Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson was warned by his advisors that “continued accumulation of atmospheric carbon dioxide resulting from fossil fuel burning almost certainly causes big changes and could be deleterious from the point of view of human beings.”
In the past fifty years, we have seen this warning played out. Climate change is real, and while we are still burning fossil fuels, we’ve made important strides in sustainability: clean energy is on the rise, Americans are more aware than ever about the urgency of our climate change challenge, and higher ed continues to lead the way in driving climate solutions.
While we are making climate change progress, climate change communications challenges remain. We need to be aware of the following four climate communications pitfalls to ensure that our messaging is relatable and cohesive:
- Social media and blogs make it easy to spread both information and misinformation on climate change. Universities and colleges have incredible reach – let’s make sure that our climate change messaging is not only accurate, but also actionable.
- Let’s keep climate change communications relatable. Scientists, researchers, and academics are experts in their fields, and by sharing information in a way that considers the audience (most of whom are not experts), we’re much more likely to influence people.
- While more people understand climate change and its implications, climate-science illiteracy and misperceptions still exist. Education and outreach are the biggest tools we have to correct misperceptions.
- As natural disasters increase, people want to know if climate change is to blame. Addressing this question thoughtfully, even when we are still working on the answers, goes a long way in increasing peoples’ comfort level with climate change.
I have come to Washington to participate in a symposium organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the largest professional science organization in the world,and the Carnegie Institution for Science. The symposium is reflecting on Climate Science 50 years after the first warning to a United States President on Climate Change.
The AAAS website for the symposium notes:
On 5 November, 1965, the group now known as the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) cautioned President Lyndon B. Johnson that continued accumulation of atmospheric carbon dioxide resulting from fossil-fuel burning would “almost certainly cause significant changes” and “could be deleterious from the point of view of human beings.”
This symposium will reflect on the science, technology, policy, and communication challenges centered around climate change. I will use my spot on the agenda to discuss 4 key challenges to overcome in communicating climate science:
1. Social media, blogs, and Op-Eds have provided a forum for an array of voices on the topic. I am amazed at the number of “climatology” expertise from Twitter Tech, Blog State University, and Wikipedia University. Increasingly, people perceive that a statement made on Twitter carries as much weight as a peer review article in the scientific literature. Speaking of peer review, I often find that the public doesn’t really understand the concept though scientists like me throw it around often. The public does seem to understand the concept of FDA approval for new drugs. Peer review is like the FDA approval process. It ensures that poor science, methods, and data are not published. More importantly, it provides a recipe for anyone to replicate the study if there is skepticism. I often notice that some people criticize the peer review process until they see “1″ paper that supports their perspective. There are problems with aspects of the process for sure, but it is not as tainted as some would make it seem. By the way, the top ranked weather and climate related journals can be found here.