Climate scientists need to rethink the way they communicate the evidence and risks of climate change, according to a new report that finds experts are often ill-prepared to engage in public debate on the use of their findings.
The report, published on Tuesday by a cross-disciplinary policy commission established by University College London (UCL), notes that the climate debate is often politically and ideologically charged.
Therefore, it calls for climate scientists to be trained to fulfil the roles in which they are required by society.
It argues that a climate science “meta-narrative” is required that presents evidence in an accurate and engaging way, and also recommends that a professional body is launched to help scientists better explain climate change to policymakers and the public.
This body would give scientists proper representation and a much-needed unified voice, while giving experts more influence over key policy decisions.
Speaking at the launch of the report, Prof Chris Rapley, chair of the UCL policy commission, said, “We set out to explore issues concerning our primary audience – the climate science community – that we felt were previously given insufficient attention. Our overall conclusion is that we, as climate scientists, need to reflect critically on what we do and take steps to better match it with societal needs.
“To strengthen the expertise and impact of the climate science community, we recommend adapting the way in which we communicate with the general public and policymakers; enhancing the training and development of climate scientists and establishing a professional body to lead the climate change community.”
The policy commission also warns that reports focussing on the dire warnings of climate science – usually justifiably – that are intended to inspire action to prevent climate change may be having the opposite effect.
It suggests that non-specific “fear appeals” can disengage the public from the debate altogether, as they start to believe the issue is “too scary to think about” or that they are being manipulated.
“Alarmist messages have also played a direct role in the loss of trust in the science community. The failure of specific predictions of climate change to materialize creates the impression that the climate science community as a whole resorts to raising false alarms.
“When apparent failures are not adequately explained, future threats become less believable,” the report says.
Speaking last year, the chief scientific adviser to the UK government Sir Mark Walport argued that scientists needed to take greater responsibility for the communication of their findings.
“Science isn’t finished until it’s communicated. The communication to wider audiences is part of the job of being a scientist, and so how you communicate is absolutely vital”, he said.
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