Communicating risk & uncertainty
How can the risks and uncertainty of climate change be better communicated? This question – regularly posed, but seldom answered – was the central issue addressed at a workshop held at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, on 15th November.
Chaired and convened by James Painter, the author of ‘Poles Apart’ (a report that analysed the prevalence of sceptical climate voices in the media), the opening address was given by David Spiegelhalter, a specialist on risk perceptions based at Cambridge University. Spiegelhalter argued that inaccurate reporting of risk in the media was primarily caused by the poor press releases issued by journals and university press offices – although speaking later in the day, Emily Shuckburgh (also from Cambridge University, and one of the authors of recent report ‘Climate Science & the Media’) suggested that the language scientists use in newspaper quotes is often misleading.
Based on her recent investigation into public views on climate change, Shuckburgh reported that phrases like ‘loading the dice’ (often recommended as a communicative tool to describe the way that climate change influences the chance of extreme weather events) actually led people to infer that climate scientists were ‘loading the dice’ in terms of the underlying science, attempting to unduly influence the outcome of their research.
Nick Pidgeon – Professor of Environmental Psychology at Cardiff University – pointed out that no recommendations for improving the communication of climate change will ever amount to much if it is not properly funded. Pidgeon argued that there is an urgent need for a communications infrastructure to be built into the funding of climate research, such that dissemination and public engagement is considered the norm.
Echoing Pidgeon’s comments, Chris Rapley (ex Director of the Science Museum) proposed that climate scientists need to have the confidence to take more active roles in debates about climate change, raising the intriguing possibility that models of science communication – currently construed – are simply not fit for purpose.
In a sentiment that seemed to be widely shared by the climate scientists present, Myles Allen argued that the forthcoming 5th Assessment Report should be the IPCC’s last. Allen’s view was that a monolithic statement of climate science knowledge every five years was no longer the most helpful way to communicate climate change. Instead, smaller, more focused reports aimed at specific target audiences would make not only a more useful statement of current knowledge, but a less vulnerable target for climate sceptic attacks. One mistake in the entire document can currently provide a reason for some to doubt the veracity of the whole cannon of climate knowledge. If it were not designed to be one, single, definitive statement, this situation could be avoided.
Speaking from the audience, the IPCC’s communications director, Jonathan Lynn, defended the structure of the organisation, and argued against more participative forms of engagement like blogging. The mood of the room, however, suggested this attitude was out of step with the way that most people viewed the future of climate change communication.
Completing the day, a panel of journalists chaired by Tom Sheldon from the Science Media Centre put their perspective on communicating risk and uncertainty across. Fiona Harvey, the Guardian’s well-regarded Environment correspondent, was unambiguous about where she thought most biases and inaccuracies in science reporting came from: the lobby reporters at the House of Commons, fed political ‘leaks’ and ‘spin’ from Ministers and their Special Advisors. Although the source of most science ‘news’ is not politicians, it seems a little bit of ‘In the thick of it’ spirit is reserved for science communication.
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