March 14, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich

Climate communication conundrums

After climategate in 2009 I was reflecting on what this episode (which sort of opened the ‘door’ for the current climate ‘wars’) may mean for climate change communication. One thing struck me at the time: that climategate can be used to rhetorically flip previous (contrarian) discourses around climate change and climate science on their heads. Whereas in the past opposition to climate change mitigation policies could be based on pointing out that the science was uncertain and one should therefore better wait and see, after climategate, some bloggers accused climate scientists of being too certain and portrayed the emerging scientific consensus about climate change as something akin to dogma.

Communication trap

This opened up a serious communication trap for climate change communicators. If they accentuated uncertainties, they could be accused of not knowing enough, not doing good enough science and so on; if they stressed certainties, they could be accused of dogmatism, indoctrination, hubris and so on. This week a colleague sent me a paper on extreme weather which seemed to indicate that this is not the only communication trap that climate change communicators should try to steer around (a bit of an impossibility of course), but that there is another one lurking out there. This one is linked to the communication of uncertainty/certainty but a bit different from the one described above, as it relates to the longstanding and contentious issue of the link between extreme weather events and climate change, most recently debated yet again after the publication of an IPCC report on ‘Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation’ (2011).

Communication loophole

The article I was sent was written by J. M. Wallace and entitled ‘Weather- and climate-related extreme events: teachable moments’ (published in Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical Union; 13 March, 2012). He points out that: “When scientists and science writers insist on framing the narrative about extreme weather events mainly in terms of climate change, they fall into a rhetorical trap. If they claim that heat waves, droughts, floods and storms that qualify as extreme events today will become much more common toward the latter part of this century… their warnings do not convey a sense of urgency because they relate to the statistics of events occurring in the distant future”, and he goes on to say, “[o]n the other hand, if scientists emphasize the contribution of global warming in accounting for the severity of today’s extreme events …., they can be faulted for not being able to provide credible, quantitative measure of just how much it contributes.” The scientists can, in fact, be accused of “crying wolf”. He warns that: “This rhetorical loophole will gradually tighten and close as the impacts of climate change become more pronounced”.

Charting communication challenges

If anybody knows of any other communicative traps, loopholes, roadblocks or nooses whatsoever, please let me know! We might not be able to avoid, close, overcome or escape them, but we would at least have a map and we could steer a better communicative course!

Communicating nevertheless

Despite these obstacles, there is some good and straightforward advice on climate change communication (and the communication of uncertainty) here:

An interdisciplinary group of academics led by Professor Sarah Metcalfe will explore the challenges of ‘Representing and communicating uncertainty: climate change and risk’ in two workshops funded by an AHRC, Science in Culture Exploratory Award (work linked to the University’s Natural Hazards and Disaster Mitigation Working Group).

For further information on the AHRC award please email:

Brigitte Nerlich, Institute for Science and Society, School of Sociology and Social Policy, PI ESRC climate change project

Posted in Climate Change