No good climate science communicators out there?

Forget about framing for a second. What about the messengers? Speaking to the BBC's World Service, Jim Hansen bemoans the dearth of good science communicators. Given the context of the interview, I think he's referring specifically to climate science communicators. The entire interview is online, but here's the most interesting comment, which I have transcribed for your immediate edification:

The interviewer,Carrie Gracie, refers to the long history of conflict between science and the political establishment, and asks Hansen: "Do you see yourself as being along a frontline that;s always been there?"

Hansen: Yeah, Actually I think it's become harder to communicate science to the public as science has become more complex and most of the public is not too interested in details of science.

So do have our work cut out for us and unfortunately we don't have, you know, the Carl Sagan-type people who are really good at communicating. That's the last thing I would have expected for myself to be in this position. I am a shy person and I prefer doing science, not talking about it. And that's why after the 1980s I got out of this business of talking publicly entirely after that experience in the late 1980s. I returned to pure science until the last few years when it just became clear that we are close to tipping points and we need to start making that clear to the public.

I hadn't really thought about it, but he could have a point. Sure we've got lots of wonderful science journalists and popularizing scientists when it comes to biology and astronomy. (Our own Carl Zimmer is an example of the former, and we can't forget Neill DeGrasse Tyson for the latter.) But when it comes to climate change, it seems the media turn to Hansen by default.

I appreciate the great work the gang at Real Climate are doing, but it's only a blog, one that sometimes is written too densely for non-experts to follow, with some posts written under pseudonyms. We need a new Carl Sagan, who I am sure would have embraced the subject with all his passionate energy if he were still alive.

(And no, Al Gore doesn't count. As I have learned while giving his slide show, there is a large constituency of Gore-haters out there for whatever reason. We need a scientist turned public communicator, if for no other reason than Hansen is a reluctant volunteer.)


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We need a lot of them, and not just in climatology (although it does seem to have a distinct lack). Popularizers on Sagan's level will be hard to come by, but they're incredibly important. Maybe if universities offered some kind of incentive there'd be more of them, given the number of science blogs there are definitely people who are capable of it.

It seems to me that there is no real career path set up to create such people. Research scientists have to work really-really hard to be able to compete in the research arena. Science writers, are by-an large journalists with usually a laymans understanding of science. Seems like you need someone who is capable of grasping a lot of science at a basic (but non-specialist) level, but also is very good at communicating, and willing to make that a fulltime career. I doubt we have any professional pathways which allow such an individual to make a living.

Well, I can think of a couple of recent books by science journalists that have done a good job with climate science: Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert, and Storm World by SciBlog's own Chris Mooney. But they are both science journalists, so perhaps they make your point. As for scientists - Kerry Emmanuel has a book out, but I haven't read it. (A colleague offered to lend it to me, but I didn't have time to look at it before the semester started.)

bigTom makes a good point. And I might add that the research of climate science is very exciting right now. The value in science is placed on doing hot new research. If you're doing that, what incentive is there to write for the general public?

Actually, I think there are likely to be a few paths. Director of a major planetarium comes to mind. Wasn't that Neal Tyson's path? But aside from a few major museums, I think that career path is closed.

(And no, Al Gore doesn't count. As I have learned while giving his slide show, there is a large constituency of Gore-haters out there for whatever reason. We need a scientist turned public communicator, if for no other reason than Hansen is a reluctant volunteer.)

Well... so it could be Gore's participation in the 2000 elections is like a red flag to a bull for some people. But Gore didn't really participate in the 2000 elections so much as stand in their general vicinity; the Gore who made An Inconvenient Truth doesn't seem to me to much resemble the Gore I saw campaigning in 2000, and the specific people who've mostly come out of the woodwork to denounce him now seem to be responding more to the movie than to any history he might have.

I suspect that anyone who could ever manage to as vocally make a case for the global climate change consensus as Gore has would immediately accumulate a similarly large number of haters. They're attacking the messenger, but they're ultimately doing it because it's the message they hate. Given this I don't think there's any way to package the message that could possibly prevent the mere act of speaking out from provoking a political backlash.

You know, maybe all we really need is for the people who support science to be as organized as the people who oppose it...

I can think of a number of climate and environmental scientists that are terrific communicators on this subject.

The problem, more than anything, is the subject. Carl Sagan (and Neil DeGrasse Tyson) could speak about the wonders of the universe, the possibility of life on other worlds, etc., naturally feeding into the people's sense of hope. Climate scientists are communicating the detrimental impact of people's activity on the planet. The audience is not always interested in the bad news and the associated guilt trip. So while Sagan naturally came across as a dreamer, many of the good communicators of climate science naturally come across as a fearmonger or radical. Just look at how many people classify Jim Hansen, or for that matter, David Suzuki, who is a scientist by training.

The solution for many in the climate and environmental science community is to deliver a message of hope, a message about how we can mobilize our energies to change the world for the better. If you watch one of the many climate change documentaries of the past few years, the scientists with that message are undoubtedly the most popular with the producers, and with the viewers. Delivering that message without watering down the science and the dangers ahead would be hard even for Carl Sagan.

To all concerned,

One reason I retired early from research at EPA years ago was good
science was beginning to be sidetracked for political purposes. In this
case EPA has been completely derailed. I have spent the last four years
of my retirement studying all the data I could find to get to the truth about climate change. I just finished a presentation that shows ample evidence that anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide do not cause global warming. Carbon dioxide has been falsely convicted on circumstantial evidence by a politically selected jury. A just retrial could overturn this conviction before we punish ourselves by trying to control emissions that will have no effect on climate change. You can view the presentation and be your on judge and jury at


Fred H. Haynie
Retired Environmental Scientist