Some Take-Home Messages from Seattle

February 2, 2011 · 0 comments

by Peggy Lemone, AMS Past-President

Unpacking from my trip to Seattle, I mulled over the many ideas about communicating weather and climate gleaned from planning, the formal program, smaller meetings, and hallway and dinner conversations.  Below is but a partial list:  I would be interested in hearing what others think.

The first idea originated well before the meeting, when Raj Pandya, Steve Ackerman, and I were brainstorming about the Presidential Forum.  After we settled on a panel discussion on communicating with the public, we decided that we needed to include weather as well as climate to provide synergy between the two, to provide a fresh twist, and to transcend the negativity sometimes associated with communicating about climate.

What I saw at the meeting suggested that was the right thing to do.  Talking about “climate” alone has too often divided Americans, while talking about weather sets us at ease, and experiencing a severe storm or blizzard unites us.  Besides, it is not clear to me at least where one draws the line between weather and climate.  I suspect, as we learn more, we will be talking more and more about the changes that are taking place from year to year using terms that we didn’t even know thirty years ago – like El Nino and La Nina, Arctic Oscillation, the North Atlantic Oscillation, and so on.  “Climate change” discussion will be richer with the inclusion of these phenomena.

Communication about polarizing subjects requires trust, which can emerge from long-term engagement.  As we learned from the Presidential Forum, people in the media not only bring us weather forecasts but also educate us about these new weather phenomena and new types of data like Doppler radar reflectivity.  People turn to their weather broadcaster for information not only about weather but also science.  Many weather broadcasters, like Tom Skilling, solicit questions from the public.  We feel more comfortable hearing difficult messages from these people, because we have a long relationship with them.  (However, as one of the panelists, Claire Martin noted, the media could do a much better job).

The importance of trust was reinforced in a small meeting on data-stewardship issues.  A colleague looked at us and said – “I see you all have wedding rings.  Anyone who has been married a long time realizes there will be disagreements, but you can handle them if you remember what you have in common.”  One of the newspaper advice columns said exactly the same thing.  If you have something difficult to talk about, start by reminding yourself about shared values before diving in.  If it gets too hard, then go back to those shared values before trying again.  A similar approach might work with other relatives and friends:  allowing a dialog that includes common values rather than giving a lecture on the science.

Ralph Cicerone’s talk on Thursday reminded us of two more important points related to developing trust.  First, we should work to the best of our ability to earn our trust as a scientific profession.  This means working hard to keep the peer review process robust, not only by selecting good editors and reviewers, but also by ensuring that data used in publications are available to check conclusions.

And secondly, we need to make ourselves available to help the public understand our science (and science in general) better.   Part of this is by making ourselves available to the local TV weather broadcasters, as suggested in Monday’s presidential Forum, and making ourselves available in other ways, such as giving talks to schools , civic groups, museums, and participating in scouting groups, etc. Cicerone quoted statistics that suggested that people respected scientists, but few actually knew any scientist, save perhaps their physician.  Building familiarity will allow better communication.

A third idea comes from a comment heard in the meeting of the Committee on Climate-Change Communication.  Amidst our struggling to figure out how to do this, someone said that we shouldn’t think of people as being only in two camps – to use polite terms1 – the “convinced” and the “unconvinced,” but rather we should allow people to have a spectrum of positions.  To illustrate the “either-you’re-with-us-or-against-us” attitude, a colleague at lunch complained that the “convinced” group pigeonholed him in the “denier” slot (o.k., this is a polarizing term, but this is a quote reflecting his feelings), simply because he wasn’t convinced about claims of a relationship of stronger tropical cyclones to a warmer climate.  About a year ago, I exchanged emails with a well-known colleague who in the press was described as an ally by those who deny climate change simply because of some rather benign – and useful – comments on a blog.  Upon being contacted, this person told me she was fully convinced of the importance of greenhouse gases in warming the planet.

Other conversations reinforced what we already know:  that there are those out there who don’t want to have a conversation, but simply want to attack.  This rarely happens with weather, but it certainly happens with climate.   To reflect on Cicerone’s comments again, we needn’t “pander” to them but we do need to maintain our scientific integrity and to be approachable to those desiring a conversation rather than an argument.

Looking back on this essay, I realize that all the points are closely related:  that we will do better about communicating about difficult topics if we develop familiarity and trust.  We can perhaps do this by having a conversation that allows common ideas and values to emerge.   But the chances for such a conversation increases when – either through common experience or shared values – we obtain a degree of familiarity and trust.

[1These terms were proposed by Anderegg, W. R. L., J. W. Prall, J. Harold, S. H. Schneider, 2010: Expert credibility in climate change.  CMOS Bulletin SCMO, 38, 179–183.  Thanks to Keith Seitter for pointing this out.]