Climate scientists must engage openly with the media

Rajendra Pachauri giving a media interview Copyright: UNFCCC

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Poor communications, not science, caused the IPCC’s ‘Climategate’ debacle. Despite this, it must keep doors open between journalists and researchers.

Two months ago, climate researchers working on the next global assessment for the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) received a letter from the panel’s chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, outlining how to deal with the media.

He acknowledged that after the recent media interest in the work of the IPCC, researchers are likely to be questioned closely about their work and the IPCC itself. But, speaking about the latter questions, Pachauri continued: "My advice would be that you keep a distance from the media."

After this statement became public — and widely criticised— Pachauri said that he had used "a poor choice of words" that did not reflect IPCC policy. "At a time when the work of climate scientists is undergoing intense scrutiny, it is essential that we promote clear and open communication with the media and the public," he wrote.

But the concerns raised by his initial statement reflect sensitivity about not only the robustness of climate change science, but also the way it is reported — and the close relationship this requires between scientists and journalists.

It is essential that, in tightening up the science, excessive constraints are not placed on communication.

Damage limitation

The sensitivity reflects the damage to the credibility of the panel’s work from last year’s accusations, amplified through the media, that scientists at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom were withholding information they feared might undermine the scientific consensus on the growing threat of global warming.

Those involved in the so-called ‘Climategate’ affair have since been cleared of any scientific misconduct. Various investigations have confirmed that the science underlying the consensus is robust.

But the investigations have also confirmed that some of the scientists’ actions, such as deleting emails that might be subject to freedom of information requests, reflected a lack of openness.

This, together with relatively minor but highly publicised errors in the IPCC reports, has dented the credibility of the IPCC consensus-building process as a whole, and led to the possible rethink in the way that it operates – including its media policy.

Communication is the key

A review panel set up by the InterAcademy Council (IAC) has just published several recommendations on what the IPCC needs to do to restore credibility for its work.

It concludes that the IPPC requires fundamental reforms to its management structure to put its operations on a more robust basis, rather than simply leaving them to the scientific community and part-time appointments.

The IAC also points out that controversies over IPCC findings have largely arisen not from how climate threats were identified, but from how they were communicated.

It makes several suggestions about how to help the media improve coverage of the inevitable uncertainty that surrounds climate change predictions, which is not easy as news organisations prefer to focus on established facts (or challenges to them).

It is relatively straightforward to provide an accurate summary of the raw findings of a scientific paper, particularly if a paper is accompanied by a press release from the journal and/or research institute involved, as is increasingly the case.

More difficult is promoting a balanced interpretation of the findings, as any press release will, almost inevitably, tend to favour the interests of the institution or organisation providing it. This applies to governmental agencies and non-governmental organisations alike.

In-depth contact between journalists and scientists is needed to discuss, and accurately represent, both research findings and their implications.

Gatekeepers could close doors

But the IPCC now appears to be considering ways of increasing control over how its work is interpreted, by policing the links between scientists and journalists. Pachauri may have gone too far in his initial comment. But his clarification — which rather suggests that anything said about the work of the IPCC should come through the IPCC itself — conveys an impression of wariness, if not distrust.

A case in point: when SciDev.Net contributor, Alex Abutu, asked for contact details of African scientists nominated to the IPCC working groups, an IPCC media officer indicated that requests for contact with participating scientists should "come through the media and communications team". And no details would be provided until the scientists concerned had been trained in working with the media.

As Andrew Revkin, a climate change reporter and blogger with the New York Times, has noted, this approach may be effective in the developed world. But in developing countries, which can lack a tradition of institutional support for links between journalists and scientists, it could actually widen the gap between the two, particularly if the media training is not forthcoming.

The IPCC is to be applauded for its determination to take the steps needed to restore its credibility after its experiences of the past year. But in the process it must ensure that it also builds and retains trust between scientists and journalists, and not create obstacles that, however well meaning in principle, could make closer contact between the two more difficult in practice.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net