SAN DIEGO—Amidst growing polarization and public confusion over global climate change, there has been plenty of finger pointing about the shortcomings of scientists, politicians, and the media. Critics charge that all these parties have long failed to plainly and clearly communicate the complex science and policy options for dealing with this international issue.

While acknowledging errors on all sides, leading climate researchers and environment reporters speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) here said they were stepping up efforts to effectively explain the abstract science as well as the potential impacts of climate change in different parts of the globe. They agreed on the importance of engaging members of the public by localizing the story and making the issue more concrete and relevant to people’s lives.

“We’re not doing a very good job of translating what we’re doing,” said Ralph Cicerone, president of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., and a pioneering researcher on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. James McCarthy, a Harvard University oceanographer and prominent climate scientist who chairs the AAAS board of directors, agreed: “We are not very good in dealing with the press.”

The two science leaders organized a late-breaking symposium and press briefing on Friday to confront concerns about the possible erosion of public trust in climate science. The erosion of that trust has come after controversies over e-mail exchanges between scientists in the U.S. and the U.K. over global temperature trends (dubbed “Climategate” by some critics) and questions about the review process and accuracy of some information contained in parts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) massive, four-volume 2007 assessment report.

Cicerone and other science leaders stressed that the highly publicized incidents have no significant bearing on the strong, urgent consensus among climate scientists that “climate change is occurring and is caused by humans.” But, he said, “the root of the dispute is access to data,” and the scientific community is working to assure “more access and transparency for research data” and reinforce existing processes to assure scientific integrity.

McCarthy said that ongoing media coverage of the controversies had been a “wake-up call” to the scientific community, which was slow in responding to critics’ charges. “Our institutions are not as nimble as they should be,” he said.

At a Sunday session on media coverage of climate change around the world, McCarthy added that some scientists involved in the recent IPCC flap had not “been sufficiently forthright about the nature of the errors.”

David Dickson, the London-based founding director of SciDev.net, an international news service, agreed, saying, “It is important that scientists have a much better understanding of the media.” Margot Roosevelt, an environment reporter for the Los Angeles Times, said scientists need to engage more actively in the public debate. She said her paper’s environment blog, Greenspace, was frequently barraged with comments—not from scientists, but from climate contrarians campaigning against acceptance of climate change findings.

Panel participants agreed that scientists and environment reporters need to focus more attention on communicating how society might adapt to inevitable changes in Earth’s climate, regardless of future national or international efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

“This is where climate change is really, really going to affect people’s lives,” said McCarthy. “We need to persist with our most creative ways to present that story and help people to prepare for some [impacts] of climate change that cannot be avoided. The choices we are making about mitigation will make a difference. We can make choices that would reduce the change and deal with mitigation or we could have to deal with a much worse situation.”

Higher stakes in Africa, Asia and the Middle East

Environment beat reporters covering climate change face challenges that vary widely. At the Los Angeles Times, environmental coverage is on the decline, with the newspaper in bankruptcy and operating with half the staff it did five years ago, Roosevelt said.

Robin Lloyd and Cristine Russell are freelance science writers. Lloyd is currently on contract as the online editor for Scientific American and was previously a senior editor at LiveScience.com and SPACE.com. Russell is a CJR contributing editor, president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.