Communicating climate science - Science and Technology Committee Contents

4  Effective communication

97. We needed to consider how communicating the science of climate change and the evidence of anthropogenic influence is different from other science topics.That this communication may not be straight forward is demonstrated by the continuing dispute about the level of consensus about the science and a persistent minority of those actively sceptical of both the science and related Government policies. The Met Office and Kent County Council have commissioned research to establish how best to communicate with the public.[219] University College London has set up a Communicating Climate Science Policy Commission precisely to address this issue.[220]

An emotive issue

98. Climate change is a complex subject which is not "emotionally neutral".[221]There is an increasing interest amongst scientists about the reasons people may or may not support policies addressed at reducing emissions and the impacts of climate change.[222] The UCL Communicating Climate Science Policy Commission told us how "the 'unwelcome messages' of climate science have the capacity to arouse emotions of anxiety, fear, guilt, loss, interdependency and helplessness" and that "values and worldviews are predicative of climate change concern".[223] People with sceptical attitudes to climate change may still support carbon policies as achieving a "more desirable, less polluted future".[224] Research also indicates that communication focusing on how mitigation efforts "can promote a better society"[225] is more likely to engage those sceptical of the science. This has led some to advocate targeting different messages to different audiences. For example, the Climate Outreach and Information Network published A new conversation with the centre-right about climate change in 2013 aimed at "developing a better understanding of how to engage centre-right citizens on climate change".[226] But this approach carriers risks: "people are very sensitive to feeling that you may be trying to manipulate them".[227]

99. Lord Deben was of the view that the key issue was about what happened when "the general becomes the practical and particular":

    If you add to that those who have a very strong view that almost any kind of regulation is unhappy and is a disadvantage, there will be a tendency to argue rather more on more of the issues.[228]

Professor Pidgeon considered that the best approach was a message that focused on making the links with climate change explicit and offered "positive rationales and objectives"[229] that went beyond climate change and therefore engaged with a wider section of the public.

Risk and uncertainty

100. As we have previously found in our inquiries into energy infrastructure and advice to government during emergencies, the communication of risk is not easy. Climate communication suffers from similar problems and these are often attributed to be misunderstandings of the language used by scientists, particularly what is meant by scientific uncertainty and how it relates to risk. The Minister, Greg Barker MP, was aware of this and told us that "we are dealing with probability and risk rather than absolutes, which would be much easier":

    Even though the probabilities are extremely high, which are now statistically almost off the scale according to the IPCC—they said they were 95% certain—they are still nevertheless dealing with a range of probabilities, and that can be difficult to convey. It also leaves open an opportunity for doubt—some of it reasonable doubt and some of it just sceptics who take a very contrary view.[230]

ClimateXChange, in their evidence to the Committee told us there is very little uncertainty about human activity influencing the global climate among climatologists.[231] However, uncertainty means different things to the scientific community and the lay public and this difference can result in information being misinterpreted:

    Some of the inevitable debates and uncertainties expressed by experts and scientists are often misinterpreted by the public as a lack of certainty in anthropogenic climate change and therefore become a reason for scepticism by the public in climate change.[232]

101. The Royal Meteorological Society, in evidence to the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee inquiry into the IPCC AR5, highlighted the difference in how scientists use the terms uncertainty and risk in contrast to their everyday use and that there was value in "testing and evaluating whether statements have been interpreted as intended and exploring alternative ways of communicating".[233]James Painter, in his paper Climate Change in the Media: reporting risk and uncertainty, pointed out that school science made the communication of risk and uncertainty even more difficult as science was treated as "a source of solid facts and reliable understanding".[234] This is different to research science where "uncertainty is engrained and is often the impetus for further investigation".[235] In his submission to the Energy and Climate Change Committee inquiry he expressed the view that the discrepancy between the expected scientific certainties and the reality of "scientists constantly [talking] about uncertainty" could lead to uncertainty on how to proceed, dodging the problem and even anger.[236] Mr Painter went on to explore some of the benefits of talking in terms of risk:

    Many argue that when compared to the messages of disaster or uncertainty that often surround climate change, risk is far from being a panacea, but it does offer a more sophisticated and apposite language to have the discussion in and a more helpful prism through which to analyse the problem.

    [...] it shifts the debate away from what would count as conclusive proof or overwhelming certainty before taking action, towards an analysis of the comparative costs and risks of different policy options (including doing nothing). [237]

Using risk terminology rather than uncertainty was supported by the Grantham Research Institute in its evidence to the Energy and Climate Change Committee inquiry in which it stated that, in its view, talking about uncertainty "might lead to a misinterpretation that there is no disadvantage in delaying until further certainty is attained".[238]

Engagement and dialogue

102. There was a strong view amongst many witnesses that the deficit model, where the reason for a lack of understanding is perceived to be a deficit of information provision, was not appropriate in the area climate change and its causes. For example, University College London told us there was extensive evidence demonstrating that "a 'deficit model' of communication, in which experts treat non-experts as 'empty vessels' to be filled with facts, is flawed".[239] Despite polls that indicate that the public trusts scientists, "statements from scientists are rarely sufficient to persuade or compel particular viewpoints or actions".[240] In UCL's view, traditional debate was also unhelpful and it suggested dialogue as a more effective approach.

103. We were told by several other witnesses that two-way engagement had proven more effective, though it was more expensive and resource intensive. The National Centre for Atmospheric Science told us "direct engagement [...] is probably one of the more effective mechanisms, but also one of the most costly".[241] This was the view of many witnesses.[242]Kent and Kirklees Councils told us of the effectiveness of two way dialogue as a way of engaging with public but also cautioned that "that sort of behaviour change is quite resource-intensive and not something we can do so much of anymore".[243]

104. Direct engagement, the most effective approach, may therefore be too expensive to be used for communicating on climate science to the public on a significant scale. There remains a need to produce good quality information. This was highlighted by the Royal Meteorological Society who carried out a survey in 2009 which found that "100% of the public surveyed on weather and climate matters were interested, or very interested, in a plain English explanation of the causes and effects of climate change".[244] There is also an appetite for more information on science, generally, amongst the public as highlighted in the BIS Attitudes to Science Surveys.

219   Q280 [Mr John Hirst]; Sutton R. et al., (2012) Engaging coastal communities in climate mitigation and adaptation measures. Unpublished report commissioned by Kent County Council for the CC2150 Back

220  UCL Communicating Climate Science Policy Commission Back

221   Q34 [Prof. Chris Rapley] Back

222   Nature, Climate Change, Focus: Public and Experts' Views about Climate Change Back

223  UCL Communicating Climate Science Policy Commission, Ev 126, para16 Back

224  Understanding Risk Research Group, Cardiff University, Ev 123 para 28 Back

225  Ibid Back

226  Climate Outreach and Infomation Network, A new conversation with the centre right about climate change, July 2013, p2  Back

227   Q51 [Prof Chris Rapley] Back

228   Q319 Back

229  Understanding Risk Research Group, Cardiff University, Ev 123, para 29  Back

230   Q359 Greg Barker Back

231  ClimateXChange, Ev w60 Back

232  Ibid Back

233  Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, IPCC 5th Assessment Review, Royal Meteorological Society (IPC0029), para 12 Back

234   James Painter, Climate Change in the Media: reporting risk and uncertainty, 2013 Back

235  Ibid  Back

236  Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, IPCC 5th Assessment Review, James Painter (IPC0044), para9  Back

237  Ibid Back

238  Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, IPCC 5th Assessment Review,Bob Ward and Naomi Hicks, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment (IPC0051), para12  Back

239  UCL Communicating Climate Science Policy Commission, Ev 126 Back

240  Ibid para 13 Back

241  Ibid Back

242   Q40 [Prof Chris Rapley] Back

243   Q216 [Katie Stead] Back

244  Royal Meteorological Society, Ev 110 Back

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Prepared 2 April 2014