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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 03/09/2010

How to calm the climate science confidence crisis

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Following the uproar caused by 'climategate' and the finding of errors in parts of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report, scientists are asking tough questions about how to reform their research practices as well as their communications with the media, policymakers and the public.

There are plenty of lessons to be learned from the climate science confidence crisis. Some prominent scientists, such as Judith Curry of the Georgia Institute of Technology, are encouraging scientific institutions and individual researchers to engage more openly with the public, and especially with climate change skeptics, rather than making reflexive appeals to the authority of the IPCC and other climate panels.

"Credibility is a combination of expertise and trust," Curry wrote in a recent blog post. "While scientists persist in thinking that they should be trusted because of their expertise, climategate has made it clear that expertise itself is not a sufficient basis for public trust."

Other scientists think the best way forward is to recognize that there is an asymmetric war going on, in which one side (a portion of the climate skeptic community) is waging a no-holds-barred political battle against greenhouse-gas emissions reduction measures, while freely distorting scientific evidence in the process, and the other side (mainstream climate scientists) is discussing science rationally. The only way to fight and win such a war, they say, is to start fighting on the same level as your enemy.

Although the fight-fire-with-fire approach might satisfy some scientists' desires for a return punch, it is bound to reduce scientists' credibility even more by identifying them as overt political actors, which is exactly how some climate change skeptics would like the public to view them. Scientists should leave the political mudslinging to the professionals, and instead work on shoring up their research practices, and their communication of scientific information to all audiences.

Increased media outreach must be a major component of the strategy to restore public trust in climate science. Part of the reason why this is so necessary is that the decline of environmental journalism and the rise of the blogosphere are placing new communications demands on scientists and their institutions.

Skeptic firebrand Marc Morano, who edits the ClimateDepot Web site, recently highlighted the point that widespread layoffs of scientifically qualified journalists are enabling climate skeptics to play a larger role in media coverage of climate change.

In an interview with biologist and filmmaker Randy Olson, Morano said that the decline of environmental journalism in the United States, mainly due to economic pressures within the industry, has led more outlets to treat manmade climate change as a subject for 'debate,' rather than a near scientific certainty.

Morano stated:

So what I'm for is a "rational energy debate" and that is almost impossible to have when you have a U.N. and the IPCC, which started in 1988, and Gore as a national spokesman. And you have media led by ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, and previously CNN, the recession has really improved CNN's reporting on climate issues, they got rid of Miles O'Brien, they got rid of some of their alarmist reporters, all these cut-backs have really done a radical improvement in balance. CNN now has panels on global warming with more skeptics than warmists. So CNN has come a long way and we have nothing but the recession to thank for that.

He continued: "we've seen it across the board, environmental journalism has improved dramatically with these cut-backs and the loss of these activist reporters..."

Morano's notion of balanced coverage is, to put it mildly, different from mine (and likely different than the vast majority of climate scientists around the world). My view, and I think theirs as well, is that the debate in the media about the causes and consequences of climate change should reflect the debate in the scientific community.

When, as is the case today, the debate among scientists is predominantly about whether manmade climate change will be catastrophic or whether it will be only moderate and relatively manageable, and the debate in the media (especially cable TV and the blogosphere) is about whether or not manmade climate change is occurring at all, something is seriously wrong.

So what can scientists do to ensure that their voices are heard above the shrill, oftentimes partisan voices, and in light of the dwindling ranks of science reporters who may be more aware of how climate science research is conducted?

One step that climate scientists should take is to fully engage in the blogosphere, rather than limit their writing to the scientific journals, which few people other than their scientific peers actually read. This may be a painful step at first, since it would bring researchers out of their comfort zone and subject them to the bitter discourse taking place online. But it is necessary, since to an increasing extent the blogosphere is driving the news cycle on a wide range of climate topics. After all, climategate itself first emerged in the blogosphere, and slowly migrated into the mainstream media.

According to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, climate change is a much bigger topic in the blogosphere -- where climate skeptics dominate the conversation -- than it is in the traditional press.

One of the first climate scientists to adopt the blogging format, Gavin Schmidt of, told me that "more voices online," including "more independent blogs," would improve the accuracy of media coverage of climate change. He said a "road show" sponsored by a major scientific society, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "that takes the science (and more important -- how science works) to the newsrooms" could also improve journalists' and the public's understanding of climate change and other scientific topics.

Curry also favors this approach. "Additional scientific voices entering the public debate particularly in the blogosphere would help in the broader communication efforts and in rebuilding trust," she wrote in her most recent post. "The openness and democratization of knowledge enabled by the Internet can be a tremendous tool for building public understanding of climate science and also trust in climate research."

Having more scientific voices in the blogosphere certainly won't repair all of the damage from climategate, but it should be treated as an important component of a broader strategy of self-assessment, scientific openness, and sustained engagement with the public.

The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.

By  |  11:00 AM ET, 03/09/2010

Categories:  Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change

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