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Losing the messaging battle

If you’ve been paying any attention to the news, you know that there’s been a dispiritingly high level of nonsense permeating the recent discussion of climate change. Of course, there’s always a high level of nonsense attending any public discussion of climate change. But many of us have been taken aback by the amount of traction that various anti-scientific arguments have gained in recent weeks.

It started with the hacked emails from East Anglia, which were followed by a series of ginned-up “climategates,” including the discovery of some minor errors in the IPCC report. A large snowstorm in Washington, D.C., was treated by partisan outlets as a refutation of global warming, and — more shockingly — mainstream journalists covered this nonsense as though they were reporting a ping pong game between evenly matched opponents.

For sheer breathtaking stupidity, it would be hard to match a *Daily Mail* headline that read, “Climategate U-turn as scientist at centre of row admits: There has been no global warming since 1995.” This would be news indeed, if the headline did not sit atop an article in which the scientist in question states the exact opposite thing. None of this prevented the article from zinging around the deny-osphere.

Most maddeningly, there’s a tendency among certain elements of the smug commentariat to blame environmentalists for this state of affairs. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post exemplifies this attitude. The idea, it seems, is that if environmentalists weren’t always going on about environmental problems, then the world would be able to have a more rational discussion about these issues. Or something.

I never know how seriously to take this stuff. Engaging too deeply with it always raises the possibility of giving it more power than it deserves. As RealClimate notes, there’s a cyclical quality to these flare-ups that reflects their media-driven nature. Meanwhile, the worlds of science and policy grind along, hopefully unaffected by the day-to-day chatter.

But it’s hard to maintain equanimity in the face of the latest onslaught. Tom Friedman has an excellent column on the need for greens to push back. But I’m not entirely sure about his prescription:

> In my view, the climate-science community should convene its top experts — from places like NASA, America’s national laboratories, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, the California Institute of Technology and the U.K. Met Office Hadley Centre — and produce a simple 50-page report. They could call it “What We Know,” summarizing everything we already know about climate change in language that a sixth grader could understand, with unimpeachable peer-reviewed footnotes.

> At the same time, they should add a summary of all the errors and wild exaggerations made by the climate skeptics — and where they get their funding. It is time the climate scientists stopped just playing defense.

Certainly such a document could be valuable, but I’m not sure that it gets to the heart of the problem, which seems to have much more to do with the control of media narrative than it does with the raw facts of climate change. Unfortunately the deck is fundamentally stacked: scientists by nature tend to hedge, to find nuance, to couch findings in technical language, to shun policy debates, to regard criticism as a serious matter requiring investigation and thoughtful response. Lobbyists and television pundits feel no such compunction.

How to address this imbalance? I think that scientific bodies would do well to study the messaging techniques of modern political campaigns. This makes me a little sad to say, and I’m by no means suggesting that scientists should bend facts to support specific positions. Rather, they should learn to speak in crisp, non-technical language; they need to respond swiftly to controversies, even before all the facts are fully known; and they should recognize that the truth needs a strong advocate. It’s not enough to publish in journals and hope that the knowledge gets out there.

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