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Guest Thinkers

Letter at Science: Time to Take Action on Climate Change Communication

In a letter at the journal Science this week, my colleagues Ed Maibach and Tony Leiserowitz join with Tom Bowman, climate scientists, and other social scientists to issue a call-to-action among expert organizations to systematically invest in new approaches to climate change communication. 

I strongly endorse their letter and have signed a statement of support at a site they have put together that includes the full text of the letter. Go to

The focus on new approaches and increased investment resonates with a plan I posted November 5, the day after the election, detailing an achievable strategy that would engage key segments of the public and decision-makers leading up to the 2012 election. This is one of several proposals currently circulating that share similar ideas and goals.

From their letter at Science:

Because the potential consequences of climate change are so high, the science community has an obligation to help people, organizations, and governments make informed decisions. Yet existing institutions are not well suited to this task. Therefore, we call for the science community to develop, implement, and sustain an independent initiative with a singular mandate: to actively and effectively share information about climate change risks and potential solutions with the public, particularly decision-makers in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Moreover, we call on philanthropic funding institutions to endorse and provide sustained support for the initiative.

The initiative must make concerted efforts to provide people, organizations, and governments with critical information, to address misperceptions, and to counter misinformation and deception. In doing so, it will have to overcome psychological and cultural barriers to learning and engagement (35).

The initiative should be judged against two critical outcomes: (i) improved understanding of risks and potential solutions by people, organizations, and governments, and (ii) more informed decision-making—and less avoidance of decision-making—about how to manage those risks. The initiative should be an embodiment of what Fischhoff calls “non-persuasive communication.” It should not advocate specific policy decisions; good decision-making involves weighing the best available information with the values of the decision-makers and those affected by the decisions.

The initiative should recruit a full range of climate scientists, decision scientists, and communication professionals into the effort (6, 7) to ensure both sound scientific information and effective communication. In addition, it should build bridges to other communities of experts—such as clergy, financial managers, business managers, and insurers—who help people, organizations, and governments assess and express their values. Scientists and nonscientists alike inevitably interpret climate science information in the context of other information and values; the initiative should mobilize experts who can facilitate appropriate and useful interpretations.

Despite the politically contentious nature of climate change policy, the initiative must be strictly nonpartisan. In the face of efforts to undermine public confidence in science, it must become a trusted broker of un biased information for people on all sides of the issue.

At this potentially critical moment for human civilization, it is imperative that people, organizations, and governments be given the resources they need to participate in constructive civic, commercial, and personal decision-making about climate change risks and solutions.

See Also:

Eye on 2012: A PostPartisan Plan to Engage the Public on Climate Change

Climate Scientists ataCrossroads: Muddling the Differences Between Public Engagement and Deficit-Model Activism

Study Finds That Fear Won’t Don’t Do It: Why Most Efforts at Climate Change Communication Might Actually Backfire


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