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Speak out, climate experts – but stop making tactical mistakes

You can lay on the facts as thick as you like, but some people don’t want to hear them. Shutterstock

Earlier this week, prominent climate scientist Michael Raupach used the occasion of a speech to the Australian Academy of Science to make an impassioned call to fellow scientists, urging them not to sit on the sidelines of climate politics.

Professor Raupach, who runs the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute, is a respected, experienced and inspirational scientist. I certainly appreciate his frustrations and concerns. I applaud his call for his colleagues get involved.

But before doing so, they need to learn some crucial lessons about effective communication that go beyond just the frustrating reality that facts rarely win the day. If they don’t, their efforts will change precisely nothing.

Goals and audiences

From a communication perspective, such rallying cries for climate scientists to become fully engaged in public debate are laudable.

But they are rarely thought through in strategic (perhaps the better word is “tactical”) terms. Usually they suffer from two common and related omissions.

The first is a failure to articulate unambiguous goals. A sentiment like “we must correct climate science errors in the political sphere” does not work as a communication goal. It’s essentially impossible and also fails to include any explicit rationale. What effect would achieving this impossible thing have, even if we succeeded?

Entwined with the need to express clear goals is the second problem: not identifying specific, identifiable audiences for your communication efforts. Who is the information for? What do we know about our audiences? And once identified, what do we expect them to do with our message when we give it to them?

For climate science communication, if the goal is to maintain the spirits of – or provide fresh ammunition to – like-minded souls, then the ongoing struggle to debunk factual errors is both useful and worthy.

However, if you assume that doing this will also change the minds of people who don’t accept the implications of the science, you’re going to be disappointed (as I have argued before here and here).

Facts, opinions, and actions

When it comes to climate science, it’s old (but useful) news that while people are entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts.

But in a political environment where big decisions about societal priorities, resource use and investment of public money are being made, opinions and values are just as influential, if not more so, than empirically defendable facts.

Appealing to climate scientists to carry on squirting more and more facts, however well articulated, into the public domain is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. Knowing or understanding something scientifically does not automatically equate to accepting the implications of that knowledge, better yet acting on them.

Hazard v Outrage

Reactions from the scientific siblinghood to federal government business adviser Maurice Newman’s recent brainfart about the dangers of global cooling were understandably fervent and contemptuous.

Maurice Newman: not as influential on climate science as his opponents might fear. Julian Smith/AAPImage

Ironically, these reactions can be seen as manifestations of something that happens among climate deniers, anti-vaxxers and others from those undesirable parts of town.

These reactions conflate “hazard” with “outrage” (see many of the articles here for seminal discussions of this idea).

“Hazard” is the demonstrable harm caused by a risk, whereas “outrage” is our emotional, fear-based response to that same risk. Our level of outrage often has little or no connection to the actual hazard.

In Newman’s case, the perceived effects of his article are the risk, and the outrage far outstrips the hazard. But when you add the outrage and hazard together, the risk that his words will undercut support for climate action looks huge.

In reality, Newman’s scientifically risible public assertions have minimal tangible effect. If you think he’s a twit and his ideas are ridiculous, an article in the newspaper won’t change that. If you already respect him and his ideals, an article in the newspaper probably won’t change that either.

It’s even unlikely that climate “fence-sitters” will be swayed by Newman’s claim. By his politics and rhetoric? Perhaps. By his “facts” on climate? Nope.

Newman’s article is a reflection of a position that already exists, not a catalyst for significant public changes in climate views or behaviours.

For those still concerned about noise-generating media puff-pieces like Newman’s, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s succinct advice on understanding the difference between climate and weather might help.

As Tyson suggests, “watch the man, not the dog”. For climate messages in the media, it’s the longer trends in action that matter, not the day-to-day barking from those straining at the leash to have their say.

So what’s a climate scientist to do?

Here are some tips. Have crystal-clear communication goals. Know what you want to do, how you will do it, and how to evaluate your efforts. If you don’t know what you’re trying to do, how can you know if you’ve done it?

Own your political views. In the climate space, there’s no such thing as “not political”. Being a scientist does not inoculate you against the influence of your values, especially on contentious political topics. Why pretend otherwise?

Be available. Your climate knowledge is invaluable, and many people need your input and your help. Make it as easy as you can for them to make the best possible use of what you know.

Team up with different experts. Climate arguments and policy debates are by no means just about climate science. To be as effective as possible, you need to draw on the experience of experts in policy and politics, communication and media, and social sciences. You can’t do it all yourself, but the good news is that you don’t have to.

Finally, keep being a scientist. And do this in two ways. First, keep doing the climate science (please). Second, approach your involvement in the political and communication space as you would approach your science. Look for evidence and ask questions, rather than making assertions about what works and what’s needed.

Only an informed approach to the entire communication enterprise will stop us generating the same media white noise as those we need to disarm.

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