Archive for the ‘Science communication’ Category

Is the public debate on climate change turning a corner?

September 23, 2014

When I started this blog in late 2009, things were not good with climate change in the media: the UEA/climategate emails had just been leaked and COP15 in Copenhagen didn’t go so well.

A couple of years before that, though, I felt that there was quite a lot of optimism. IPCC AR4 and the Stern Review had made a real splash. It felt like there could be some significant, global action on climate change. But that didn’t happen.

However, maybe we’ve turned a corner in the last week or so.

The obvious focal point is the really successful People’s Climate March, which took place at many locations around the world and attracted far more people than were estimated in advance. I went along to the London one and there was a good atmosphere and loads of people, somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 according to different estimates. I think the prediction beforehand was for around 10,000 people turning out.

400,000 at the climate march in New York

400,000 at the climate march in New York

But that’s not the only positive news.

The Rockerfeller family have decided to withdraw their investments in fossil fuels. The Guardian describe this as a big “symbolic boost” for the fossil fuel divestment movement in general. I suppose I should investigate our investments at Brunel University and see if we can do anything on this front as well.

And Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, has used some strong words in announcing their decision to leave the American Legislative Exchange Council lobby group, who also work to stifle progress on positive climate change responses. The choice quote from Schmidt being:

The facts of climate change are not in question anymore. Everyone understands climate change is occurring, and the people who oppose it are really hurting our children and our grandchildren and making the world a much worse place. And so we should not be aligned with such people — they’re just, they’re just literally lying.

So hopefully this means that there’ll be lots of people watching the UN Climate Summit today and expecting something positive.

I won’t be holding my breath but I’m feeling more confident than I have done for a few years.

In the immortal words of Father Jack Hackett…

March 25, 2013

180px-Jack_award“Award! Award! Award!”

To be more specific: I found out a few weeks ago that I’ve been awarded the Royal Meteorological Society‘s (RMetS) Michael Hunt Award, which is “for excellence in increasing the understanding of meteorology or its applied disciplines among members of the general public”. Get me!

And don’t worry, I’m sure it wasn’t given to me for this blog, which has only rarely been updated in the last year or so – I blame having kids and my change from postdoc to lecturer, which have occurred since I started blogging. I also do other outreach/public engagement things like school visits, Skeptics in the Pub talks, science festival events and wotnot. It’s usually a lot of fun and to get an award for doing it is great!

Oddly enough, though, my previous post on this blog was slightly critical of a recent RMetS Meeting on climate change communication; I’m glad that they didn’t hold that against me!

So, to continue that theme, I thought I’d make another couple of points about RMetS and how it communicates with the outside world…

Most of RMetS’ effort goes into their meetings and publications, which are excellent for academics but what about everyone else?

I know that they run events in schools and at science festivals, which is great.

The previous RMetS Chief Exec had a blog for a while (it was quite fun, I enjoyed the posts about his watch) and it’s now become a more general society blog but I think that there’s still room in the weather and climate blogosphere (ugh, never though I use that word seriously) for coverage of big issues. For example, The Carbon Brief has only been going since 2011ish and it has become an excellent resource. Whilst I suspect that RMetS want to keep it a bit more light-hearted, there’s still some low hanging fruit here that I’m sure RMetS could grab. Even the columns in the (recently departed) “theWeather” magazine would have made excellent blog posts that I’m sure would get widely read but they were never (as far as I know) made available online.

I loved “theWeather” magazine and it even won an award or two but, given the way that publishing and reading habits are changing, perhaps it wasn’t the time to launch a subscription only print magazine.

I just hope that the RMetS can find more of a place online where most people do their communicating these days, particularly in terms of climate change. (Whether that’s a good thing is another matter!)

What I would do is set up a network of early career meteorologists, climatologists, oceanographers etc. to run a collaborative blog on the RMetS website. One of the most interesting and exciting things I’ve done outreach-wise was the EPSRC-funded (now EPSRC-non-funded) NOISEmakers ambassadors scheme. It was great meeting up with scientists that you wouldn’t normally work with and discuss ideas (perhaps a little bit like the JASONs but not as serious!) In my case, this led to writing some nice general audience pieces, starting my own blog, networking with other people about communication and even working on papers and research proposals with people I met through NOISEmakers.

Finally, I also thought I should find out who Michael Hunt was and found this clip on youtube, you can see Hunt at 3.39, he’s got a good look!

Communicating Climate Science (but don’t mention the b-word)

November 8, 2012


There, I said it.

Which, as far as I can remember, is more than it was mentioned in the 7 talks or during the panel discussion at yesterday’s RMetS meeting on Communicating Climate Science.

Just to re-iterate, in a 3 hour meeting about Communicating Climate Science I don’t remember anyone saying the word “blog”.

Also to be clear, I thought the meeting was really interesting and well worth going to to. But, looking back on the event, I’m amazed that I don’t think anyone mentioned the impact of blogging on climate science communication, how it could be used better by the community or even that it exists.

Which is odd because two of the speakers are very good bloggers (Alice Bell and Adam Corner) and I noticed a few in the audience (e.g. Tamsin Edwards and Bob Ward, who seems like a blogger without a blog, unless I’ve missed it!)

So, did anyone else notice this or did I just nod off at the wrong moment?

How much does Antarctica contribute to sea level rise? (And how should that be communicated?)

October 26, 2012

There’s an interesting new paper in Nature (King et al.) this week that looks at how much the Antarctic continental ice contributes to sea level changes. It initially caught my eye as it uses data from the GRACE satellites, which are very cool! They are twin satellites that can detect tiny changes in the distance between one another. These distance changes are driven by changes in the gravity field so it is then possible to work out how that relates to changes in mass at Earth’s surface.

King et al. aren’t the first to use GRACE to look at Antarctic mass change but they have used a new model of the way ice sheets affect the Earth’s surface. When this new model is used, you get quite a low number for the contribution of Antarctic mass loss to global sea level: 0.19mm ± 0.05mm (this is less than half of previous GRACE estimates of Antarctic mass loss to global sea level).

The first result I found for global average sea level rise for 1993-2009 was: 3.3 ± 0.4 mm per year (thanks wikipedia!) so you can see that it is a small contribution.

Anyway, I tweeted a link to this paper from my @Antarctic_news twitter account and then noticed a story about the paper in the Sydney Morning Herald and tweeted a link to that as well.

Someone quickly pointed out that the headline in the SMH was wrong – it said Antarctica was contributing 1mm to global sea level when it should be less than that (0.19mm ± 0.05mm). It turned out that Ben Cubby, who wrote the SMH article, had already noticed the mistake (and our tweets) and the headline was corrected by the next day. This is why the article has a rather clumsy headline now!

But the chat on twitter didn’t end there. Quite a few tweets were exchanged between myself, Ben and Barry Woods, who felt that Ben should have said ~0.2mm per year in his article rather than “less than a millimetre per year”, which is what he did say (and was probably why the sub-editor made a mistake with the headline).

Personally, I feel that either (~0.2mm or less than 1mm) would have been ok so tried to defend Ben’s choice of words. Both options sound quite small and, without the context of average global sea level change (which I doubt many people hold in their head), the more accurate figure doesn’t really add much. Moreover, the full passage that includes the “less than a millimetre per year” bit gives some important qualitative information that does contextualise the result:

While the continent contains enough frozen water to raise global sea levels by 59 metres should it ever all melt, the findings show it is currently contributing less than a millimetre per year. Professor King said the findings showed that sea levels had already been rising faster than they had for centuries without much extra water from the Antarctic ice sheet.

That last bit, which I’ve emboldened, seems to convey that the Antarctic contribution is small in comparison to global changes without using either of the numbers (i.e. 0.19mm ± 0.05mm and 3.3 ± 0.4 mm per year).

Someone else suggested that is was in the interest of “environmental activists” to maximise the contribution of Antarctica to sea level rise but I’m not sure that even makes sense: the view from King et al. seems even more worrying i.e. sea levels are rising without a large contribution from Antarctica.

So what was the point of this blog post? Maybe it was so that I could articulate my thoughts without twitter’s 140 character limit but I was also wondering what other people thought about how to communicate findings like this. Should journalists always use the figures straight from papers or are phrases like “less than a millimetre” ok if they make the article more accessible?

King MA, Bingham RJ, Moore P, Whitehouse PL, Bentley MJ, & Milne GA (2012). Lower satellite-gravimetry estimates of Antarctic sea-level contribution. Nature PMID: 23086145

Michael Mann on TEDx – the scientization of politics

December 7, 2011

Michael Mann (of “hockey stick” fame) has just has a TEDx talk published.

It’s bookended by the things you’d expect – a quick run through of climate science and potential solutions – but the bits in the middle are probably the most interesting.

Climate science is often accused of becoming too politicised (usually because of the role of the  IPCC) but Mann’s argument here is that it happened the other way round: that politics became “scientized” in order to cast doubt over the scientific findings that do not align with paticular political views. At one point he refers to Merchants of Doubt, a book which presents evidence from the last 50 years covering a number of scientific topics that have caused problems for certain industries, and Mann’s case seems to add to those stories.

Weather and climate evening at the Manchester Science Festival

October 25, 2011

It’s the Manchester Science Festival this week and as part of it there’s a Weather and Climate evening on Thursday. It starts with a live recording of the Barometer podcast, which I sometimes (well, not very often) contribute to. Anyway, sounds like they’ve got some fun stuff planned and they’ll be plenty of time for Q&A.

Book review: Merchants of Doubt

May 5, 2011

Short review

Excellent examination of the background and tactics used by “experts” to delay the implementation of regulation on important scientific issues. Journalists in particular should have a read but I’d think it would be interesting and comprehensible to anyone.

Long review

This is a somewhat worrying story about a small group of scientists with a disproportionate level of influence.

They successfully spread doubt about issues as wide-ranging as smoking, defence, acid rain, stratospheric ozone depletion, second-hand smoke and global warming. Their veneer of authority, despite a lack of relevant experience, appears to have been enough to manage it.

The book is very well researched and extensive references are provided. That said, the style and accessibility of the book remains at the “popular” end of the spectrum, which is good. There’s a website accompanying the book with many of the key documents cited in the book.

Most of the story takes place in the US but the lessons are not exclusive to that region.

There’s an awful lot of issues that come up from the book (media responsibility, motivation of the scientists in question, funding sources, ideology, scientists influencing policy) but I’ll just look at a couple of things here.

The Fairness Doctrine and journalistic balance

One theme that crops up over and over again is the insistence from the “doubt merchants” that they deserve equal time in media debates and discussions. This is really important and, I think, shows that this book should be required reading for journalists working on controversially perceived subjects. Because, as we see time and time again in the book, the controversy is often not based on the science.

I agree that there should be a responsibility placed on the media to be unbiased but, equally, journalists shouldn’t be pressured into presenting a debate as ongoing and/or equal simply because they have not researched the topic.

Or, as Oreskes and Conway put it:

“Balance was interpreted, it seems, as giving equal weight to both sides, rather than giving accurate weight to both sides.”

(Of course, this argument works both ways and also implies that scientists do not communicate well with journalists.)


One thing I had a little trouble with in the book was following the separate strands of the story. Whilst the 5 main strands occur pretty much one after another, almost one per decade, there is considerable overlap. It gets quite hard to follow the stories as the characters are involved with more than one strand at any particular moment. I suppose Oreskes and Conway could have overcome this by focusing on the “Merchants” but that would probably be more confusing. Of course this problem only arises because it’s the same people getting involved in each issue.

What might have been nice, though, is if the authors produced an interactive timeline with book, something a bit like this:

I knocked this up pretty quickly but it gives an idea of the overlap of the different strands. I chose the start and ends points based on key events described in the book. I

Sustainable solutions

This isn’t really something that comes up in the book but it was certainly where my train of thought kept going. (This may, however, be because I’m currently planning a new module for one of our courses on sustainable development.)

So, for action to be “sustainable” it needs to be analysed from (at least) 3 interlinking perspectives.

The triple bottom line

Ideally your solution falls in the centre of the Venn diagram but compromises in one direction or the other are probably necessary.

It seems to me that, in the same way that radical, back-to-the-land environmentalists would sacrifice the economy and technology for the sake of the environment, many of the key figures in the book show a willingness to endanger the environment and social development for the sake of the free market. I assume the reason that we think the “doubt merchants” solutions are seen as more feasible than equally single minded environmentalists are that they have a veneer of respectability and authority from academic careers. However, their solutions run the same risks of having few winners and potentially many losers.

How do we get into the middle section of the diagram then?

I don’t know. I’m kind of interested in all three areas but I only really know anything about a relatively small area of environmental science.

Monbiot covers some of this problem, from the perspective of just one area, here.

Other reviews for Merchants of Doubt

Gavin Schmidt in Chemical & Engineering News focusing mostly on the role of scientists.

Robin McKie in the Guardian focusing on the attack on environmentalism.

UPDATE: Naomi Oreskes has recently won the Climate Change Communicator of 2011 award from George Mason University. On the weight of this book alone, it is well deserved.

Spectator Climate Debate – The Results!

March 31, 2011

I mentioned the Spectator debate last week but I didn’t go along as I was giving a talk in Manchester on Antarctic climate.

Someone from Climate Brief went along, though, and they have written a report.

Anyway, the motion was “The global warming concern is over. Time for a return to sanity.”

The results are quite interesting, which I guess I can comment on without having been there:

If the point of the debate was to change people’s minds then the “Against” panel clearly did a better job, so well done King, Singh and Palmer.

However, the clear message from the results is that the majority of people that go along to debates organised by The Spectator are not that concerned about global warming. I suppose you could also conclude (from the lack of change in the “For” votes and the make up of the panels) that this group of people are more interested in the policy implications of climate change than the science behind it.

I’m also wondering why Delingpole wasn’t on the “For” panel. He’s a Spectator contributor and has an interest in climate change. Any thoughts?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,585 other followers