Communication Becoming a Part of Climate Science

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Communicating the realities of climate change partly requires a different science  than climate – social science. Ironically, those who understand the science of climate change the most are not trained, equipped, or even expected to explain it to the general public. As climate change continues to spark political debate, scientists  are beginning to study what advocates, marketers, and think tanks have been tracking: climate change language and commensurate American response. In Science magazine, Eli Kintisch recently covered a conference entitled “Communicating Climate Science: A Historic Look to the Future,” to help scientists improve their communication skills.
 
The article also portrays the complexities of the situation. On one hand there’s the ideal of objectivity. On the other, as NASA’s Steven Lloyd puts it, scientists should recommend climate solutions the same way that doctors recommend medical treatment. 
 

A Changing Climate of Communication

By Eli Kintisch
August 02, 2013
 
GRANBY, CO— “We’re going to kick these guys’ asses and we’re going to win this thing!” James Byrne shouted into the microphone, providing a rousing conclusion to the first evening of this unique 5-day conference. Byrne, a climate scientist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, was seeking to inspire the roughly hundred scientists, communication professionals, and students in the audience to chart a new path for climate researchers to get their message across.
 
Scientists in all fields are expected to perfor m public outreach occasionally on matters ranging from research funding to science literacy. But attendees at the June meeting, dubbed “Communicating Climate Science: A Historic Look to the Future,” generally agreed that climate scientists have a special responsibility to communicate—and convince the public and policymakers about—their work’s deep implications. Created by Byrne and colleagues who wanted to equip scientists with the tools to fulfill that stated duty, the meeting was the latest step by the geoscience establishment to tackle the challenge in a tangible way. Whether they shared Byrne’s fervor—aimed at those he called “deniers”—attendees’ willingness to convene at this dusty if picturesque ranch underscored their commitment to the cause.
 
Science’s special issue on Natural Systems in Changing Climates includes news and reviews on the response of ecosystems, global food security, and lessons from past climate records.
 
“Communicating is becoming part of the job description,” Danny Harvey, a climate and energy modeler at the University of Toronto in Canada, tells Science Careers in an interview. “I’ve been doing my science and publishing my papers for years, but I get the sense that the message isn’t getting out,” atmospheric chemist Steven Lloyd, an attendee from NASA ‘s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, says in a separate interview. “I feel an obligation to make an attempt to get that message across. That so many scientists can’t readily explain the essence of climate change to the average person makes me feel a greater obligation.”
 
There has always been a professional tension in climate science about whether or not to speak out, and how. For decades before his death in 2010, climatologist Stephen Schneider of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, shared insights on climate change with reporters, the general public, and civic groups—anyone who would listen and many who wouldn’t. But his peers were at times ambivalent. “Steve came under criticism by colleagues who said he should not go out and make statements that were exaggerated or could be interpreted to be exaggerated,” science historian Spencer Weart told the conference audience. Similarly, former NASA climatologist James Hansen has faced criticism from colleagues who feel he has opined on policy matters well outside his scientific expertise, like coal plants and carbon policy.
 
Read more here.

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