Google Helping Climate Scientists Become Better Communicators

Written by Rebecca Shaw on . Posted in Learn

Not since the 17th century, when Gallileo proved Coppenicus’s theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun and not the other way around, has there been such a disconnect between the scientific community and the public at large as we see today with climate change. Scientific study after scientific study has shown that climate change is real, and human activity plays a role in the changes we are witnessing around us.

Yet, as the scientific community is coming to a consensus about climate change, the American public is moving in the opposite direction. When it snowed in Washington D.C. last February, stories were pushed out through the Internet, taken up by traditional media, and accepted by the American public and policy makers that a winter storm hitting in winter single-handedly disproved years of scientific research. Although we may laugh, these tactics appear to be highly successful.

Last year, Gallup’s annual update on Americans’ attitudes toward the environment showed a public that, over the last two years, has become less worried about the threat of global warming, less convinced that its effects are already happening, and more likely to believe that scientists themselves are uncertain about its occurrence.

In response to one key question, 48 percent of Americans now believe that the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated, up from 41 percent in 2009 and 31 percent in 1997, when Gallup first asked the question. Those who do not accept the scientific evidence for climate change have done a better job communicating their position and using messages and methods that are understood by the American public.

Clearly, scientists need to do a better job communicating scientific understanding to the American public and policy makers if we are going to make strides in solving the problems that climate change poses. To this end, I am honored to have been selected as one of 21 scientists to be a part of Google’s Science Communication Fellows.

In my role as director of conservation for the Nature Conservancy in California, I have been involved in the climate change discussion in multiple capacities. I have published papers in peer reviewed journals about the impacts of climate change, and I served on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Climate Adaption Advisory Panel and I have testified before Congress about climate change.

But these traditional methods of communication and outreach simply are not sufficient to convince people of what I know to be accurate about climate change. So it is incumbent upon scientists to change how we communicate and the methods that we use to talk about climate change. I am looking forward to learning how to more effectively utilize the new media and technology tools that we now have at our disposal and to sustain broad public interest in and understanding of climate change.

I have seen already how new technology can help scientists do our work in ways that create broader understanding from the public. At The Nature Conservancy, for one example, we used MarineMap to help us locate some of the best spots for protected areas in the ocean. Developed in coordination with UC Santa Barbara and EcoTrust, MarineMap is a website used for open and participatory spatial planning in the marine environment.

I know that I have to grow and continue to learn about emerging technologies, and then link them to how I talk about my expertise in science and climate change. As scientists, we need to reach outside our traditional comfort levels to better communicate scientific evidence. The old methods simply are not working.

Historians may disagree about whether or not Gallileo uttered “and yet it moves” upon leaving his trial where he was forced to recant his findings about the motion of the Earth and Sun, but the sentiment remains today. However, it is we as scientists who must move to embrace new technologies and new methods to talk about our findings. The evidence is clear, but our success in communicating it will be the ultimate judge of whether we succeed or fail.

Rebecca Shaw is the director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in California.

Photo by Flickr user kirainet (Google headquarters)

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About Planet Change

Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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