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:

References

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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