Every time I write for my blog, Simple Climate, I fight a contradiction in terms. Climate science is far from simple. I’m no expert but, as a science journalist, I try to explain the latest climate research to the broadest audience possible.
This seems natural: Surely the reason why so many people are skeptical about climate change is that they just don’t know enough about it? Consequently, educating them will win them round. Or maybe not.
This kind of thinking, I learned from a recent Peter Aldhous article in New Scientist, is known as the “deficit model” of science communication. Aldhous explains why it often fails: our cultural perspectives colour the information we receive. Those perspectives can overpower mere evidence or facts. From the cultural viewpoint, recruiting Al Gore as a figurehead of climate change science virtually guaranteed opposition from Republicans.
Those arguing against scientific evidence on other matters have cleverly exploited cultural “framing” to their advantage. It is hard to contradict “evolution is just a theory” without coming across as intolerant.
Arguing in favour of controlling fossil fuel use creates an enormous framing challenge when communicating what’s needed to fight climate change. It recruits powerful opponents in the fossil fuel industry, and when it seems those controls should be imposed by a global body, those who prefer small government immediately object.
Ben Newell and Andrew Pitman from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, tackled framing and other psychological aspects of communicating climate change in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society last August. I spoke to Newell about this for Simple Climate, hoping to show how my audience how hard it is to get past our personal biases.
Because communication is as much about how you tell the story as getting the facts right, the Aldhous’ and Newell’s articles are must reads for climate communicators.
Andy Extance is a British science journalist and author of Simple Climate.