Journalists can help the developed world take responsibility for climate change by making it relevant to readers' lives, says David Dickson.
A little more than 30 years ago, a major UN conference on science and technology for development held in Vienna, Austria, ended on an upbeat note with an agreement in principle to set up a US$250-million fund to finance capacity-building projects.
Sadly, the heady optimism among delegates, which I remember vividly, was short lived. No major donations were received and science slipped off the international aid agenda for the next two decades, during which time the gap in scientific capacity between rich and poor nations grew larger.
Is the same happening with climate change?
The latest negotiations, COP 18, ended in Doha, Qatar, earlier this month with a similar agreement to establish a mechanism to transfer money from rich to poor nations to compensate for the "loss and damage" caused by rich countries' addiction to carbon-based fuels.
Judging from media reports, this decision was met with an enthusiasm similar to that at the 1979 Vienna conference.
But there is no binding commitment, and the possibility of significant money becoming available looks remote given that rich nations have so far failed to act on the 2010 promise to raise US$100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing nations cope with climate change.
Bridging the gap
The otherwise disappointing outcome of COP 18 reflects the growing gap between the science and the politics of climate change. While the scientific case for action hardens, the ability politicians to act appropriately — by replacing the soon-to-terminate Kyoto Protocol, for example — appears to be diminishing, creating a scenario for global disaster.
Science communicators in general — and science journalists in particular — have a key role in bridging this gap. We must present scientific evidence to politicians and the public in a way that means such evidence becomes the basis for sound decisions.
But with climate change it's not that simple. One of the biggest challenges has been conveying uncertainty in a way that does justice to the science without undermining the case for action.
So far, it seems we have failed. Despite the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC's) successive reports on the severity of global warming, the number of people in the developed world who acknowledge their own role in the changing climate has been declining sharply. Yet it is precisely these people who are being asked to compensate the developing world.
Uncertain about uncertainty
The IPCC must share some of the blame. A seminar organised in Oxford, United Kingdom, last month by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism heard how, by seeking to project a scientific consensus on the issue, the IPCC has made itself vulnerable to criticism about flaws — however minor — in its arguments, such as those regarding the rate of disappearance of Indian glaciers.
The significance attached to such flaws, as well as the informal discussion among researchers revealed by the 'Climategate' affair at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, has contributed to a growing distrust of climate scientists.
Even the IPCC's own efforts to tackle uncertainty may have misfired.
In an attempt to simplify its message, the panel said in its 2007 assessment that the chances of human-induced global warming were "very likely" — defining this as a probability of at least 90 per cent.
But research by social scientists has found the public to understand "very likely" differently, interpreting it as applying to situations where there is just a 75 per cent probability or less, according to one survey quoted at the Oxford meeting.
And a recent report  based on focus groups made up of members of the UK public found that any admission of uncertainty by scientists — however justified — appeared to throw doubt on the whole scientific case about human-induced global warming.
The challenge for both the IPCC and for science journalists is to simultaneously convey what is known and unknown about climate change, in a way that still makes readers support calls for action.
This will not be achieved by more dramatic headlines (however much these are loved by editors). With public trust of climate scientists on the wane, such headlines can too easily be dismissed as a gimmick to advance a political agenda or to raise funds.
Rather, it means starting with the direct experience of readers (such as the increasing severity of storms in tropical regions), providing the evidence linking these to global warming, weighing this evidence against any counter-evidence, and quoting warnings about how much worse things could get if the predictions of scientists come true.
This combination of "bottom-up" and "top-down" reporting is not widely practised by science journalists, who are far more familiar with the top-down or "deficit model" of science communication.
But it is essential if the gap between climate science and climate policy is to be closed. Otherwise the outcome of the COP 18 meeting, and those that follow it, will become further evidence of the road to hell being paved with good intentions.
David Dickson is a science journalist who has worked on the staffs of Nature, Science and New Scientist, specialising in reporting on science policy. He was the founding director of SciDev.Net 2001–2011.