How to climb out of a hole
It has been a bad few months for the public profile of climate science.
In November 2009, emails hacked from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (UEA) were posted on the internet, prompting accusations of misconduct by some of the world's leading researchers. Three separate investigations were launched, and although no evidence of fraud was found, the researchers were heavily criticised for a lack of transparency.
In addition, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) admitted in January 2010 that its last report in 2007 was wrong to predict that Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035. It subsequently faced allegations of further errors in its report and an independent review of its operations and processes.
Both controversies sparked hostile and negative media coverage in the UK and across the world, and raised questions about the general integrity and competence of climate researchers.
But climate researchers have helped to turn these academic controversies into crises of confidence by failing to communicate effectively.
Some have decided that the best strategy is to keep quiet, hoping the problems will all blow over and that there will be no lasting impact on public opinion. But they have overlooked the fact that this looks to many in the outside world like guilty silence.
Some have blamed journalists for hysterical coverage, believing that environment reporters have sided with so-called 'sceptics' who reject some or most of climate science. But correspondents have instead been trying defend the science to editors who have accused them of 'going native' and ignoring the alleged wrongdoings of researchers.
And the institutions at the centre of the controversies have been perceived to be slow in responding to the allegations and reluctant to take appropriate action.
It is not yet clear to what extent trust in climate researchers has suffered lasting damage from these controversies. But it is clear that more of the UK public are now confused about the causes and consequences of climate change.
A Populus opinion poll in February 2010 found that 25 per cent of the public believe that climate change is not happening, and a further 10 per cent think that man-made global warming is ‘environmentalist propaganda for which there is little or no real evidence’.
Only 26 per cent felt that the risks of climate change and its possible consequences have been presented proportionately, compared with 38 per cent in early November 2009, prior to controversy enveloping UEA and the IPCC.
The survey in February found that 57 per cent had recently heard stories about ‘flaws or weaknesses in the science of climate change’.
It is not just the reputations of the few scientists at the centre of the storm that is at stake, but of the profession as a whole. If the climate research community wants to repair the damage of the past few months, it must devote the time and effort required for a sustained communications campaign.
This means engaging with the public, the media and their critics, and demonstrating not only the high quality of their research, but also the high standards of their professional conduct. They must be prepared to acknowledge where mistakes have been made and where improvements are needed. And they have to show openness and a willingness to allow outside scrutiny to regain trust.
Senior researchers must lead by example. They should polish their communication skills and incorporate more public engagement activities into their busy schedules. Such investments should not be regarded as research resources that are wasted, but instead as new opportunities that are created to earn the greater confidence that is needed for continued public funding and support.