This week I’ll be blogging from the American Geosciences Union (AGU) Fall Meeting, one of the biggest scientific meetings of the year for the climate science community (although the European EGU meeting, held in the spring, rivals it for size). About 16,000 geoscientists are expected to attend. The scope of the meeting is huge, taking in anything from space and planetary science, vulcanology, seismology, all the way through to science education and geoscience informatics. Climate change crops up a lot, most notably in the sessions on atmospheric sciences and global environmental change, but also in sessions on the cryosphere, ocean sciences, biogeosciences, paleoclimatology, and hydrology. There’ll be plenty of other people blogging the meeting, a twitter feed, and a series of press conferences. The meeting clashes with COP15 in Copenhagen, but scientists see Copenhagen as a purely political event, and would much rather be at a scientific meeting like the AGU. To try to bridge the two, the AGU has organised a 24/7 climate scientist hotline aimed at journalists and other participants in Copenhagen, although more on this initiative a little later…

Today, the meeting kicked off with some pre-conference workshops, most notably, a workshop on “Re-starting the climate conversation“, aimed at exploring the sociological factors in media coverage and public understanding of climate science. I picked up lots of interesting thoughts around communication of climate science from the three speakers, but the discussion sessions were rather disappointing. Seems like everyone recognises a problem in the huge gulf between what climate scientists themselves say and do, versus how climate science is portrayed in the public discourse. But nobody (at least among the scientific community) has any constructive ideas for how to fix this problem.

The first speaker was Max Boykoff, from University of Colorado-Boulder, talking about “Mass Media and the Cultural Politics of Climate Change”. Boykoff summarized the trends in media coverage of climate change, particularly the growth of the web as a source of news. A recent Pew study shows that in 2008, the internet overtook newspapers as people’s preferred source of news, although television still dominates both. And even though climate change was one of the two controversies dominating the blogosphere in the last two weeks, it still only accounts for about 1.5% of news coverage in 2009.

Boykoff’s research focusses more on the content, and reveals a tendency in the media to conflate the many issues related to climate change into just one question: whether increasing CO2 warms the planet. In the scientific community, there is a strong convergence of agreement on this question, in contrast to say, the diversity of opinion on whether the Kyoto protocol was a success. Yet the media coverage focusses almost exclusively on the former, and diverges wildly from scientific opinion. He showed a recent clip from NBC news, which frames the whole question in terms of a debate over whether it’s happening or not, with a meteorologist, geologist and sociologist discussing this question in a panel format. Boykoff’s studies showed 53% of news stories (through 2002) diverge from the scientific consensus, and, even more dramatically, 70% of TV segments (through 2004) diverge from this consensus. In a more recent study, he showed that the ‘quality’ newspapers (in the US and UK) show no divergence, while the tabloid newspapers significantly diverge in all sources. Worse still, much of this tabloid coverage is not just on the fence, but is explicitly denialist, with a common framing to present the issue as a feud between strong personalities (e.g. Gore vs. Palin).

Some contextual factors help explain these trends, including a shrinking technical capacity (specialist training) in newspaper/TV; the tendency for extreme weather events to drive coverage, which leads to the obvious framing of “is it or isn’t it caused by climate change?”; cultural values such as trust in scientists. Carvalho and Burgess present an interesting case study on the history of how the media and popular culture have shaped one another over issues such as climate change. The key point is that the idea of an information deficit is a myth – instead the media coverage is better explained as a complex cycle of cultural pressures. One of the biggest challenges for the media is how to cover a long, unfolding story within short news cycles. Which leads to an ebb and flow such as the following: In May 2008 the Observer ran a story entitled “Surging fatal shark attacks blamed on global warming“, although the content of the article is much more nuanced: some experts attribute it to global warming, others to increased human activites in the water. But then a subsequent story in the Guardian in Feb 2009 was “Sharks go hungry as tourists stay home“. Implication: the global warming problem is going away!

The second speaker was Matthew C. Nisbet, from the American University, Washington, perhaps best known for his blog, Framing Science. Nisbet began with a depressing summary of the downward trend in American concern over climate change, and the Pew study from Jan 2009 that showed global warming ranked last among 20 issues people regarded as top priorities for congress. The traditional assumption is that if the public is opposed, or does not accept the reality, the problem is one of ignorance, and hence scientific literacy is the antidote (and hence calls for more focus on formal science education and popular science outlets – “if we only had more Carl Sagans”). Along with this also goes the assumption that the science compels action in policy debates. However, Nisbet contends that when you oversimplify a policy debate as a matter of science, you create the incentive to distort the science, which is exactly what has happened over climate change.

This traditional view of a lack of science literacy has a number of problems. It doesn’t take into account the reality of audiences and how people make up their minds – essentially there is nothing unique about the public debate over climate change compared to other issues: people rely on information shortcuts – people tend to be “cognitive misers“. And it ignores the effects of media fragmentation: in 1985, most people (in the US) got their news from four main sources, the four main TV network news services. By contrast, in 2009, there are a huge array of sources of information, and because of our inability to take advantage of such a range, people have a tendency to rely on those that match their ideological preferences. On the internet, this problem of choice is greatly magnified.

Not surprisingly, Nisbet focussed mainly on the question of framing. People look for frames of reference that help them make sense of an issue, with little cognitive effort. Frames organise the central ideas on an issue, and make it relevant to the audience, so that it can be communicated by shorthand, such as catchphrases (“climategate”), cartoons, images, etc. Nisbet has a generalized typology of ways in which science issues get framed, and points out that you cannot avoid these frames in public discourse. E.g. Bill O’Reilly on Fox starts every show with “talking points”, which are the framing references for the likeminded audience; Many scientists who blog write with a clear liberal frame of reference, reflecting a tendency among scientists to identify themselves as more liberal than conservative.

The infamous Lunz memo contains some interesting framings: “the scientific debate remains open”, the “economic burden of environmental regulation”, and “the international fairness issue” – if countries like China and India not playing along, US shouldn’t make sacrifcies. In response, many scientists and commentators (e.g. Gore) have tended to frame around the potential for catastrophe (e.g. “the climate crisis”; “Be worried“). This is all essentially a threat appeal. The problem is that if you give an audience a threat, but no information on how to counter it, they either become fatalist or ignore it, and also, it opens the door to the counter-framing of calling people “alarmists”. This also plays into a wider narrative about the “liberal media” trying to take control.

Another framing is around the issue of public accountability and scientific evidence. For example, Mooney’s book “The Republican War on Science” itself became a framing device for liberals, which led to Obama’s “must restore science to its rightful place”. However, this framing can reinforce the signal that science is for democrats, not for republicans. Finally, “climategate” itself is a framing devices that flips the public accountability frame to one of accountability of scientists themselves – questioning their motivations. This has also been successfully coupled to the media bias frame, allowing the claim that the liberal media is not covering the alternative view.

So how do we overcome this framing? Nisbet concluded with examples of framings that reach out to difference kinds of audience. For example: EO Wilson’s book “The creation“, frames it as a religious/moral duty, specifically as a letter to a southern baptist. This framing helps to engage with evangelical audiences. Friedman frames it as a matter of economic growth – we need a price on carbon to stimulate innovation in a second American industrial revolution. Gore’s “We” campaign has been rebranded as “Repower America“. And the US Congress no longer refers to a “cap and trade bill”, but the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES).

Nisbet thinks that a powerful new frame is to talk about climate change as a matter of public health. The strategy is to shift the perception away from issues of remote regions (e.g. ice caps and polar bears) to focus instead on the impact in urban areas, especially on minorities, the elderly and children. Frame in terms of allergies, heatstress, etc. The lead author of the recent Lancet study, Anthony Costello, said that public health issues are under-reported, and need attention because they affect billions of people.

The recent Maibach and Leiserowitz study identifies six distinct audience groups, and changes ideas about where public perceptions are, especially the idea that the public is not concerned about climate change:

Figure 1

As an experiment, Nisbet and colleagues set up a tent on the National Mall in Washington, interviewed people who said they were from outside of DC, and categorized them in one of the six audiences. They then used this to identify a sample of each group to be invited to a focus group session, where they could test out the public health framing for climate change. Sentence by sentence analysis of their responses to a short essay on health issues and climate change proved very interesting, as there are specific sections, especially towards the end about policy options, where even the dismissives had positive responses. For example:

  • all six groups agreed “good health is a great blessing.
  • all six groups agreed to suggestions around making cities cleaner, easier to get around, etc.
  • 4 of the 6 groups found it helpful to learn about health threats of CC (which corresponds to a big majority of American audience)
  • All 6 groups reacted negatively to suggestions that we should make changes in diet and food choices, such as increasing vegetable and fruit and cutting down meat consumption. Hence, this is not a good topic to lead on!

In the question-and-answer session after Nisbet’s talk, there was an interesting debate about the lack of discussion in the media about how the science was obtained, concentrating on the results as if they came from a black box. Nisbet pointed out that this might not be helpful, and cited the fact that the climategate emails surprised many people with as how human scientists are (with egos and political goals) and the level of their uncertainty about the specific data analysis questions, which has made it a very successful framing device for those promoting the message that the science is weak. However, several audience members contended that this just means we need to do a better job of getting people to think like scientists, and bring the broader society more into the scientific process. While others pointed out how hard it is to get journalists to write about the scientific method, so the idea of partnering with others (e.g. religious leaders, health professionals) makes sense if it helps to identify and motivate particular audiences. This still leaves open the question of how to communicate uncertainty. For example, in the public health framing, people will still want to know does it affect, say, asthma or not. And as we’re still uncertain on this, it leads to the same problem as the shark attack story. So we still have to face the problem of how people understand (or not!) the scientific process.

The final speaker was Gwendolyn Blue, from the University of Calgary, Canada, talking about “Public Engagement with Climate Change”. Blue contends that major issues of science and technology require a participatory democracy that does not really exist yet (although is starting to appear). A portion of the lay public is distrustful of scientific institutions, so we need more effective ways of engaging the more diverse groups in the conversation.

Blue defines public engagement as “a diverse set of activities whereby non-experts become involved in agenda setting, decision-making, policy forming and knowledge production processes regarding science”. The aim is to overcome the traditional “one-way” transmission model of science communication, which tend to position lay audience as passive, and hence obsesses over whether they are getting good or bad information. But public understandings of science are much more sophisticated than many people give credit for, particularly away from questions of basic facts, such as the ethical and social implication of scientific findings.

There are clearly a number of degrees of citizen participation, for example Arnstein’s ‘ladder’. Blue is particularly interested in the upper rungs – i.e. not just ‘informing’ (which movements such as cafe scientifique, and public lectures try to do) but through engagements that aim  to empower and transform (e.g. citizen science, activism, protests, boycotts, buycotts). But she doesn’t think citizen participation in science is a virtue in it’s own right, as it can be difficult, frustrating, and can fail: success is highly context dependent.

Examples include:, which uses social networking media to bring people together. Lots of people creating images of the number 350 and uploading their efforts (but how many participants actually understand what the number 350 represents?); tcktcktck which collected 10 million signatures and delivered them to the COP15 negotiators. And the global day of action yesterday, which was one of the biggest demonstrations of public activism. However, this type of activism tends to be bound up with social identity politics.

Deliberative events aim to overcome this by bringing together people who don’t necessarily share the same background / assumptions. Blue described her experiences with one particular iniative, the World Wide Views on Global Warming events on September 26, 2009. The idea grew out of the Danish model of consensus politics. Randomly selected participants in each country, were offered free trip to a workshop (in Canada, it took place in Calgary), with some effort to select approximately 100 people representing the demographic makeup of each country. The aim was to discuss the policy context for COP15. There were (deliberately) no “experts” in the room, to remove the inequality of experts vs. lay audience. Instead, a background document was circulated in advance, along with a short video. Clear ground rules were set for good dialogue, with a trained facilitator for each table. Used cultural activities too: e.g. at the Canadian event, they used music and dance from across Canada, Inuit throat singers, opening prayer by Blackfoot Elder, etc.

The result was a fascinating attempt to build an engaged public conversation around climate change and the decision making process we face. A number of interesting themes emerged. For example, despite a very diverse set of participants, lots of common ground emerged, which surprised many participants, especially around scale/urgency of the problem, and the overall goals of society. A lot of social learning took place – many participants knew very little about climate science at the outset. However, Blue did note that success for these events requires scientific literacy and well as civil literacy in the participants, reflexivity, humility and willingness to learn. But it is part of a broader cultural shift towards understanding the potential and limitations of participatory democracy.

The results were reported in a policy report, but also, more interestingly, on a website that allows you to compare results from different countries. Much of the workshops were about public deliberation, which can be very unruly. But at the end this was distilled down to an opinion poll with simple multiple choice questions to communicate the results.

The discussion towards the end of the workshop focussed on how much researchers should be involved in outreach activities. It is not obvious who should be doing this work. There is no motivation for scientists to do it, and lots of negatives – we get into trouble, and our institutions don’t like it; it doesn’t do anything for your career in most cases. And several of the speakers at the workshop described strategies in which there doesn’t seem to be a role for climate scientists themselves. Instead, the work seems to point the need for a new kind of “outreach professional” who is both scientific expert and trained in outreach activities.

Which brings me back to that experiment I mentioned at the top of the post, on the AGU providing a 24 hour hotline for COP15 participants to talk directly with small groups of climate scientists. It turns out the idea has been a bit of a failure, and has been scaled back due to a lack of demand. Perhaps this has something to do with the narrow terms that were set for what kinds of questions people could ask of the scientists. The basic science is not what matters in Copenhagen. Which means the distance between Copenhagen and San Francisco this week is even greater than I thought it would be.

[Update: Michael Tobis has a much more critical account of this workshop]