AGU: How scientists should talk climate change

by Brian Fisher Johnson
Thursday, January 5, 2012

Blogging on EARTH

SAN FRANCISCO — The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fourth Assessment report last year showed a strong consensus among scientists that the climate is warming, thanks largely to anthropogenic greenhouse gases. So one has to wonder why scientists are still struggling to get that message through to both policymakers and stakeholders.

At a press conference this week at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union meeting, one geoscientist stated his answer: Scientists need to figure out how to relate their findings to the interests of citizens.

According to Jonathan Overpeck, co-director of the Institute for Environment and Society at the University of Arizona in Tucson, climate science has been largely “curiosity-driven” since its inception, focusing on degree changes and the number of centimeters or meters of sea-level rise. Now that scientists agree the phenomenon is real, he said, scientists need to take on a more stakeholder-driven mindset. And focusing on the local changes and local stakeholder needs will eventually translate to the national level, he said.

Overpeck also said that scientists tend to focus heavily on modeling future changes based on various climate scenarios — but for stakeholders, actually finding out more about what happened in the past is more “poignant.” That means that knowing what happened in the geologic past, and thus what could happen in the future, is more eye-opening for stakeholders.

Overpeck gave an example of an interaction he had with a Southwest rancher concerned about alterations in rain patterns: He explained to the rancher how far scientific predictions of winter precipitation had come. The rancher replied that unless Overpeck and his colleagues could also address summer patterns, he wasn’t interested in talking.

In other words, the rancher needs to know what’s going to affect him, and scientists need to put the science on that level, Overpeck said. Telling the rancher — or any other stakeholder — about multi-decadal droughts in the past just has more of an impact than describing models about the future.

Overpeck’s underlying point was that scientists need to recognize that decisions on climate change policy are not based on science alone — they do and should involve economics, social science, policy, legal issues and more. The demand for climate science is growing rapidly, he said, but scientists have to be willing to explain what they know in ways that are based on stakeholders' needs.

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