Must-read letter to Science: Time to Take Action on Climate Communication

According to broad international agreement, a global warming increase beyond 2°C is unacceptable (1). Because of the physics of the climate system, we must ensure that global emissions of greenhouse gases peak and start to decline rapidly within a decade in order to have a reasonable chance of meeting the 2°C goal (2). Humankind has waffled and delayed for decades; further delay risks serious consequences for people and the ecosystems on which we rely.

Because the potential consequences of climate change are so high, the science community has an obligation to help people, organizations, and governments make informed decisions. Yet existing institutions are not well suited to this task. Therefore, we call for the science community to develop, implement, and sustain an independent initiative with a singular mandate: to actively and effectively share information about climate change risks and potential solutions with the public, particularly decision-makers in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.

So begins an important letter in Science (subs. req’d) by Thomas E. Bowman, Edward Maibach, Michael E. Mann, Richard C. J. Somerville, Barry J. Seltser, Baruch Fischhoff, Stephen M. Gardiner, Robert J. Gould, Anthony Leiserowitz and Gary Yohe.

Here’s the rest:

Moreover, we call on philanthropic funding institutions to endorse and provide sustained support for the initiative.

he initiative must make concerted efforts to provide people, organizations, and governments with critical information, to address misperceptions, and to counter misinformation and deception. In doing so, it will have to overcome psychological and cultural barriers to learning and engagement (35).

The initiative should be judged against two critical outcomes: (i) improved understanding of risks and potential solutions by people, organizations, and governments, and (ii) more informed decision-making””and less avoidance of decision-making””about how to manage those risks. The initiative should be an embodiment of what Fischhoff calls “non-persuasive communication.” It should not advocate specific policy decisions; good decision-making involves weighing the best available information with the values of the decision-makers and those affected by the decisions.

The initiative should recruit a full range of climate scientists, decision scientists, and communication professionals into the effort (6, 7) to ensure both sound scientific information and effective communication. In addition, it should build bridges to other communities of experts””such as clergy, financial managers, business managers, and insurers””who help people, organizations, and governments assess and express their values. Scientists and nonscientists alike inevitably interpret climate science information in the context of other information and values; the initiative should mobilize experts who can facilitate appropriate and useful interpretations.

Despite the politically contentious nature of climate change policy, the initiative must be strictly nonpartisan. In the face of efforts to undermine public confidence in science, it must become a trusted broker of unbiased information for people on all sides of the issue.

At this potentially critical moment for human civilization, it is imperative that people, organizations, and governments be given the resources they need to participate in constructive civic, commercial, and personal decision-making about climate change risks and solutions.

Hear!  Hear!


  1. Group of 8, “Responsible leadership for a sustainable future” (G8 Summit, L’Aquila, Italy, 2009).
  2. M. Meinshausen et al., Nature 458, 1158 (2009).
  3. National Research Council, Evaluating Progress of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program: Methods and Preliminary Results (National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2007).
  4. National Research Council, Informing Decisions in a Changing Climate (National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2009).
  5. National Research Council, Informing an Effective Response to Climate Change (National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2010).
  6. B. Fischhoff, Environ. Sci. Technol. Online 41, 7207 (2007).
  7. T. E. Bowman, E. Maibach, M. E. Mann, S. C. Moser, R. C. J. Somerville, Science 324, 36-b (2009).

35 Responses to Must-read letter to Science: Time to Take Action on Climate Communication

  1. Who is the audience in the U.S. for these “non-persuasive” communicators? Surely not our legislators who have all made up their political minds already. Anyway, there are a plethora of good books available and they have heard the story over and over again from congressional committees. Surely the president is not the audience because he has Holdren and Shu to advise him. The president, legislators, and aides all have access to the National Research Council, to college presidents, to eminent scientists, etc. Communicating the facts is not the problem. The problem is Republicans will not, I repeat, will not let Obama have any kind of success for the next two years.

    The only thing we can do is convince Obama to speak out to the American people over and over again about the vital importance of stopping CO2 emissions and bringing global warming under control immediately. He must blame the Republicans for the looming climate disaster. Then we must hope that in 2012 enough Republicans are defeated so that a new elected Democrat President in 2012 will get effective legislation passed. Those are political missions with vital political decisions and trade-offs. The world desperately needs a close Obama friend and confidant who can convince him to go all out as I have indicated and convince the voting public.

  2. David B. Benson says:

    Just point out that global warming implies drought and drought implies no food. Here is Dr. Dai: This is very alarming because if the drying is anything resembling Figure 11, a very large population will be severely affected in the coming decades over the whole United States, southern Europe, Southeast Asia, Brazil, Chile, Australia, and most of Africa.

  3. with the doves says:

    “more informed decision-making” – it seems the bad decisions aren’t due to lack of available information, but to decision-makers who don’t to hear it. Inhofe and all the rest aren’t going to be swayed by more science. Also the “non-political” nature of this initiative makes one wonder. This is an extremely political issue. National understanding and consensus, both of which are necessary for forward motion, are being undercut by powerful self-interested actors.

    Philip Eisner #1 makes sense. Obama has to make the case to America, repeatedly.

  4. BB says:

    I would think there’s broad ‘disagreement’ on

    “It should not advocate specific policy decisions”

    (That’s been a tough one to steer clear of so far)


    “The initiative should recruit a full range of climate scientists, decision scientists, and communication professionals into the effort”

    (I doubt someone like Judith Curry is considered a ‘Climate Scientist’ anymore, much like someone like “Clarence Thomas” is no longer accepted as a African- American).


    “Despite the politically contentious nature of climate change policy, the initiative must be strictly nonpartisan. In the face of efforts to undermine public confidence in science, it must become a trusted broker of unbiased information for people on all sides of the issue.”

    (I’m wondering how the particular signees aim to achieve this one, if at the same time they want to maintain their unanimity in climate understanding. I suppose they can always find people on all sides of the aisle that support what they support, but it may take some semantic wiggling to be able to say they are providing unbiased information for people ‘on all sides of the issue’)

    It sounds a little like the same mission the AGU was attempting to undertake with their media relation force.

  5. Jeff Huggins says:

    Bravo And . . .

    Well, I applaud the effort and the idea. Bravo to the folks involved!

    Without being negative towards the people involved in this particular initiative, I’ll say this to the broader scientific community (and I consider myself a scientist, so I’m included in this criticism too): IT’s ABOUT TIME! This should have happened years ago.

    A couple thoughts:

    First, I’ve posted two comments in the recent past that could (hopefully) help as part of this: One of them had to do with an analysis of different types/subjects of “advocating”. The other had to do with an idea involving one-day educational seminars that the scientific community should develop and offer to each and every Representative and Senator. I posted both of these in the last several weeks, so CAP ought to be able to find them if anyone is interested. Or, contact me, and I’ll send them directly.

    My next thoughts involve this (key) passage from the letter:

    “The initiative should be an embodiment of what Fischhoff calls ‘non-persuasive communication.’ It should not advocate specific policy decisions; good decision-making involves weighing the best available information with the values of the decision-makers and those affected by the decisions.”

    I’d like to offer several comments on this:

    First, I agree that this is a great philosophy as a starting point and, hopefully, ideally, will be sufficient IF done effectively. Again, I’d also suggest looking at my recent post (comment) that analyzes the sorts of advocating that should be included in our understanding of the role of scientific organizations and those that shouldn’t, at least normally.

    Second, the philosophy stated in the passage (drawing a line between what sorts of communication should be included, and what sorts excluded) is great, as I say, as a starting point, but I don’t think it should be seen as an absolute not-ever-to-be-adjusted ideological commitment, so to speak. What I’m getting at is this: In the end, the stakes are so high that there is no fixed pre-ordained “dividing line” of what different disciplines should consider within their role and what they should exclude. In other words, if your efforts aren’t being effective, and if nobody else is doing the job, then scientists (or large groups of them) may HAVE to be more insistent in general, and may even have to get into pushing, so to speak. The notion of disciplinary dividing lines, as if “people in discipline X can’t do Z, even if the future of humankind itself is at stake”, is a constructed, self-imposed notion that is not in any way “justified” if the stakes are large and nothing else is working. If the only thing that will eventually work is for 10,000 scientists to stand naked, painted green, in Central Park, shout four-letter words at Republican politicians, push a specific solution, and then do the Twist, so be it. When tens of millions (and more) of lives are at stake, and climate stability, and the living conditions of future generations, there are no final dividing lines. What must be done must be done. If it comes down to that, I will be there too, in Central Park, with you. (No peeking now!)

    Third and finally, in the passage, you mention “the values of the decision-makers and those affected by the decisions”. Of course, scientists are humans too, and they are affected by the decisions. And, with understanding comes responsibility. So again, as a starting point — and indeed as a tactical matter — and hopefully it will be sufficient, the philosophy stated in the passage is a great one. But if that doesn’t work, more will likely be necessary. I say this because I think we should move away from thinking “as if” there are rules written into the fabric of the universe that “good scientists shouldn’t do Z”. Indeed, if we take the word ‘good’ in its complete and normal and genuine sense, and if we consider that all scientists are humans, I would say that “good scientists SHOULD do whatever the heck is necessary to prompt responsible action”. Of course, nobody in any discipline should veer so far away from their expertise that they begin to talk about things that they don’t understand as if they do. But that’s a different matter.

    Oh and finally: If we connect all the dots of these points, we see that the more effective we (together) are, and the more effective the scientific organizations are with this approach, the less likely it will be that they’ll be in a position to NEED to go the next step and begin to expand what they’re willing to do. In other words, the more effective you are with this approach, the less likely it will be that there will come a time when we’ll have to meet, painted green, in Central Park.

    Bravo again, and Good Luck!


  6. caerbannog says:

    Philip Eisner #1 makes sense. Obama has to make the case to America, repeatedly.

    Could this be a sign that the Obama administration might be starting to grow a backbone regarding this issue?

    Excerpt (emphasis added):

    There is puzzlement around the world” over the election to Congress of politicians who campaigned on their opposition to restricting carbon emissions, which are blamed for global warming, said the US Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern.

    “I don’t think the climate (change) deniers represent anything like a majority or even a very large minority,” Stern insisted to reporters in a suburban Virginia hotel at the conclusion of a Major Economies Forum focused on energy policy and climate change.

    That’s an official White house spokesman, speaking on the record in front of a bunch of reporters, using the “D” word. Hopefully, this means that the gloves are coming off (and will stay off).

  7. Deborah Stark says:

    I am in agreement with Philip Eisner’s Post #1 which, I think, very accurately delineates the current political reality.

    I do feel that Obama has, in his way, attempted to convey to the American public the importance of transitioning our country to a less-polluting energy infrastructure. The problem is that he has been too oblique about it. He needs to more directly make connections between cause and effect. I wish he would just get down and talk to the public.

    I think the American people would be more receptive than is currently apparent to some straight talk regarding pollution-driven climatic destabilization already well underway. I get the distinct impression that people would really like to know what they can do and that they need to hear this from someone in the executive branch.

    I would go so far as to say that Obama ought to seriously consider sacrificing the hope of a second term and just get up and say to the people what needs to be said.

  8. mike roddy says:

    Scientists will need money and infrastructure to pull this off. NSF should go to an NGO like Bullitt, and include media monitoring.

  9. As an independent journalist covering climate science who’s had to sell his house and move in with his relatives to keep reporting I can only applaud this belated call for real action on climate communication. With more 15 years of experience, I have to ask people for donations so I can cover the Cancun climate meeting at the end of the month without going further into debt.

    “Media are deeply broken…That’s a real threat to democracy” the late Steve Schneider told me last spring in an interview.

    It’s going to take a hell of a lot more than Obama to raise the level of understanding about the real dangers of climate change and what needs to be done to minimize those dangers.

  10. paulm says:

    Obama are you listening?

  11. Barry says:

    Interesting that “fossil fuel pollution” doesn’t appear anywhere in the call for better communication of the threat created by fossil fuel pollution.

    I’m pretty sure the wording “global emissions of greenhouse gases” does not translate to anything relevant to even worry about to majority of the audience they are trying to reach.

    I recommend folks who haven’t yet, take a few minutes to listen to the talks of George Marshall on the psychology of “threats” and why climate change isn’t reaching lots of people. Desmogblog just featured a few short must-see videos of his on november 12.

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Leaving aside the plain fact that the combination of anthropogenic climate change, the plethora of other ecological crises, resource depletion and geopolitical conflict driven by the decline of the US Empire mean that our fate is already sealed, this proposition is, in my opinon, simply self-deluding. Until the forces that represent truth, science, rationality and humanity openly acknowledge that they are opposed by the Forces of Darkness in every meaningful sense, then no progress will happen. This is simpy a battle between absolute evil and relative good, for the soul and fate of humanity.
    Every step of the way, over the least thirty years, every increase in scientific knowledge concerning anthropogenic climate change has been met by a steady increase in denialist mendacity, hypocrisy, character assassination, threats and cynical hypocrisy. The Rightwing media is 100% behind denialism, displaying their characteristic lack of scruples. Trillions of dollars are at stake, and the business psychopaths who control this planet will do anything necessary to protect their money, the most precious thing in their universe. And hoping for Obama, the confidence-man par excellence, to do ‘something’ but serve the buiness bosses who own and control him, is simply pathetic, akin o waiting for ‘Godot’. Have not the last two years, and Obama’s enthusiastic capitulation after the Congressional elections, not yet taught you anything about him?

  13. Jim says:

    This is an excellent development. The science voice needs to be coordinated, on message, and fully resourced.

    The first two tasks are to:

    1. Preemptively undermine the upcoming climate science inquisitions in the House by the newly empowered Republican chairmen.

    2. Vigorously defend the value of the critical regulatory actions that will be coming in force out of the EPA and the Department of Energy over the next 2 years.

    This is where the progress must be made, and the press needs to be steered by a singular science voice past two years of he-said she-said about the settled science.

  14. Raul M. says:

    UF is starting a new climate branch. Maybe they
    will be able to convince the UF Pres. to have
    some of those many expansive roofs painted
    with radiant barrier paint

  15. Peter M says:

    Scientists up to this point have not been the greatest at communicating their knowledge to the public.

    The President surely must begin to communicate what he surely knows from his science advisers- which is the same basically what we read here at CP.

    With Arnold Schwarzenegger leaving office soon- perhaps Obama should have him as the new Spokesmen and advocate of communicating the science of climate change, and the dangers we face as a civilization.

    A 2 degree rise Celsius rise? Seems a forlorn hope (at least right now) We can hope to limit warming to three degrees- which will still be hellish.

  16. Jeff #5, great idea. Some self-humiliation of the communicator can help getting the message across.

  17. BillD says:

    I think that we need a strong effort to get out the scientific message and a large degree of repetition is essential. It will be necessary to describe the deniers as “anti-science” over and over again and to point out that not every scientist agrees, “only” 98%. For a long time the “whacko” conservatives have been able to say what they want without being confronted. They and the public need to hear the real scientific results over and over again. After all, it is repetition of falsehoods and half truths that makes large parts of the public believe that there must be some or a lot of truth in what one can hear on Fox “News.”

  18. Scrooge says:

    Nice to see the cream rise to the top again. I think that climategate is starting to pay off. The sleeping giants are awake. Not that I want to belittle the personal trauma some have gone through because of it but I think there is a larger audience now. There are still some clinging to cgate but mostly just those trying to make money off of it. Of course I think those people are jut a disgrace to humanity anyway. Sorry I regress but I just went through some comments at Barts. One thing I think I learned in science and business is that if someone is out of their league when it comes to making a decision they consistently play the I don’t think it will happen or we need more information. So its nice to see the big leaguers write this. Let’s see if the minor leaguers mention it in their blogs.

  19. Prokaryotes says:

    “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they’re not entitled to their own facts,” Stern said of the skeptics. “People who want to look at facts and pretend they’re not there are not in the long run going to do us any good.”

    He also downplayed the perception that there is an army of skeptics in the Capitol. “I don’t think the … climate deniers represent anything like a majority, or even a very large minority. But it’s something, there’s no question, it’s something that needs to be addressed and dealt with in this country.”

  20. Raul M. says:

    Good Joke-
    Here here- in Fl I’ve heard there are some atmospheric
    reasons such as wind shear, high pressure influences, etc.
    that those numerous hurricanes didn’t bring all that water
    and wind over the State of Florida. No, I don’t think that
    my radiant barrier hat will be enough. Let’s see in case
    of bad weather… geez those guys. A half a million dollar
    house and they are advised by the experts to stock up on
    bottled water. I thought those people who could have it
    so nice were supposed to be ones smarter, capable, and
    determined to have a nice lifestyle. But the are many who
    are not so qualified to be making the decisions living on
    the streets so to speak. They say be careful who you try
    to get to know, etc.
    Still it might be a bit overwhelming for Fl. to get ten or
    so hurricanes in just one of the upcoming summers.

  21. spiritkas says:


    If they wont advocate any specific position, can they at least denounce certain positions as suicidal? Simply by advocating truth they’re taking a political position against those who would use disinformation to gain personal wealth and power for their ownership class.

    Perhaps taking a stance on cap and trade vs cap and dividend, or carbon tax vs carbon cap and X…is outside the bounds. But it seems they will be advocating action! In which case they can at least point out which clever sounding newspeak political plans will amount to inaction or ineffectual action.

    Strong wording denouncing the garbage plans that are all over our table right now would be a helpful starting point when talking about what is needed.

    That’s my two cents to help us avoid 2C!



  22. Adrian says:

    Now if only this letter would turn into something in the real world. Something large and powerful.

    Barry #11–yes, “fossil fuel pollution.” May as well tell the truth in plainspoken, non-scientific terms.

    Glad to see the focus in the fourth paragraph on the interdisciplinary work and communications effort required. I’m going to see if I can get hold of the Fischhoff article.

    Hope Joe’s talk went well last night.

  23. Colorado Bob says:

    I’m pasting together a list of this years extreme rain events. This thing was even wetter than I remember it. And it starts off in Jerusalem.
    2.8 inches (7 cm) were widespread across Israel, including the city of Jerusalem, which typically receives 4.3 inches (11 cm) annually.

    That pretty much sets the pattern .

    Bogata this month –

    “In Bogota, it rained in one day in November what it should normally rain during the entire month,” Ricardo Lozano, head of Colombian’s Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM), told Colombian media.

  24. Adrian says:

    Woops–hope that talk goes well tonight.

  25. Colorado Bob says:

    BOGOTA (AlertNet) – Weeks of heavy rains in Colombia have left at least 136 people dead and disrupted the lives of more than 1.2 million as the country faces its worst rainy season in three decades, government agencies say.

    Severe flooding and landslides triggered by torrential rains have damaged or destroyed more than 200,000 homes in all but five of Colombia’s 32 provinces since the rains began in June, according to the Colombian Red Cross, which has launched an appeal for funds.

  26. Colorado Bob says:

    ScienceDaily (Nov. 18, 2010) — In September, 2007, the Anaktuvuk River Fire burned more than 1,000 square kilometers of tundra on Alaska’s North Slope, doubling the area burned in that region since record keeping began in 1950. A new analysis of sediment cores from the burned area revealed that this was the most destructive tundra fire at that site for at least 5,000 years. Models built on 60 years of climate and fire data found that even moderate increases in warm-season temperatures in the region dramatically increase the likelihood of such fires.

  27. Colorado Bob says:

    Scientists look at whether climate change is causing bigger ocean waves

    Since the mid-1970s, buoy data show the height of the biggest waves off the Northwest coast has increased an average of about 4 inches a year, or about 10 feet total, according to Peter Ruggiero, an assistant geosciences professor at Oregon State University and the lead author of a study published recently in the journal Coastal Engineering.

  28. Colorado Bob says:

    RE The Anaktuvuk River Tundra fire –

    A post I did at the time on it :

    The Tundra is on Fire

    Notice the thread , the comments are telling in light of the fact that it was a once in 5,000 year event.

  29. paulm says:

    Why dont the GOP set up their own scientific review of the data through scientific academies in the US?
    They are ignoring the science just to get short term gain. They know that CC is happening.
    Unfortunately, like many others, they just dont realize how critical the next 18 months are.
    This is very much unclear, along with the risks.

  30. peter whitehead says:

    The GOP don’t CARE what is going on. Remember, when Richard Doll’s team discovered the link between tobacco and lung cancer about 50 years ago, the Tobacco Vampires spent a lot on PR people and politicians to make sure laws restricting smoking didn’t start to appear for decades.

    Of course, in a sense Doll hadn’t ‘discovered’ the link, the TVs had already got research evidence of their own, which they hid. The strategy was to spread ‘doubt’ by picking away at bits of the data. Remind you of anything?

    Scientists need to get a campaign going, but they need to decide WHO they are going to talk to.

    I suggest a billboard-type campaign. Along the top, a short climate question eg ‘Is the Earth getting warmer?’ Big picture of young attractive climate researcher (named in small print) then speech bubble with the answer ‘Yes’. Next billboard, different question. eg ‘Is the Sun the main cause of 21st century climate change?’ Answer (different picture)’No’

    Put online, or (if there is a rich person who will pay for it) put it on the streets or even on TV.

  31. Edward says:

    Help the EPA’s effort to classify coal ash as hazardous waste. Get it into the TV news that coal ash contains uranium, thorium and arsenic. If everybody knew that, the electric power industry would have a hard time finding truck drivers who would haul away the coal ash. Let this be our “wedge” issue.

  32. Edward says:

    Take a look at:

  33. Lou Grinzo says:

    Having just (finally) finished reading merchants of Doubt by Oreskes and Conway, I will say this online until my fingers bleed from typing it: Read This Book!

    Do not, for a single nanosecond, let yourself believe that opposition to taking action on climate change has anything whatsoever to do with science. It is nothing more or less than financial and ideological forces denying and obfuscating reality. And in the case of politicians, that ideology is, “Whatever gets me votes is good”.

    The breathtaking naivete on “our side” of this absurd non-debate has to end. We keep acting as if we can convince people to believe things they refuse to believe, simply because they’re true. That’s about as productive as trying to teach your cat to speak French.

  34. sailrick says:

    Deborah @7

    Regarding Obama speaking out and sacrificing a second term:

    I’m trying to see it in terms of the GOP’s weakest issue being climate change.
    With the right efforts made on several fronts; – like this initiative, unmasking of the denialist disinformation, better education of the public and congress, and Obama leading, perhaps as big a change will occur over the next two years, as did in the past two. We went from a Democratic sweep to a GOP sweep. Its time for Return of the Jedi.

    Actions like the 25 climate scientists going to Congress to debunk Monckton, like recently happened, are what we need more of.

    Arnold Schwarzenegger intends to become a climate activist after his term as Governor expires. How about a climate change movie, Arnold?

    IMHO, the Dems should make it the issue that they clobber the GOP on, including Obama winning.

  35. Peter Joseph says:

    First, let’s stop using the terms “skeptic” and “denier” interchangeably. All scientists are skeptics. Deniers are in denial. Skepticism is a good value. Denial can be lethal. We must take back the term and call them for who and what they are.

    Second, it really is time for scientists to find their voices, emerge from their labs, descend from their towers and really engage in the street fight they are in. Bravo to those who already have. I was delighted to read that the AGU was mounting a response team, then disappointed at their “correction”. It is their civic duty to get out there and stand up for their work. They have the cred but not the technique. Executive coaches are in order to help them find their public speaking voice and to make their presentations more gut-wrenching. Stop spewing data and start talking consequences. Sagan is watching, waiting and hoping.