Big Confusion on Climate Science Communication vs. Activism

Posted on Categories Discover Magazine

The Los Angeles Times story about climate scientists fighting back has gotten tons of attention today–but it’s misleading. It combines together multiple activities and makes it sound like they’re centered at the American Geophysical Union. That’s not the case and the AGU has put out a press release to clarify:

An article appearing in the Los Angeles Times, and then picked up by media outlets far and wide, misrepresents the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and a climate science project the AGU is about to relaunch. The project, called Climate Q&A Service, aims simply to provide accurate scientific answers to questions from journalists about climate science.

“In contrast to what has been reported in the LA Times and elsewhere, there is no campaign by AGU against climate skeptics or congressional conservatives,” says Christine McEntee, Executive Director and CEO of the American Geophysical Union. “AGU will continue to provide accurate scientific information on Earth and space topics to inform the general public and to support sound public policy development.”

AGU is the world’s largest, not-for-profit, professional society of Earth and space scientists, with more than 58,000 members in over 135 countries.

“AGU is a scientific society, not an advocacy organization,” says climate scientist and AGU President Michael J. McPhaden. “The organization is committed to promoting scientific discovery and to disseminating to the scientific community, policy makers, the media, and the public, peer-reviewed scientific findings across a broad range of Earth and space sciences.”

AGU initiated a climate science Q&A service for the first time in 2009 to provide accurate scientific information for journalists covering the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. AGU has been working over the past year on how to provide this service once again in association with the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico.

AGU’s Climate Q&A service addresses scientific questions only. It does not involve any commentary on policy. Journalists are able to submit questions via email, and AGU member-volunteers with Ph.D.s in climate science-related fields provide answers via email.

The LA Times has also run a clarification….but without such detail. I certainly took the wrong impression from the article, so I definitely believe such a clarification is necessary.

As we move into an era in which scientists are increasingly called upon to communicate about their research, there will necessarily be different roles and different kinds of initiatives at play, and many ways to contribute. Leading societies like AGU and the American Meteorological Society will play a part as will individual researchers who find themselves in the center of press attention, or asked to testify before Congress.

In the grand scheme, while unfortunate, I also find this confusion by the LA Times rather telling. The Times piece was a classic zeitgeist story that telegraphs an overarching narrative which almost floats above the particular facts. We all know that there are going to be more attacks on climate research, and climate scientists will have to respond. That’s the big story that’s catching journalistic attention–but the LA Times ran too far with it in this case.

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