Communication on climate change, a challenge for journalists

December 06, 2018

Communication on climate change, a challenge for journalists

Experts gathered at the Italian university of Ca’ Foscari, in Venice, discussed the role of journalism in divulging information on climate change and its impacts

At a time when the President of the United States Donald Trump publicly rejects the conclusions in the report on climate change produced by his Administration, and television channel CNN decides to broadcast live White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders' fact-checking press conference, it is increasingly obvious that whoever is trying to raise awareness about climate change is facing a huge challenge. 

Explaining forecasts and recommendations

The challenge is very clear to the scientists, journalists and communicators (including the author of this article, Fabio Turone), who took part in the debates at Ca’ Foscari university in Venice – at the invitation of CMCC, Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change – during the conference of the Italian Society for Climate Science.

This is an area in which science provides few certainties and in which we need to learn to live with unpredictability, constantly adjusting forecasts and recommendations, operating in complex, demanding and very delicate contexts that often create the basis for deep incomprehension within the world of journalism and among the general public. 

The confusion often made between weather (with its sudden and at times dramatic variations) and climate, the long-term pattern of weather conditions, fuels incomprehension and misunderstanding, as physicist of the atmosphere Silvia Giacomin – author of “Meteo che scegli, tempo che trovi” (published by Imprimatur) and president of the Italian Climate Network  – explained during the event.

The short video made by a Norwegian television program explains clearly the difference between short-term variations – the distance covered by the little dog on a leash, representing weather – and long-term variations – the distance covered by the man, representing climate 

Training scientists to communicate effectively

This topic, and the constant production of fake news that takes advantage of the complexity of the issue, was at the center of the intervention of Stefano Caserini, professor of climate mitigation at the Polytechnic University of Milan and contributor of a website (Climalteranti) that has been focusing for years on trying to bring clarity to the subject. One of the latest products of this important effort is the Italian translation of the guide “Principles for effective communication and public engagement on climate science. Handbook for Ipcc authors” (now available in English) which aims to provide scientists with useful information on how to become better communicators. The use of a more appropriate terminology and a better knowledge of communication mechanisms are essential tools to avoid misunderstandings and the most common pitfalls, which in the past have often contributed to creating disinformation.

The debate also included the presentation of a specialized journalism book: “Driving scientific research into journalistic report”, written for the European Forest Institute by journalist Elisabetta Tola, a manual on climate and risk communication, aimed mainly to those involved in research who want to learn how to give their effective contribution to the public debate, directly or with the help of journalists and communicators. 

A debate that now shows clearly that the will to accept and agree with the conclusion reached by top scientists does not just depend on a political agenda or ignorance on scientific matters but is also linked to many other factors that need to be observed and assessed carefully. Factors that have led US astronaut Harrison Schmitt to take a strong position against those skeptical about man's landing on the moon – on which he was the last man to set foot in December 1972 – while at the same time rejecting "as a geologist" the role played by human activity in global warming. 

"If people decide to deny the facts of history, science and technology, not much can be done about it. For many of them I just feel sorry for not having been able to educate them”, he said in 2009 in an interview with the New York Times, talking about the Moon landing. Nine years later, during a conference of scientific journalists, the author of that interview asked him if he saw the irony of his position as a climate change denier. Not unexpectedly, Schmitt said he did not see the irony of it

Clearly, the journey ahead is still long, but there are also many initiatives that reward the most significant efforts, including the Best Climate Solution award, created by the CMCC of Venice, which this year looked at climate communication, from journalism to cinema, from gaming to education and training. Each one of the projects selected – which can be found on the web site – offers food for thought for future initiatives.

Climate change and its impact on agricultural production was also an important topic at the Food Sustainability Media Awards  organized by Thomson Reuters Foundation anf the BCFN to reward the best contributions on the subject of food sustainability.