In a session at this week’s Climate futures: Pathways for society forum in Wellington, a panel of science writers and journalists wrestled with what the best advice might be to give climate scientists seeking to reach out to the public.
Science historian Erik Conway — co-author of the recent book ‘Merchants of Doubt’ — opened with an exhortation for scientists to recognise that the climate debate is not about science, but about values and beliefs. He emphasised that scientists should resist their instinctive response to supply ever more information and data, and instead find ways to communicate their own values about the society they want to help create.
UK environmental journalist Fred Pearce focused on the difficulties media typically encounter when dealing with issues of complexity. He delved into the fallout from ‘climategate’ and warned journalists will be asking tougher questions from now on. Urging greater openness and oversight among climate scientists, he warned against attempts to grab headlines by oversimplifying the message and disguising uncertainty.
In contrast to these views, NZ Herald Economics Editor Brian Fallow rounded out the panel with a call for scientists to hone their messages to gain cut-through with an increasingly under-resourced mainstream media. “Scientists can’t all be monks; some must be missionaries,” he said. When facing climate sceptics in the media, he urged scientists to consider the opportunity cost of responding to red herring arguments — every minute wasted means less time to get your message across. He finished by highlighting the need for scientists to spend far more effort communicating the lags and inertia inherent in the climate system, which mean that current actions will lock in changes for decades or centuries to come.
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Recorded 31 March 2011 in Wellington, New Zealand at the NZCCRI’s Climate futures – Pathways for society forum