Communicating climate science
1 August 2011
Despite incredibly strong evidence that our way of life is having a profound impact on our climate, many people still find the subject of climate change confusing. This is why the Met Office is now working to help demystify the science and make the facts accessible to all.
The role of the Met Office in climate change science has always been to tell the facts as precisely as possible, as Professor Julia Slingo, the Met Office's Chief Scientist, explains: "For the general public to understand climate change they need an appreciation of how our climate works - which involves some very complicated science. There is a lot of confusion about what is weather and what is climate. Weather provides the building blocks of climate and climate is just the long-term average of lots of weather. Unless an organisation like the Met Office can make this science more accessible for people, it will always be hard for them to understand how and why our climate is changing."
Without this understanding, it is inevitable that public opinion will be swayed by events such as Climategate - where, in 2009, sceptics claimed climate scientists had manipulated data to support their own arguments. What's more, there is a natural tendency for opinion to be influenced by current or recent weather that is seemingly at odds with a 'warming' climate - such as the particularly cold winters in the UK over the last two years. The net effect is that the real, ongoing, issues behind climate change are confusing and can get sidelined and obscured by more dramatic, headline-grabbing events.
A shift in focus
In the past, much of the communication with the public about climate change has focused on how global temperatures are increasing and how this will affect us in the future. But these concepts are often too remote for people to relate to.
However, in recent years the very real affects of extreme weather have been experienced by millions of people around the world - such as storms, floods and heatwaves. It's by focusing on these events that Met Office scientists can begin to show that climate change is not simply an abstract concept based in the future - but something that affects our lives in the here and now.
"While none of these events can be directly attributed to human-induced climate change, we can say that they are consistent with what we expect to happen as a result of global warming from the increasing greenhouse gases from human activity," says Julia.
The Met Office has been involved in a number of initiatives that take a fresh approach to explaining the facts. These initiatives accept that people learn in different ways and so adapt how the information is presented accordingly. The 'one size fits all' approach no longer measures up.
From detailed websites aimed at businesses and policymakers, to engaging with national events that attract all ages, the Met Office is trialling a variety of media to connect with people from different backgrounds, ages and interests.
As Julia says: "Whatever the medium, we want to help people understand why climate change is happening and what it will mean for all of us. And, by drawing on everyday events, we can show how it is having - or will have - a profound effect on our lives."
Preparing for change
This new approach, of turning the facts into stories people can relate to, is also a great way of communicating with decision makers in governments and businesses - who may not have a scientific background.
"While our role is purely to provide the facts and the science behind climate change, we need to make sure policymakers are fully informed and able to better prepare for the impacts of climate change," explains Julia.
But for Julia, there is a fine balance between building awareness of the risks of climate change and need for action - and not creating inertia by frightening people into thinking there's nothing that can be done.
"There are lots of things we can all do to mitigate the effects of climate change. And it's through better, clearer understanding of the issues that people across the world will be able to take positive action."
Video - what is climate?
This short video explains what climate is, how our climate works and how different factors affect our climate.
Video - what is climate change?
This video looks at the aspects of our climate that are changing and what is causing these changes.