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Communicating Climate Change with AAAS Member Ray Weymann

Retired astrophysicist and AAAS member Ray Weymann used to spend his days teaching and conducting research at the University of Arizona in Tucson or directing the Carnegie Observatories. Now he is an expert at communicating the science of climate change to the public. Weymann shares his top tips for teaching about climate change with AAAS MemberCentral blogger Summer Allen.

AAAS Member Central blogger Summer Allen: Which audiences do you think most benefit from hearing from scientists directly about climate change?
Ray Weymann, Central Coast Climate Science Education: Editors of papers, print and TV journalists, elected officials and teachers.

AAAASMC: What are your best tips for communicating the science of climate change to a lay audience?
Weymann: Follow the "3 S's" tips suggested by Climate Scientist Scott Denning of Colorado State: Keep the physical explanation SIMPLE, however, note that the consequences of inaction are SERIOUS, but then emphasize that we have the SOLUTIONs available to deal with the problem if we summon the political will to implement them.

Use metaphors and analogies. The videos with climate scientists on AAAS's What We Know website are very good in this regard, especially the one with American Meteorological Society past president Marshall Shepherd. His video serves as a model for all of us.

AAASMC: What are some common misperceptions that you have run across when you speak about climate change?
Weymann: The two most common current misperceptions are: "Climate has always changed; isn't the present change just part of a natural cycle?" and " I hear there has been no warming since 1998 even though CO2 has continued to rise."

Other comments that are slightly less frequent:

  • Last week the weather guy said it would rain today and it didn't; how can we trust what scientists say about the next 50 years if you can't even tell us about what happens next week.
  • 40 years ago all the scientists said we were headed for an ice age, now they talk about global warming.
  • It will ruin our economy if we try to get off fossil fuels.
  • Why should "we" (California, the U.S.) cut our emissions when (the rest of the world; China) is producing far more emissions than are we.
  • I don't trust those scientists; they are just in it for the easy money from grant proposals.
AAASMC: We hear you use AAAS's "What We Know" material in some of your presentations. How do you use this booklet and other resources in your presentations?

Weymann: I give a brief description of the science, elaborating on the 3 S's above. I then say, "For an easy-to-read and up-to-the moment summary by the world's leading climate scientists, the 'What We Know' booklet is excellent." I hand out hard copies to those who say they will really read the material. If I run out of hard copies to hand out, I direct them to the What We Know website

AAASMC: What are your suggestions for scientists who want to get more involved in the cause?

Weymann: Write letters to newspapers, especially correcting misperceptions like those above, and offer to appear on media broadcasts and answer questions from journalists. Contact local TV weather broadcasters and ask to meet with them to explain how climate change impacts weather. Offer to meet with editors of papers.

A wonderful example for getting involved was set by Jeff Chanton et al. [pdf] by asking to meet with Governor Scott of Florida to explain the science when the Governor said, "How should I know, I'm not a climate scientist." No politician should be allowed to get away with this! Testify at public hearings. Offer your expertise to citizen action groups like Citizens' Climate Lobby. Offer to make your expertise available to candidates for public office who want to have the facts; this need not involve endorsement of that candidate.

Finally, I would point out to climate scientists that, if my experience in astrophysics is any guide, even though they are experts in a particular field, having to explain things to a lay audience will sharpen their own understanding and force them to closely examine some assumptions they took for granted.