The Sciences

Communicating About Climate Science, Part III

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyOct 5, 2010 12:56 PM


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This is the third in a series of posts about communicating the science of climate change. The first post, here, simply put up a video

about this topic from Climate Science Watch. The second post, here, addressed how important it is for climate scientists to be good communicators, and how scientists can protect themselves from being accused of engaging in "advocacy."

Now, let's go on to some more important questions: 3) Clearly, we have a large part of the public which doesn't accept climate science. Is that who we should be trying to reach and convince? Or is it some other audience that should be targeted?

This is a critical question because it highlights that there are different subsets of the public, with different degrees of receptivity to mainstream climate science. In particular, the research by Anthony Leiserowitz at Yale University (and colleagues) has highlighted that there are really 6 Americas when it comes to global warming, and those who are what Leiserowitz calls the “dismissive” (we might call them the deniers) are the least likely to be moved or persuaded. Sadly, the dismissives have been growing dramatically of late, from 7 percent of the public in 2008 to 16 percent in 2010. What climate scientists ought to be doing—and climate science communicators ought to be doing—is targeting segments of the public that are not dismissive, that can be reached, but that so far have been informationally disenfranchised. They haven’t been engaged, but there’s great potential there. However, you need to reach them with the right message, one that speaks to them and makes them care about the issue. Here, I think research and analysis by Matthew Nisbet of American University is really helpful. Because what Nisbet shows is that there are many different ways of communicating about climate science, and the particular “frame” that you choose has great implications for what kind of audience you’re capable of reaching. There are at least 5 possible frames that I'm aware of—“scientific/technical,” “economic,” “ethical/religious,” “national security,” and “public health.” I don't want to go into a ton of detail on each of them, because that would lead to a dramatically long blog post, and it has been discussed elsewhere. However, the point to emphasize is that each frame has the potential to reach different audiences. E.g., a message about how addressing climate change will spur the growth of green jobs, and new innovative companies, is a message the investor class might listen to. And a message about how addressing climate change will help wean us off foreign oil, and prevent the destabilizing effects of mass ice sheet loss and the disintegration of low-lying countries like Bangladesh, can speak to those who care about our nation's geopolitical standing and well-being.

4) Who speaks for climate science? Can they be full time communicators, or top scientists doing this work in their spare time? Must they have Ph.D's to be credible? Or is that training actually a hindrance when it comes to navigating the media and communication sphere?

In my view, academia is far too full of technical experts, and far too devoid of expert communicators. I believe that scientists who are excellent communicators ought to be tenured on that basis, given sustainable careers, and encouraged to explore and innovate in communication techniques. I also think that people who aren’t necessarily Ph.D.s themselves, but have shown great aptitude when it comes to communicating about scientific topics, should have the same kinds of opportunities available to them. So the answer is not only that we ought to be developing science "translators," but that we ought to be promoting and rewarding those who are good at it, within and as part of the traditional academic structure. Let me give a great example. There’s an incredible YouTube video about climate change, “The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See.” It has been seen by some 3.7 million or more people. It was made not by a scientist, but by a high school teacher in Oregon, a guy named Greg Craven. It is a tremendous way of getting across why we have to do something about climate change—because it is creative, unexpected, funny, and personality driven. We need innovative people like Greg Craven out there communicating climate research, even if they're not Ph.D. scientists. They're still a key part of the team. In fact, in many cases, they may be able to find new and innovative ways of communicating that are different from what scientists would be likely come up with--and Craven is a key case in point.

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