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Fifty years after U.S. climate warning, scientists confront communication barriers

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Science  27 Nov 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6264, pp. 1045-1046
DOI: 10.1126/science.350.6264.1045

J. Marshall Shepherd discusses the challenges of communicating complex climate topics with the public.


When it comes to climate change, a stark contrast persists between what the scientific community and the American public believe. Though 97% of climate scientists agree that human-caused climate change is occurring, according to the 2014 AAAS What We Know report, only about half of U.S. adults surveyed in an AAAS Pew report released the same year said that climate change is “mostly due to human activity.”

Climate scientists have tried to bridge this knowledge gap by better informing the public. But challenging long-held beliefs with more scientific explanations doesn't work, said Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Texas Tech University Climate Science Center, at the “Climate Science, 50 Years Later” symposium in Washington, D.C.

“We've begun to realize that more facts are not going to fix the problem,” she said. “Social science has shown that arguing over something as politically polarized as climate change only entrenches people's positions.”

The 29 October event, at the Carnegie Institution for Science, commemorated a 1965 report to President Lyndon B. Johnson from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). The PCAST report—the first climate warning to an American president—cautioned that the accumulation of atmospheric carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels would “almost certainly cause significant changes” to the environment.

“This is a good time for us to look forward and to look backward. There were many in 1965 who thought that the sky was like the ocean—a metaphor for vastness that could not be changed by humans. We now know that we can,” said Rush Holt, CEO of AAAS and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. “Today, the vast majority of climate scientists agree that climate change is under way, it's real, it's caused by us, and it's costly in lives and dollars. And it can be addressed.”

Americans hold a variety of beliefs about climate change, said Katharine Hayhoe.


AAAS and Carnegie Science organized the symposium with support from the American Meteorological Society and The Linden Trust for Conservation. It was a continuation of the AAAS What We Know climate change communications project, launched last year, and it also celebrated this year's launch of the Alan I. Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science.

John P. Holdren, assistant to the president for science and technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that the scientific community should have worked earlier to counter public misconceptions about climate change. Confronting this issue presents economic opportunities—not just costs, he said.

“1990 is the point where we really knew enough scientifically to justify the kinds of actions that we're only now talking about today 25 years later. I think the contrarians were incredibly effective in sowing doubt about the validity of the scientific conclusions,” said Holdren, a past AAAS president.

Today, the signs of climate change are apparent. Global temperatures are approaching a 1 degree Celsius increase from pre-industrial levels, according a 9 November warning from the British Met Office. Extreme weather events are more common, and species are fleeing their habitats, symposium speakers said.

Chris Field, founding director of Carnegie Science's Department of Global Ecology and a professor of interdisciplinary environmental studies at Stanford University, called climate change “the defining issue of our time” but also one with great promise.

“We know now that warming caused by CO2 is essentially permanent…it's not a question of finding a way to reallocate between countries. Carbon emissions everywhere eventually have to go to zero,” Field said. “That's incredibly enabling for the future, rather than constricting. It's not about a race to be the last country to build a coal-fired power plant, but to be the first to deploy a sustainable, nonemitting 21st-century energy system.”

Yet, there remains a gap in climate literacy—even among those people who accept the fact of climate change. The public views scientific concepts through its own personal lens, speakers said. Most people don't understand what peer-reviewed literature is or what terms like “bias” and “uncertainty” mean for scientists, said J. Marshall Shepherd, director of the University of Georgia atmospheric sciences program and host of Weather Geeks on the Weather Channel.

For example, people may see studies detailing both an increase in drought and more intense rain events as contradictory, said Shepherd, who joined Field at a Capitol Hill briefing organized by AAAS and the office of Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) after the symposium.

“People will bring the climate change discussion to their level of understanding. If they don't understand anything besides averages, maximums, and minimums, they'll put it into that simple context when the science has much more complexity to it,” Shepherd said. “We have to be outside of the ivory tower. We have to engage in the media and forums to move the meter. Because if we don't, people skilled in messaging will.”

Communicating about climate change was also the focus of a 22 October AAAS Colloquium Series presentation by Susan Joy Hassol, director of Climate Communications. Like Hayhoe and Shepherd, Hassol said that effective communication requires knowing the audience, and “connecting on values” as a first step toward building trust.

Hassol cited surveys that show Americans favor funding clean-energy research, even though acceptance of human-caused climate change still falls along partisan lines. The issue could be better framed by talking about innovation and ingenuity, she said, rather than the need to regulate emissions and reduce energy use.

Science authors Katherine Mills of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI), Janet Nye of Stony Brook University, and Andrew Pershing of GMRI discuss climate change impacts on cod stocks at the symposium.


“It's an opportunity for us to break the partisan gridlock,” she said, “and focus on solutions instead of the problem.”

Most Americans are at least open to talking about climate change, according to the “Six Americas” study by researchers at Yale and George Mason universities. The 2014 edition places Americans into six climate change perception categories: alarmed (13%), concerned (31%), cautious (23%), disengaged (7%), doubtful (13%), and dismissive (13%).

The vocal minority in the “dismissive” category have found receptive outlets for their beliefs, particularly on social media. But climate change communicators shouldn't focus on that group, Hayhoe said.

Instead, she suggested finding common ground with those who are cautious, disengaged, or doubtful. Scientists can connect with them on issues that they can identify with: parents caring for their children's future, effects on activities like hunting, and principles of religious faith.

“I believe that just about every human being living on this planet has all the values they need to care about climate change. We just need to connect the dots,” Hayhoe said.

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