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Getting Scientists Out of the Box on Climate Communication



Thirteen of the most eminent climate experts in the world were discussing how to tell the American public about the risks posed by climate change.  One expert, exasperated, said to the group, “I know we don’t want to appear alarmist.  But we are alarmed, aren’t we?”

This (true) story captures perfectly the dilemma of scientists in polarized right America. The scientist who spoke is exactly right.  In polarized right America, screaming “fire” in the smoke-filled theatre of our rapidly warming world would indeed be seized upon as “alarmist” and the screamer would be labeled an "advocate, not a scientist."  Worse, such attacks would stick.


Because the credibility of scientists is based on more than their perceived expertise.   It's also based on their being seen as dispassionate seekers of truth.   Here's a formula that roughly summarizes what social science research tells us about about credibility:

C= E x T


C = Credibility

E= Expertise (Perceived ability to know the truth)

T= Trustworthiness (Perceived motivation to share the truth as you know it)

Note that if either perceived expertise or perceived trustworthiness go to zero, so does overall credibility.

The polarized right would (and do) seize upon scientists' expressions of urgency or their demand for action as revealing their intent to persuade us. “Hey,” they’re saying, “if these scientists are so intent on persuading us to act, they're probably bending the facts to make their case.  We can't trust them!"

Before the emergence of polarized right America, scientists were largely given a trustworthiness pass.  If scientists expressed dramatic concern or urged an immediate response to some scientific issue (e.g., the ozone hole,) it was seen as reflecting their understandable concern about what they were learning. In polarized right America, climate experts are persecuted and media firestorms (e.g., “climate-gate”) are created out of whole cloth. A favorite attack on trustworthiness is that thousands of climate experts are conspiring to drum up fears of climate change in order to ensure continued funding for research.

So climate scientists feel boxed in. They can have the science of climate change ignored or mangled.  Or they can speak out forcefully and get attacked.

Scientists need to get out of this box.

Despite deniers' attacks, polls show the public still sees scientists as highly credible sources.  Scientists don't need to "persuade" the public or urge policy action.    They need to tell the public what they know, but not the way they've been doing it so far, which has largely been via, big complex reports that get translated through the media.

They need to do two things:

1.  Create simple, clear messages about the reality and risks of climate change.  

2.  Repeat them often. 

The good news is that communication experts have already helped them craft simple, clear messages.

Getting to "repeating them often" is the next challenge.  America’s scientists need to ask America's progressive foundations to come together and fund a climate science public education campaign, at a level we've never seen before.   Based on my 30 years of communication experience, I think about $20 million would do it.  At that funding level, every American would hear the simple, clear messages about what climate experts know about climate change - directly from the scientists - at least three times  -- about as often as they would hear about the latest Apple iPhone.  Since this campaign would represent a unique historical event, news coverage would increase the frequency of message delivery considerably.

Naysayers have been telling us that spending large sums on such a public education campaign will never convince the deniers.  This is correct, but totally misses the point.   It's not about convincing deniers.  It's about energizing the rest of us -- the 75% of America who are concerned, but also confused and distracted  -- to demand that our leaders respond to the reality, risks and daunting trajectory of the climate challenge.

And in case you’re wondering how the scientists concerned about being seen as “alarmist” ultimately expressed the risks posed by climate change, here’s a quote from the “What We Know” report of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. http://whatweknow.aaas.org:

Most projections of climate change presume that future changes—greenhouse gas emissions, temperature increases, and effects such as sea level rise—will happen incrementally. A given amount of emission will lead to a given amount of temperature increase that will lead to a given amount of smooth incremental sea level rise. However, the geological record for the climate reflects instances where a relatively small change in one element of climate led to abrupt changes in the system as a whole. In other words, pushing global temperatures past certain thresholds could trigger abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes that have massively disruptive and large-scale impacts. At that point, even if we do not add any additional CO2 to the atmosphere, potentially unstoppable processes are set in motion. We can think of this as sudden climate brake and steering failure, where the problem and its consequences are no longer something we can control.

Alarmed yet?

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