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AAAS Ramps Up Climate Science Communication

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News, September 22, 2014 Climate Change, Teaser
Average global temperature has increased by about 1.4˚ F over the last 100 years, according to the AAAS What We Know report. | Chris Linder © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The AAAS Communicating Science workshops, which have so far served 2,100 participants at 88 events nationwide, have been expanded to help scientists and engineers engage with public audiences about climate change — a timely topic, given this week's United Nations Climate Summit.

NYT Climate Column Includes AAAS CEO

New York Times columnist Claudia Dreifus polled authors, world and national figures, and scientists, including AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner, to learn their greatest worries and hopes regarding climate change, as part of a special section timed with the United Nations Climate Summit. Leshner's remarks, appearing alongside those of Columbia University researcher Jeffrey Sachs, literary master Barbara Kingsolver, and Hayden Planetarium Director Neil deGrasse Tyson, focused on the challenge of effectively communicating climate change to the public:

"Ideology and intuition sometimes appear to be trumping science," said Leshner, executive publisher of Science. "So people deny the evidence even as it increases." He added, however, that "communicating science has had an effect … The deniers have less and less credibility as the public understands the scientific consensus more and more."

The piece by Dreifus featured a broad and eclectic mix of thinkers, including Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet; past AAAS president Jane Lubchenco, who is the former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; two members of the AAAS What We Know climate-change report—co-chair Diana H. Wall of Colorado State University, and J. Marshall Shepherd, former president of the American Meteorological Society; Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland; Ms. Magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem; University of Cambridge astrophysicist Martin Rees; and others.

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Alan I. Leshner | AAAS
Alan I. Leshner | AAAS

Set for launch in October, six AAAS workshops are currently confirmed to take place at locations ranging from Fort Collins, Colorado, and Atlanta, Georgia, to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C., said Jeanne Braha, AAAS public engagement manager. The upcoming workshops, for Colorado State University, the National Park Service, and the Ecological Society of America, among others, "will allow each participant to develop jargon-free messages about climate change, enhanced by appropriate analogies and tailored to their particular audience and communication goals," according to Tiffany Lohwater, the association's director of meetings and public engagement.

In particular, workshop participants will focus on what scientific evidence tells us about climate change — the focus of the recent AAAS "What We Know" report. That document — compiled by an expert panel headed by Nobel laureate Mario J. Molina of the University of California, San Diego and Scripps Institution of Oceanography; James McCarthy of Harvard University; and Diana Wall of Colorado State University — concluded that human-caused climate change is real and happening now. The report further noted that we must consider the small, but real, risk of massively disruptive impacts, and the sooner we respond, the better off we will be.

Starting next month, scientists and engineers who participate in the communication workshops will have an opportunity to develop effective responses to climate-change questions, Lohwater said, and to grapple with how best to communicate about scientific uncertainties.

"Nuanced scientific information can be difficult to communicate without inadvertently confusing the bottom-line message for the public, which is that human-caused climate change is real, and the risks urgently need to be addressed," Lohwater noted. "Our workshops give scientists and engineers a chance to practice delivering clear, unambiguous responses to challenging questions."

On other fronts at the association, AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner, executive publisher of Science, will co-host a unique 12 November discussion, involving economists, policymakers, and scientists, on the financial risks associated with a changing climate. The dialogue will focus on how best to quantify climate-change risks and likely impacts so as to better inform policymakers. A portion of that event, co-organized by AAAS and Resources for the Future with support from the Rockefeller Family Fund and Lawrence H. Linden, will be webcast. Meanwhile, Leshner commended "President Obama and other world leaders who have signaled their commitment to work toward a legally binding, comprehensive agreement in 2015 by participating in the U.N. Climate Summit."

Earlier this year, AAAS also launched a second phase of its What We Know initiative to reach out to the U.S. Hispanic community, which represented 17% of the U.S. voting population as of 2011. Molina has played a key role in that effort, which has involved posting a Spanish-translated report to the What We Know website, and disseminating an informational video to Hispanic meteorologists. The report's initial release was the subject of at least 442 English-language news stories.

The AAAS Office of Government Relations is continuing to communicate climate science on Capitol Hill: Most recently, for example, that work has addressed language in a number of appropriations bills that would prevent agencies such as the Department of Defense (DOD), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) from leveraging climate science in support of national goals. Joanne Carney, director of AAAS government relations, said that the U.S. Congress still has time to reconsider these amendments which would prohibit these agencies from implementing the National Climate Assessment in policy decisions.

Carney's group will also soon address an issue related to language in proposed social studies textbooks in Texas. Language suggesting that scientists "do not agree on what is causing the change" to the Earth's climate has been described by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) as "deeply concerning." The NCSE expects the Texas Board of Education to make a decision regarding the textbooks at its 19-21 November meeting.

The vast majority of climate scientists agree that human-caused climate change is now well-underway, the What We Know report emphasized. "That consensus has consistently been reflected again and again by a converging stream of scientific evidence, by multiple peer-reviewed studies, and in public statements by virtually every leading scientific organization in the world," Leshner said. "The reality of global climate change has also been affirmed by the recent National Climate Assessment as well as the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report."

Author

Ginger Pinholster

Former Director, Office of Public Programs