I notice that the University College London (UCL) Policy Commission on Communicating Climate Science’s report called Time For Change, hasn’t gone down very well with many people. I think it is a genuine attempt to try and do something positive, but doesn’t quite get it. Broadly speaking I think it does the standard thing of mixing science and policy, and suggesting that all we need is some kind of marketing scheme to improve communication (that’s a bit simplistic, so not entirely fair, but maybe not far off). I thought I might just briefly comment on the conclusions.
The report conclusions include
A climate science ‘meta-narrative’ is required that delivers the results of climate science in a manner that is accurate, engaging, coherent, relevant, and which – by making clear the limits of certainty and knowledge – is robust against new discoveries and unfolding events. Multiple narrative threads, that are consistent and harmonious with each other, are necessary both to reflect the complex nature of the climate science, and to connect with audiences with different states of knowledge, interests, values and needs.
Although climate scientists have – generally speaking – an obligation to communicate with the public and with policy makers, they’re not trying to sell a product to a group of consumers. Communicating science simply requires explaining the evidence and the interpretations to an audience. It’s not trivial, in that the make up of the audience matters and the quality of the presentation matters, but it’s not really all that hard. Designing some kind of narrative that scientists would be expected to follow, would be a very questionable thing to do. Scientists have their own perspectives and their own experiences, and so you can’t really expect them to toe some kind of party line. I would certainly like to see climate scientists being a little more forceful and having more confidence to present their science to the public, but that’s not quite the same as suggesting some kind of meta-narrative.
The report also includes
Policy issues raised by climate science are complicated by many factors such as decisions on energy, food and water supplies, quality of life, equity, affordability, security, sustainability and societal resilience. Whilst
climate science can inform such policy deliberations, it cannot be their arbiter.
I agree with this point and the last sentence is indeed crucial. I would argue that the policy issues are the most complicated and uncertain aspects of this whole topic. If we could get people to recognise the strength of the scientific evidence so that we can actually have a constructive discussion about the policy options, I think that would be a great step forward. I’m not sure that this report really helps in that respect, though.
Another conclusion is
Efforts to understand the climate system better are important, but they should not be allowed to divert attention and effort from decision-making and policy formulation based on what is already
known and can be addressed.
I’m not quite sure what this is getting at. This reads as if it’s implying that scientists trying to understand things better are preventing us from using the existing evidence to start making policy decisions. If so, this seems odd given that we’ve now had 5 IPCC reports that present the evidence clearly and thoroughly. However, if they actually meant that dissenters should stop undermining the scientific evidence so as to prevent us from starting to address the policy implications, then I would agree. Maybe they could have made that clearer, if so.
The final comment I might make is about this conclusion
Climate scientists are finding themselves ill-prepared to engage with the often emotionally, politically and ideologically charged public discourse on the evaluation and use of their science. This is proving
unhelpful to evidence-based policy formulation, and is damaging their public standing. As a result, there is a pressing need to re-examine and clarify the roles of climate scientists in policy, decision-making and public engagement. Their professional norms, values and practices need to be reconsidered and revised accordingly.
This is maybe the most irritating – to me at least – conclusion that they’ve drawn. It is indeed true that climate scientists are finding it hard to engage and it may even be true that there is a lack of trust. However, what I think is not true, is that this is the fault of climate scientists. Yes, there was Climategate, but so what? Does anyone sensible really think that a bunch of stolen emails from 10 years ago really has any significance with respect to the scientific evidence? There are also a host of resources for those who would like to learn more about climate science, more than almost any other field today. If climate scientists are having trouble communicating their science and are being accused of being untrustworthy, maybe the problem isn’t them, but those who’re doing the accusing. If those who wrote this report really want help, they could put some effort into convincing people that if they want to understand climate science, they should talk to, and listen to, the experts. The most sensible thing I’ve read on this recently is this.
So, for what it’s worth, that’s what I think. I haven’t read it in extensive detail so there may be some positive aspects to it. It does claim to be trying to clarify the science-policy interface, but then seems to just mash them together in some odd way that would seem to then make it difficult for science to remain objective. It also quotes Roger Pielke Jr’s honest broker book in quite some detail and that – in my opinion – doesn’t instil much confidence. If anyone would like to convince me (or others) that there are more positive aspects to this report than there – at first – appears, feel free to do so.