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Climate science reportage

Sep 15, 2009

Alike its earlier two editions, Reporting on Climate Change: Understanding the Science is a guide written primarily for editors and journalists interested in the subject. Over the years this resource by Environment Law Institute has evolved into a lucid deconstruction of climate change for communicators and educators as well.

Reporting on Climate Change: Understanding the Science

Publisher: Environment Law Institute, 2003

Understanding and communicating effectively on climate change requires a certain comfort level with scientific terms and concepts. And it requires some familiarity with the rigorous scientific methods used to gather data and analyze it.

Climate reportage

Initially intended to help journalists understand and report on the most authoritative scientific findings on climate change, this third edition of the guide has evolved over time as a resource also for formal and informal climate science educators and for other communicators needing a “plain English” grasp of climate science.

This edition has been published with support from the US Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Science. The second edition, published in 2000, was produced with support from the DOE’s Office of Science in cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of Global Programs. The first edition, published in 1995, was produced with support from the NOAA Office of Global Programs.

The guide explains what scientists presently know and don’t know about climate change, the degree of consensus among them, and areas of uncertainty. It is based substantially on the consensus views of leading scientists worldwide as presented in Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis, one of four volumes that make up the Third Assessment Report (TAR) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Reporters can avoid going too far wrong in reporting on climate science by rigorously adhering to a few simple principles:

  • Trust only “peer-reviewed” science - Beware giving too much credence to scientific studies not published in recognised standard journals. Be sceptical of press conferences announcing dramatic scientific findings.
  • Build stories on “consensus” science - Even in controversial issues such as climate science, there are considerable areas of widespread scientific agreement. Take the time to understand the existing context of scientific research and findings in which new findings must be evaluated.
  • Beware when hearing scientific information from non-scientists - Be sceptical of scientific claims and interpretations from groups with an economic or ideological stake in the climate issue, whether from an industry or an environmentalist perspective. Know who funds the research and who pays the salaries, and use that information as one factor in evaluating the weight of a scientist’s credibility.
  • Keep “uncertainty” in perspective - Acknowledging and quantifying uncertainty are often hallmarks of the most responsible scientific studies, and denial of it can be a warning sign.
  • Don’t assume that “balance” is an adequate surrogate for accuracy, fairness, and thoroughness - Don’t assume any “truth” is indelible and not subject to further and future rethinking. Balancing authoritative assessments with opposing, but unreliable, viewpoints can promote misinformation.

Reporters often lack training or a detailed grasp of the underlying physical sciences to evaluate their claims. They may or may not have started out as science writers, but increasingly, they find science an essential ingredient in effective environmental journalism. In the field of climate change, the problem is compounded by the number of
specific scientific disciplines involved.

The authors of the guide believe that if it meets its objectives in honestly and straightforwardly presenting current scientific understandings about climate change to the media, it will prove useful also to others in the business of communicating and of educating.

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