How should Climate Scientists communicate with the public?

In Week 1 of Climate Change: Challenges and Solutions, a key theme in the discussion panels is how we effectively communicate climate science with the wider population. For example, in the very first step, we learn that ‘The Greenhouse Effect’ may be a poor analogy for the physical processes that occur and that perhaps ‘The Blanket Effect’ mght be better. This is because ‘greenhouse’ gases act more like a blanket around the Earth, trapping longwave radiation inside the Earth, instead of stopping the loss of heat by convection (which is how a greenhouse operates).

But… does it matter? The ‘greenhouse’ effect is something that resonates with a lot of people, and many know what the message is trying to suggest. This falls under quite a big problem of communicating effectively with the public. Changing the analogy to the ‘blanket’ effect may create confusion and a sense of distrust in scientists, even though it is more technically accurate.

Another theme that cropped up in the discussion boards is how extreme weather events are increasingly being attributed to climate change. And, while it is true that climate change may make certain extreme weather events more likely, is it helpful to discuss climate change after every major storm? Does it weaken the message that climate scientists are actually trying to discuss? I personally believe that it is important to discuss climate science after an extreme weather event, because people will resonate with the impacts that they have just experienced and seek to change their behaviour to prevent it happening again. This website from the US Environmental Protection Agency highlights the link between climate change and extreme weather very well.

Climate Change may affect extreme weather by shifting the norm – what was once considered an extreme event may actually become normal if the climate changes.

In the future weeks, we’ll learn more about the impacts of Climate Change. For example, in Week 5, Dr Damien Mansell introduces the cryosphere. This is a particularly hot topic in science communication, as the bridge between science and the media is often poor. For example, when the 2011 Times World Atlas accidentally removed 15% of Greenland’s ice cover, they issued a statement which was full of inaccuracies. They described the ice sheet as an ‘ice cap’ (which would be under 50,000km2), claimed they removed the ice shelf (floating ice… but it was land based) and that it was once permanent (but floating ice isn’t permanent). This sounds silly, but inaccuracies like these are important because the media is making the public loose trust in scientists.

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A mistake in the 2011 edition led to roughly 15% of Greenland’s ice being removed. Source: The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World, and Dr Damien Mansell’s GEO3220 Lectures

My question to Week 1 learners – how would you like climate scientists to communicate their work to you? Do you feel like the public generally has a favourable opinion and trust in science? And how has this affected your perceptions of the content in Week 1? Let me know in the ‘Reflect‘ section, or tweet me @LTaylor1995.



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