Thursday, March 03, 2011

Climate communication: Be aggressive or be humble?

There's continuing disagreement inside and outside the scientific community about not only what scientists should say about climate change, but how they should be saying it. The communications literature states there is not one right approach, but a range of different approaches which may be suitable depending on the audience.

The climate blogosphere got in a tizzy in January about an advance copy of the text of a talk to be presented by Kevin Trenberth at the recent American Meteorological Society. The debate centered around Trenberth's idea that certainty about climate change is so great we should invert the common "Is this event caused by climate change?" line of questioning. As it states in the abstract, "Given that global warming is unequivocal, the null hypothesis should be that all weather events are affected by global warming".

All the talks from the "Communicating Climate Change" session (One and Two) at AMS were recorded and are now available for viewing online.  Trenberth's talk and my own presentation "Making the climate a part of the human world" provide examples of two very different ways of thinking about communication of climate change (viewers be patient, the audio of my talk doesn't kick in for about 90 seconds). You might say the different methods of analysis - I take a deep historical perspective to explain the confusion of today - lead also to clear differences in what I can best describe as temperament. A simple breakdown would be that Trenberth goes on the offensive (i.e. prove me wrong) while I've been told my approach is almost defensive (i.e. let's be more humble, there's a good reason the science is hard to believe). Obviously, I'm partial to the latter, it is my research after all. I do accept that there may also be a time and a place for the former too.

Update: More discussion of these questions at Class M and Rabbet Run.

8 comments:

EliRabett said...

Like most such questions, the answer is both, depending on context and on the person. Everyone has their own style. Since the reception depends on the audience each person has to find the audience the communicate best with

seamus said...

Thanks Eli, for pointing urchins like me to various thoughtful climate thinkers' blogs. (btw link to "Fueling the Future" is borken. It is found here: http://environment.umn.edu/momentum/issue/1.2w09/soapbox.html)

Unknown said...

It'd have been interesting to survey the audience after each of our talks. Trenberth's appeared to make a chunk of the audience uncomfortable and started a few arguments. Though that observation is of course anecdotal, perhaps the climate science community is starting to realize that a touch of humility would help.

EliRabett said...

Judging from his accent, Trenberth comes from the same big city background that Eli hails from, and one of the things that you learn is to never back away from aggression, which has its pluses and minuses in the world in general. You have to learn how to judge and address your audience.

However, a different take on his talk is that it drove home the point that that particular audience cannot retreat into the lab, that denial will come get you, and that is what at least some were uncomfortable about.

As Eli put it about Susan Solomon's moment in the barrel with Darryl Issa and the OIG

First they came for Mike Mann
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t Mike Mann, and besides, he is shrill

Then they came for Phil Jones
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t Phil Jones, and besides he should have paid more attention to those abusive FOIA requests

Then they came for Gavin Schmidt
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t Gavin Schmidt, and besides he was too outspoken on Real Climate

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Unknown said...

Now, if you were from a Canadian big city, the aggression would be muted by politeness :). Kidding aside, the historical approach is important in dealing with the public and understanding the active, outspoken detractors, not necessarily in responding to the aggressive attacks.

Eachran said...

Simon Donner, I found your presentation very interesting. I wouldnt otherwise have seen it were it not for one of my irregular visits to EliRabett's blog.

Eachran said...

Simon Donner, I found your presentation very interesting. I wouldnt otherwise have seen it were it not for one of my irregular visits to EliRabett's blog.

Unknown said...

I'll have to take on Eli as my marketing director.