Communicating climate science - Science and Technology Committee Contents


Government policy on climate change has been consistent for many years based on a wide scientific consensus about the causes of climate change. The mandate for the Government to address the issue is apparent in polls showing that a significant majority of people in the UK think the climate is changing and that human activity is at least partly responsible for this. Most recent polls however have indicated a clear drop in the public support for climate change and therefore, if Government wishes to retain its mandate for action it needs to improve public understanding of the scientific basis for climate change policy.

The main source of information for the public on science (including climate change) is news media, specifically the BBC. Media reporting thrives on the new or controversial. We heard that it was difficult to justify news time maintaining coverage of climate science where basic facts are established and the central story remains the same. Reporting on climate therefore rarely spends any time reflecting on the large areas of scientific agreement and easily becomes, instead, a political discussion on disputes over minutiae of the science or the policy response to possible impacts of climate.

We found the role of the BBC, as the leading public service broadcaster, to be central to public understanding but were disappointed to find it lacked a clear understanding of the information needs of its audience with regards to climate science. We do not consider the ability of individual editors to determine the level of expertise of contributors to debates to be acceptable. Broadcasters need to develop clear editorial guidelines that ensure programmes present an accurate picture of the current state of the science. Commentators and presenters should be encouraged to challenge statements that stray too far from scientific fact.

We found little evidence of any significant co-ordination amongst Government, government agencies and bodies at national and local levels to communicate the science to the public, despite these bodies working to facilitate communities to mitigate and adapt to climate change. This may be due to the fact that the Government is not regarded as a primary, or even a reliable, source of information on climate science by the general public.

A lack of a clear, consistent messages on the science has a detrimental impact on the public's trust in climate science. The Government and other bodies, such as the Royal Society and the Met Office, are currently failing to make effective use of internet or social media to engage with the public and to become an authoritative source of accurate scientific information about climate change. The Government must work with the learned societies, national academies and other experts to develop a source of information on climate science that is discrete from policy delivery, comprehensible to the general public and responsive to both current developments and uncertainties in the science.

The Government's current approach to communicating conflates the scientific basis of climate change and the proposed solutions to its impacts and places a heavy reliance on individual scientists communicating about the science to justify the policy response. Efforts to create a clear narrative that is coherent, constructive and results in proper public engagement have been disappointing. As a matter of urgency, the Government needs to draw up a climate change communication strategy and implement this consistently across all Departments.

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Prepared 2 April 2014