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.

In the Middle East and Africa, the challenges are lack of access to scientists, competition with other environmental and economic crises, and undertrained reporters, said Dalia Abdel-Salam, environment editor at Al Ahram Hebdo in Cairo, Egypt. She recently conducted an informal poll of her journalism colleagues in the Middle East and Africa and discovered these conditions: climate change stories get short shrift in Ethiopia as they are not thought to be “sexy;” a lack of interest among top editors and readers as well as a lack of trust in Malawi among journalists and government organizations with data; a lack of climate-change education and experts in Tanzania; a lack of national and regional data and uncooperative sources in Egypt; and, most importantly, a lack of sources, resources, and information in the Arabic language in Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. Abdel-Salam urged reporters to keep their stories about climate change clear and understandable to lay people.

In other parts of the world, reporters literally risk life and limb to cover environmental issues, said James Fahn, the Thailand-based executive director of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network, a non-profit organization that trains journalists in developing countries. Fahn said the journalists he works with in Asia face threats, suffer from violence and have been imprisoned as a result of their work. Onche Odeh, a science reporter at the Daily Independent in Lagos, Nigeria, who is currently in the U.S. on an MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellowship, said he had a good idea for a story about Lake Chad in northeast Nigeria but worried that traveling to the region could involve being “cut up in a religious crisis.”

There is a huge information gap on the topic of climate change and energy, and science literacy is a global problem. In the U.S., a recent scientific survey of 1,001 adults found that four in ten Americans cannot name a fossil fuel, five in ten thinks nuclear energy causes global warming, and six in ten cannot name a renewable energy source, said Jean Johnson of Public Agenda, a non-partisan polling and voter-education organization. But rather than railing against the sorry state of scientific literacy or the failure of U.S. voters to “get it” when it comes to the interrelated issues of climate change and energy, scientists and policymakers should engage citizens more effectively in public discourse, she said.

In developing countries, the information divide may be even worse. “The people most at risk from the impacts of climate change tend to be those who have the least information about it,” said Fahn. His organization has set out to fill that gap, training more than 1,000 journalists in recent years and focusing lately on covering environmental issues in Vietnam. In 2006, there was no coverage at all of climate change in that country, he said. Now, there is a steady rise in coverage with locally sourced material.

Fahn, Abdel-Salam, and Roosevelt stressed the value of local reporting to make climate change relevant and accessible to residents. Fahn recommends finding case studies to bring home the scientific messages, as well as relying on strong graphics, photographs and social media to help tell stories. “Connecting these issues to real people and places is a good point of any improved journalism,” he said.

Climate change in parts of Asia has moved from the back page of newspapers to the front page, Fahn said. “This topic is a lot of gloom and doom, but in the twenty years since I started covering this process, we have made tremendous progress in covering climate change…It’s important to recognize the gains that have been made.”

Editor’s Note: Russell organized and moderated the AAAS symposium on “Covering Global Climate Change and Adaptation from the Ground Up.”

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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.