Scientists call for more direct engagement with the public on issues of climate change
Press release issued: 28 February 2014
Climate scientists need to interact more directly with the public through blogs and social media, researchers from the University of Bristol, the University of Reading and the Met Office argue in a commentary in this week's Nature Climate Change.
Dr Tamsin Edwards of Bristol's Cabot Institute and colleagues believe that scientists should engage in 'many-to-many' communication with the public on platforms like blogs and social media sites, where they can present their research frankly and directly to the public.
Dr Edwards said: "It's no wonder the public can get confused about such recent phenomena as the slowdown in global surface warming – and climate science more generally – when they almost always hear about it second hand from sources that have their own particular angle or that over-simplify. We think as many climate scientists as possible should get out there and tweet, blog, or talk to the media directly so our science is communicated in the most accurate way it can be."
Since it was first proposed, the idea of global warming has remained a controversial topic, generating differing opinions from proponents and sceptics. Claims like 'global warming has stopped' and the popularisation of the term 'global warming pause' by the media are considered to underplay the potential role of the natural variability of the global climate, which may pass misinterpreted messages to the public and cause confusion.
In their commentary, the scientists point out that there is no unanimous conclusion to be drawn from current climate models, and no model can fully predict the change that will happen.
They refer to discussion of the slowdown in global warming which was a relatively small part of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 5th Assessment Report (AR5) but was reported prominently in the mainstream media. While much of the coverage accurately reflected the views of scientists, some was less aligned with the conclusions of the IPCC.
This media attention was perhaps predictable, the authors say, given the long-term sceptical narrative about the pause. For the past seven or eight years, there has been a pervasive trend in some parts of the media, especially in the UK, to prominently highlight the slowdown and suggest that climate models are 'running too hot'. Such media reports raise questions about the public communication efforts of the climate science community, and the authors ask whether it did enough in communicating the slowdown, and how it could do better in the future.
Maintaining direct communication with the public through tweeting and blogging comes with certain costs and risks, Dr Edwards and colleagues acknowledge. However, they believe this may be the best way to convey the true complexity and uncertainty of climate and demonstrate the real process of climate science research.
The Cabot Institute
The Cabot Institute carries out fundamental and responsive research on risks and uncertainties in a changing environment. It drives new research in the interconnected areas of climate change, natural hazards, water and food security, low carbon energy, and future cities. Its research fuses rigorous statistical and numerical modelling with a deep understanding of social, environmental and engineered systems – past, present and future. It seeks to engage wider society by listening to, exploring with, and challenging its stakeholders to develop a shared response to 21st century challenges. Find out more at www.bristol.ac.uk/cabot.