Nature Canada

In the Climate Debate, We Don’t Need More Science, We Need More PR

Leading up to the recent G20 summit in Toronto Prime Minister Harper called climate change talks a “sideshow” and cancelled the gathering of environment ministers that normally precedes the meeting.

Back in January, Americans ranked global warming dead last among public priorities (just as they did in 2009). Now, that public opinion cooling trend has spread elsewhere. Just 42 percent of Germans are concerned about climate change, down from 62 percent in 2006. In Australia, only 53 percent still consider it an urgent issue, down from 75 percent in 2007. Newsweek Magazine has relegated climate change to being “just one policy priority among many” and “just another flavor of grubby interest politics”.

For climate scientists, and the NGOs who advocate bold, decisive action to address the climate crisis, these are frustrating times.

Distressingly, many people in the green movement are tempted to spend time casting blame for the apparent rise in skepticism over global warming — it’s the climate change deniers and their blogs, it’s the big oil lobby, it’s journalists bent on providing “both sides” of the issue, it’s an ignorant public that refuses to listen to the facts.

But assigning blame is a waste of time.

As Erin Biba argued in a recent Wired Magazine column, what climate scientists need isn’t someone to blame, and it isn’t more science. It’s better PR.

This isn’t a message scientists necessarily like to hear. Biba writes:

This kind of talk can be unsettling to scientists. “Scientists hate the word spin. They get bent out of shape by the concept that they should frame their message,” says Jennifer Ouellette, director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a National Academy of Sciences program that helps connect the entertainment industry with technical consultants. “They feel that the facts should speak for themselves. They’re not wrong; they’re just not realistic.”

Facts alone rarely convince people outside academe. Messages need to be personal, and whether we like it or not, arguments that appeal to a person’s basic self-serving nature are more effective. It’s not enough to say “Eat your vegetables, they’re good for you.” Instead you need to answer questions like What’s in it for me? How do I benefit? We need to frame the issue in terms that say if we do something (invest in clean energy, say, or adopt conservation) we’ll be richer and happier than we are today.

It’s all the more important that the climatology community seek the expertise of PR professionals at a time when every crackpot theorist has the power to sway opinion by simply typing away in some basement. The days are long gone when spending years studying a subject, earning an advanced degree and becoming an expert in your field automatically granted you some credibility and trust. A strong anti-establishment current against experts, primarily attacking their basic motivations (“they’re just saying that to get grant money”) has seriously eroded public trust in traditional centres of authority.

And in the end, scientists must turn to the PR professionals because, as Chris Mooney writes in the Washington Post:

as much as the public misunderstands science, scientists misunderstand the public. In particular, they often fail to realize that a more scientifically informed public is not necessarily a public that will more frequently side with scientists…

Experts aren’t wrong in thinking that Americans don’t know much about science, but given how little they themselves often know about the public, they should be careful not to throw stones. Rather than simply crusading against ignorance, the defenders of science should also work closely with social scientists and specialists in public opinion to determine how to defuse controversies by addressing their fundamental causes.

In other words, we don’t need more facts. We need better storytellers.

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