The Sciences

Communicating About Climate Science, Part IV

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyOct 12, 2010 12:34 PM


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This is the fourth 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.” The third post, here, discussed framing, the different segments of the public we should be communicating to, and who should speak for climate science.

In this fourth post, let's address the following question:

5) You say that we need to communicate about climate science--and obviously this includes communicating on television, radio, and in other media where there's little or no time to get into the complexity of this topic. Are you saying we have to master sound bites and dumb things down? That we have to package this complex topic and cut out all the nuance--and even the accuracy?

Well, first of all, any topic can be packaged for better or worse, more and less accurately. Not all packagings are dishonest. Not all sound bites are inaccurate. Simplification isn't deception. It's absolutely essential to get a message across when you have a limited time window in which to do so. As for sound bites--look, there is a reason that they are used all the time. They work. They're striking. They're memorable. Albert Einstein used great sound bites, which is one central way we remember him. "God Doesn't Play Dice"? That's a sound bite. For climate change, many sound bites are possible. Here’s one: “Global Warming: Because Iowans Deserve Beachfront Property Too.” I’m not saying it’s accurate, or desirable, but there’s no doubt you notice it. Here’s another sound bite: “Global Warming: Brought to You By the Same Frauds Who Gave Us Global Cooling in the 1970s. You’ve Seen the Emails.” This is one that we *know* has been effective. And yes, it's unfair and misleading. I’m not endorsing either of these sound bites, I’m showing you that they can have a striking effect. What we have to do is create simplified ways of explaining climate science that do not succumb to inaccuracy but that are effective in a similar way. And that’s completely possible. First, there are many effective messages for communicating about the need to address climate change—the Evangelical Climate Initiative’s message has clearly resonated (thanks in significant part to Bill Moyers, I believe), and the Obama administration’s pro-technology, pro-green energy message has also caught on to a significant extent. Is "What Would Jesus Drive?" inaccurate? No. How could it be? The question doesn't even apply. Is "green jobs" inaccurate? No, how could it be? Again, the question doesn't even apply. Other more science-centered sound bites include likening greenhouse gases to a blanket wrapped around the Earth (and yeah, I know the accuracy of this one is debatable) and suggesting that it's time to stop our nasty planetary smoking habit. Scientists must judge whether they're comfortable with any of these analogies--but they're going to have to find something that works both for them, and also for the audience. Given this need at times to have sound bites--quick, memorable ways of making the point that climate science is real, and that climate change must be addressed--what do people think are some of the best ones they've heard for climate science--bites that are both accurate, and also unforgettable?

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