by Eduardo Alastrué de Asenjo
As natural scientists, we hopefully learn multiple concepts about uncertainty throughout our education and research, and, at some point, the time will come when we need to put them into practice. This post comes from the necessity of a first approach to assemble some of the multiple guidelines and recommendations that we receive regarding climate change communication. I am not referring particularly to the topic of communication in newspapers or TV, but to a much more mundane request. In this case, my goal is to have a structured set of rules or steps that a natural scientist working on climate change can follow when trying to address a day-to-day conversation on the topic.
I have used the guidelines included in Corner et al. (2018) as a starting point. It is also somehow biased by my own views through the experiences and problems I faced in these situations. The list of steps is the following:
- Be sincere and factual: It might seem obvious, but I would say that the most important rule is not to lie. All the effort from the scientific community and all the emphasis on uncertainties of results breaks down if we start not telling the truth. You will probably be faced with lies, pseudosciences or exaggerations many times, but that doesn’t mean that you should follow that path as well. The reputation of science is threatened if even us scientists start tweaking research to get it where we want. Stick to the facts and don’t speculate.
- Tell clear personal solutions: This recommendation is particularly amplified by my personal experience, but I think that its importance can be extended to everyone reading this post. When explaining that I am a (future) climate scientist, the question that I received the most was: what can I really do to help? I could have expected the contrarian or the skeptic positions to be more numerous, but it seems that the majority of people are becoming more aware of the problem of climate change and they want to contribute their part in tackling it. Ivanova et al. (2020) published the latest meta-analysis quantification of personal choices to reduce one’s own carbon footprint. Learning what these are is essential when trying to communicate this topic, and also for our own personal choices. Other manners on how to put pressure on governments to take action should also be communicated (by means of voting, demonstrating, or through personal choices).
- Explain uncertainties and use them in your favour: For example, the Ivanova et al. (2020) meta-study comes with a very broad uncertainty for some solutions. Most people will not change their lifestyle if they think that the effort will not yield any benefit, and even less so if they think that uncertainties about the knowledge on climate change also imply doubts about the existence or cause of the problem itself. I think that the best thing to do about this is to reference the IPCC, the method it has developed, and the different categories to assess uncertainty. Finally, one should highlight the clear results we have about the climatic changes that are occurring and their origin. The emphasis in the process can transform uncertainties from being a drawback to being a representation of the reliability of the scientific method. Regarding personal options, explain how a combination of personal choices will inevitably lead to a reduction of emissions (even considering uncertainties), and that an individual’s efforts could even be larger than they expected.
- It’s ok not to know: We know that climate change is a wicked problem, with innumerable facets and studies in many different fields. As we advance in our professional and scientific careers, we will specialize in a certain area, and having state-of-the-art knowledge of every aspect of climate change becomes literally impossible. Therefore, we will encounter a situation where we don’t know or don’t have a founded opinion on a climate change-related topic. Being humble and open for learning from others will improve the communicative outcome, much more than trying to improvise our way through a topic and losing our credibility.
- Real-world, human, and personal stories: Depending on your audience, using the more direct consequences of climate change will be the most effective way to convey the message. The concept of uncertainty is not so present when referring to the current suffering and problems of people in the world. Also, narratives that occur in proximity or that directly affect the person addressed will leave a deeper mark on the audience (e.g. effects on health from pollution or extreme weather events).
- Reference, ask and use the explanations of others: The advantage is that you have the science to back you up. In addition, there is a broad community of science communicators that have put a lot of effort into transmitting an understanding of the topic. For scientific knowledge, you can start with papers you have read about the topic, go to the IPCC, or ask the experts (you are probably in contact with a great net of scientists, just ask them, they will be happy to help!). You can use the images and graphs you know, and the ones that you have produced. Showing that you can get clear results (e.g. about the greenhouse effect) from very basic physical principles can also be a very powerful tool. For more general content, you have plenty of webpages (e.g. skepticalscience.com), movies (An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore), Youtube videos or newspaper articles that are very well written and produced to reach all audiences.
In the end, these steps will be adapted to your personality, your own strategies, experiences and environment. Just try to always consider the audience that you are addressing and treat them with respect. This set of steps is far from being definitive, not even for me. But my hope is that it could help as a starting point, as basic support for day-to-day encounters. It would be wonderful to have your comments and views on what would you change, add, or update. Because the value of this list comes just from putting it into practice and combining our perspectives to make it better and more useful.
Corner, A., Shaw, C. and Clarke, J. (2018). Principles for effective communication and public engagement on climate change: A Handbook for IPCC authors. Oxford: Climate https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2017/08/Climate-Outreach-IPCC-communications-h andbook.pdf
Ivanova D. et al. (2020) Quantifying the potential for climate change mitigation of consumption options. Res. Lett. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab8589