Why Climate Science Communication is so Poor and Next Steps

By May 30, 2014 March 12th, 2015 communications, Policy, Psycho, Solutions, What we can do

The new discipline of global warming psychology tells that clear and concise communications of climate science can no longer provide the public knowledge needed to advance climate pollution policy. In 2013 alone, 13,000 papers were published about “global climate change” or closely related topics. How scientists interact with the public however has changed very little, ever.

Let’s face it; climate scientists are largely geeks who have chosen one of the many earth science disciplines as a career. They are like all other scientists; very good at what they do and like geeks everywhere, very poor at communicating anything with folks that are not similar specialists.

This is not a bad thing in normal science, or in almost any other normal topic. If it weren’t for geeks we would all still be running around on horses and burning wood to keep warm. Climate change brings with it inherent difficulties however. This is not just something new. It is not just something our society has never experienced before.

Our society is built around the weather and the weather and climate are intricately related. Humankind has basically conquered weather. We live comfortably and thrive in the most hospitable climate on Earth and even in space, where “the weather” is infinitely more hostile than on Earth.

We have been so successful at adapting to the weather that we have become disassociated from it. Generations of us now, live in our houses and turn the thermostat up or down dependent on how we feel inside. We scurry in and out of our climate controlled transportation modes to our cubicles in more climate controlled places and back again, stopping along the way at more venues where the weather is always perfect.

Up through the middle of the last century we understood the weather well as an agrarian people. But now, our food is grown on massive industrial farms and our agrarian society has ended.

This society of ours evolved in a stable climate. Science did not really include this knowledge until about fifty or seventy five years ago, but now we know. Our food growing regions were developed where food grows easily, the warmth/cold/water relationship is appropriate for the food species involved.

Our global infrastructure is dependent on transportation to move food and goods from place to place and ocean transportation is the kind of service providers in these areas. We have built more than a third of our total global society in areas that are aesthetically pleasing bordering our oceans. Most of this infrastructure is very high value industry, residential and recreational oriented.

Climate change is already wreaking havoc on our food growing and coastal regions and because of the long time frame that our vast oceans can cool our climate—before they come into equilibrium with greenhouse gases—we have a lot of warming still in the pipeline.

This phenomenon is called the climate lag and basically it means that today’s climate is reacting to greenhouse gas pollution in our atmosphere 30 to 50 years ago. Since the late 1970s and early 1980s we have emitted as many greenhouse gases as we emitted in the previous 236 years. Now we are in a desperate pickle.

If we stopped emitting all greenhouse gases right this minute, we would quite likely see up to 7.5 degrees of additional warming and 80 percent of this would happen this century, 60 percent in the next fifty years. The impacts from warming then, have just begun unless we can very dramatically remove some of the climate pollutants already in our sky. this is the main reason why the 2013 IPCC has come out with a new statement of fact that says that in order to prevent dangerous climate change we have to have strong negative emissions. That is, we have to remove more greenhouse gases from our sky than we put in every year: “strongly” more they say.

But climate policy has been gridlocked science the early 1990s. Todays’ EPA carbon regulations proposed this June, set to go into effect next June, will only reduce carbon emissions 13 percent more than emissions reductions requirements under the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol was an extension of the 1992 Erath Summit in Rio and was adopted in 1997.

Climate scientists everywhere (all but about as many as you can count with all your fingers and toes) agree that we are in a very dangerous situation, and they all agree that they are nor very adept at communicating their science that shows this. Global warming psychologies have been working on this issue for a decade or more now and have come up[ with many enlightening suggestions  and some very disturbing facts.One of these plays a radical role in helping to defeat the uncharacteristically mediocre attempts at outreach from climate scientists.

This is the climate change counter movement and its $900 million annual funding umbrella. Work from Drexel and Stanford has found that Conservative think tanks and policy institutions alone have used their nearly one billion a year in funding to advance the counter climate change movement. (see here)

University College London’s Policy Commission on the Communication of Climate Science has released a mega report on communicating climate science titled “Time for Change?” The report begins:

“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.”

The conclusions of the report:

  1. 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.
  2. A climate science ‘meta-narrative’ is required.
  3. Policy issues raised by climate science are complicated by many
  4. 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.
  5. 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 well being.
  6. New organizational mechanisms are required.


  1. There is a need for an operational means for the general public and climate scientists to engage in dialogue, and for the provision of a coherent ‘metanarrative’ of climate science that conveys the big picture and provides the context for discussion of the results, their uncertainties and their implications.
  2. There is a need to enhance the [communications] training and development of climate scientists.
  3. Climate scientists should participate actively in the ‘co-production’ of policy formulation and the decision-making process.
  4. A professional body for climate scientists should be established to provide a unifying purpose and to offer leadership.
  5. Active critical self-reflection and humility should become the evident and habitual cultural norm on the part of all participants in the climate discourse.

Rapley et al, -REPORT- Climate Science Revisited_Time for a Change -question mark-, University College London, May 2014.

Rapley and De Meyerl, -Commentary- Climate Science Revisited_Time for a Change -question mark-, University College London, May 2014.

Corner and Groves, Commentary, Breaking the Climate Change Communications Deadlock, Nature Climate Change, September 2014