Making the case for tackling climate change
There’s an excellent article in a recent New Scientist, which makes a powerful case for rethinking the way climate change is communicated. While the article, by Bob Ward, is controversial, and may jar with a lot of climate scientists and communicators, much of what we’ve seen here in the public opinion data bear him out, and his conclusions seem sound.
The article starts with the assertion that climate scientists’ reputation has been damaged by the challenges to the analyses of the IPCC and UEA’s research teams. This is plausible, though I’m reluctant to accept the direct comparison made with the damage suffered by the Roman Catholic Church and the UK Parliament over the last couple of years.
It’s true there’s been some decline in conviction in the UK that man-made climate change is happening, but I’m yet to see evidence that this was a direct consequence of the stories about the IPCC and UEA. The polls around the time of the coverage of the UEA email hack suggested little change in public opinion; it wasn’t until the freezing winter that the numbers really moved (though: post hoc ergo propter hoc – this doesn’t prove that the cold weather caused the shift). It may indeed be the case that scientists have become less trusted as communicators about climate change, but as far as I’m aware this hypothesis hasn’t yet been proved.
Nevertheless, Ward’s broader argument still stands. Even if lack of trust in climate scientists is not necessarily itself a major issue, there clearly is a problem. Public interest, belief, and commitment to tackling climate change appear to be fairly malleable, and are affected substantially by short-term factors like the weather – rather than by developments in the science. The activities of critics of climate research are also effectively keeping alive the question of whether or not man-made climate change is happening, to a greater extent than may be justified. On top of this, politicians appear to be the main group who are heard talking about talking climate change, yet they’re also the group who are least trusted to do so.
As Ward argues, climate science is making a mistake in “hunkering down and hoping for the best”. Instead, it should learn from how other organisations have recovered from similar challenges. Quoting from a PR strategist at Weber Shandwick, he suggests a course of action that’s quite different from the approaches that appear to have been taken recently:
1. Leaders in organisations like the IPCC and UEA’s Climate Research Unit should publicly take responsibility for failings.
2. Climate scientists should communicate tirelessly: “no comment” is understood by the public as being tantamount to a confession of guilt (for anyone doubting this, consider how the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” undermined John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004 by attacking his Vietnam record – an attack that was left unchallenged by the Kerry campaign until after it had stuck in the public consciousness).
3. Don’t underestimate critics of climate research. This is meant both in terms of recognising that they are a genuine threat to public acceptance of climate science, and also in the sense that science only works when it is transparent and wins arguments through engagement with critics (though I’m sympathetic to the exhausted pleas of those who have been forced to cover the same ground time and again with critics who appear not to listen to reason).
This structure makes a lot of sense to me. Organisations that have reputational problems often think that they have a convincing argument, and that once they have made their case publicly a few times, people will have heard it and the organisation’s reputation will be restored quickly. But the organisations that are most successful at regaining trust are those that keep on making the right argument, in the right way, over a tiresomely long period.
Climate scientists and climate science may not be facing public distrust on the scale of that faced by some organisations, but there are challenges that need to be overcome. It is true that climate scientists have a very good argument, and good arguments should win the day. However, they generally lose out unless they’re communicated effectively.