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On Communicating Global Climate Change

Roxana N. Nicolaas Ponder


 The Rise of Global Warming

 Global climate change – a short history
 Scientific Uncertainty vs. Journalistic Certainty
 The science
 The journalism
 International and National Governments
 The Dutch Government
 Post-Normality
 Additional aspects to science
 A New Methodology
 Transcending Boundaries
 Final Remarks
 References
The rise of global warming
Over the past few decades, the concept of anthropogenic climate change has
evolved from a tentative idea to a tenacious fact. Millions - if not billions - of
dollars are spent annually on climate research, adaptation to and mitigation of
global warming, and public campaigns concerning global climate change. The
entire world population is at stake here: if scientific predictions, as depicted in the
media, are right and sea water levels keep rising, the consequences of our actions
are beyond imagination.
The climate change issue is characterized by two major factors: on one
hand the complex nature of the climate, and the enormous number of
stakeholders on the other hand. As a result, this problem requires a novel
approach, one that complements existing methods.
Unfortunately, tackling this problem initiated in the usual way. Starting in
the 70s, climate research developed markedly (Weingart et al. 2000). Meanwhile,
journalists paid more and more attention to climate change, and man-made global
warming in particular. The media focus on dramatic events, as this lies in the
nature of journalism, and try to make the issue as spectacular as possible. This
conduct influences the publics cognition and perception of climate change issues
tremendously (Lowe et al. 2006). The press brought climate change to our
As the public got acquainted with the global warming issue, however
distorted their percepts, they started obliging governments to take action. It was
not until the late 80s that political bodies acknowledged the climate change issue,
and took it into account during meetings (Weingart et al. 2000).
My personal opinion is that governments should have an active, rather than
inactive, stance. Especially concerning complex issues that have large-scale
consequences, governments should act before press or public.

Global climate change – a short history

The science of anthropogenic climate change originated in 1827, when
Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Fourier first recognized the greenhouse effect (Houghton
2005). Some 30 years later, John Tyndall, a British scientist, found that both
carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapor absorb infrared radiation. We experience
this type of radiation as heat.
The first climate model that included greenhouse gases such as water vapor
and CO2 was conceived by the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius in 1896.
Arrhenius calculated that if the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere doubled, the
global temperature would on average increase by 5 to 6° Celsius.
It was not until the 1970s that the scientific community seriously started
investigating anthropogenic global climate change (Weingart et al. 2000). As was -
and still is - normal, scientists published their results at conferences and in
scientific journals, where their results are freely available for both policymakers
and journalists.
As science on global warming developed, media coverage increased in a
way that would be regarded appropriate. In a recent study, Peter Weingart (2000)
and colleagues quantified the relative frequency of attention for global climate
change in the German news magazine Der Spiegel, and compared it to the
relative frequency of attention given to the subject 1) in German scientific
periodicals and 2) by the German parliament.
Until 1987, the parliament paid little to no attention to the climate issue.
Political attention increased since then, marked by the establishment of the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control (IPCC) in 19881. The IPCC was found
by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and by the United Nations
Environmental Programme (UNEP).
After the establishment of the IPCC, media attention on global climate
change increased drastically, resulting in a coverage disproportional to the
scientific and political discourse. Governments are drawn into the climate hype
initiated by the media. In 2004, Hollywood releases one of its first films that
depicts the possible consequences of global climate change, namely The Day
After Tomorrow. Massive campaigns are set up, each trying to convince the public

that global climate change is man-made.
There is indeed at least an illusion of scientific consensus (Oreskes 2004). In
2004, Naomi Oreskes analyzed 928 abstracts, published in peer-reviewed journals
between 1993 and 2003, with the key words “global climate change”. None of the
papers disagreed with the consensus that anthropogenic climate change is real.
The 2004 study of Oreskes is extensively cited in articles favoring scientific
consensus of climate change. As noted earlier, she did not find one in 928 papers
with the keywords 'global climate change' that denied scientific consensus. One
has to bear in mind, however, that journals may loose many readers if they
publish controversial results, and therefore choose not to publish articles that
disagree with the consensus position. In addition, the large number of articles that
do agree with the consensus may also correlate with funding practices.
Then - on July 2, 2006 – atmospheric physicist Dr. Richard S. Lindzen
publishes an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, saying: “Al Gore is wrong. There's no
"consensus" on global warming.” Presently, media don't report on environmental
risks (as much as they used to), but on climate skepticism. Up until now, the
pinnacle of this shift of focus is the BBC documentary “The Great Global Warming
Swindle”, which was broadcasted on March 8, 2007 on the United Kingdom's
Channel 4.
It may be obvious that, over the years, the climate issue evolved into a
problem, and the climate problem has grown to be an immense problem,
involving billions of people and vast amounts of money. In this essay I will try to
get a better understanding of the perspectives of and communications between
some of the relevant parties in the climate problem, namely scientists, journalists,
policymakers, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the public, after which
I will give my own opinion on the state of affairs, and formulate some guidelines
that will facilitate the communication of complex problems.

Scientific uncertainty vs. journalistic certainty

The science
In principle, science can never prove anything.
You can repeat an experiment 10,000 times,
and conclude that something seems very
probable, but you can never be absolutely sure
that the same thing will happen the 10,001st
time. A great help in tackling this problem is
statistics, which determines just how probable
a specific phenomenon is.
The principle is obvious when examining
scientific literature. It is customary - at least in the natural sciences - to provide
confidence intervals with the reported results, which account for the uncertainty
that scientists deal with. It is not without a reason that many scientific articles end
with sentences like: “Our results strongly suggest X, however, more research is
In reference to climate computer models, the uncertainty increases by at
least a factor two. In addition to the uncertainty in the outcome, there is no
certitude regarding the input variables. Putting together this fact, and the
understanding that the output solely depends on the input, one can conclude that
predictions or projections rendered by these models may be a useful tool, but
should by no means be used as the primary method for “understanding,
predicting, and thereby managing global warming”.

The journalism
In utter contrast with the uncertainty experienced and expressed by scientists,
the media have been reporting findings as if they were as true as the Pope's
catholicism (Weingart et al. 2000). The reason for this is not hard to comprehend;
a title such as 'Cure for Cancer Maybe Found' would not attract a lot of readers,
hence the paper will not be sold, the TV-program will not be viewed, and the radio
will be switched to a different channel. Thus, media have to 'translate hypothesis
into certainties' (Weingart et al. 2000).
The most important hypothesis that is now Box 1: Titles of articles concerning
global warming published in Der
commonly accepted by the broad public is that the Spiegel

anthropogenic increase of atmospheric CO2 is 1979: “Tod im Treibhaus”

1980: “In 50 Jahren vorbei”
causing global climate change. A small number of 1981: “Auf dem Weg in die
titles that appeared in the German news magazine Der Spiegel are listed in box
Another criterion for 'good news' is the relevance of the news for the
individual (Hansen 1994; Carvalho 2007). This is conflicting in the climate issue,
as climate timescales encompass periods of time that exceed our individual
lifetimes. The media, however, reduced the climate timescale to a meteorological
timescale, making the climate issue much more associable (Weingart et al. 2000).
A noteworthy aspect of journalism is selection. Subjects and views that
appear in the press are not sought or found randomly. Moreover, journalists select
their own sources, and, within those sources, select what information is passable.
Thus, journalists and editors form a tight selection mechanism, only passing down
information which they find suitable for us, the public.
Previous research as well as his own led Hansen (1994) to conclude that the
images journalists have of their readers is hardly based upon surveys, rather, they
are based upon the journalists' perceived ability. This way, the people do not get
the information they want, but journalists give people what they think the people
Although scientific consensus on the anthropogenic origins of climate
change is indeed strong, a disproportionate amount of light is being shed on
climate skeptics. Apparently, after 40 years of reporting on the risks of climate
change, the media got updated on progress in the scientific community. They
discovered a handful of skeptical scientists that openly doubted the extend to
which the prevailing theories were true. This was novel and controvertible, which
are also criteria for selecting what news to bring (Carvalho 2007).
In a recent study, Anabela Carvalho (2007) points out that 1) not only do the
media give selective attention to those aspects that are novel, controvertible, and
relevant to the individual, and that 2) the amount of media attention focused on
climate change increases, but also that 3) the way in which the news is brought
highly influences public understanding. Often, the seemingly innocent words the
journalist chooses may subconsciously convince the reader or viewer of a fact that
is not actually a fact.
Added up, one can conclude that the public by now must be quite confused:
the scientific consensus that appeared so solid all of the sudden melts away, like
snow in the sun. Indeed, a recent study (Stamm et al. 2000) shows that the media
contribute to the misconceptions the public has regarding global warming. The
same study, however, also pointed out that interpersonal communication as at
least as important as mass media in conveying information. These findings
suggest that a more (inter)personal approach to solving the misconceptions could
be highly effective.

International and National Governments

For unidentified reasons, governments remained unconcerned with the climate
issue until the late 1980s (Weingart et al. 2000). The little attention given to it
mostly focused on short term consequences. It was not until the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was found in 1988 that national
governments from around the world recognized a problem, and include the issue
in their agendas.

The IPCC is a scientific body, consisting of scientists and governments 1. It was set
up by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations
Environmental Programme (UNEP) to provide an objective source of information
for policymakers about 1) the causes of climate change, 2) its potential
environmental and socio-economic consequences and 3) the adaptation and
mitigation options to respond to it.
It must be noted that the IPCC does not carry out research itself, but
assesses the latest scientific, technical and socio-economic literature. Through
extensive literature research, the IPCC produces – among other reports -
Assessment Reports, which describe the current knowledge on climate change.
The fourth and latest Assessment Report was released on November 17, 2007.

Although the IPCC shared the Nobel Peace
Price with Al Gore in 2007, a number of leading
scientists such as Syun-Ichi Akasofu, founding
director of the International Arctic Research
Center (IARC), question the IPCCs modes of
operation. Akasofu accuses the IPCC for not
looking at new evidence, which shows that it's
not CO2 that influences temperature, but
temperature affects atmospheric CO2 levels
(see for instance Pagani et al. 2005; Caillon et
al. 2003). In addition, says Akasofu, the majority of scientists involved in the IPCC
are meteorologists and physicist, rather than climatologists2.
The IPCC based a significant part of their reports on results from computer
modeling. Demeritt (2001) puts forth the IPCCs stance on climate modeling: 'it is
the most credible method for understanding, predicting, and thereby managing
global warming'.
With the use of climate models, scientists try to prove that the rise in
temperature from 1900 onwards is caused by CO2. Models are told that the
warming of the last 100 years is caused by the greenhouse effect, and are then
asked to calculate, based on the input given by scientists, what will happen in the
future. Given the complexity of the earth's climate system, it is impossible to
incorporate each and every factor that influences the climate, and thus build a
fitting model.

Furthermore, the climate models are created by modeling individual factors,
and then combining every individual factor into one big model (Saloranta 2001).
Understanding these models is only possible for a small number of expert
modelers and physicists, therefore, the majority of scientists and policymakers
have to presuppose that the modelers know what they are doing, and are
reporting the whole truth. Moreover, by combining individual models into one big
model, the latter will be prone to ignore any synergetic effects of individual
In addition, many scientists whose work is adopted by the IPCC base their
results on satellite data, rather then so-called proxy data: data collected from
natural recorders of climate variability. Whereas satellite data is available from the
1970s, the entire history of the earth's climate is obtainable from proxy data.
Because satellite data only covers the last 40 years of climate change,
although it may be a valuable tool, by no means it should be used as the most
important information source. Climatology deals with time periods of millions, if
not billions, of years. Compared to that, 40 years is minute.
Surely, the IPCC is an organization that has excellent goals. However, it
may be desirable for the IPCC to review their methods, and bear in mind that
science is negotiation, and provides only provisional theories and answers.

The Dutch Government

The political discourse in the Netherlands started, in accordance with Weingart's
findings, in the late 1980s3. It was not until after 1990 that the Dutch government
actively participated in setting up international and European goals for mitigation
of and adaptation to climate change. The Netherlands Ministry of Housing, Spatial
Planning and the Environment presented the first National Adaptation Strategy in
October 20084.
One of the main goals of the Dutch National Adaptation Strategy is to realize
a behavioral change in governmental institutions, business corporations, societal

3 Available from the VROM website

organizations, and individual citizens5. To achieve this behavioral change, all
parties involved need to become aware of the problem. According to the Dutch
ministry, this can be accomplished by applying active communication strategies,
which should help elucidate climate related risks. Secondly, the ministry hopes to
assure that, based on demand, enough information is available and accessible.
Thirdly, the ministry wants to support the adaptation process by adjusting laws
and customs.
In this essay I will focus on how the government plans to raise awareness on
the climate issue. The ministry wants:
1. to engage in dialogues with the relevant parties, explaining what adaptation
is, what can be done, and why we need to do it;
2. to create a sizable platform for and active participation of the Dutch
population in making the Netherlands climate proof;
3. to provide clarity on who is responsible for what;
4. schools to start focusing on adaptation from primary school onwards;
5. investigate whether it is possible to have insurance companies give people
more money back for water-damages, floods and droughts;
6. to reinforce the image of the Netherlands as a safe and economically
appealing climate to settle.
This approach is tending towards transdisciplinary methods. However, from the
goals stated above it is not clear whether lay expertise will be used for decision-
making. The Dutch governments seeks to clearly inform the Dutch public, and
have them actively engaged in dialogues or at forums, but doesn't explicate
whether these dialogues will be taken into account in the process of policymaking.
I argue that this is what the Dutch government ought to do: listen to what
lay experts have to say. These lay experts may include normal citizens, business
and media representatives, professionals, and other stakeholders. Lewenstein
(2003) canvasses: 'the lay expertise model assumes that local knowledge may be
as relevant to solving a problem as technical knowledge'.
I believe it is important for policymakers to listen to every party involved, as

5 From: Nationale Adaptatiestrategie – de beleidsnota

it is for them that policies are made. Although it is noble of the ministry to want to
inform people clearly and correctly, give them room for dialogue, and have them
actively participate in obtaining common goals, I applaud a lay expertise model,
rather than the contextual model proposed by the ministry.

It is possible to fill 200 pages analyzing and reflecting communication on climate
change, as Arjan Wardekker showed in his Master's thesis. This will not be done
here. Instead, I will shortly consider a new method of approaching complex
problems like global climate change, genetically modified organisms, or disease
An initiative for applying new methods will probably originate in the
scientific community. Politicians are too busy trying to get votes, governments are
too busy solving the ongoing mess, business are busy by definition, and the public
is just not sufficiently informed. Luckily, scientists may find some excellent
partners in nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). (A commendable initiative of
development, humanitarian and nature conservation NGO’s in the Netherlands is
the climate program Hier!, “whose fundamental idea it is to stress the immediate
necessity to implement adaptation projects and initiatives to climate change”6.)
I would like to introduce the notion of post-normal science here, a
methodology conceived by Funtowicz and Ravetz (Saloranta 2001). Post-normal
science acknowledges that science is a social process, and therefore value-laden,
and science deals with uncertainty rather than certainty. I have explained above
that uncertainty lies in the nature of science, so I will only touch upon the social
aspect of science here.

Additional aspects to science

Science and politics exert reciprocal influence on each other; policymakers
demand facts and numbers, where science can only supply hypotheses. Scientists

may even be forced to accommodate their findings so that they suit the political
Science on the other hand requires funding, so the research questions
formulated by scientists are likely to be influenced by the demands of
policymakers (Demeritt 2001). Furthermore, social relations between scientists,
but also between science and politics, play a more important role than ever. As an
example of the former: regarding the climate issue, the so-called James Annen
wager was a point of discussion in the media as well as the scientific community
(Bailey, 2005).

A new methodology
Post-normal science is applicable: whenever high stakes, risks and/or high
uncertainty are involved in a policy-relevant issue (Saloranta 2001). It uses an
extended peer community to take part in scientific problem-solving processes,
involves communication of technical as well as methodological, epistemological
and ethical uncertainty, and is issue-driven rather than based on existing
knowledge and methods.

Transcending boundaries
Post-normal science shows noticeable overlap with transdisciplinary research.
Both recognize the uncertainty and complexity of modern day problems, and
propose methods that transcend traditional boundaries between science,
governments, industry, and social organizations. The fading of these boundaries is
also recognized by Gibbons (2000) in his Mode-2 society.
Three central concepts in transdisciplinary research (TD) are 1)
participation, 2) knowledge integration, and 3) process facilitation. The
stakeholders that engage in the dialogue should be willing and able to participate,
but should also be capable of letting go of their thought frames. Local knowledge
should be combined with scientific and/or technical knowledge; implicit
knowledge is made explicit in transdisciplinary research. Thirdly, TD involves a

mutual learning process, which needs to be facilitated.
TD researchers should have adequate procedures and adequate support,
and transparency is highly desirable. Most important, the management and
facilitation of such processes should be competent and unbiased.
The urge to reduce complexity is a barrier on the way to TD. Another
obstacle is the autonomy of disciplines, and the accompanying 'language barrier'.
Physicists talk a different language than social scientists, and biologists have a
different jargon than psychologists. Ignoring the human longing for certainty,
results of TD are complex and unpredictable. Lastly, the current dominant way of
thinking and acting inside boxes is not useful in TD research.

Final remarks
The goal of this essay was to get a better understanding of communication
between science, media, policymakers and the public concerning the global
climate change issue. I have touched upon the discrepancy between science and
journalism, the former has an uncertain nature, while it lies in the essence of
journalism to present facts, despite the efforts of scientists to be clear about
uncertainty. However, it would be wrong to prevent the media from reporting.
Therefore, it is necessary that the public and other stakeholders are informed
clearly and correctly. As was shown by Keith Stamm (2000), interpersonal
communication proved to be highly effective in conveying information. Therefore,
a more local governmental approach is needed to rectify the misconceptions that
exist. Post-normal science and/or transdisciplinary research will be a helpful tool in
solving this and other complex problems.


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