Richard Betts is Head of Climate Impacts at the Met Office Hadley Centre and a visiting Professor at the Universityof Exeter. He was a lead author on the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report with Working Group 1 (Physical Science Basis) responsible for the assessment of radiative forcing due to land cover change. For the Fifth Assessment Report he is a lead author, assessing impacts on terrestrial ecosystems. Richard was also a lead author on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. He is a regular contributor to climate blogs such as http://bishophill.squarespace.com/ and http://judithcurry.com/ and can be found on Twitter as @richardabetts
Richard Feynman used to bemoan the fact that much of the communication of science was focussed on whether a particular discovery provided a cure for cancer. An analogous situation seems to apply to communication of climate science – the message often seems to be about whether a new piece of work has shown anthropogenic climate change to be either a greater or lesser problem than previously thought, and hence whether cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are even more urgent or completely unnecessary.
But climate science is not a single-issue subject. It is not carried out solely to see whether cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are needed or not. A further and increasingly important issue is to understand the changes and variability we are seeing in order to help us live with the ever-changing weather and climate. Also, of course, it is important simply to increase the sum total of human understanding simply as an end in itself. Like art and music, gaining deeper insights into how the world around us actually works can enrich our lives and bring enjoyment.
Unfortunately, these other aspects of climate science are rarely seen outside of the scientific community, giving a skewed impression of the science. Public discussion of the science mostly focuses on the implications for policy, and also increasingly on attacking or defending the integrity of the science rather than on its intellectual content. A very large proportion of the commentary on climate science is not actually from working scientists, it is from others who have a political rather than scientific interest. When scientists are involved, they are often discussing it within the usual policy context. It seems that in an increasingly polarised debate on climate policy, science can get sucked in and used as a political football.
In any policy debate, opponents of a policy will naturally seek to question and challenge the evidence base underpinning the need for the policy. They may perceive or claim the evidence to be unreliable or even biased. Promoters of the policy will naturally be defensive of the evidence base. This is all expected behaviour in the policy world.
The difficulty comes when those responsible for gathering the evidence feel under attack and respond in a defensive manner themselves. If they perceive themselves as opponents of those challenging the evidence whilst being allies of those defending the evidence, and start behaving accordingly, this only reinforces the perception of bias from the opponents, and positive feedback sets in. This appears to have happened with climate science in the context of mitigation policy. The scientific aspects of the wider climate debate have become increasingly focussed on one end of the policy debate or the other. It is much less common to see discussion of the implications of the science for other questions such as adaptation planning, and even rarer to see public discussion of climate science merely for intellectual interest. Climate scientists have consequently become perceived as being part of the debate on a single policy issue, rather than as just scientists seeking to advance knowledge.
This leads to the risk of loss of trust in scientists as objective advisors. If climate science communication remains focussed on a single policy issue then of course the science can be perceived or presented as being part of the policy and not merely informing it. Despite repeated protestations that the science is objective, the constant framing of it within a narrow policy discussion does nothing to back this up.
What to do about this? I think the only solution is to talk about the science as science, in the context of all its implications and also for its own academic interest – and talk about it to everyone irrespective of their position in the policy debate. This includes talking with sceptics, and not in defensive mode but as scientists willing to talk around the issue. It used to be the received wisdom that climate scientists should not engage with “sceptics” beause, it was said, it only wasted time and gave credibility to arguments that had already been countered many times before. In my view this is no longer a helpful strategy, if it ever was. Counter-arguments to criticism are given from a distance, but without direct engagement they may be ignored, and without a proper conversation it is often hard to get the real heart of the issue and address the real nature of the disagreement. Also, while arguing from a distance may address some of the scientific issues, it is hard to clarify misconceptions of motivation. If “sceptics” believe scientists to be motivated by political agendas or simply protecting their jobs, and scientists believe sceptics to be “anti-science” or promoted or even funded by vested interests, each side merely claiming otherwise is unlikely to make a difference. Proper discussion is required if true motivations are to be understood.
Of course this needs to happen in a wide variety of communications arenas, but social media offers great opportunities for such engagement. A large number of blogs cover climate change issues, but with one or two exceptions these cover scientific discussions with little direct engagement from critics, or feature discussions amongst groups of largely like-minded individuals who merely reinforce each others views. There are signs that this is starting to change, for example with some scientists engaging with sceptic blogs, and while discussions can often be robust they can be constructive if participants take care to remain civil. Twitter, with its completely open and unmoderated format and easy facilities for tracking and searching topics, increasingly features discussions from across the traditional divide. However, there is still room for much greater engagement outside of traditional interest groups.
Importantly, such discussions need to move on from being anchored in the usual one-dimensional policy debate. Scientists need to be willing to discuss uncertainties, controversies and technical challenges (ie: the interesting bits!) rather than just feeling they need to defend themselves against attack. Only by scientists being clearly seen to operate as scientists will trust be maintained – and this means being seen to explore the issues, challenge each other and not worry about how this will be seen or presented in the mitigation policy debate.
As Feyman said, ““Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.” Focussing only on the nearly sure may suit the policy debate but it doesn’t help advance the science or engage others in it. Let’s talk about it all, with everybody.