Communicating on climate change


Correspondence to: Bob Ward

Climate researchers have suffered from a very severe loss of public confidence and trust in their competence and integrity over the last three years. As a policy and communications professional who has recently become a member of the Royal Meteorological Society, I believe meteorologists now have an opportunity to repair the damage and to restore the role of the profession in the democratic processes of public debate and policy-making.

An annual survey carried out for the Department for Transport in August 2011 showed that 23% of the UK public were not convinced that the climate was changing, compared with just 12% in August 2006. The largest change in opinion occurred between August 2009 and August 2010, a period during which there was a lot of negative media coverage about the so-called ‘Climategate’ e-mails that were hacked from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, as well as the belated admission by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that its 2007 Fourth Assessment Report contained a couple of small but significant errors.

A YouGov poll carried out on 3–4 December 2009 (a couple of weeks after the ‘Climategate’ e-mails first appeared online) found that only 41% of the public agreed that, in general, they trust climate scientists to tell the truth about global warming. Recent surveys have found no significant improvement in public trust. A poll carried out in 2011 showed that only 38% of the public trusted climate scientists to tell the truth about climate change, and only 35% disagreed to some extent that the seriousness of climate change has been exaggerated.

While these polls asked the public specifically about climate scientists, it seems likely that these results apply to meteorologists and climate researchers across all disciplines, including economics and the social sciences. By comparison, although there are no survey results about the UK public's trust in climate scientists before ‘Climategate’, an annual poll by Ipsos-MORI of trust in the professions has consistently found since 1997 that the percentage of the public who generally trust scientists to tell the truth has never been less than 63%. Although the 2009 survey was carried out before ‘Climategate’, and there was no poll in 2010, the 2011 survey found that 71% of the public did trust scientists to generally tell the truth.

A combination of factors is probably responsible for precipitating this crisis of trust in climate researchers in the UK. Many people may have interpreted the failure of governments to agree a new treaty at the high-profile United Nations conference in Copenhagen in December 2009 as a sign that the risks of climate change are not as great as they had been portrayed in the build-up to the summit. And the global financial crisis and economic downturn may also have given people an excuse to pay less attention to the risks posed by rising atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases.

But it has been the accusations of incompetence, misconduct and a lack of transparency that have probably dealt the biggest blows to public trust in climate researchers. They have been matched by a decline in the quantity and quality of UK national media coverage of climate change. An ongoing monitoring exercise by the University of Colorado has shown that the number of articles in national newspapers has fallen dramatically since a peak in 2009 and now is at a level not seen since 2004.

Self-proclaimed climate change ‘sceptics’ (who are only ‘sceptical’ about scientific findings that do not match their political views) have also capitalised on the controversies, with Lord Lawson launching the Global Warming Policy Foundation just four days after the ‘Climategate’ e-mails were released onto the internet. A recent study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found a steep rise between 2007 and 2010 in the media coverage of climate change ‘sceptics’ in UK national newspapers, with most of the increase due to the activities of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

A number of national newspapers now have climate change scepticism as editorial stances, including the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Daily Express and Sunday Telegraph, with the Daily Telegraph also promoting a slightly sceptical line. This means overall that media coverage in the UK is being biased towards the sceptics and against mainstream scientists.

Mark Henderson, who was science editor of The Times until December 2011, includes the following assessment of the impact of the controversy around the University of East Anglia's e-mails in his book ‘The Geek Manifesto’ (Henderson, 2011): What Climategate certainly changed, though, was the media narrative. At the very moment when world leaders were discussing how to respond to climate change, the focus shifted to whether it was happening, and whether scientists could be trusted. Conservative newspapers that had softened sceptical coverage of global warming, such as the ‘Daily Mail’, became emboldened and more hostile. The BBC began to bend over backwards to balance scientific opinion with critics’ counter-claims, often using the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a new contrarian think-tank founded just as the controversy broke.

There are clear signs that the increased scepticism in the media and among the public may be influencing UK policy-making. As long as the public are confused about the science of climate change it will be very difficult for them to participate in the democratic process of deciding how to adapt and mitigate.

So if meteorologists wish to serve the public interest by playing a more integral role in the process of debate and policy-making, they need to:

  • engage the public more effectively through direct and indirect methods;
  • learn more about the information needs of the public (i.e. through two-way communication);
  • improve the explanation and presentation to public audiences of challenging concepts such as risk and uncertainty;
  • implement a strategy for improving the reputation of the meteorology profession for trustworthiness, particularly in terms of transparency;
  • increase efforts to influence the narratives on climate change that are being promoted by the media;
  • deal more effectively with criticisms of, and attacks on, mainstream climate research, and
  • engage policy-makers at international, national and local levels more effectively through direct and indirect methods.

The first step is for the meteorology profession to draw a line under ‘Climategate’. Rather than responding robustly to the allegations of incompetence and misconduct by strenuously defending the integrity of the profession, many meteorologists have apparently decided to withdraw from the public debate, perhaps understandably fearful of becoming targets of ‘sceptic’ attacks. Instead they have hoped a series of official inquiries would set the record straight.

But even though a number of separate reviews cleared the scientists at the centre of the ‘Climategate’ scandal of fiddling their results, they also criticised standards of transparency. The Independent Climate Change E-mails Review set up by the University of East Anglia and chaired by Sir Muir Russell, which reported in July 2010, found that there had been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness, both on the part of the CRU [Climatic Research Unit] scientists and on the part of the UEA, who failed to recognise not only the significance of statutory requirements but also the risk to the reputation of the University and, indeed, to the credibility of UK climate science.

The report endorsed the ‘spirit of openness’ enshrined in the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations, but noted that at the level of public policy there is need for further thinking about the competing arguments for the timing of full disclosure of research data and associated computer codes etc., as against considerations of confidentiality during the conduct of research.

Largely as a response to ‘Climategate’, the Royal Society launched an initiative on ‘science as an open enterprise’. Its report, published in June 2012, concluded: The potential loss of trust in the scientific enterprise through failure to recognise the legitimate public interest in scientific information was painfully exemplified in the furore surrounding the improper release of emails from the University of East Anglia. These emails suggested systematic attempts to prevent access to data about one of the great global issues of the day – climate change.

The primary recommendation of the report was: Scientists should communicate the data they collect and the models they create, to allow free and open access, and in ways that are intelligible, assessable and usable for other specialists in the same or linked fields wherever they are in the world. Where data justify it, scientists should make them available in an appropriate data repository. Where possible, communication with a wider public audience should be made a priority, and particularly so in areas where openness is in the public interest.

The publication of the Royal Society report offers an opportunity for the meteorology profession to draw a line under ‘Climategate’ in a way that the official inquiries have not.

But I believe that this will require greater leadership than has so far been shown by and within the key meteorological institutions, with the major public funder of climate researchers in the UK, the Natural Environment Research Council, having been largely silent and invisible on these crucial matters. Chris Rapley, professor of climate science at University College London, acknowledged the crisis of trust in an article in the journal Nature in August 2012. He proposed that it could be repaired through a new commitment to ‘principles of professional conduct’. But most employers already have codes of conduct, and there has been a ‘Universal Ethical Code of Scientists’ since 2005, so it is not clear how another charter would drive the required change in culture and practice within the meteorology profession. So there is now an opportunity for the Royal Meteorological Society to step forward, and demonstrate the leadership that the profession so badly needs. It could initiate a debate among its members about how the Royal Society's report can be taken forward, seeking to make the meteorology profession a beacon of best practice in openness and transparency.

The Society could also seek to play a prominent role on the new Research Transparency Sector Board, which was announced in the Government White Paper on ‘Open Data’ in June 2012. The Board will be chaired by the Minister for Universities and Science and its membership will include government departments, funding agencies and representatives from universities and other stakeholders. The White Paper states that among the first of its tasks will be to consider how to act on the recommendations of the Royal Society report.

Not only could the Society become the catalyst for transforming the meteorology profession from laggards into leaders on transparency, but it could also promote an increase in the quality and quantity of proactive engagement with the public, directly and through the media.

Public engagement can seem a time-consuming process, and understandably is regarded by many meteorologists as difficult, messy, and largely unrewarded by their employers and funders. It can seem far safer to reach out through one-way communication activities, such as newspaper articles, websites and public lectures. But the Society could champion the benefits of developing a sustained two-way dialogue, which will not only facilitate the exchange of views and information between the public and meteorologists, but will also build greater confidence and trust. The Society should make the case for high-quality public engagement, not only to members of the meteorology profession, but also to those at senior levels of higher education institutions, research councils and other funding bodies who could help to remove barriers and create greater incentives.

Communication with the public through the print, broadcast and online media presents particular challenges which can be overcome through more and better training for meteorologists. The most difficult task is learning how to describe research clearly, simply and succinctly. Many meteorologists are not aware of how the media works and the constraints under which journalists work. The Society could do much to help meteorologists become better informed and more skilled at dealing with the media.

I think many meteorologists may be fearful of ‘head to head’ interviews with opponents, even through these are far less common than standard ‘talking head’ interviews. The main problem is that the most prominent climate change ‘sceptics’ come from professions, such as politics and journalism, which specialise in public communication. When most meteorologists come face to face with ‘sceptics’ in interviews, it is perhaps too easy for them to believe that ‘being right’ is enough to win an argument. In fact, ‘sceptics’ demonstrate time and again that skilful rhetoric can be more important than knowledge and expertise. The Society could provide training and resources to help meteorologists to deal more skillfully and confidently with interviews, and to appreciate better that it is not just the content of what you say, but the way in which you say it that matters.

Engagements with the public, directly and through the media, often stray beyond the narrow bounds of any single meteorologist's field of investigation, and frequently extend into discussions of options for public policy and action. A common tactic among ‘sceptics’ is to accuse meteorologists who discuss policy options of being ‘activists’ or ‘advocates’. These ‘sceptics’ themselves are usually pursuing their own ideological or political agenda, and are seeking an advantage by shutting experts out of public debate and policy-making.

It is not in the public interest for meteorologists to communicate in an uninformed or politically partisan way, but neither is it served by them remaining silent and withdrawing from discussions about the options for dealing with climate change. The Society can play a vital role in helping meteorologists to understand what role they should play in the democratic process of public debate and policy-making.

The meteorology profession desperately needs bold and decisive leadership to help it to earn public trust and confidence and to face up to the many challenges arising from its high public profile. Surely it is time for the Royal Meteorological Society to step forward and take on this role?