Communicating on climate

The lead editorial in this week's Nature summarizes some of the challenges facing climate scientists in talking to the public about their work.

Climate science, like any active field of research, has some major gaps in understanding (see page 284). Yet the political stakes have grown so high in this field, and the public discourse has become so heated, that climate researchers find it hard to talk openly about those gaps.

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No matter how evident climate change becomes, however, other factors will ultimately determine whether the public accepts the facts. Empirical evidence shows that people tend to react to reports on issues such as climate change according to their personal values (see page 296). Those who favour individualism over egalitarianism are more likely to reject evidence of climate change and calls to restrict emissions. And the messenger matters perhaps just as much as the message. People have more trust in experts -- and scientists -- when they sense that the speaker shares their values. The climate-research community would thus do well to use a diverse set of voices, from different backgrounds, when communicating with policy-makers and the public. And scientists should be careful not to disparage those on the other side of a debate: a respectful tone makes it easier for people to change their minds if they share something in common with that other side.

As comforting as it may be to think that the best evidence will eventually convince the public on its own, climate scientists can no longer afford to make that naive assumption: people consider many factors beyond facts when making decisions. Even as climate science advances, it will be just as important to invest in research on how best to communicate environmental risks. Otherwise scientific knowledge will not have the role that it should in the shaping of public policy. (emphasis added)

While the challenges climate scientists face are more daunting than those facing conservation biologists or evolutionary biologists, the fundamental message is the same. If scientific research is to have a positive influence on public policy, we need political scientists and communication scientists to help us figure out how to have that influence.