The IPCC’s Climate Change Communication Conundrum

How should scientists communicate their research on climate change? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently circulated a document explaining how to do just that. However, the document misses the ball on a number of counts.

What About New(s) Media?

The document completely ignores the role that social media currently plays in how people gather information. Instead, it focuses solely on reporters from traditional news outlets. For better or worse, sources like Twitter have reduced discourse to 140 characters or less. Ignoring social media will leave scientists underprepared to communicate their findings on climate change.

In the recently finished inquiry into Climategate, the report’s author Muir Russell notes,

“Science is no longer done as it were amongst consenting scientists in private, producing scientific papers that only they discussed and only they understood. And instead it becomes part of public debate.”

The public is looking for information on climate change more and more in the blogosphere. Earlier this year, blogs surpassed traditional media in terms of the quantity of climate change coverage (quality is perhaps a different story). Overlooking them means ignoring the majority of the public.

In addition to ignoring new media, the document only describes what to expect from reporters. While some of the document’s descriptors of traditional reporters apply to bloggers (underpaid, overworked, skeptical, and inquisitive all come to mind), others miss the mark (college-educated, generalist, and world-weary don’t quite fit the bill).  Pushing bloggers to the backburner will only further build up the divide between scientists and the public.

Four Letter Words?

Ignoring these two forms of new media is bad enough. However, the document goes on to list words and terms that should be avoided when talking with reporters. It’s true that scientific jargon doesn’t enhance the public’s understanding of climate change. However, some of the words that scientists should avoid seem too crucial to the conversation to exclude.

Terms like “risk” and “ecology” are too important to understanding the effects of climate change to keep out of the public eye. More worrisome is the desire to exclude words like “uncertainty” and “error” from the public discussion about climate change.

Denying the limits of climate science gives skeptics unnecessary ammo. It plays into the skeptic narrative that scientists have something to hide . One of the key words skeptics latched onto during Climategate was the mention of a “trick.” It was nothing but an offhand way to describe a statistical method, but it fit the sneaky scientist narrative and took off.

The idea of uncertainty is a major part of climate science (or any scientific endeavor for that matter). It’s a tough concept to grasp, especially in the context of crafting good policy. But it isn’t inexplicable, and disregarding it will only make it harder for scientists to present their findings as credible to the public.

The IPCC’s media document feels like it written in the 1990s in some backroom. It doesn’t outline climate change communication best practices. Instead, it ignores key developments in social media since the last Assessment Report. This puts researchers at a disadvantage in a world more connected than ever. It also tells scientists to avoid terms that are too crucial to the discussion around climate change. Using this advice will only build a bigger wall between researchers and the public.

Openness with both traditional and new media is the key to getting public support for action on climate change. That means acknowledging the reality of uncertainties while also putting forward more certain science as examples of why policy action is needed. The more accessible and honest scientists are, the more the public has a chance to connect with them and their research. Now that’s a story.

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