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New Online Resource Aims to Arm Decision-Makers, Public With Science-Based Climate Information

A newly launched website intends to help regional, state, and local leaders make "climate-resilient decisions," by providing them with a user-friendly set of 14 climate indicators that describe how key aspects of climate have changed over time, according to the project's lead researcher.

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One of the U.S. Global Change Research Program indicators | globalchange.gov

The new resource from the U.S. Global Change Research Program aims to provide the best available data, in an easy-to-understand, visual way, on some of the indicators that will be most relevant to communities as they adapt to climate change, said Melissa Kenney, assistant research professor at University of Maryland and lead scientist authoring the indicators recommendations to the USGCRP. The indicators will also support the next National Climate Assessment.

For some types of climate measurements, such as sea surface temperature or sea-ice cover, "we have a pretty good climate indicator dashboard" already, Kenney said. "But we don't do as good a job of tracking the impacts and vulnerabilities that communities are facing," which is more difficult to do. For example, changes in ocean chlorophyll levels are complex because they can be driven by multiple processes, but this information is likely to be important for decisions related to managing commercial and recreational fisheries.

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Melissa Kenney | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

The USGCRP indicators website launched on 6 May, the one-year anniversary of the 2014 National Climate Assessment. Kenney also described their recommendations at a 30 April symposium at the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum, in which scientists discussed efforts to provide data to help engage policy-makers and the public on complex issues. The session also featured Glen Nowak, professor and director of Center for Health & Risk Communication at the University of Georgia, and Chad English, former director of science policy outreach at COMPASS, and was organized by the AAAS Center for Public Engagement With Science & Technology.

"When we get to decisions, we want to tease apart facts from value judgments," Kenney said. When she and her colleagues began the indicators project, they asked, "How can we provide facts about climate that might be a little bit more palatable to wider range of audiences?"

Communities are seeking this type of locally relevant information now more than ever, according John Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and assistant to the president for science and technology. In the plenary session that opened the AAAS Forum, he said that the public has largely moved on from the question of whether climate change is happening. "I think 'is it real?' debate is very close to over," he said, noting that polls show approximately two-thirds of the American public believes climate is real and the government should do more to address it.

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Another USGCRP indicator, showing the number of degrees by which the average global temperature for each year differs from the average global temperature during the last century. | globalchange.gov

But, Holdren said, "we really need to be more in the business of persuading people this needs to be higher on their priority list."  One of ways that is happening, he said, is through the communication of information on "disaggregating" climate impacts. That is, "what is climate doing where you live, and where you work, and what will you need to do to cope with those changes?"

Public attitudes towards vaccination are also more nuanced than simply "pro or con," said Glen Nowak, who was formerly the communications director for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Immunization Program. "It's more like a continuum."

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Glen Nowak (top) and Chad English | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

The most recent National Immunization Survey shows that vaccination rates overall are at or above record highs, Nowak said. However, coverage varies among states and some metropolitan areas. He also cited a 2013-14 study showing that in 11 states approximately 4% of kindergartners had received exemptions from recommended vaccinations, and that exemption rates ranged from less than 0.1% in Mississippi to 7.1% in Oregon. More parents appear to be "spacing" or delaying recommended vaccines as well, Nowak said: a 2012 survey found that 93% of U.S. physicians reported some parents of children younger than two years old had requested to spread out vaccines.

Nowak presented research showing that people have a range of stances towards vaccines, ranging from outright refusal, to hesitancy and delaying vaccinations, to strong acceptance. Although more research is necessary, understanding the different concerns that parents have can reveal new opportunities for public health experts to intervene and engage with them, he said.

Engagement and dialogue are also goals for the U.S. Global Change Research Program's climate indicators project. In their roles as advisors to the USGCRP, Kenney and her colleagues recommended that the program begin by rolling out a preliminary set of indicators and seeking feedback from users about what their needs are, and using this conversation to refine or expand the site.

This approach is consistent with advice from panelist Chad English of COMPASS, who said "showering people with facts, flooding them with information, does not help." This awareness is particularly important when scientists and their audiences feel allegiances to groups with different cultural outlooks. "It's also why the co-creation of knowledge [by members of these different groups] is so important," he said. "When you co-create knowledge you are bringing people in and creating a shared identity that helps them own, and understand, and validate the work that's coming out of that."

Author

Kathy Wren