by Judith Curry
Some thoughts on the UCL Policy Commission on Communicating Climate Science Report: Time for Change?
In the early days of Climate Etc., communicating climate science was a major topic for my posts [link to the collection; see esp the earlier posts]. As a blog proprietor focused on public engagement, I was trying to navigate this topic and figure out how to facilitate communication/engagement across the diverse interests in the topic of climate change. However, the denizens tended to groan whenever there was a communications post, saying just be honest as scientists and the communication issues go away.
Its not quite that simple.
From the conclusions of the recent UK House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee report on Communicating Climate Science:
“A lack of clear, consistent messages on the science has a detrimental impact on the public’s trust in climate science. The Government and other bodies, such as the Royal Society and the Met Office, are currently failing to make effective use of [the] internet or social media to engage with the public and to become an authoritative source of accurate scientific information about climate change. The Government must work with the learned societies, national academies and other experts to develop a source of information on climate science that is discrete from policy delivery, comprehensible to the general public, and responsive to both current developments and uncertainties in the science. The Government’s current approach to communicating conflates the scientific basis of climate change and the proposed solutions to its impacts, and places a heavy reliance on individual scientists communicating about the science to justify the policy response. Efforts to create a clear narrative that is coherent, constructive and results in proper public engagement have been disappointing. As a matter of urgency, the Government needs to draw up a climate change communication strategy and implement this consistently across all departments.”
Towards addressing these concerns, the University College of London Commission on Communicating Climate Science issued a major report several weeks ago: Time for Change? I followed some of the discussion on Twitter, but hadn’t read the report. Roz Pidcock at the Carbon Brief has a good overview of the report [link]. The Age also has a good article on the report [link].
This morning I received an email from Chris Rapley, Chair of the Commission, sending me a copy of the report, and I’ve been engaging with him about this on email. So while I am a little slow off the mark in responding to this (in context of the news and twitter cycle), this allows for some broader reflection (including other reactions to the report).
Overview of Report
1 Clarifying the Science–Policy Interface Climate science can inform, but should not arbitrate, policy; rather climate scientists and policymakers need to work together, and with other experts and the public, to develop and practice a ‘coproduction’ approach to policymaking. There are five key roles which climate scientists should collectively fulfil: ‘Pure Scientist’, ‘Science Communicator’, ‘Science Arbiter’, ‘Issue Advocate’ and ‘Honest Broker of Policy Alternatives’.
2 What is Inside Our Minds? Disagreement within climate discourse is more to do with differences in values and world-views, and our propensity for social evaluations, than it is about scientific facts. Climate science contains enough complexity and ambiguity to support a variety of positions. Simply providing more facts will not resolve the disagreements.
3 Strengthening the Public Standing of Climate Science Climate science is complex, and its results are unwelcome, inconvenient and contested. It cannot be easily rendered into simple truths. Furthermore, the climate science community is very broad and lacks a coherent unified voice. One way for climate scientists to engage more effectively with society and with policymakers is to encourage and inform discourse on tractable, ‘no or low’ regret ways forward. These should address different benefits on different timescales, starting with the near term.
4 Capturing an Engaged Audience Narrative offers a powerful means to engage an audience and convey complex concepts. Climate scientists can gain much by working with and learning from those expert in public discourse, including the arts, museum sector and media. Dialogue, rather than debate, offers the means to identify common purpose and foster constructive, evidence-based discourse.
5 How Climate Change Features in the Public Consciousness There is widespread public acceptance of the reality of climate change, but not of the urgency and scale of the challenges that the science indicates it represents. This discrepancy derives from psychological factors and from cues from influential elites and the media. There is a need to reframe the public discourse in a way that circumvents existing entrenched positions to engage climate scientists and other experts with policymakers and society more generally to evaluate the scientific evidence and determine the appropriate responses.
6 Rising to the Challenge In an ideal world, the climate science community would have a clear understanding of its purpose and objectives, pursue proactive engagement with society and policy through a clear narrative of climate science, engage in dialogue rather than debate, and be aware of the need for active self-reflection.
From the report Conclusions:
Climate scientists are finding themselves ill-prepared to engage with the often emotionally, politically and ideologically charged public discourse on the evaluation and use of their science. This is proving unhelpful to evidence-based policy formulation, and is damaging their public standing. As a result, there is a pressing need to re-examine and clarify the roles of climate scientists in policy, decision-making and public engagement. Their professional norms, values and practices need to be reconsidered and revised accordingly. In expanding their skills and expertise to better match societal needs, climate scientists can benefit from a mutually supportive working relationship with social and behavioural scientists, and with experts in public engagement and communication.
A climate science ‘meta-narrative’ is required that delivers the results of climate science in a manner that is accurate, engaging, coherent, relevant, and which – by making clear the limits of certainty and knowledge – is robust against new discoveries and unfolding events. Multiple narrative threads, that are consistent and harmonious with each other, are necessary both to reflect the complex nature of the climate science, and to connect with audiences with different states of knowledge, interests, values and needs.
Policy issues raised by climate science are complicated by many factors such as decisions on energy, food and water supplies, quality of life, equity, affordability, security, sustainability and societal resilience. Whilst climate science can inform such policy deliberations, it cannot be their arbiter. Decision-making should not be through the ‘linear’ mode, characterized as ‘truth speaks to power’, but by a collective process (‘co-production’) in which all interested parties, including the public, play their part.
Efforts to understand the climate system better are important, but they should not be allowed to divert attention and effort from decision-making and policy formulation based on what is already known and can be addressed. Reducing uncertainties in some areas may not always be possible but irreducible uncertainties can be addressed using a ‘decision pathways’ approach, which retains flexibility through the identification of multiple options and decision points.
At its root, the public discussion of climate science is as much about what sort of world we wish to live in, and hence about ethics and values, as it is about material risks to human wellbeing. This needs to be clearly acknowledged and addressed by climate scientists, policymakers and others engaged in the discussion. Establishing a positive and active public discourse requires recognizing that people’s feelings, beliefs, inner conflicts and world views strongly influence the way that they receive and assimilate information.
From the report Recommendations:
Communication: There is a need for the general public and climate scientists to engage in constructive dialogue, and for climate scientists to convey a big picture that provides a context for the discussion of new scientific results and their consequences. The authentic and personal voice of climate scientists in this process is essential for the general public to establish trust in the findings of climate science.
Training: Training and development of climate scientists should address strengthening the transparency of the climate science process, and the degree of public participation within it. More specifically, the objective is to equip the community as a whole with the skills to fulfil a range of roles from ‘pure scientist’ to ‘honest broker of policy options’.
Policy: Rather than assuming a role of “truth speaks to power”, climate scientists should assume a role of “co-production”: where they can contribute their expertise alongside other experts to inform policy formulation and the decision-making process.
Leadership: A professional body for climate scientists should be established to provide a unifying purpose and to offer leadership.
Self-reflection: Active critical self-reflection and humility when interacting with others should become the cultural norm on the part of all participants in the climate discourse.
Reactions to the Report
In the blogosphere and on twitter, the reactions to the report have not been too favorable, here are a few examples.
Paul Matthews has a lengthy post Another report on climate communication. Excerpts:
The climate change industry appears to remain convinced that there is nothing wrong with climate science, but there is a problem with “climate science communication”. Or at least this is the line they are trying to maintain.
Ultimately, the failure of the document is that it does not seem to realise that this focus on presentation and communication will be seen as spin and propaganda.
Matthews’ post also includes a number of tweets from climate academics, excerpts:
Gareth Jones: Skimmed report and am fairly underwhelmed. Rather patronising to both climate scientists and contrarians
Steve Easterbrook: Climate scientists do their job well. It’s what happens after the science is done that needs fixing
Gavin Schmidt: the recommendations seem to yearn for an old-fashioned central authority to impose order on an unruly #scicomm landscape.
Bishop Hill writes: The guts of the report is the usual climate-communication navel-gazing enlivened only by a marginally less defensive posture with regard to the misdeeds of climate scientists: “Accounts of [Climategate] and the associated ‘hockey stick controversy’ can make uncomfortable reading for those with high expectations for standards of scientific conduct.”
In the comments, John Schade sums it up this way:
So, the Schneiderian Scenario device is being discarded in favour of more bureaucracy, more chuminess with government, and maybe less science (as in ‘Efforts to understand the climate system better are important, but they should not be allowed to divert attention and effort from decision-making and policy formulation based on what is already known and can be addressed.’), and somewhere separate for concerned citizens to chat with one another, no doubt under supervision (as in ‘new organisational mechanisms are required to support the public discourse on climate science and to achieve necessary professional reforms – notably a forum for active public discussion and a professional body for climate scientists.’).
The report is targeted at a very legitimate concern: the ‘gap’ between the functions the climate science community currently fulfils and societal needs, and what might be done about closing it. However, the study is too academic, and Bishop Hill’s charge of navel gazing has some merit.
What I like about the report
There are some things that I very much like about the report:
I. Chapter I about clarifying the science-policy interface is spot-on. In particular:
- The ‘linear’ or ‘technocratic’ model of science informing climate policy is inappropriate.
- Climate science should inform policy decisions but should not be their arbiter.
- Climate scientists should collectively fulfil five roles: ‘Pure Scientist’, ‘Science Communicator’, ‘Science Arbiter’, ‘Issue Advocate’ and ‘Honest Broker of Policy Alternatives’.
The linear model of science informing climate policy underlies the UNFCCC/IPCC. Getting rid of the pernicious ‘speaking consensus to power’ approach to climate policy would be a huge step forward; this report moves things in the right direction. Read Section 1.5 Why does the linear/technocratic model persist?
II. Climate science contains enough complexity and ambiguity to support a variety of positions. Simply providing more facts will not resolve the disagreements. I partially agree with this statement. The key issue IMO is reasoning about climate uncertainty, see my paper on this [link].
III. From section 2.7 Consequences of Fear Appeals: Fear appeals are effective when they point to specific dangers and are accompanied by solutions. In other conditions, they are likely to lead to avoidance and desensitization. Alarmist messages that fail to materialize contribute to the loss of trust in the science community. Apart from the many reasons to dislike alarmism, the bottom line is that it doesn’t work in terms of generating ‘climate action.’
IV. The emphasis on ‘no or low regrets’ is very welcome: One way for climate scientists to engage more with society and with policymakers is to encourage and inform discourse on tractable, ‘no or low regret’ ways forward addressing different benefits on different timescales, starting with the near term.
V. This is an important point: there is a distinction between modelling to inform mitigation, and modelling to inform adaptation. My recent Workshop highlighted the issues of informing adaptation (an issue that has not received sufficient focus).
V. Important point regarding the academic training systems and reward structure: Although numerous climate scientists are active in public engagement and policy formulation, they are the exception. For the majority the primary focus remains their ‘Pure Scientist’ role. The academic training systems and rewards structures provide limited capability or incentives for this to change.
VI. This point really resonated with me: Climate scientists are finding themselves ill-prepared to engage with the often emotionally, politically and ideologically charged public discourse on the evaluation and use of their science. This issue was discussed at length in my 2006 paper Mixing Politics and Science in Testing the Hypothesis that Greenhouse Warming is Causing an Increase in Hurricane Intensity.
VII. Acknowledgements of the problems for climate science associated with Climategate: Accounts of [Climategate] and the associated ‘hockey stick controversy’ can make uncomfortable reading for those with high expectations for standards of scientific conduct.
VIII. This paragraph definitely strikes a chord with me: As a result, there has been little incentive for already busy individuals to take on additional demanding commitments in areas of climate science communication the science–policy interface for which they have little training or experience. Factors reinforcing the situation are the academic rewards system, which continues to place priority on public publishing original research, and a pervasive prejudice amongst scientists that ‘outreach’ activities are lower status than, and a distraction from, the main objective (i.e. understanding and predicting the climate system). Those individuals who have engaged in such activities, with notable exceptions, have tended to be drawn from the more established members of the community. These figures are arguably better able to take the time and the risk (as well as being seen as more ‘expert’), having more freedom of control over their schedules and being more secure in their posts. Although they have been rewarded through increased status, influence and access to power, many have found the consequences double-edged, having become the target of attack within the blogosphere and the media.
IX. The report acknowledges the wickedness of the climate problem.
X. I like this statement: welcome and actively expand the democratization of science via the internet and other means
XI. And finally, its hard to argue against this statement: Active critical self-reflection and humility when interacting with others should become the cultural norm on the part of all participants in the climate discourse.
What I disagree with
While there are many aspects of this report that I like, I have a problem with the overall framing of the problem of communicating climate science. Here are some problems that I have with the report:
I. This statement seems to be an underlying premise of the Report: There is widespread public acceptance of the reality of climate change, but not of the urgency and scale of the challenges it presents. This is at odds with the conclusions of climate science. Yes, climate is changing, but the key issue in both the public and scientific debate is the extent to which climate change is caused by humans. The failure to understand this is a direct result of the misleading consensus that has been manufactured by the IPCC. Science has nothing to say about urgency and scale of the challenges. While the report acknowledges the problem of conflating politics and science, this conflation is endemic in the report.
II. For all the discussion about debate and disagreement, the report is framed by the following statement: Finally, there is a compelling argument that, whilst from a scientific standpoint there remains much to explore, for the purposes of policy ‘we know enough’ about the general trajectory of climate change and the requirement for a response. We don’t know very much about the trajectory of climate change on decadal time scales, and we only have a general theoretical idea of the century scale response to increased greenhouse gases (and unvalidated climate models). The requirement for a response rests on the ill-defined notion of ‘dangerous climate change’ and wildly uncertain impact assessment models.
III. Genuine dissent about climate science isn’t discussed in a meaningful way. Disagreement within climate discourse has more to do with differences in values and world-views, and by our propensity for social evaluations than it is about scientific facts. This in turn leads to disagreements over policy choices. The report is dismissive of dissent from the ‘consensus’: A brief visit to a climate-dismissive blog site, or to comments posted on a climate-related media article in the right-wing media, will reveal the depth of antagonism that exists towards climate scientists, and the rich seam of dismissive arguments in play. Lacking a mechanism to eliminate misunderstandings, flaws and errors, the same arguments tend to be constantly recycled, even when discredited. A natural reaction of scientists, unused to dealing with raw personal attacks, or with having repeatedly to deconstruct and expose the same flawed material, is to disengage, leaving the climate-dismissive ‘echo chamber’ to build up its own alternative ‘reality’. This statement shows a complete lack of understanding of the source of the antagonism (no it is not the Koch brothers). Bishop Hill’s charge of ‘navel gazing’ is directly relevant here.
III. The report seeks a ‘coherent voice’ about climate change and the policy makers certainly seem to want this. Without a coherent voice, maintaining a narrative that expresses consistent purpose, values and core messages is not possible. The resulting inconsistencies undermine the basis for a productive public conversation, and open up vulnerabilities to public confusion and mistrust. The IPCC has tried the ‘coherent’ voice thing; it has led to the distrust of climate science and scientists, and has sowed the seeds of nasty polarization. A coherent voice is at odds with the wickedness of the climate problem, the substantial uncertainties, and the complexity of reasoning in the face of this wickedness and uncertainty. What is needed is the acknowledgement of a plurality of legitimate perspectives.
IV. The report identifies the following pitfalls regarding the content of climate science messaging: oversimplification and over-emphasis on the value of predictions. Examples of oversimplification cited are use of global surface temperature as a metric for climate change and the use of climate sensitivity. Well ok, I am no fan of oversimplification, but frankly this comes across as trying to weasel out of the problems for the dominant climate change narrative caused by the hiatus in surface temperature increase and the lowering of estimates of climate sensitivity. Instead, these examples should have been used to illustrate the uncertainties and genuine dissent surrounding climate science.
V. A major element of the proposed communication strategy is storytelling: employ the elements of successful narrative including personalizing their story, drawing on emotions and expressing their opinions. This was tried on a large scale in the series Years of Living Dangerously, which turned out to be rather a dud (beyond effectively preaching to the choir). The foundations of communication success in a politicized scientific debate are earning trust, humility, and honesty about the uncertainties. Beyond that, successful communicators understand the art of integrating the complex scientific and social issues surrounding climate change, and yes are able to effectively use metaphor and verbal imagery. But without earning trust of people that are not predisposed to agree with you, you will get nowhere.
Proposal for a professional body for climate science
One of the major recommendations of the report is:
A professional body for climate scientists should be established to provide a unifying purpose and to offer leadership.
The establishment of a professional body for climate science, to represent the interests of climate scientists and society, would provide the means to develop norms, values and practices better tuned to the circumstances in which climate science finds itself.
- The establishment of a forum for an active and authoritative public conversation about the results and implications of climate science.
- The ability of climate scientists to identify themselves and demonstrate professional credentials.
- The means to represent climate science with authority in its dealings with society (decision-makers, politicians and the lay public) and to engage with all relevant parties in a cooperative, co-production approach, seeking common purpose and the common good.
- The means to promote high standards of education and training, and in particular to prepare climate scientists for each of the five idealized roles they may choose or be required to fulfil at different times.
- The means to define and ensure professional standards of work and behaviour, including a commitment on the part of accredited scientists to aspire to these.
- The establishment of a means by which all of the above can be discussed, agreed and worked
This could be a good idea if implemented properly (the devil is not only in the details but also the fundamental framing). This thread is already REALLY LONG, so lets save this topic for another thread.
The UCL Report is the most comprehensive report on this issue that I’ve seen, and it makes a number of important points. That said, there are some structural problems to the way the the climate communication challenge is approached.
Most of the authors of the report are not climate scientists (for good reason). Climate scientists seem dismissive of the report, which illustrates the disconnect between climate scientists and the challenges of communication and policy deliberation. The issues raised by the report deserve serious reflection, and hopefully this will start a productive dialogue on the important, complex, and vexing issues surrounding climate communication.