Making climate science simple & understandable

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Climate sci­ence is not a single dis­cip­line like ‘neur­os­cience’ – it involves bringing together expertise from many dif­ferent areas of sci­ence to under­stand a com­plex problem: why the cli­mate is chan­ging, and what we can do about it.

Like any com­plic­ated sci­entific topic, there are many uncer­tain­ties once you start asking detailed ques­tions – so although the basic ques­tions about cli­mate change are well under­stood (e.g. what is causing it), there is still a lot that sci­ent­ists don’t know.

This is a chal­lenge for com­mu­nic­ators – they must com­mu­nicate a com­plex and incom­plete body of sci­entific know­ledge to people who are not neces­sarily inter­ested in the sci­ence of cli­mate change. However, there are a number of strategies that com­mu­nic­ators can pursue, and resources that make the chal­lenge of con­veying the com­plex­ities of cli­mate sci­ence less of a daunting prospect.

Firstly, it should not be assumed that people want (or need) to know ‘everything’ about cli­mate sci­ence, or that the chance of them acting on cli­mate change is com­pletely determ­ined by the amount they know about the topic. The reasons for scep­ti­cism about cli­mate change are com­plex, and it is not simply a ques­tion of turning up the volume on the facts (Kahan et al, 2011). In a recent paper in the journal Nature Climate Change, Nick Pidgeon and Baruch Fischhoff sug­gested that instead of assuming what people should know about cli­mate sci­ence, a better way of begin­ning the pro­cess of cli­mate change com­mu­nic­a­tion is to find out what they want to know (Pidgeon & Fischhoff, 2011).

There are sev­eral web­sites that are spe­cific­ally ded­ic­ated to making the sci­ence of cli­mate change more under­stand­able and access­ible. Probably the pick of the bunch is Skeptical Science, run by John Cook, which con­tains dozens of well-researched and care­fully phrased argu­ments that deal with lots of scep­tical points of view that are based on a false under­standing of the sci­ence. The Guardian news­paper has a sec­tion of its web­site (still being updated with new con­tent) which provides short, simple answers to the most com­monly asked ques­tions about cli­mate sci­ence. Both the New Scientist and the cli­mate change media organ­isa­tion Carbon Brief have good guides to what is known – and unknown – about cli­mate science.

Slightly more tech­nical, but also very useful if you are com­fort­able reading inform­a­tion with some sci­entific ter­min­o­logy is the Green Alliance briefing on cli­mate sci­ence. Although it is aimed at politi­cians, it is useful for anyone who needs to be able to explain the basics of cli­mate sci­ence in an under­stand­able way. The British Royal Society has pro­duced a longer sum­mary of what is cur­rently known (and not known) about cli­mate sci­ence – this is more tech­nical, but still a lot more man­age­able than primary sci­entific lit­er­ature or the IPCC Assessment Reports.

The psy­cho­lo­gist Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook (Skeptical Science) have pub­lished a ‘debunking hand­book‘ that aims to provide tools for com­mu­nic­ators to refute common cli­mate myths without inad­vert­ently making things worse. The hand­book explains how to avoid re-enforcing existing myths about cli­mate change (e.g. that the sun, rather than human emis­sions, is respons­ible for recent warming), and how to use written and visual tech­niques to tap into powerful cog­nitive processes.

In the UK, the Science Media Centre exists to ensure that accurate and timely sci­entific inform­a­tion reaches the media: they cover all sci­ence (not just cli­mate change), but if you are a journ­alist or press officer looking to write an accurate story (or obtain a quote from a suit­ably qual­i­fied cli­mate sci­entist) they are a good place to start. In the US, the Climate Science ‘rapid response’ team are a group of cli­mate sci­ent­ists who will respond to media enquiries through their website.

Sometimes the failure to com­mu­nicate sci­entific inform­a­tion about cli­mate change effect­ively is lit­er­ally a case of using words and lan­guage that is under­stood by non-scientists. The Centre for Environmental Decisions at Columbia University in the US has pro­duced a very useful guide to the psy­cho­logy of cli­mate change com­mu­nic­a­tion, that con­tains a list of words (developed by Susan Hassol – Hassol, 2008) that mean one thing to sci­ent­ists, and some­thing com­pletely dif­ferent to everyone else:


Hassol, S. J. (2008). Improving how sci­ent­ists com­mu­nicate about cli­mate change. Eos, 89 (11), 106–107.

Kahan, D.M. et al (2011). The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change. Cultural Cognition Project Working Paper No. 89.

Pidgeon, N.F and Fischhoff, B. (2011) The role of social and decision sci­ences in com­mu­nic­ating uncer­tain cli­mate risks. Nature Climate Change. 1, 35–41.

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