as a mere scientific propaganda.

  13. Report this comment #35901

    Katharine Hayhoe said:

    This article provides sound arguments and useful links to encourage scientists to speak out on climate. In the interest of completeness, there are two points on which it would benefit from additional discussion.

    The first is one already raised by M. Spiering, namely that these outreach activities take a great deal of time, time that the academic system does not recognize in the pursuit of tenure and promotion. Not only that, but outreach and policy-oriented research can even be seen as a negative for a younger faculty member. Paraphrasing what someone once said, the very same activities that are perceived as a charming eccentricity in a senior researcher are often taken as a frivolous waste of time and even an indicator of a lack of serious intent in a junior scientist.

    The second point is that the article urges scientists to "stick their heads above the parapet," but offers no insight or advice on what will happen when we do so. As scientists, we are not well-prepared to deal with the ugly attacks that will follow. It is irresponsible to encourage anyone to engage in activities without making them fully aware of exactly what the consequences will be. Likewise, it is important to recognize that, for many, the price may be too high to pay.

  14. Report this comment #36116

    Bhavin Trivedi said:

    It's time politicians take the issue of climate change serious and accept the fact that our actions can be blamed and linked to the adverse changes that occur in our planets ecosystem and inculcate plans of conserving and preserving our planet in their policies and not seeing the issue of climate change as a mere scientific propaganda.

  15. Report this comment #36266

    Mark Jones said:

    The issue of climate change is not about the environment. Nor is climate change in this context about science. It's all about politics and social change. Global warming and it many variant topics seek to use science against itself to leverage the public so that it pursues an avenue that leads toward a degredation of our modern society, redistributes wealth, and leads to a victory by the so-called 99-Percenters.

    The real science about climate affirms that climate is driven by the worlds oceans, not by changes to the earth's atmosphere. To think otherwise, conforming to the claims by the global warming alarmists, is truly a case of think that the tail wags the dog.

  16. Report this comment #36354

    Larry Oliver said:

    I suppose I should not be startled by the commentary above, but somehow I am.

    My experience during the last half century or so says that a writer resorting to pejoratives such as "nanny state", or distinguishing something as "real" such as "real science" is indicative of an author who expressing personal opinion loosely founded on their emotional state. Normally, the emotion in charge is fear.

    I had expected more balance and less rhetoric in the online discussion at Nature, but I suppose that all of the large scale media has succumbed to this malady. It seems that there are individuals (usually known as "trolls") waiting in line to disrupt conversations. These individuals seem to cluster around any discussion of climate change related science or policy. What is more interesting is that these "trolls" follow an established pattern.

    As an example, the use of an existing document as a template for future communication does not constitute editorial endorsement of totalitarianism. The first braying voice to proclaim their fear of "totalitarian intent", frightened by a use of a non-existent "Federal Climate Change Action Plan" causes the whole conversation to lose focus, getting any dialogue off on the wrong foot. The resulting disorientation is frequently the commentor's true purpose within the conversation.

    Similarly a writer who portrays their personal viewpoint as real science, thereby attempting to render anyone else's position to be "false science" has a similar impact. By challenging the veracity of other's viewpoints without providing evidence, the writer attempts to gain control of the discussion. Some children use these tactics to great effect against their parents and teachers. It's a successful delaying tactic, and may have a similar child like basis in our modern discussion fora.

    The Editorial above laid out some concepts for how to communicate the issue of climate change to the general public. This is a difficult subject. Efforts by some to add chaff to the conversation verifies their intent to derail any substantive discussion. I can only hope that future fear based efforts to derail the conversation are moved to a separate forum.

    Like many, I have been focused for several years upon communicating what climate change is, why people should care about it, and what they need to do next. Past experience suggests that efforts to prevent propagating misconceptions is very important, but may not be as important as ensuring the the core message remains clear. Some of the more popular writings from Professor Lewandowsky at UWA like this might prove useful as examples of how things can go wrong.

    (If I can find the references to the following I'll post them in this thread, but the articles are eluding me at the moment.)
    A proclivity for precise statements is normally an advantage for scientists. That same positive trait can be a liability when communicating with non-specialists. An approach for communication with the general public was provided (elsewhere) recently by professional communicators, who indicate that this approach works in nearly all circumstances. It can be summarized like this.

    • Keep the messages short.
    • Keep the number of items as close to three as possible, consider five as a maximum.
    • Repeat the messages frequently.

    Elsewhere someone recommended this as a candidate set of memes when explaining climate science.

    • Climate change: It's happening.
    • Climate change: We're doing it.
    • Climate change: We can change it.

    These three points are important. First, there is no significant doubt within the climate science community that these changes are happening. Second, human contributions to climate change are driving the speed of the changes. And finally, it is not hopeless, there are things we can do about what's happening.

    If we can unify our messages to this level, keep explanations tied to the core messages, and attempt to avoid providing detail and conditionals that create confusion, we might stand a chance at clearly communicating vital information to the public.

  17. Report this comment #36454

    Mark Jones said:

    Resorting to the use of mantras to push the propaganda of human-caused global warming is not especially clever and it is certainly not scientific. Political diatribe such as that espoused by Larry Oliver serves only to further the ideological bent that characterizes the entire Global Warming campaign.

    I choose to let science win this struggle. To be sure:

    Global warming is real – naturally.
    Global warming is not new – it predates human existance on earth.
    Global warming and climate is driven by natural forces far beyond the influence of human action.

  18. Report this comment #36786

    Norman Rogers said:

    The author of this editorial may not realize it but he is being very foolish in making an analogy between the climate scare and the radon scare. He says:

    "The radon-awareness campaign offers lessons to climate-change communicators. The health risk of radon is unlike the risks of climate change, being uncontroversial, local and directly identifiable."

    The problem is that the health risks of radon are not uncontroversial. For example, the Forensic Industrial Hygienist, Caoimhin P. Connell says:

    "A large portion of the general population is under the misconception that the frequently published risks associated with radon are well accepted scientific facts. In reality, the vast majority of well designed studies do not support policy or positions that exposures to indoor radon pose a significant threat to health, and indeed, the majority of those studies indicate that, at concentrations typically seen in homes, as the level of radon increases, the risk of lung cancer goes down, not up."

    http://www.forensic-applications.com/radon/radon.html

    Bernard Cohen ( http://www.phyast.pitt.edu/~blc/ ) fought a lonely fight against radon hysteria for many years. As with climate, there are vested scientific interests determined to maintain the scare. The climate scare is based on climate models that disagree with each other and that are woefully inadaquate even according to their makers. The explanation as to what the earth has not warmed for nearly 15 years become more and more inventive.

  19. Report this comment #43943

    Kalo Franky said:

    Okay, I do agree and I had expected more balance and less rhetoric in the online discussion at Nature, but I suppose that all of the large scale media has succumbed to this malady. It seems that there are individuals (usually known as "trolls") waiting in line to disrupt conversations. These individuals seem to cluster around any discussion of climate change related science or policy. What is more interesting is that these "trolls" follow an established pattern. RV Storage

  20. Report this comment #50771

    Tilya Ma Yamale said:

    I think they elide their own voluntary lifestyle changes with national imperatives, for many view the erosion of personal liberty as a threat more existential than the expansion of their carbon footprints, and consider energy, food, or transport rationing social engineering incarnate.

    Thank you,
    Tilya
    Depuy Hip Recall

  21. Report this comment #51428

    Nacasla Henry said:

    You know if and only If scientists could be equally effective in conveying current knowledge on the issue of climate change. Asian Dating

  22. Report this comment #52735

    Kateline Pierre said:

    I just think that global warming and it many variant topics seek to use science against itself to leverage the public so that it pursues an avenue that leads toward a degredation of our modern society. runescape gold

  23. Report this comment #53352

    Beline Jeane said:

    I think that in the pursuit of tenure and promotion, not only that, but outreach and policy-oriented research can even be seen as a negative for a younger faculty member. Paraphrasing what someone once said, the very same activities that are perceived as a charming. ggurls

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