“An unnerving time for the international climate community.”

That’s the term Editor Olive Heffernan used in referring to the past few months in her recent Nature Reports Climate Change column addressing the increasing need for “constructive communication” on climate change.

From the hacked e-mails fiasco to the IPCC blunder on Himalayan glaciers melting by 2035 to questions anew surrounding IPCC research practices and leadership, Heffernan wrote that IPCC “has, of late, suffered some serious blows to its reputation.”

None of which “calls into question the evidence that warming is unequivocal and that human activity is the primary cause,” Heffernan continued. “The end of the IPCC’s exaltation was inevitable. Any organization or individual that is placed on a pedestal will eventually come a cropper.”

A key to salvation, Heffernan offered, is for IPCC to “communicate their results clearly and their message constructively.” That’s all the more difficult, given the current controversies, but critical for the next assessment report due out in 2013. “Scientists could reveal greater uncertainty about the range of possible climate outcomes. At the same time, policymakers and the public will demand greater certainty so that they can plan accordingly.”

Cultural Cognition Emphasis

The issue of effective communications was the focus also of another recent Nature column, this one in print rather than online. Yale University law professor Dan Kahan in that piece wrote of his research in cultural cognition and how it applies.

Cultural cognition “causes people to interpret new evidence in a biased way that reinforces their predispositions,” Kahan wrote, without specifically or solely referring to climate change.

“As a result, groups with opposing values often become more polarized, not less, when exposed to scientifically sound information.”

Addressing climate change, Kahan wrote that “people with individualistic values resist scientific evidence that climate change is a serious threat because they have come to assume that industry-constraining carbon-emission limits are the main solution. They would probably look at the evidence more favorably, however, if made aware that the possible responses to climate change include nuclear power and geoengineering, enterprises that to them symbolize human resourcefulness.” (He did not touch in his essay on the considerable controversy attending both nuclear power and geoengineering.)

Making sure solid information “is vouched for by a diverse set of experts” can be key to reducing public conflict over scientific evidence, Kahan wrote. “People feel that it is safe to consider evidence with an open mind when they know that a knowledgeable member of their cultural community accepts it.”

Kahan called it no “gross simplification” to urge “better marketing” for science. But he cautioned that the goal involves creating “an environment for the public’s open-minded, unbiased consideration of the best available scientific information,” a far shot from seeking public acceptance of a particular conclusion.

He wrote that he is not confident with the approach of simply flooding people “with as much sound data as possible on the assumption that the truth is bound, eventually, to drown out its competitors.” If truth threatens peoples’ cultural values, “then holding their heads under water is likely to harden their resistance and increase their willingness to support alternative arguments, no matter how lacking in evidence.”

The communications hurdles only become greater “if such advocates indulge in partisan rhetoric, ridiculing opponents as corrupt or devoid of reason,” he cautioned.

“This approach encourages citizens to experience scientific debates as contests between warring cultural factions – and to pick sides accordingly.”

The Nature articles came during a period when the Obama administration was reported to be getting cold feet over terms like “cap and trade” and perhaps even “climate change.”

“Obama Likely to Rebrand Climate Bill,” a Congressional Quarterly report headlined on January 27, in anticipation of the President’s State of the Union address. CQ wrote of a need in the administration to emphasize making climate change initiatives more a part of a jobs-creating agenda. It reported that White House energy and climate adviser Carol Browner, in a briefing, “stuck to the ‘jobs’ script and never used the phrase ‘cap and trade.’”

“Experts expect the president also to avoid the cap-and-trade label – which many lawmakers see as a confusing turn-off to voters – in his remarks to the nation, instead framing the plan with the rhetoric of jobs creation,” CQ reported, accurately anticipating pretty much what indeed happened in the President’s lengthy State of the Union address.