2011-04-13 11:42:45The role of social and decision sciences in communicating uncertain climate risks
John Cook


The role of social and decision sciences in communicating uncertain climate risks

A major challenge facing climate scientists is explaining to non-specialists the risks and uncertainties surrounding potential changes over the coming years, decades and centuries. Although there are many guidelines for climate communication, there is little empirical evidence of their efficacy, whether for dispassionately explaining the science or for persuading people to act in more sustainable ways. Moreover, climate communication faces new challenges as assessments of climate-related changes confront uncertainty more explicitly and adopt risk-based approaches to evaluating impacts. Given its critical importance, public understanding of climate science deserves the strongest possible communications science to convey the practical implications of large, complex, uncertain physical, biological and social processes. Here, we identify the communications science that is needed to meet this challenge and the ambitious, interdisciplinary initiative that its effective application to climate science requires.


Emotion creates the abiding commitments needed to sustain action on difficult problems, such as climate change. It motivates climate scientists, as well as their audiences and critics57. Clear, respectful messages can reduce the destructive emotions of impatience, frustration and anger, and appropriately framed emotional appeals can motivate action, given the right supporting conditions58 (in particular a sense of personal vulnerability, viable ways to act, feelings of personal control and the support of others)

2011-04-13 18:14:56


Last few lines from the article:

"Strategic organization. Communications worthy of climate change will require sustained contributions from cross-disciplinary teams, working within an institutional framework that provides support for their efforts. Such teams would include, at minimum, climate and other experts, decision scientists, social and communications specialists, and programme designers (Box 1). Once assembled, these teams must be coordinated so that experts stay focused on their aspect of the communication process. For example, subject-matter experts should edit for fact, not style; they should also check that social scientists have not garbled the facts when trying to make them clearer. That coordination must maintain a rhetorical stance of non-persuasive communication67, trusting the evidence to speak for itself, without spin or colouring. Although there is an important place for persuasive communication, encouraging individual behaviours and public policies, it must be distinct, lest scientists come to be seen as inept politicians. If climate scientists passionately offer dispassionate accounts of the evidence, it will preserve their uniquely trusted social position and avoid the advocacy that most are ill-suited to pursue by disposition, experience and training.

Creating such teams will require an organization with unique capabilities, as yet absent in the climate change arena. It must nurture the sustained interactions needed to build trust among disciplines unaccustomed to collaboration. It must maintain public trust by faithfully representing the science and its attendant uncertainties and controversies. Such a commitment to candour is routinely found in academic institutions, but often without a core commitment to practical and collaborative research. Transcending academic norms requires 'boundary organizations', chartered both to conduct basic science and to translate its results into decision-relevant terms68, 69. It requires the resources to support research, design and evaluation services for all scientists hoping to communicate their work. It requires the stature needed for those scientists to value its services. And it requires the staying power needed to develop new research methods and career paths, allowing its collaborators to pursue the basic research topics that it identifies. Having such capabilities should reduce the risk of unwarranted controversies and provide evidence-based responses to them.

Models for such interdisciplinary 'big science' might include the RAND Corporation (in the US) and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (in Austria). In the UK, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research has fostered a ten-year collaboration between climate and social scientists, although without a major focus on communication and decision-making research. In the US, the National Center for Atmospheric Research has made similar efforts. Each of these institutions performs publication-quality research on applied problems, using analytical methods to integrate diverse data, while contributing critical expertise to address policy problems. Each provides an environment that attracts scientists for individual projects, short stays and careers. Each has leadership willing and able to redeploy resources from over-represented disciplines to under-represented ones. Although smaller, more distributed models might be envisaged28, the science of communicating science has become so important that it requires equivalent institutions, properly funded and staffed.


Many climate scientists are understandably frustrated by the limited response to what they see as the greatest threat facing our planet. One impulsive response to a seemingly recalcitrant public is a big advertising campaign. However, unless founded on sound social and decision science principles and accompanied by rigorous empirical evaluation, such efforts have little chance of sustained success. Moreover, each communication failure makes future success less likely, by eroding both the public's trust in the experts, who seem not to know their needs, and the experts' trust in the public, which seems unable to understand the issues. Given the gravity and the complexity of climate-related decisions, we need a new model of science communication, with new collaborations among the sciences at both the national and the international level."

2011-04-13 18:31:14Woah
John Cook

We should use that paper as a model for where we want SkS to head. We also should look to get more social scientists joining the SkS collective.