Climate communication: honest reporting or solution-based reporting?

The third question in the interview Climate Change Communication: Taking the Temperature (Part 11) with Dr. Katharine Hayhoe was about how she sees her role in science communication:

3. In your view, how has your role in communicating science changed in the past 10 years?

Over the last decade, climate change has become so politically polarized that, according to a recent poll, it now ranks second only to that of the president’s performance in dividing Democrats from Republicans. As scientists, many of us assume this polarization and abundance of misconceptions is due to knowledge deficit; in other words, a lack of public support is caused by a lack of information available to the public. If we make that information available, people will change their minds.

I have heard of this type of climate communication before in the Cook lecture last September in Bristol. According to his own saying he tries to replace “myths” by “facts”. My first thought at the time was: “Who will make that decision of what is a misconception and what is a fact?”. I have no problem with debunking fallacies, on the contrary, but having been at the Cook lecture I am not really sure if that was really the case there. So I am a bit wary towards that kind of approach.

Her approach seems differently:

The social science, however, tells us a very different story. A landmark study by Dan Kahan found that those with the highest literacy in science were the most polarized on this issue. Clearly, our traditional approach of “Let’s write another report! Make our language clearer this time! Design better graphics!” will not fix the problem.

Instead, I’ve learned that climate change is, at its heart, a values issue; and many of us are under the impression that caring about climate change requires special “green” values. For many people in the U.S., “green” values tend to come with a lot of baggage attached, baggage that may be directly opposed to who we are and what we believe.

In my communication, now, I begin with the values that I share with whomever I am talking to. These values may focus on something as simple as wondering where our water will be coming from in 20 years; worrying about the local economy; caring for our children; or our desire to live out the faith that is central to who we are. I emphasize how important these values are, and what they mean to me personally. Then, and only then, do I connect those values to the issue of climate change. We care about climate change because it is making our water more scarce here in west Texas where we live; because it impacts our local economy; because it affects our kids’ health and their future security; and because our faith commands us to love and care for others, especially those who lack the resources we do.

We all have the values we need to care about climate change; we just need to make the connection.

I am not really sure if her certainty is completely warranted here. If she was studying a hard science or some form of engineering with a high certainty of one particular outcome, I wouldn’t really mind. But that is not how I would describe climate science.

The fundamental problem I have with both approaches is that these are solution-based communication. They both want to change how the public thinks towards their solution, (by replacing “misconceptions” or by focusing on values). Which is strange because the mainstream media almost exclusively reports on this side of the story anyway, excluding dissenting voices. Now this kind of climate communication failed miserably, they are trying to find other ways to trick us into accepting their views? I am not really sure if that would be a good way to earn trust with the public…

But is that really what science communication should do, changing people’s mind and make them soft and fuzzy for one solution? What is wrong with some old fashioned honest reporting? Isn’t it the task of science to honestly report on the issue and then let politicians or other decision-makers make the decisions based on the facts, all the facts? It is no surprise that the field is politically polarized, they are the ones that taken firmly side in the political debate.

The worst part is that we only hear a one-sided story.

For a young science that studies long-term weather trends and which only has reliable data on a global scale since a couple decades, it is very hard to believe that they can be so very certain. There should be HUUUUGE uncertainties involved.

Not reported in the media.

There should be huge uncertainties for the evolution of climate in say 90 years from now.

Not reported in the media..

There are positive and negative effects possible from climate change. Good as well as bad things are to be expected from a warming and not the same in different places.

Only the negative effects are reported in the media.

How could we ever make an informed decision if we only hear one side of the story?


2 thoughts on “Climate communication: honest reporting or solution-based reporting?

  1. manicbeancounter

    You may have missed out the biggest reason that “climate science” has become politically polarized. That is due to the projections of climate change comes packaged with a set of policy solutions and one-sided moral arguments. The general public see the issue from the side of rhetoric and policy. Support for policy comes from a belief that simply identifying a problem means that a solution points its way. They disregard the costs and effectiveness of policy. These are aspects that are outside of the expertise of climate scientists.
    This need to separate the “science” I believe was first properly identified by Lord Lawson in his book “An Appeal to Reason” and lead to his forming The Global Warming Policy Foundation”. I have attempted to construct a simple graphical model (akin to those in mainstream economics) to enable the two aspects to be clearly separated, aiding understanding of the issues.

    1. trustyetverify Post author

      In this post I was just reacting on the fact that Hayhoe was first saying that climate science was “so polarized”, yet taking part in it. It was not my intention to list the reasons for the political polarization of climate science.

      However, I certainly agree with you that this is a main reason for this polarization, looking from the side of the government.

      I think that when she was talking in the interview about politically polarization, she meant from the side of the public. My guess is that she was talking about those who adhere the right wing would be scared away by the constant focus on the solution (meaning more regulations and a bigger government). Therefor polarizing the debate into the battle between left and right if it comes to climate change communication.


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