Climate Change and the PR Problem
On Friday, July 9, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), sent a letter to the individuals who will contribute to the group’s Fifth Assessment Report. Part of the memo instructed researchers how to interact with the media, largely in response to growing criticism of the IPCC’s process and reporting.
In the last six months, the IPCC – along with the entire climate science community – has come under fire. Last winter’s much-hyped “Climategate scandal” created media frenzy around climate science after emails from scientific community were hacked and released. Soon after, minor flaws in the IPCC’s most recent report raised concerns about the group’s process and its credibility.
Since January, numerous reports have exonerated those scientists who were targeted by the media. On July 7, the Muir Russell report – the fifth and final inquiry into Climategate – concluded that there had been no abuse of the IPCC process and that scientists’ treatment of uncertainty (regarding temperature reconstructions) in the IPCC was appropriate. The investigation further determined that no single researcher or group of researchers had undue influence on the IPCC’s work.
Prior to the Russell release, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) released a report investigating the accuracy of IPCC’s chapters on the regional impacts of climate change. The report found no errors that undermined the IPCC’s conclusions or scientific integrity, although it concluded that the background evidence used by the IPCC was not always transparent. The PBL recommended that in the future, the IPCC should be more explicit in communicating the reasoning behind expert judgments. The InterAcademy Council is also currently completing a review of IPCC processes and procedures, due to be completed in October 2010.
The PBL and Russell reports emphasized that the scientific community must do a better job communicating the uncertainties that underlie climate science and the assumptions made in studying future changes. Although it was absolved of all alleged wrongdoings, the IPCC (as well as the climate science community as a whole) has hardly emerged unscathed from the recent critiques. Tepid media coverage of the reports vindicating the climate science community has not come close to matching the fervor and persistence with which the scandal itself was reported.
The last six months seem to indicate that the IPCC should re-evaluate how it interacts with the media. Yet rather than explicitly encouraging increased communication and transparency (as recommended by the reports to date), Dr. Pachauri’s recent email to the 831 IPCC contributors urged them to “keep a distance from the media.”
The message included a three-page briefing from the non-profit consultant Resource Media on effective communication of scientific research to the media. It provided a list of “scientific jargon” that should be avoided, listing words as diverse as ecology, radiation and trend. It also advised that scientists steer clear of words such as uncertainty or risk – two phrases integral to understanding climate science.
Herein lies the catch-22 of climate communication: scientists are trained to articulate the limits of their work, yet broader audiences (i.e. members of the public) instinctively lose confidence when they hear of uncertainty. While groups such as Resource Media advise against providing nuanced scientific explanations, this attempt at simplification is at the very core of recent critiques. Essentially, climate scientists hoping to improve their relationship with the public are damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t.
According to New York Times writer Andy Revkin at Dot Earth, Dr. Pachauri’s memo was a “mistaken” attempt to address this dilemma. He wrote, “in a world of expanding communication options and shrinking specialized media, scientists and their institutions need to help foster clear and open communication more than ever. Clampdowns on press access almost always backfire.”
In response to an email from Revkin, Dr. Pachauri clarified that IPCC contributors are encouraged to interact with the media. However, since they are not employed by the IPCC they should refrain from commenting on behalf of the IPCC. He told Revkin that the memo is part of an attempt by the IPCC to create a “more transparent and systematic” relationship with the media.
In a follow-up letter to the IPCC authors, Dr. Pachauri reacted to the controversy sparked by his email. He explained that IPCC contributors should not hide from the media but, instead, should be careful not to speak for the entire group. Ironically, however, these misunderstandings only highlighted the IPCC’s inability to communicate clearly.
Edward Carr, an IPCC author, has been outspoken in his criticism of Dr. Pachauri’s initial letter. He agreed that IPCC members should not speak prematurely on behalf of the IPCC. Yet, Carr argued, the ambiguous and “tone-deaf” way in which Dr. Pachauri conveyed his message will likely fuel the skeptics’ view that climate scientists have something to hide.
On his blog, Carr explained that “complete openness” is the only way to restore public trust in the IPCC and finally bury the Climategate allegations. Bryan Walsh at TIME agreed, insisting that when science addresses crises as complex as climate change, it “has to be done in the open now, transparently.”
In a conversation with Revkin, Carr concluded that “the global change community remains absolutely terrible at outreach and publicity…and I, for one, don’t blame the media.” Rather, organizations like the IPCC have a duty to “take PR seriously.”
It is clear that climate change does not exist exclusively within the bubble of science, according to Sir Muir Russell, author of the final Climategate report. Journalists, politicians and bloggers all have parts to play. TIME’s Walsh echoed this sentiment: Climategate, he says, showed us how “climate change is far too important to the future of mankind to be left solely to the experts.”
In an increasingly connected world – where voices in the blogosphere can be as loud as the voice of the IPCC – it is critical that the climate science community embrace the modern media. The “bunker mentality” that Carr ascribes to Dr. Pachauri’s new approach is sure to fail in a world where public perception and media treatment means everything.