Look Mum! A Tale of Public Engagement with Climate Science

Blog by
18 March 2011

Three boys, probably about ten years old, are standing round a table. They are concentrating intently, jabbing at a touch screen. Suddenly there is a huge sigh of relief. They pull back and turn around, with huge grins across their faces: “Mum. Muuuuuuuuuum. Look Mum — we met the emissions reduction target!”

It is half term and I have come to check out the Science Museum’s new £4.5 million climate science exhibition, atmosphere.

So are there lessons to be learnt from this example about public engagement with climate science?

Increasing public engagement with climate science

I have written about the need for (and challenges in getting) policymakers to understand the complexities of climate science before. But there is a need for the general public to do so too. Without some understanding of climate change processes, it feels remote to most people, and measures to address it unattractive and irrelevant. The way climate science is discussed with the public is crucial.

The challenges of communicating climate science

This is quite a task. We expect science to reveal the ‘truth’. Yet climate science is complex and ideas about lag times, feedbacks, teleconnections, event-driven processes and uncertainties don’t translate into simple sentences. Oversimplify it or downplay the inherent uncertainties and we risk providing information that is biased or inaccurate — risking the reputation of climatologists worldwide. At the other extreme we confuse our audience, or imply that science cannot answer the questions. There is a risk of falling into one of two polar positions — the ‘consensus’ view and the ‘sceptic’ view — missing altogether the (more realistic) middle ground: that while most agree about the big picture, there remains considerable uncertainty about the details.

The Science Museum has fallen victim to some of these challenges before. Their last exhibition on climate change, Prove it! All the evidence you need to believe in climate change, was criticised for being overly politicised. The reaction was telling — when the exhibition asked members of the public about the statement “I've seen the evidence. And I want the government to prove they're serious about climate change by negotiating a strong, effective, fair deal at Copenhagen”, only 764 voted to be “counted in”, versus 5,220 to be “counted out”, following some controversy about vote rigging. Clearly the public doesn’t like being told what to think.

atmosphere is a purposeful step away from all this.

So how did they do?

Representing complexity

Back to the second floor of the museum and I am having fun — there are things to do and things to touch, and, my personal favourite, an actual ice core from Antarctica to stare at. But it didn’t feel like they were skimping on the science.

Interactive displays consider the tools and methods scientists use to detect climatic trends, showing that science is as much about method as results. An interactive book of climate forcings investigates the influence of volcanoes, sunspots and changes in the Earth’s orbit, concluding it is the combined influence of, and interactions between, these and anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions that drives climate change. And games in which the player aims to control the temperature by managing the atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration are made almost impossible by lag effects.

These are fundamentally complex ideas, presented in an engaging way. They avoid the trap of being too prescriptive, yet make a convincing argument about the impact of human activities on the climate system.

One degree, two degrees…

If I have one criticism of atmosphere, it is its focus on increases in average global temperature.

While this makes for powerful political rhetoric, with talk of one, two or four degree worlds, it fails to address the fact that many climate impacts are likely to be caused by extreme events, not average trends, and by changes to precipitation regimes, not temperatures. Few places in a four degree world will be four degrees warmer, with significant differences between land and sea, and high and low latitudes.

From climate science to action

Communicating climate science to the public is about helping individuals make the best decisions and there is a risk that too pessimistic a picture serves only to daunt. Psychologists recently argued in Nature that dire predictions may lead to increased scepticism, and sustainability communications agency Futerra advocates the need to “sell the sizzle”, a compelling vision of a low-carbon heaven, to encourage action on climate change, rather than focusing on climate hell.

atmosphere got this about right. I wasn’t left feeling overwhelmed by the size of the task at hand, but more inspired by the choice of mitigation options that varied from reducing my driving, to public education, to geo-engineering masterpieces such as carbon trees that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Public engagement is crucial if we are to make the best choices in addressing climate change, and atmosphere is a good example of how to go about this. Carry on this way and soon it will be their grandchildren celebrating the boys’ emissions reductions.


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