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2013 is the year for scientists to speak up on climate

Time to fight fire with fire.

In September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will launch the first part of its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) – detailing the most up-to-date scientific knowledge on climate change. The main objective is to direct international climate policy and negotiations, not to inform the public.

But there is no escaping the pivotal role that media coverage of these reports plays in promoting public understanding. Much has changed since the last report in 2007, including a decline in coverage of climate change in large parts of the media, but the parallel emergence of game-changers Facebook and Twitter. So, are the science communicators - and the scientists - ready for the challenge?

The run-up to 2007 was a time of genuine breakthrough in climate change communication. The backdrop was a sympathetic political climate ushered in by then Prime Minister Tony Blair. His bold rhetoric on climate policy and success in getting climate change on the international agenda had even President Bush making positive noises at the 2005 Gleneagles G8 summit (although the outcome was predictably disappointing). But the financial context was also crucial. The economic obstacles to climate action now so seemingly insurmountable were yet to dominate political and media debate.

In a 2006 editorial, The Sun acknowledged its own previously sceptical position. Add Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth into the mix, and the world into which the fourth assessment report was released was uniquely receptive. The report - so unequivocal in its pronouncements of a warming planet - was met with a general lack of criticism, and a shared Nobel Prize.

But it didn’t last. The interplay of science, politics and economics that sent climate change coverage soaring in the right direction shifted. The mainstream media went back to business as usual - which for climate change means often polarised and inaccurate reporting, much of it generated by well-resourced sceptic groups. The longer-term response to the IPCC has been to focus on marginal errors that the reports inevitably contain – which the organisation (and the scientists) are often reluctant to take on. The “climategate” scandal of 2009 in which both scientists and environmental correspondents got their fingers burnt hasn’t helped - many have simply retreated from public view.

For 2013, then, the IPCC and more importantly, the scientists, journalists and communicators need a battle plan. The immense scientific effort must be matched by a major media strategy. A draft version of the AR5 has already been leaked to discredit its conclusions – but while the claims are widely dismissed as ridiculous, the wholly predictable incidence of a leak has also invoked some introspection among scientists. Questions have been raised about whether the drafting process could be more transparent and if the confidentiality, defended on the basis of evolving knowledge which might lead to confusion, is an anachronism in the digital age.

And what of the other digital changes since 2007 – how to defeat the sceptics who now have Facebook and Twitter to play with as well as mainstream media? For climate communications, there’s good and bad news.

On the one hand social media, often high impact at low cost, is central to the communications strategy of sceptical groups, and the trolling of scientists and other interested parties can be loud and brutal.

But on the other, audiences are now data-savvy accuracy checkpoints. Unscientific information can be quickly and easily pulled apart … although the medium’s tendency to encourage “confirmation bias” does mean that those at the most sceptical end will probably never read posts that challenge their beliefs.

The problems of reaching that group aside, the strategic shift needs to be both in the nature and volume of coverage. The dip in media attention both globally and nationally reflects evolving political priorities.

The dominance of the economic recovery brings a very different context to 2013 than that of 2007. The IPCC report should play a role in bringing climate back onto the agenda, but only if there is the political will to do so. The role of the scientists must go beyond spreading knowledge to pressing the politicians to talk about it – because when they talk about it, the media covers it.

But crucially it must be the scientists who are propelling these debates with evidence-based arguments – as research consistently shows that the public trusts them most on this issue (in direct comparison with the politicians). The days of a closed-shop science community are over. Scientists must be more prolific across media, to rebut the criticisms, defend the science and ultimately drown out the sound of the sceptics.

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