By any account, it’s been a challenging 12 months for climate science, for climate scientists, and for the ever-changing face of journalism as its practitioners struggle, or not, to keep their audiences adequately informed and knowledgeable.

From the November 19, 2009, New York Times and Washington Post front-page initial news reports of hacked e-mails from the University of East Anglia (a place up until then unlikely to find itself on American newspaper’s front pages) … to subsequent findings of a silly factual mistake in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment forecasting disappearing Himalayan glaciers just 25 years from now … to the disappointments of last December’s international negotiations in Copenhagen … to data pointing to growing uncertainty and confusion on the climate change issue in the minds of many Americans and their public officials ….

The list could go on, but why bother? It’s been a tough period, notwithstanding repeated subsequent independent investigations finding, by and large, no damage to the underlying science itself.

A tough year. And, no doubt, not the last one. An increasingly challenging political environment promises more interesting times ahead, both for the science and for the scientists who devote their lives to the subject. What’s more, who’s to say the hacked e-mails brouhaha (the term “climategate” only lends it a status and importance it really does not deserve) is the last controversy, or perhaps even the most serious one, to arise in the field?

So what have “they” learned from it all, those scientists who best know the climate change science disciplines and the reporters whose responsibility it is to share and help evaluate their findings?  Will they, scientists and media alike, be better off next time for having had the learning experiences the past year has given them? Are they actually learning the lessons each field could and should learn from those experiences, and putting them to practice?

Those are questions Yale Forum Editor Bud Ward and regular contributor John Wihbey put to leading climate scientists and journalists covering the issue. Their responses are posted separately in a two-part series, dated November 18 and 23, 2010 (see Part 2).

What lessons has the climate science community learned from the experiences of the past year or so?

Anthony J. Broccoli
Professor, Department of Environmental Sciences
Director, Center for Environmental Prediction and Climate and Environmental Change Initiative
Rutgers University
The climate science community was reminded that the policy implications of climate science make it more than just an academic pursuit. As a consequence, higher profile climate scientists may find themselves subjected to a similar level of personal scrutiny as public figures receive. I worry that this will make some scientists more reluctant to interact with policymakers or publicly communicate their science.

Peter H. Gleick [ website ]
President, Pacific Institute
… there is an improved realization of how impossible it is to keep the climate science questions and debates separate from the political and ideological debates. And I hope we’ve learned the importance of communicating accurately and constantly. Being passive in the face of political repression, ideological misuse of science, and policy ignorance moves us in the wrong direction. I would like to think the community has learned that depending on the “honesty” and “impartiality” of journalism is not enough … that without strong input from climate scientists, the wrong stories get reported, with bad information, and ideological bias.

Michael Oppenheimer [ website ]
Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs
Princeton University
I imagine that my colleagues’ views on this are rather diverse, and those I hear from are not necessarily representative. But one conclusion that seems common is the realization that climate science and scientists operate in a fishbowl, whether they stick to basic research or venture into policy applications. Like it or not, we are always “on the record.”

A second conclusion, bizarre as it may seem, is that mistakes like the Himalayan glacier episode have the potential to resemble airplane crashes: in some circumstances, almost perfect is not good enough.

Both of these realizations could have the unfortunate consequence of causing scientists, particularly younger ones, to avoid areas of research, like climate change, which are associated with public controversy due to the political process which parallels the science; or to avoid interacting with government, media, or the general public at all, even to explain the significance of their own research. I have not seen compelling evidence of such a trend but the possibility worries me.

Kerry A. Emanuel [ website ]
Professor of Atmospheric Science
I do not feel I have my “ear to the wall” enough to provide a meaningful answer to this question. I would guess that at the very least everyone will be much more cautious about what they say in e-mail correspondence with other scientists, and that they will be more reluctant to interact with journalists who have behaved on the whole rather badly.

Malcolm K Hughes [ website ]
Regents’ Professor
The University of Arizona
A number of climate scientists have learned that simply trying to do a good, responsible, and honest job of climate research according to established standards of professional conduct can lead to their becoming objects of suspicion, derision, disdain, and even hate. Some have already been subject to this for several years.

Many climate scientists are also learning that this surging assault on their integrity and that of their field is not a coincidence, but is the consequence of organized campaigns of disinformation. These have been originated by ideological, political and economic interests, and amplified by the technique of inciting what can only be described as mob behavior on the Internet and over the airwaves.

As a clearly intended consequence of the organized campaigns of disinformation, this “climate science is a hoax” propaganda has spread widely in the political arena. So, more of us than before fall 2009 have learned that we must work in a very different environment than existed when nobody outside the field cared much about climate science.

Benjamin D. Santer
Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
In the past year, we have seen ample evidence of the activities of powerful “forces of unreason.”

These forces of unreason seek to establish the scientific equivalent of what were once called “no-go” areas in Northern Ireland. Their actions send a clear warning to the scientific community:

This is the new reality of climate science in the 21st century.

Donald J. Wuebbles [ website ]
The Harry E. Preble Professor of Atmospheric Sciences
University of Illinois
1. Be careful with what you write in emails or say over the phone. We all have a tendency to say things that can be misconstrued.

2. We have learned that data access and archival of climate observation and modeling results needs to be better communicated and more transparent. This does not mean the scientists should have to provide every single piece of interim analysis products like the deniers are currently hassling the community for — that is aimed at harassment not science transparency.

3. We acknowledge that occasional mistakes will happen (we are human), but we should aim at eliminating errors from the assessments (not a big issue when one can only find one error of any real significance in almost 3,000 pages of an assessment).

4. We need to strengthen the communication of the science.

5. We should make the expression of uncertainties more transparent.

Richard C. J. Somerville [ website ]
Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Research Professor
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
University of California, San Diego
The climate science community has learned that it is in the cross-hairs of a ruthless disinformation campaign. The campaign is run by economic, political, and ideological interests opposed to many proposed policies that might deal meaningfully with the threat of climate disruption. This disinformation campaign is professional, well-funded, and highly effective. Its purpose is to destroy the credibility of mainstream climate science.

Polling data show that this campaign has already been successful in many ways. The public is confused and distrustful of reputable climate scientists. The public thinks that the science is controversial and does not understand the degree to which the expert community is in agreement on the reality and seriousness of man-made climate change.

John M. Wallace [ website ]
Professor, Atmospheric Sciences
University of Washington
We’ve witnessed the lengths to which political activists will go in an effort to manipulate public opinion. Yet it seems to me that for all its notoriety, “climategate” has had only a very limited impact on public opinion. It may have served to widen the divide between climate change believers and naysayers, but it doesn’t seem to me that it has caused many believers to switch sides.

What lessons should it learn?

Kerry Emanuel
In my somewhat pessimistic view, there is very little a small community of scientists can do when up against a much larger and far better funded disinformation campaign involving a curious, symbiotic relationship between agenda-driven interests and journalists. It is clear that any mis-step, however innocent, or any less-than-tightly-worded statement can and will be used against the climate science community or to further someone’s political agenda.

There are a few concrete steps that I think scientists can and should take:

1. Campaign vigorously and unceasingly to get governments around the world to treat government-funded environmental data as a public good. This used to be the case and is still the case in some civilized countries like the United States, but other countries with a less well developed sense of public interest, such as England and France, hold environmental data as proprietary. This has caused much grief and has tangibly slowed the progress of science. It also played a role in “climategate” by forcing East Anglia scientists to withhold certain data sets that they had acquired under Europe’s unjustified and labyrinth data distribution policies.

2. Recognize that just as certain European governments view themselves more as money-making enterprises than as entities that serve the public interest, journalists are in business to make money, not to serve the public interest. If scientists would learn to speak with journalists with this in mind, rather than treating them as fellow scientists interested primarily in advancing knowledge, then many evils could be avoided. Remember that controversy sells while consensus makes extremely dull copy. Always treat maverick scientists with respect while making it clear that they are indeed mavericks.

3. Recognize that the IPCC process may be reaching the end of its useful life and may even start being counterproductive. It is not likely that the uncertainty in climate projections will be much reduced by adhering to the current paradigm of running ever more complex global climate models, and the desire to have a consensus may be discouraging new approaches.

Anthony J. Broccoli
The community should recognize that having a public face carries additional responsibilities, including the need to not only act properly, but also avoid the appearance of improper behavior. Good scientists have been defamed by having off-the-cuff remarks publicly disclosed.

To avoid future problems of this kind, perhaps scientists who are involved in international assessments should be provided with staffing to help them perform this civic duty efficiently and judiciously without compromising their effectiveness as scientists.

Peter Gleick
Climate scientists must learn that there is a committed band (both organized and unorganized) of climate deniers, with diverse often unclear motivations, determined to do and say anything to confuse the public and policymakers about science in order to avoid the policy debates. Climate scientists must learn that sticking with science and ignoring policy, when the science says something bad is going to happen, does nothing to move policymakers — there MUST be coordinated, consistent, and ongoing communication from climate scientists to the public and policymakers.

I HOPE that the climate science community has learned that we must ensure that our science is good, transparent, adequately reviewed, open source, and not based on ideology. And, of course, I hope that every climate scientist (we’re supposed to be smart, eh?) has learned that e-mails must always be assumed to be completely public!

Michael Oppenheimer
For me, the key lessons of the episodes of the past year are: Healthy skepticism in the media and the general public toward experts is easily manipulated and blown out of proportion by narrow political interests and died-in-the-wool contrarians. That’s the sea we all swim in, so scientists working on important problems that bear implications for policy can’t avoid it.

The only effective weapon against this is for scientists to increase trust by increasing transparency, not only toward their colleagues but toward the general public. Institutions like IPCC need to continually learn from past experience and remake themselves to improve their degree of openness and their overall performance, even when the latter is already exceptional.

Malcolm K. Hughes
It is always vital to improve how we work and how we communicate data, methods, and results. The artificial scandal based on the theft of material from the University of East Anglia has no bearing on this. It is essential that we not be intimidated, seduced, or diverted from doing good science in a careful and deliberative manner.

To this end we need to learn to do a better job of communicating to the public how we actually work and the “rules of the game” under which we operate. Much has been written about data availability, but misapprehensions abound among academic colleagues as well as media professionals. I have been asked the question “why will you people not release your data?” when the data have been available in the public domain for years.

Finally, true friends of science are needed to develop ways of providing support, including legal and media advice, to colleagues under attack from ideological, political, or economic forces. Just as happened with other science unwelcome to powerful interests, the attacks will continue as long as the issues of society’s response to climate change remain unresolved, and we need to learn how to better the practice of science.

Ben Santer
As climate scientists, we have to decide how to deal with this new reality. We can ignore it, and hope that it eventually goes away. We can try to find some “place of refuge,” where (if we are lucky) we may be able to isolate and insulate ourselves from these forces of unreason, and concentrate on our own research. We can remain silent, and hope that our professional societies and funding agencies will defend us, and will defend our ability to conduct research in the public and national interest. We can hope that the media will recognize the crucial importance of “getting the science right,” and will show the same assiduousness in pursuing true understanding of complex climate science issues as they did in reporting on non-existent conspiracies to fool the global population.

Or we can recognize that we have to adapt to this new reality; we can recognize that:

  • Our responsibility to funding agencies and society does not end with the publication of X papers in the peer-reviewed literature;
  • We have a larger, open-ended responsibility to speak truth to power, and to tell the public and policymakers, in plain English, why they should care about the science of climate change, and what this science tells us;
  • We have a responsibility to debunk myths and misconceptions about climate science. We cannot ignore ignorance;
  • We have a responsibility to defend friends and colleagues who are unjustly accused of serious professional misbehaviour;
  • Our ability to do research in the public interest is a precious privilege, not an inalienable right. If we do not fight to retain and protect this privilege, it may be in jeopardy;
  • We do not have the luxury of remaining silent.

Richard Somerville
The climate science community should learn that it is poorly equipped to confront this disinformation campaign. It should recognize that excellent scientific researchers are often poor science communicators. Scientists should realize that IPCC assessments, National Academy of Science reports, and statements by scientific societies often are difficult for non-scientists to read and understand. Scientists should acknowledge that the research community taken as a whole generally lacks communications skills in dealing with media, with the political world, and with the public at large.

Improving this situation will not be easy or quick. The climate science community must understand that it needs to work closely with professionals in communications, media, public relations, and many other fields. It should understand that this close collaboration must be sustained and will be expensive. It should seek financial and political support for this effort.

John M. Wallace
Surviving “climategate” is not enough. Those of us in the scientific community need to learn how to reach across that wide divide to engage our friends and neighbors who are not now and perhaps never will become deeply concerned about climate change for its own sake and convince them to support progressive policies on energy, resources, fresh water, food security, and environmental protection.

And is it moving effectively to put those lessons-learned into practice?

Anthony J. Broccoli
That remains to be seen. Most of us became scientists out of a desire to understand how the world works — and that’s what we’re good at. We’re not always as good at engaging in public discourse.

John M. Wallace
I fear that as long as we continue to use climate change as the sole (or even the main) justification for policy decisions, we never will be able to reach out across that divide to bring many of our friends and neighbors on board. To move forward effectively, I think we need to have a broader discussion of the scientific issues that will have a bearing on national and international policy over the next few decades.

Don Wuebbles
Data access and archival is the subject of a lot of discussion. I have been working with the American Geological Union to see if there should be a special committee, perhaps jointly with other science societies, on this issue. Various government agencies in the U.S. (e.g., NOAA, Department of Energy) and Europe have also been discussing this.

[In addition,] IPCC is putting even stronger attempts into the AR5 assessment [Fifth Assessment Report] to try to prevent errors.

Communication has not only received a lot of discussion, but there is an ever increasing set of analyses on how to do this (e.g., two recent papers / reports on the psychology of climate science). Also, many new efforts and several new organizations are aimed at better communication, including faster better organized, responses to the “scandals”. Several professional organizations, e.g., the American Meteorological Society, AGU, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, are also taking this on as a special activity.

[Finally, there are] several recent papers/reports on representing confidence levels and uncertainties. I am in charge of the chapter for IPCC AR5 that will be considering how to respond for the next assessment.

Peter Gleick
I would love to see some serious effort to improve science reporting in the climate area. Even the best aren’t very good, or consistently good. But there is also growing confusion about what “reporting” actually is, and what venues for climate news still exist.

Michael Oppenheimer
Due to the relative ease of creating access to electronic data bases, a long term trend has been under way toward making data more available to colleagues since long before these episodes; and in several respects, IPCC has progressively “opened up” over time. In other ways, the jury is still out.

Malcolm K. Hughes
I’m aware of scattered efforts but I believe we need urgently to do a better job of preparing young scientists for the new conditions we face. This is a situation where powerful interests seek to discredit climate science and scientists, and where there is an internet mob ready to respond to every incitement.

We need more widespread and systematic training of young scientists on legal and ethical aspects of scientific work — intellectual property, privacy, ethics of authorship and of data exchange, and so on. There should also be widely available training in dealing with the media. Climate scientists in general do a very good job of sharing methods and data but get little credit for this. Somebody’s purported difficulties in getting data may be more newsworthy than the fact that huge volumes of data are freely available, including the great majority of those featured in the anti-climate science propaganda. A much better job needs to be done of making this known.

At the institutional level, IPCC continues to evolve to meet these challenges. One important aspect of the changes IPCC is making concerns the need to respond more flexibly and rapidly when issues of public controversy arise.

Kerry Emanuel
I have no idea.

Richard Somerville
While some individual scientists have clearly taken these lessons to heart, I see very little sign that attitudes in the broad climate science community have changed.