Climate Change Communication – SciLogs Interview

1. Tell me about your research focus / area of expertise in 140 characters or less.

I study how climate change affects us at the local to regional scale, where we live.

2. How do you view your role in communicating science?

I see the role of a climate scientist as similar, in some ways, to that of a physician. We might suspect something is wrong with our bodies; but until we go to the doctor, take the tests, and wait for the evidence, we don’t know what is going on for sure. In the same way, we might see something changing in our climate; but until scientists collect the observations, analyze the evidence, and draw conclusions, we don’t know for sure what is happening. As climate scientists, we are the “physicians of the planet.”

With that role comes responsibility: to tell people about what we find. Imagine if you went to the doctor and they found something wrong, but didn’t want to tell you about it – because they were afraid you might react badly to hearing the news, or it would be against your religion or your politics to receive treatment. That scenario may seem far-fetched to us. In the same way, though, I feel that as climate scientists we have a responsibility to tell people: what is happening, why it’s happening, and what the outcome of our choices as a society will be.

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.

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.

(Percentage Point Difference Between Democrat and Republican Responses. Figure 6 from Hamilton, Lawrence, "Do You Trust Scientists About the Environment?" (2014). The Carsey School of Public Policy at the Scholars' Repository. Paper 213.

(Percentage Point Difference Between Democrat and Republican Responses. Figure 6 from Hamilton, Lawrence, “Do You Trust Scientists About the Environment?” (2014). The Carsey School of Public Policy at the Scholars’ Repository. Paper 213.


4. Do you think it’s important for scientists and other researchers to be directly involved in outreach activities? If so, why?

The decision to engage in outreach—and if we do, then how much and what type–is a deeply personal choice. As scientists, most of our job descriptions don’t include outreach. And let’s be realistic: some of us are not just disinterested, but flat out bad at it. A study of early career interdisciplinary scientists found that skills that make us good scientists are often the very skills that make it difficult for us to present that science to people in simple, easy-to-understand terms.

For some of us, then, the responsibility to share what we’ve learned may be best expressed through publication in scientific journals and presentation at AGU conferences. We need good scientists who can focus on doing good science. For others, we might give our presentations and write our papers, but also sign up for UCAR’s Climate Voices network to make ourselves available as a speaker to local community organizations. Still others may want to do more: become active with outreach-focused organizations, from scientific organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists to more grass-roots efforts such as Citizen’s Climate Lobby or Climate Parents, for example. And at the far end of the spectrum we have scientists and scholars such as Jim Hansen and Bill McKibben, who are willing to risk arrest for the strength of their convictions.

Outreach and communication encompasses a very broad spectrum of engagement. Where each of us falls on that spectrum is a personal choice that we should respect, even if we do not make that same choice ourselves.

5. Do you use social media for science outreach? If so, how – and why?

Thanks to its ultra-short format, Twitter (@KHayhoe) is a great way to spend a few minutes as I’m waiting in line at the grocery store, boarding a plane, or standing at the school gate. I use it because it keeps me up to date on the latest high-profile scientific results, as well as providing me with a way to connect with people in both a personal and a professional way.

I have a Facebook page, to allow for responses that are longer than 140 characters, and YouTube and Vimeo channels where I collect videos people have posted of my interviews and talks. I particularly appreciate having these resources available, since they mean that anyone around the world can watch something whenever they want!

6. Have your outreach activities had an impact on your scientific research? Are there any examples of positive or negative impacts you’ve experienced personally?

My outreach has helped me to meet people and engage in discussions that have directly influenced the direction of my research. Here’s just one example. Over the last few years, I’ve spoken at a number of drought workshops for Texas water managers. These workshops were hosted by Freese and Nichols, the largest water engineering firm in Texas. Through these events, I’ve learned a great deal about how we handle our water and what type of information is needed in order to incorporate climate change into future planning. Trying to answer these questions has been the motivation for several of our publications (1)(2) and proposals in recent years.

On the other hand, I think that any of us who are involved in significant amounts of outreach would agree that it takes time and energy away: from writing grant proposals, reviewing journal articles, completing our own research, and spending time with our families and friends. Outreach comes with a hefty price tag that is expressed in terms of the most valuable resource we have, our time. It is not something to be undertaken lightly or with any lack of focus, purpose, or intent.


7. Have you ever come across scientific misinformation or misconceptions, online or elsewhere, which you addressed directly? How did you do it, and what was the result?

Sometimes it seems like whenever we turn on the news, or go to a website, or hear people around us talking about climate change, we get sound bites like: “Arctic sea ice is recovering,” or “global warming has stopped.” A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists [PDF] found that 30% of the climate science information presented on CNN in 2013 was incorrect (72%, for Fox News).

It’s cold outside – doesn’t that mean global warming has stopped? Climate has always changed naturally in the past—why would this time be any different? The field of science education tells us that it’s important to address such common misconceptions head-on.

Even on non-polarized topics, such as why we have seasons, research has shown that unless we understand why our mental models are incorrect (that we are closer to the Sun in summer, and further away in winter), we will fail to retain the correct information (that our hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun in winter, and towards it in summer). Our own research on the greenhouse effect found that undergraduates’ ability to retain learning over time was significantly higher when misconceptions were directly addressed.

Let’s be clear though: even the most stellar and comprehensive answer (and if you’re looking for that, there is no better resource than Skeptical Science) will not change many minds. That’s because most objections to climate change are only very superficially due to lack of information. Deep down they’re really about other things: tribalism, ideology, politics, and even more old-fashioned things, like fear of punitive restrictions or big government solutions.

So why is it helpful to address misconceptions? In my experience, it’s about establishing our credibility. We scientists do know all about natural cycles, and volcanic eruptions, and yes I was tempted to grumble, “I’d like a little global warming now!” when I was scraping the ice off my car today. But we have answers to these questions, and these answers are essential to show how we’re all on the same wavelength as humans before we can move forward to talk about other more important things, like why we care and what we can do about it.

8. What do you consider to be the most effective and ineffective ways to disagree about scientific topics?

As physical scientists, we are trained to focus on facts and data rather than fuzzy things like feelings and opinions. With the issue of climate change, though, often it isn’t really a disagreement about a specific issue we’re arguing (yes, the polar bears are endangered! No they’re not!), but rather why we’re arguing.

Many people question climate science because they object to the solutions. I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading books and listening to interviews to try and figure out why people disagree with the science so strongly. It is striking how quickly the topic of science can jump right to the topic of solutions, and our ideological objections to those solutions.

There’s no getting around the fact that climate change is a tragedy of the commons. To solve it requires collective action; and to many people, collective action means big government. Given the history of the American Revolution, it’s no surprise that big government, and its association with legislation and taxes, is anathema to many here in the United States.

So rather than arguing about the science, which I often visualize similar to whacking each other upside the head with facts fashioned into cudgels, sometimes it can be more effective to look beneath the surface to try to understand why we are arguing, and talk about that instead. What are we afraid of? What motivates us to care so much about this issue, one way or another? We might not make any progress on the science, but we mind find surprising agreement on the solutions!


9. Public trust in science is critical. What role do you believe both consensus and disagreement play in building or eroding that trust?

As scientists, we know how unusual it is to have a consensus about anything. We are trained to disagree–and let’s be honest, we enjoy it too! There is little more invigorating to a scientist than good argument about some intricacy or nuance of the climate system. And I’d probably die of shock the day I got a peer review back from a journal that says “Fantastic paper! Accept without any revisions!”

Because of that, accusations that we have, in so many words, “drunk the consensus Kool-Aid,” often cause us to bristle and object. No scientist likes to be categorized as a mindless worshiper in the church of Al Gore, let alone be named as the high priestess (as some of my emails have suggested).

So, personally speaking, I did not used to include statements on scientific consensus, or references to the work that find over 97% agreement in the scientific literature or among scientists themselves, in my main messages about climate change. I didn’t used to, that is, until this year.

In the summer of 2013, Ed Maibach and colleagues tested various short messages to see which was most effective at changing people’s minds as to the reality of climate change. Much to my surprise, their results showed that the simple message, “scientists agree,” mattered the most! Based on this empirical social science, I have changed my mind and my message: I now emphasize the consensus when I talk to people. I don’t do this because I believe it’s important, or because I hope it’s important, or even because I feel it’s important that people know this. I do it because the peer-reviewed literature says the consensus is real, and that it’s important that people know that.

(Image via, 97 Hours of Consensus Campaign, Dr. Hayhoe is shown just right of center. More information on the campaign is available here.)

(Image via, 97 Hours of Consensus Campaign, Dr. Hayhoe is shown just right of center. More information on the campaign is available here:


10. Individuals in the scientific community and the public are often labeled and grouped depending on their particular views. What do you consider to be the impact of these groupings?

All of us hate being labeled and categorized as things we aren’t. I have yet to meet a colleague who would call themselves an “alarmist”, or who loves being attacked by online trolls.

Here’s the thing, though: if we are going to do outreach, we have to be willing to give up our rights to be labeled correctly, our rights to be judged fairly, and our rights to be treated nicely. Because these things are going to happen and we cannot stop them.

If we are not willing for these things to happen, then we have to stay far to the side of the outreach spectrum. Write our papers, but don’t ever let the university communications office put out a press release, even if our results are important. Talk to colleagues at conferences, but don’t ever talk to a reporter, or even to the Kiwanis club down the road.

The sad reality of today’s world is that as soon as we stick our heads out of the metaphorical ivory tower, there will be someone taking pot shots at it. That is the world we live in. We cannot control what people say about us: all we can control is our own response. Be true to who we want to be, not what others say we are.


11. What lessons have you learned from your outreach activities, and what advice do you have for other researchers who want to do more outreach?

Effective outreach begins with understanding who we can speak to most effectively. Whose values do we share — those of other moms and dads? Hunters and sportsmen? The Rotary Club? Our church? Or the local humanist society? If we are trying to reach people whose values we do not share, who we cannot easily identify with and understand, our own communication will be ineffective and we will just become frustrated with our efforts.

Effective outreach also involves being aware of what we hope to accomplish. Don’t automatically focus on the loudest voices. Many of the loudest voices belong to people whose minds we will never, ever change. By spending our time with them, we miss the opportunity to engage with others who are curious and doubtful about this issue, and would welcome our input.

Tony Leiserowitz and Ed Maibach’s Six Americas of Global Warming (see chart below) helped me articulate my own goal: to reach people who are Cautious, Disengaged, or Doubtful, and move them just one or two steps up the ladder.

Recognizing the limits of my goal is reassuring. I’m not trying to save the world. I’m just trying to connect the issue of climate change to people’s values, enabling people to realize that climate change is a real issue with real implications for our lives.

Finally, effective outreach can only become more effective the more we know. There are so many great resources out there, from the webinars and resources offered via Climate Voices, to the social science summaries available from Talking Climate, to workshops offered at scientific conferences. The majority of these resources weren’t available ten years ago. Take advantage!

(Via Yale / George Mason University

(Via Yale / George Mason University

12. What do you think the future looks like for science communication/outreach as a vehicle for enhancing public trust in science? What should the path forward look like?

One of the most inspiring programs I participated in this past year was the NSF-funded DISCCRS program. Attended by a host of early-career investigators, this week-long workshop was aimed at helping physical and social scientists hone their communication and professional skills.

I was inspired by the enthusiasm and savvy with which these young scientists were already incorporating communication and outreach into many aspects of their professional lives. This workshop made it clear how many in this new generation of scientists have a much more comprehensive perspective on our responsibility to society, and a much higher level of interest in using the new tools available to us – blogs, videos, social media, and others – to connect across the scientific community and beyond.

My only regret after serving as a mentor to this program was that NSF terminated their funding this year. These scientists and others like them are the future of science communication and outreach. I don’t know what their path should look like – I just want to see what it will look like!

This interview was conducted by Kirk Englehardt and was originally published on SciLogs.