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communicating the slowdown

This is a guest post by Tom Sheldon, Senior Press Officer at the Science Media Centre. 

 

This week at the SMC we ran a press briefing on the fact that global surface temperature averages have not risen in the last 10-15 years. 18 journalists turned up and it resulted in 8 articles and an editorial  – not bad on a day when the birth of a future monarch meant there was standing room only in the UK press.  Such is the importance attached to the recent slowdown, pause, or hiatus in temperature change.

And it is important.  One day we might look back at this flatter period and barely notice it in the context of a rising trend – certainly that is what most climate scientists expect – but for now, while temperatures are refusing to rise in line with predicted averages, it demands an explanation.

Five climate scientists attempted to provide that explanation in a packed briefing room, and they did an excellent job.  It was important to us all that they didn’t dumb it down, or paper over any cracks in the knowledge.  Uncertainties, revisions, corrections: these are the bread and butter of science and it is only fair that they be part of the story.  Climate science is uncharted territory, scientists don’t have every answer and to pretend otherwise in the name of sending a more palatable ‘message’ would be wrong.

But the slowdown has risked becoming the bête noire of climate science.  It has been unfairly framed as (another) nail in the coffin for global warming – ‘You said it would get warmer and it hasn’t!’ – as though the failure of the temperature record to conform each year blows the whole evidence base out of the water.  Triumphant claims are made – erroneously – that the failure to warm has finally been revealed and that scientists (part of the conspiracy, naturally) have been keeping quiet about it.  The whole field is so polarised between the ‘sceptics’ and the ‘warmists’ it’s unsurprising that climate scientists feel caught in the crossfire, fearful of saying anything in case it is taken out of context or wilfully misinterpreted.

There is disagreement over how climate science should be communicated.  Some argue that scientists need to get their act together in a concerted effort to send clear, single messages to the public.  Others fear that talking about uncertainty and disagreement risks accusations – ‘is there anything you do know??’ – and it should therefore be avoided or packaged up to be more agreeable.

I disagree with both.  Climate scientists are permanently under fire and frequently the subject of vitriol and sarcasm in the blogosphere.  So speaking to a roomful of journalists about the slowdown – uncertainties, disagreements, warts and all – was the right and brave thing to do.  Whether or not it plays to the ‘message’ of climate change is an irrelevance and scientists should not be concerned with that. Scientists have been accused of downplaying data which could ‘play to the opposition’.  I think this is unfair to most – but most importantly this is science, there is no ‘opposition’, and the evidence should be allowed to speak for itself, unadorned.  That is the only fair way to treat the media and the public.

We must never be complacent or assume everything is understood, however.  Climate science is always work in progress, under constant review and revision, and its communication to journalists must never be assumed to be finished.  This is complex stuff – hard to understand, harder still to translate into readable, interesting articles for general consumption.  I saw more than one furrowed brow at the briefing; one journalist even said halfway through that he felt more confused than at the start.  But clearly some pennies dropped as the media coverage reflected pretty accurately what the scientists had said.  And I don’t mind too much if there was some early confusion – at least that means they were unsure before and we have gone some way to setting it straight.

The temperature response to greenhouse gases is a complicated subject and we need to keep coming back to it.  The slowdown isn’t, and never was, the preserve of the sceptics – and it needs to be addressed unflinchingly by scientists every time.  And there is more to be done.  Specialist journalists work hard to understand this ever-changing research and some persistent misapprehensions clearly show the need to keep channels of communication between journalists and climate scientists wide open.  Temperatures won’t go up in a smooth line – they never have and never will, whatever the extent of climate change.  The trend will always be punctuated by slowdowns – and speedups – in temperature rise, and scientists can’t pinpoint the timing or duration of such events.  And the problem of probabilistic vs. deterministic prediction is a tough one to crack.  Journalists want to be able to say what will happen, while scientists can only tell them what is likely to happen.  This leaves a gap which both professions need to work hard to bridge.

And there is a broader point here.  I well remember in the heart of Climategate a similar number of journalists turning up to hear Julia Slingo, Brian Hoskins and Alan Thorpe restating what we know for sure, what we think we are starting to know and what we definitely do not know. Some journalists left that briefing disgruntled – openly saying they had come to hear the ‘fightback’ from climate scientists and all they got was the science.  Journalists and their news desks will always want clear messages, top lines and clarity. Sometimes they get that. But more often than not at SMC briefings they will just get the science – with all its messy complexity and uncertainty and nuance.  It’s to the credit of the UK’s science journalists that they sometimes leave these briefings with no top line for their editors but still manage to produce articles like they did this week.

Ultimately this press briefing gave important and influential journalists an honest appraisal of the slowdown which will aid understanding of climate science for time to come.  But I think there is much more to it than that.  By sitting at a panel, by answering every question, by being honest about uncertainties and holes in the knowledge, the fact the scientists came from a variety of institutions, that they openly disagreed on some of the finer points, and – most of all – that they didn’t arrive with a prepared, polished message, they made quite clear that there is nothing to hide and nothing for climate science to be ashamed of, and – however transient the phenomenon turns out to be – that climate scientists are acknowledging and investigating it.  That’s the very best that a press briefing can achieve.

 

In addition to the press briefing, a set of briefing notes on the recent slowdown in global temperature rise were published.

 

This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.

One Response to communicating the slowdown

  1. Geckko says:

    Is it really to much ask that a prediction of ever increasing temperatures be matched by an actual increase in temperatures?

    Is it really too much to ask the proponents of those predictions to account for the (15 year) discrepency, or temper their “certainty” until they do?

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