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Carbon Brief Staff

Carbon Brief Staff

06.11.2013 | 2:30pm
ScienceUK chief scientist tells MPs: Any scientist involved in climate change will say there has to be more public communication
SCIENCE | November 6. 2013. 14:30
UK chief scientist tells MPs: Any scientist involved in climate change will say there has to be more public communication

A group of MPs is investigating public understanding of climate science – what role the media play in it, and how that understanding interacts with policymaking. UK chief scientific officer Sir Mark Walport today praised the government’s system for integrating science into policymaking – but said there’s always scope for more communication.  

The committee has been conducting hearings over the year to dig into public understanding of climate science. Walport, who came to the job this year after 10 years as director of the Wellcome Trust – the body that represents the UK’s medical science community – has been busy. He has been out and about communicating the findings of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), explaining it to the UK government Cabinet, and taking it on the road in a series of lectures.  

Connecting with the public

Asked by committee chair, MP Andrew Miller, what good climate science communication meant to him, Walport pointed to the IPCC’s summary for policymakers. Though the IPCC has been criticised for its media strategy in the past, Walport called the summary a “very good piece of communication”, which gets the message across that human influence on the climate system “is clear”.   

In the session, Walport stressed the need for a clear narrative on the science from government – and said that while there is no formal communications strategy by government scientists, he and colleagues such as the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s advisor, David McKay meet frequently to discuss science communication. 

But getting those toplines over to the public can be a problem, Walport went on. The problem of communicating with the public is one of “big numbers and small numbers”, he said. How do you make figures like 10 gigatonnes of emissions a year, or 0.9 degrees Celsius of warming since 1906 meaningful? One is so big as to defy engagement for most people, while the other seems insignificant.  

Walport said it’s important to remember the big picture of climate science is an issue where there “is a correct answer”: Human influence on the climate is unequivocal. To get that across, he said scientists must communicate all of the effects that come with this level of warming and warming in the future. From warming and acidification in the oceans to loss of ice in the Arctic and glacier melt, all of the IPCC’s data is “pointing in one direction”, he said. “We need to put this across as clearly as we can”. 

He said government scientists around the world are discussing how they can better communicate with the public. For example, plans are afoot to export the UK government’s 2050 calculator, which allows people to experiment with different energy supply and demand pathways to cutting emissions, to other countries – and to create an international version. But more can be done to engage the public, he said: 

“I think it would be very hard to find a scientist involved in this subject anywhere in the world who didn’t think more public communication was needed”. 

Belief and trust 

MP Jim Dowd brought up public polling figures that indicate that the numbers of people who say they believe the climate is changing has gone down. Though still high (as our polling confirms)  it has reduced from around 90 per cent less than a decade ago, it has reduced to around 70 per cent today’. 

Is this really a big problem? Walport said he’s frequently pointed out that “most MPs” would be pretty happy with that kind of majority. But why has it gone down? We don’t know, Walport said.

He ventured a few theories: “There’s no doubt that hard economic times – fuel bills – are going to affect people’s view.” As he pointed out earlier: “We would be having a very easy discussion if decarbonising energy were as cheap as fossil fuel”. 

Walport added that “there may also be a sense that this has been going on for a long time and nothing has obviously changed. 

At the same time, Walport said, “loud sceptical voices” have been presented in the media as though they’re equal and opposite to the weight of scientific opinion, making it much harder for people to judge between the two.

This is a theme the committee has returned to repeatedly, too – and MPs today bemoaned the fact that newspaper bosses whose publications are more skeptical in tone have refused to give evidence to the committee. 

MPs were also keen to know how much Walport thought the leak of emails from the University of East Anglia around the release of the IPCC’s last report has harmed public trust in climate science. The committee has returned to the issue over the course of the inquiry, attempting to work out if the so-called climategate leak has damaged public trust in scientists. 

For Walport, the lesson has been that we need “more transparency of data”. He pointed to the human genome project – with which he has been involved in his prior work – in which the data was done “completely in the open”. While enquiries showed there was no problem with the data itself, Walport said, he says studies show that science works best when data is as “freely available as possible”. 

Government, trust  and science

The UK has the best system for integrating scientific advice into policymaking in the world – and this effort is better-resourced than ever, Walport emphasised over the session. But how does this relationship work in practice? And what’s the right balance between advising on scientific findings and giving policy advice?  

This is very much a live debate in the media and the scientific community – while some believe that scientists’ responsibility stops at   communicating their findings, others have argued scientists are uniquely-well placed to suggest appropriate policy actions.

As Marion Ferrat, a climate scientist at Imperial College London, wrote of an intervention in a previous session:

“Rowan Sutton, Director of Climate Research in the UK National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) said while most scientists feel comfortable explaining the likely consequences of a certain policy decision, few researchers would go further and actually champion a particular policy.” 

Walport was careful to emphasise when he was expressing personal opinions about policies and when he was talking about the science. Pressed on the matter of whether he thought government policies are currently working, for example, he said: “Government policy is a matter for politicians. I can only emphasise the clarity of the science.” 

Walport did call for a concerted worldwide effort to research new energy technologies, similar to the Manhattan or human genome projects in the past. He also emphasised the importance of making the long-term effects of climate change real to people – but pointed out that these questions aren’t scientific – they’re emotional and moral questions. He said:

“That isn’t a scientific view. It’s a view for all society”.

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