One of the central issues of concern in debates about climate science and policy should now be about how to manage the interfaces between science and policy, science and the public, and policy and the public. These interfaces are, of course, the various acts of communication in which people engage. As well as the problem of wilful misunderstanding and misrepresentation, there is also the problem of reaching a clear understanding of what is going on and what might yet happen, what can or cannot be done about it, who can or should act to deal with possible futures.
Beyond the language problem, there are other issues which will need to be dealt with at some time, such as the relationship between risk and responsibility. In the meantime, what needs to be understood (in the climate science community, above all), is that by and large, important messages are not getting through to the public. Arguably, they are also not getting through to policy makers, either, but this is at least disputable, inasmuch as the responses of policy makers is not necessarily obvious, due to alternative agendas and unseen pressures.
What is the basis for making the claim that the public is not ‘getting the right message’? In a recent survey on the Netweather.tv forum, only about 50% of respondents ‘believed’ that AGW is ‘real’. 30% were unsure, but accepted the possibility of its reality; 20% simply did not ‘believe’ at all. (The use of the term ‘believe’ was embedded in the survey, so is reproduced here for accuracy; it isn’t a useful term to use, under the circumstances). As the forum is peopled by a broad social cross-section, with a small international element, it could be argued to be a reasonable representation of the more general perception of AGW.
There are many reasons why messages about climate change and AGW might not be effectively communicated to the public, amongst which the role of the media cannot be underestimated. But the media are not entirely to blame; at least a part (I would say a substantial part) of the problem lies in the relationship between the public and science, in the differences in the way science and the non-scientific are expressed, and in the language registers that are used in different spheres of human action.
Possibly the single most important message for scientists, though, is that the public does not understand you. And because it doesn’t understand, it struggles to trust you. When you add the common psychological reaction to bad news to the mix, it becomes easy to see why there is a communication gap. Once the mistrust is in place – a phenomenon which can have many sources – it is extremely hard to remove. But it is not easy to know how to deal with this problem; the effective communication of the scientific details of climate change and AGW to people, such that they are armed with an understanding which empowers them to make decisions and judgements based on sound reasoning and accurate information.
There is a great deal more to consider in the question of the language problem in climate change discussions, but for now, my suggestion is that science needs to seriously consider employing someone to do the communicating – a specialist in communication, who understands the science and the issues, but can also service the needs of the public audience. Such advocates do exist, but they are not often well-known; those who are tend to be scientists or politicians in the first place; Hansen, Gore, Pielke or Michaels come to mind.
Efforts are being made to bridge the gap between public understanding and scientific concerns about the consequences of AGW; the NERC, in the UK, have been running such a programme. There are a range of websites and blogs, some of which have links on this page, which do an admirable job insofar as they can (though in most cases they are dealing with those with an active engagement in the subject, rather than a ‘passing interest’). For the moment, though, the climate science community needs to face up to a challenge nearly as great as the ones within its various disciplines; how to get the message across to the ‘general public’.