12/06/2012 05:19 EST | Updated 02/05/2013 05:12 EST

Climate Change Has a PR Problem

Although climate scientists around the world have been issuing dire warnings for decades, public perception of climate change has been changing at a snail's pace, perhaps implying that people may be disengaged from the topic. However the deeper issue could be a lack of public understanding resulting from poor communication (by the scientists and media) of a complex climate science.


Although climate scientists around the world have been issuing dire warnings for decades, public perception of climate change has been changing at a snail's pace, perhaps implying that people may be disengaged from the topic. However the deeper issue could be a lack of public understanding resulting from poor communication (by the scientists and media) of a complex climate science.

As it turns out there is broad consensus that the media, public and their leaders should have some level of science literacy in order to appreciate its role in society, and participate in debates about its applications, benefits and limitations (Linguistic Insights - studies in Language and communication, 2010).

However when it comes to climate science the reality is, the vast majority of people find it too complicated as the language is difficult to understand. As a result most people avoid the issue and remain largely disengaged from any meaningful debates or discussions. Bill Hutchison, CTV Toronto's late night news anchor, who has been in the influential broadcast media for over four decades says,

"You've got to realize that most people out there are not climatologist - they don't have that kind of scientific background so you have to be able to tell a story in a way that is understandable to them."

It begs the question whether scientists need to be more pro-active. According to the authors of Linguistic Insights -- Studies in Language and Communication, scientists need to recognize that it isn't enough for them to simply publish their research; they also have an obligation and responsibility to break down the scientific information into simple language, and communicate in a manner that would resonate with people.

What good is scientific research if it can't be used to advance a society? After all, effective scientific communication is at the heart of a successful democracy if we are to assess and influence government policies in relation to the application of scientific knowledge.

In his book The Web of Life, Physicist Fritjof Capra attempts to unpack the mechanistic science by using metaphors to help us understand our physical universe. He says,

"The crucial role of language in human evolution was not simply the ability to exchange ideas, but the increased ability to cooperate."

Of equal significance is the role of the media in disseminating information to the public, as for most people the reality of science is what they learn from the press. According to a published article entitled Testing Public (Un)Certainty of Science, researchers Julia Corbette and Jessica Durfee of the University of Utah suggest, an average person depends on mass media for science-based information, rather than scientific publications.

Surprisingly, even scientists tune into the media for scientific information, as much as they rely on the media to infuse their research into the public sphere. In an interview for my MA thesis documentary "Connecting the Dots...", Climate scientist Dr. Gordon McBean, a co-author of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) reports, and the Director of Academic Programs & Administration at the University of Western Ontario (Canada), corroborated this research:

"Clearly most people don't sit down and read scientific books in the evening, they don't read the journals. I can tell you very briefly a study we did a few summers ago with one of the grad students who was a medical doctor in training, working for me on this issue of smog and human health. We asked the doctors - and these are medical doctors who you walk into their office and you are their patient in South Western Ontario - do you feel that you have an adequate knowledge of science and medical relationships for smog as it relates to asthma and cardiac patients? And over 50 per cent of them said 'yes', by personal assessment I know enough! The next question was - how did you get that information? The biggest single source was the media. Our doctors are being trained by the media, and so just think the public are being trained even more."

This assertion from a climate scientist should be a wakeup call for scientists in realizing that without sharing their information and building trusting partnerships with the media, climate change coverage will continue to remain ineffective and inadequate. CTV Toronto's senior producer, Richard Mcilveen who produces the late night newscast says,

"The scientific community has to come forward in terms of supplying information and simplifying it to put things in layman's terms and there has to be optimism."

And Discovery Channel Canada President and Managing Director Paul Lewis echoes similar sentiments,

"Just in the same way that journalists need to understand the science, scientists need to understand what the needs of the media are to be able to explain these stories in clear and concise manner. Secondly they need to realize that the media is their friend and not their enemy, and that becoming more accessible to try and sit down and explain the stories to journalists is part of their job."

At least two credible and popular climate scientists have been relentless in their efforts to hammer home the climate change message for the past few decades - Dr. James Hansen, who heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, also an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, and Dr. Andrew Weaver, Professor and Canada Research Chair in climate modeling and analysis at the University of Victoria (B.C., Canada), also the co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize along with former US Vice President Al Gore.

Dr. Hansen's groundbreaking testimony on climate change to congressional committees helped raise broad awareness of global warming after an unprecedented heat wave gripped the United States in the summer of 1988, which caused severe droughts, destroyed crops, and spread forest fires. He said at the time,

"The Earth is warmer in 1988 than at any time in the history of instrumental measurements," and "There is only a one percent chance of an accidental warming of this magnitude; the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now."

For months thereafter the news made headlines not only in the USA but also around the world, and the public and politicians became actively engaged, but soon after, scientists carried on with their research as usual, while temperatures continued to soar. It wasn't until 2006, almost two decades later, when Mr. Gore presented his award-winning documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" that the topic of global warming resurfaced, and then quickly faded away.

It is clear that the media cannot be held solely responsible for climate change coverage but scientists too need to be pro-active in feeding the media with their research in a language accessible to the journalists, so they can put out the information accurately and effectively in the public domain.

In addition to the language issue, another obstacle in the way of media coverage is the information itself, which is usually difficult to extract, as scientists are generally very cautious and protective of their research, according to Thomas Khun, in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). He says scientists tend to hoard information and fear sharing it in order to avoid "acrimonious disputes about priority and independence in discovery" which he claims has marred the "normally placid tenor of scientific communication" (p. 760).

Whether or not Khun's claims apply to climate scientists, Dr. McBean bluntly acknowledges that communication is indeed a huge challenge facing the scientific community,

"There's a natural tendency of scientists to prefer not to talk to the media just because it's not a priority and part of it is what we call our rewards structure. A climate scientist in a university as I am will never get any credits for his promotion and is unlikely to get his 10-year salary based on doing 500 media interviews, as the research council gives out funding entirely based on scientific publications. The fact that you are actually able to convey some of that to the media, to the policy makers is interesting but not part of the score card. So our rewards structure doesn't encourage this kind of thing, it basically encourages you to do other things, and to work with the media you have to take time away from those other things."

In the grand scheme of things though the internal politics within the scientific community and their reluctance to share information with the media seem to have caused a systemic failure, and given the deniers an upper hand, as they continue to utilize every bit of opportunity to spew out misleading information, while leaving the public confused and even more disengaged with the issue.

But the good news is even skeptics seem to have displayed a change of heart lately, and ironically this man's involvement with the media seems to have played a significant role in that regard. In an interview with Democracy Now dot org, James Balog, an award-winning photographer talks about how being involved in the documentary Chasing Ice has changed his worldviews on climate change, as he witnessed massive icebergs collapse right before his eyes while filming.

He conceded that he was under the impression climate science was based on computer models, as he couldn't comprehend "it was possible for humans to change the physics and chemistry of this gigantic planet." However, clearly his views has been profoundly reshaped since then,

"I'm really, really, really concerned for my daughter's future. I have a 24-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old daughter and I'm quite concerned that by the time they get to be our age they are going to be living in a world that's so radically different from what we are living in and might not be such a great world. I think they're certain to be living in much more violent extremes of weather with unknowable geopolitical consequences from that. Perhaps agriculture stress, and others, I'm very concerned about the stability and safety and security of the world that my kids will be in."

The verdict is out -- climate change is real, and rather than point fingers at each other, it's about time all stakeholders came together and found ways to engage the public on this very crucial issue. As Khun points out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), today's complex problems require an intelligent and informed debate that is multi/ inter-disciplinary rather than one that engages only those in the specialized fields, otherwise it would end up being divisive in nature and offer no tangible way forward.

For instance there's no reason why economists and environmentalists can't collaborate and exchange ideas (Risk Management for example), or why religious institutions can't (emulate the Vatican), use their pulpit to instil love for our planet earth and its sentient beings that were created by the same God that created us. I don't see why cross-cultural integration won't work; in fact sharing different worldviews and traditional knowledge from the east or the indigenous peoples in the North could well be our saving grace, as it has the potential to enlighten our worldviews and experiences, while providing rich environments to seed new ideas and create intellectual revolutions.

Last but not least and once again, the media and the scientific community need to work together, as the media are constantly looking for stories and the climate science community has plenty to offer. Clearly the two are interdependent on each other and they need to strengthen their relationship in order to provide effective coverage of climate change if we are to engage the public and spur political action before it is too late.

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