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Resource: New Climate Communication "Tip Sheets" for Scientists and Journalists
Sarah Kuck, 4 Dec 09

Just in time for COP15, a new set of resources for effectively communicating climate change have been released from the University of California Berkeley.

The University of California Energy and Resources Group (ERG), in collaboration with the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and with assistance from dozens of leading scientists and journalists, has created the following tip sheets for journalists and scientists (but could be helpful for readers, too).

These one-pagers provide lots of helpful hints, here's a sample:

* The Tip Sheet for Scientists

KNOW YOUR MESSAGE. Help journalists know what the most important takeaways are by concisely emphasizing your key points. A few tips for effectively communicating your message:

MAKE IT RELEVANT. Journalists have to explain why first and foremost. Help them make climate science meaningful by using examples that connect climate change impacts to local contexts and concerns. One way to highlight the relevance of your knowledge is to present conclusions first; be sure to clearly describe the significance of your research. If possible, use anecdotes that resonate widely.

BE WILLING TO GO BACK TO THE BASICS. Journalists have different levels of scientific training and familiarity with climate science. Successfully communicating your point(s) may require filling in some background information. Be aware of the most frequently confused scientific and climate science concepts and try to explain them in your responses; these include: weather vs. climate, global averages vs. local change, emissions stabilization vs. atmospheric concentrations stabilization, and carbon intensity vs. absolute carbon emissions.

LEAD WITH KNOWN POINTS, FOLLOW WITH UNCERTAINTY. Because resolving uncertainties is the name of the game in the scientific community, scientists often jump straight to cutting-edge topics that have higher levels of uncertainty — without referencing the underlying high-certainty stepping-stones. Unfortunately this can lead to much confusion about the state of climate science. Clearly explain what is certain before discussing the nuances of less certain topics. Consider communicating climate uncertainty in terms of a range of human risks.

NUMBERS OUT OF CONTEXT DO NOT MEAN ANYTHING. Scientists often use metrics, such as atmospheric concentrations (ppm), that are not intuitive to a general audience. Remember that not everyone has the scientific background necessary to understand data presented in these metrics. Use analogies, metaphors, and comparisons to give numbers context by framing them in terms of experiences and images that are widely accessible. Also, be conscientious about clearly stating units — for example, specify CO2 vs. CO2e.

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* The Tip Sheet for Journalists

KNOW WHO’S WHO. You can learn what prominent scientists have been thinking and writing about climate science and climate policy by reading the news columns of leading scientific journals, such as Science and Nature. Major scientific societies can direct you to researchers who can help place new findings in a fuller context. Many of these societies also provide scientific news alerts, conference abstracts and proceedings, and opportunities to meet researchers face-to-face at annual meetings.

NOT ALL PHD'S ARE CREATED EQUAL. Just because someone has a PhD does not mean they are qualified to comment as an expert on all topics. One method of gauging expertise is to look at what papers a scientist has published recently on the topic. Were these scientific journal articles, white papers, or jottings on a web site? Journalists provide a service by inquiring about funding sources and noting potential conflicts of interest.

“WEATHER IS NOT CLIMATE” AND OTHER CONFUSIONS. Climate science is complex and often expressed in technical language, ambiguous language, and scientific shorthand that can lead to confusion. Journalists should be aware of potential confusions in order to help clarify these issues for the public.

KNOW WHAT A THEORY IS. In colloquial use, “theory” connotes an unsubstantiated opinion; this is not how the term is used in the scientific community. In science, a theory explains a set of measurements, observations, and other forms of data. Scientists can never definitively prove a theory; however, the better the theory explains existing data, the more well-established it becomes in the scientific community.

THE UNDERLYING PHYSICS OF CLIMATE CHANGE IS WELL-ESTABLISHED. Current research builds on the well-established understanding of climate science by investigating cutting-edge questions. Consequently, scientists may focus discussion on areas of uncertainty rather than underlying fundamental principles. This may lead to the misperception that scientific knowledge of climate change is less certain than it is. When discussing a new scientific result, invite the scientist to clarify how and to what extent this result could change the scientific community’s broader understanding of climate science.

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Thank you for posting this interesting content.

It struck me while I was reading your post that the ERG should have included bloggers and new media specialists in the conversation. As the blogosphere is expanding rapidly, it is increasingly important to discuss how citizen journalists are also shaping public knowledge. What do you think?

Posted by: Katherine Richards on 8 Dec 09

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