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Carbon Brief Staff

Carbon Brief Staff

13.09.2012 | 11:30am
ScienceClimategate, caps-lock, skeptic rebuttals and industry chats: DECC’s FOI treasure trove
SCIENCE | September 13. 2012. 11:30
Climategate, caps-lock, skeptic rebuttals and industry chats: DECC’s FOI treasure trove

Besides revelations of climate change minister Greg Barker’s links to a renewable energy executive, one of the most interesting documents Freedom of Information (FOI) discosures from the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has uncovered is the all-caps transcript  of a speech on climate communications delivered by one of the department’s officials. The presentation, which Guardian journalist Leo Hickman publicised along with other documents, reflects on the handling of the Climategate email hack, advocating better engagement with the public on tangible aspects of climate science.

Science communications academic and blogger Alice Bell likes it, writing:

“It’s brilliant. I want to print it out and stick bits of it all around my office/ on tshirts/ stapled to students faces. It’s written in capslock, presumably to help the speaker see their points while delivering the speech, but just makes me think of the Feminist Hulk [a Twitter feed], especially how direct the speech is. Personal favourite lines include CLIMATE SCIENTISTS NEED TO GET OUT MORE and THE DEFICIT MODEL DOES NOT WORK….It’s a lucid and clever overview of climate science communication in the UK. I cannot recommend it enough.”

The speech is worth reading in full. Given sometime in early 2010, it uses Climategate, the theft of scientists’ emails from the Universty of East Anglia, to launch into a no-holds-barred assessment of the effectiveness of climate science communication.

The unnamed official first discusses why some people are skeptical of climate science, remarking:

“THERE ARE A LARGE NUMBER OF PEOPLE OUT THERE NOT ALL OF THEM COMPLETE KNAVES AND FOOLS WHO JUST DON’T BUY IT.”

To explain, he or she outlines the weaknesses in the so-called deficit model of communicating climate science – that is, the assumption that confusion or disbelief about climate change is due to a lack of knowledge about the subject. Or as the official calls it: 

“THE BELIEF THAT … ALL ONE NEEDS TO DO IS PUT OUT MORE STUFF, ALBEIT PACKAGED IN AN ‘ACCESSIBLE’ WAY – WITH IMAGES OF POLAR BEARS AND MELTING ICE OR, FAILING THAT, PICTURES OF POOR BANGLADESHI VILLAGERS WAIST DEEP IN FLOOD WATER – AND THE PUBLIC WILL GET IT. SCIENCE WILL HAVE BEEN COMMUNICATED.”

If you want to read more, this paper discusses the deficit model in more detail, as does this post on the climate communications blog Talking Climates.

The official calls this model “FUNDAMENTALLY FLAWED”. He or she points to the release of emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit and resulting media frenzy a “SALUTORY LESSON”, demonstrating how poorly-equipped scientists are to communicate their knowledge and defend their science when it comes under attack.
Relying on the deficit model has, according to the official, led to an inevitable backlash against climate science seemingly dispensed from “ON HIGH BY REMOTE AUTHORITY FIGURES”.                                                                                                 

“IT TURNED OUT IN RETROSPECT THAT IT WAS A MISTAKE TO ASSUME THAT THE SCIENTIFIC CASE FOR CLIMATE CHANGE HAD BEEN MADE. OR AT LEAST, TO ASSUME THAT TO THE LAYMAN, THE ‘CONSENSUS’ OF EXPERTS HAD ANY MEANING AT ALL.”

The media don’t escape criticism either. The official says media organisations didn’t help with the confusion in the aftermath of Climategate and contributed to the detrimental impact on public perception of climate science.

“THERE SEEMS TO BE A PARTICULAR PROBLEM WITH CO-OPTING THE MEDIA IN THE UK – PARTICULARLY THE PRINT MEDIA – IN HELPING TO COMMUNICATE CLIMATE SCIENCE. THE HACKING INCIDENT WAS PORTRAYED AS A ‘CRISIS’ AND THE STORY RAN AND RAN.”

But could the scientists have helped themselves? The official thinks so, pointing to a meeting at the Science Media Centrein which science journalists said they were sidelined by their editors after it had emerged they had been sitting on the story, waiting in vain for the scientists to defend themselves. That didn’t happen for weeks, a fact the speech blames on a “FAILURE OF NERVE”. As the official says:                                         

 “THE JOURNALISTS EXPLAINED THAT NOT ONE WORKING CLIMATE SCIENTIST CAME FORWARD TO DO MEDIA. PERHAPS THEY’D SEEN WHAT HAD HAPPENED TO PHIL JONES AND TAKEN FRIGHT. BUT THE UPSHOT WAS THAT CLIMATE CHANGE ‘SCEPTICS’ HAD THE RUN OF THE FIELD AND MADE THE MOST OF IT.”

What’s worse, according to this presentation, the scientists had fallen into the trap of linking the science to policy prescriptions. This inevitably sparked a backlash against climate science, the official says, as acceptance of climate science became packaged up with acceptance of a particular set of policy prescriptions.

The speech makes recommendations over how to better communicate these issues, to enable better decision making. It recommends more transparency in communicating uncertainty:

“WE NEED TO RECOGNISE THAT SOME OF THIS UNCERTAINTY IS IRREDUCIBLE. OUR MODELS MAY BE INCOMPLETE. OUR UNDERSTANDING OF NATURAL SYSTEMS MAY BE INCOMPLETE. OUR UNDERSTANDING OF SOCIAL RESPONSES ARE DEFINITELY INCOMPLETE. HOWEVER, INCOMPLETE KNOWLEDGE IS THE NORMAL STATE OF AFFAIRS WHEN WE MAKE DECISIONS ABOUT THE FUTURE. WE DO IT ALL THE TIME.”

To make these concepts more tangible to the public, scientists and policymakers should communicate science in terms of “THEIR LIVED EXPERIENCE”, the official says. One example the speech cites is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)’s UK Climate Change Risk Assessment report – a 2,000-page examination of the ways in which climate change might affect the UK.

With this speech coming to light, it’s worth reading the whole thing and reflecting on how Defra’s report played in the media.

Did officials and other organisations use the opportunity to make climate change and its impacts more immediately understandable for the public? There’s not much evidence of that. Some media outlets distinctly confused the issue, focusing – as the Daily Mail did – only on the report’s most positive predictions. But as we pointed out at the time, climate change isn’t all blueberries and more sea bass.

The DECC speech provides a sophisticated analysis of the climate science and policy debate. But to what extent have its propositions been put into action? Arguably, the government has shied away from speaking about climate change at all since the recession started to bite, so it’s hard to say to what extent – if at all – scientists and policymakers in government have moved away from the deficit model.

But if insights like this only emerge when requested under FOI, and scientists and policymakers fail to make the most of work like the Defra report, what’s going to counteract all that confusion?

The other DECC documents

We’ve put the rest of the documents in one place:
The documents detailing correspondence between energy executive Miriam Maes and DECC officials that led to the Guardian splash.

A briefing for Conservative peer Lord Marland ahead of an event entitled ‘Are sceptics winning battles of ideas in the Tory Party?’

Another briefing, this time for former energy and climate change minister Chris Huhne ahead of an appearance on BBC Question Time, alongside skeptic Daniel Hannan. Both documents prepare the speakers to rebut skeptics’ scientific and political arguments.

A 2011 document laying out the government’s position on the Climategate hack, giving background on the events and following enquiries, and a media summary giving key dates in the timeline.

A briefing for former DECC permanent secretary Moira Wallace for a meeting to discuss skeptic thinktank the Global Warming Policy Foundation’s report ‘The really inconvenient truth or “It aint necessarily so”‘ (which we blogged at the time).

A memo sent round in 2011 when a further batch of Climategate emails were released, including contact with Defra over its weather generator project designed to help people understand localised climate impacts. It shows the government was quick to ensure officials counteract any quotes taken out of context from the later release and contains the immortal quote: “The weather generator does not generate actual weather”.

A list of meetings between the Office for Nuclear development and representatives from the nuclear industry, including notes from a meeting with EDF.

Another list of meetings, this time between DECC’s Office for Renewable Energy Deployment and renewables lobbyists.
DECC’s FOI library contains many more documents  – here’s the link.


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