The IPCC’s Media Problem

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Over at Dot Earth, Andrew Revkin has gotten his hands on a couple of documents being sent to the 831 researchers who will be contributing to the fifth assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the report that sums up the state of research on global warming, and which is set to be finalized in 2014. Both have to do with how the scientists who will be working for the UN body should deal with troublesome media.

First is a letter from Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, the IPCC’s chairman. In it Pachauri says that his “sincere advice” is that researchers should “keep a distance from the media,” and refer all questions about their work to the co-chairs of their individual working groups. (The IPCC assessments are divided into three working groups that deal with different parts of climate science.) The second document is a “media guide” for climate researchers put together by Resource Media, a non-profit NGO that has helped publicize the IPCC’s work in the past. (You can see the document here.) In the guide, Resource Media advises researchers on where reporters may be coming from—apparently we tend to be jaded, world-weary, poor and sensitive to criticism—and how to deal with them. The advice ranges from the helpful—if you don’t know the answer to a question, say so—to the goofy: “Be positive.” Especially jarring, though, is a list of words that the guide suggests scientists should avoid using when talking to the media because they may be misunderstood. Now, like any science reporter, I’m all for researchers avoiding unnecessary jargon—of which there is much in climate science. But some of the words to avoid are just, well, strange. Here’s a selection:










(Yes, that’s right. Researchers who are working on what will be the biggest scientific project on the biggest environmental problem in human history are for some reason supposed to avoid the term “ecology.” I guess we should just be glad they didn’t include “climate” and “change” on this list.)

Now it’s obvious why some of the leadership of the IPCC is so worried about the media. The “climategate” controversy and questions over a few errors about the rate of melting in the Himalayan mountains in the IPCC’s last report were too often blown far out of proportion by members of the press—suddenly the bulk of climate science, groundlessly, was being called into question. Pachauri himself had a particularly rough time of it, his integrity attacked by some conservative media. And of course all scientists have legitimate complaints about working with the press. We do tend to be generalists, we are overworked and we too rarely have the time—or the training—to properly put a subject as complex as climate science into an 800-word article or post. (There’s also this, from the IPCC media guide: “A starting reporter can expect to earn about $20,000 to $30,000 a year. A “well-paid” reporter earns about $60,000.” I’m the last person to argue that I’m not underpaid, but it’s a little gauche to point it out, no? Especially the quotes around “well-paid.” That’s just mean.)

But the lesson of “climategate” is not that climate researchers need to pull back into their shell and avoid the media whenever possible. Far from it—as the British civil servant Muir Russell said in his final exoneration of the British scientists involved in “climategate,” science is changing:

Science is no longer done as it were amongst consenting scientists in private, producing scientific papers that only they discussed and only they understood. And instead it becomes part of public debate.

Blogs, skeptics and overworked members of the media are now part of the process. Maybe in another quieter branch of science—entymology?—it would be possible to stay in the ivory tower and never leave. But even if the Internet hadn’t completely changed the nature of the media, climate change is far too important to the future of mankind to be left solely to the experts. What the IPCC researchers will find and what they’ll report will be immensely important to each and every one of us, our children, our children’s children and so on. We all need to be part of this discussion, and far from freezing out the skeptics, going into a huddle will only embolden them, as Revkin points out:

Any instinct to pull back after being burned by the news process is mistaken, to my mind. As  I explained to a roomful of researchers at the National Academy of Sciences last year, in a world of expanding communication options and shrinking specialized media, scientists and their institutions need to help foster clear and open communication more than ever. Clampdowns on press access almost always backfire.

Of course, I’m less optimistic than Revkin about…well, probably just about everything, but specifically about our ability to ever have a reasoned public discourse on something as explosive as climate science. Within hours after Muir Russell’s released his inquiry into “climategate,” it was being picked apart on skeptics’ websites. I don’t know if we can ever come together on this—and I wonder whether the Internet, for all its wonders, has made that even less possible. But that doesn’t release climate scientists from the duty of trying. And putting out a document that outlines the “40 Words You Can’t Say to a Climate Reporter” really doesn’t help matters.