Communicating about climate change

Scientists have been sounding the alarm for decades. Is their message getting through?

The Earth is changing and we are responsible.

That’s the message from a UN report issued this week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report was filed by Working Group I of the IPCC, which comprises more than 200 scientists from over 50 countries (their names and nationalities are listed here). It’s a portion of a larger assessment to be released next spring that will include more than 720 experts from 90 countries and will cost more than $15 million to produce.

The report is 3,949 pages long, yet here are a few key findings:

  • It’s hotter on Earth now than it was 6,500 years ago;

  • The Earth is heating at a rate not seen in 2,000 years;

  • Each of the past four decades has been warmer than any decade that preceded it;

  • Carbon dioxide concentrations were higher in 2019 than at any time in the past 2 million years;

  • Carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane in the Earth’s atmosphere have soared;

  • Precipitation is increasing, oceans are more acidic, sea levels are rising, ice is melting, heatwaves are more extreme, and droughts are on the rise;

  • Virtually every region of the globe has been affected by extreme heat.

By 2100, the Earth could be 5 degrees hotter, the oceans completely acidic and practically all the ice gone. Every species on the planet will suffer, including humans.

It’s taken decades to arrive at this global consensus that aligns with scientific consensus. Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree that we are responsible for drastically altering the weather of this planet. Yet in 2018, a Pew study found that 74% of Republicans and 25% of Democrats in the U.S. did not accept that to be the case. Americans were aware of climate change; they just had varying attitudes about it that didn’t align with the experts.

It’s for among these reasons that the field of Science Communication exists (called “scicomm,” for short). The field formally dates to the early 1980s, though scientists had been communicating with public audiences for centuries prior. But in the 1970s and 1980s, scientists began to argue with their peers that communicating science in a complex media environment required more than simply conducting experiments and telling people the results. Technology and media had to be used strategically to appeal to people’s values, beliefs, and politics—otherwise science risked becoming irrelevant in the minds of elected officials and voters.

Carl Sagan was one such “Science Communicator.” His 13-part science television show Cosmos in 1980 remains one of the most-watched shows ever, seen by over 500 million people. Not coincidentally, since 1981 the science writing program at UC Santa Cruz has graduated professional science writers. The Knight Science Journalism Program at M.I.T., founded in 1983, offers fellowships to selected journalists who “toil at the complex and often fractious intersection of science and public life.” The University of Tennessee-Knoxville established its Science Communication Program in 1987. Since 2000, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has offered a Life Sciences Communication program. The University of Maryland offers an online graduate certificate program in Science Communication. Schools such as Boston University, Columbia University, and New York University offer graduate programs in science writing, science reporting, and science journalism.

There is a Science Communication program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. At New Zealand’s University of Otago there is a Centre for Science Communication and at London’s Imperial College you can get an MSc in Science Communication. There is a bi-monthly journal titled, Science Communication. There is a National Association of Science Writers, a Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, professional science writing conferences, regional associations of science writers, and guides for science writing, including The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital Age. There is also a myriad of science policy programs: Stanford offers a Science and Technology Policy concentration within its Public Policy Program. Georgia Tech offers a similar program, as does Georgetown, which also offers a program on Science in the Public Interest. There is even an Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, funded by M.A.S.H. star Alan Alda.

In short, for the past 40 years the sciences have invested heavily in educating and graduating science writers, science communicators and science advocates; in developing their careers and skills through fellowships and institutes; and in fostering connections through conferences and professional associations—all for the purpose of narrowing the gap between scientific research and public understanding, and infusing more science into public policy and debates.

Has it worked?

In 1986, 39 percent of the public reported having heard or read about the effects of greenhouse gases. After the founding of the IPCC in 1988 and calls by the UN to act on carbon emissions in the early 1990s, media coverage of the topic increased. By 2006, twenty years later, the percentage of the public that had heard or read about global warming topped 90 percent. In 1997, 65 percent of the American public had heard about global warming. Ten years later, that number was 89 percent. By 2015, more than 90 percent of the public in North America, Europe and Japan, was aware of climate change—while 60 percent of adults worldwide had heard of it. Science communicators and science journalists clearly helped increase public awareness.

Yet awareness does not always translate into understanding, agreement or action. In 1992, 11 percent of the public understood global warming “very well”; by 2007, that number was 22 percent. That same year only 11 percent of Americans felt they knew a lot about global warming. Globally, people in developed countries viewed climate change as a much greater threat than people in developing countries. Even recently, fewer than half of Americans believed climate change should be a top priority for the President and U.S. Congress. Despite thousands of science communicators and science writers, tens of thousands of science YouTube videos, and millions of resources on the Web, critics of science communication can point to these gaps between scientific knowledge and public opinion as evidence of #scicomm’s limitations.

Scientists are not the only ones communicating about climate change, though. The oil industry has known since the 1960s about the harmful effects of fossil fuels, yet energy companies have invested billions of dollars in climate change communications. The three general strategies employed by ExxonMobil, British Petroleum, Chevron, Saudi Aramco and others have been:

  • Deny or suppress the magnitude of the problem;

  • Cite any change in energy supply or production as a threat to economic development;

  • Acknowledge the problem as a means to shape future policies that will be advantageous to their interests.

These corporate communications have manifested in research studies, public relations campaigns, advertising, editorials in national and local newspapers, Chambers of Commerce reports, social media campaigns, online videos, organizing within communities where corporations employ workers, and cultivation of sympathetic local, state, and federal policymakers and elected officials.

One such official was Donald Trump. In 2012, Trump proclaimed on Twitter that global warming was created by the Chinese in an effort to undermine U.S. manufacturing, echoing the messages of fossil fuel companies and lobbyists. His tweet was retweeted more than 100,000 times. Trump’s tweets on climate change from 2011 until his election in 2016 exemplified the first two elements of industry’s strategic communications: cast doubt on the science and frame the conversation in terms of economic competition.

Trump activated people’s fears of economic recession, job loss, and falling behind in the international competition against a rising superpower. Losing business to China—and losing American dominance in manufacturing—was not an acceptable outcome. Nor was being gullible to an alleged hoax perpetrated by America’s primary competitor. In a sense, Trump was administering his own master class in anti-science communication, and out science-communicating the science communicators. Trump appealed to people’s hearts and guts, not their brains. If America was enduring the coldest winter on record in a particular year, how could the planet be warming? One’s gut would tell you what to believe, not a scientific research paper. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, Trump told his followers that he did not need a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing.

One could argue that Trump’s election was a massive indictment of science communication. It was one thing for a businessman-turned-celebrity to not believe in the seminal scientific issue of his generation. It was a far different matter for nearly 63 million Americans to vote for that person as President of the United States. Scientists and science communicators had successfully raised awareness of global climate change for thirty years. Yet they had not sufficiently convinced 46 percent of American voters to vote for the candidate who agreed with their findings. That’s one reason why scientists and science communicators fervently joined the anti-Trump #Resistance, tweeting, protesting, announcing candidacy for public office, backing-up decades of government research, and organizing a “March for Science” three months after Trump’s inauguration. The march was advertised as non-partisan but the implications were clear: it was a show-of-force against the President and his perceived anti-science worldview, embodied by his position on global climate change.

Even after the UN issues its full report next year, segments of the population will continue to dispute, downplay or deny human involvement in planetary climate change. Since no one will read a 4,000-page report—and no one beyond the scientific community will understand its terminology—the task will fall on science communicators and science journalists to distill its findings into digestible formats and plain-language, while also combatting misinformation, disinformation, corporate spin and other messaging. While Americans may be willing to accept scientific consensus on matters with fewer social, religious, or political overtones, some will continue to resist scientific consensus on a topic such as climate change where politics, ideology and economics play a larger role. As the 2018 Pew study found, the “relationship between people’s level of science knowledge and their attitudes can be complex.”

Let’s hope the message gets through before it’s too late.

Have a good week.


Postscript: The successes and challenges of Science Communication inspired me in 2014-2015 to introduce the concept of History Communication and coin the term History Communicators. For the past five years, I have worked with colleagues worldwide to create the field of History Communication. More about #histcomm is on my website, as well as in future History Club events and newsletters.


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