Clarifying climate change messages

Satellite image of snow-covered UK

Dr Richard Betts, Head of Climate Impacts

Dr Richard Betts

Climate scientists need to take more responsibility about how their work is presented to the public. It is vital in order to explain why a single weather event cannot be used to determine whether global warming is happening.

In early 2010, I gave a talk on climate change in my local village hall in Devon, and not surprisingly I was given a hard time.

In fact, it started two days before that. Cut off from work by the snow (which, incidentally, had been forecast with almost pinpoint accuracy), I was out with the kids and being teased by the other dads.

"Where's all this global warming you're always on about? Ha ha!"

The usual stuff, leading to the usual (somewhat nerdy) discussion on the difference between weather and climate, which was then cut short when one of the children crashed their sledge and asked if we had got that on video to send to a TV show such as You've Been Framed.

Of course, we saw the same comments in some parts of the press, blogs and social media networks such as Twitter, from those who jump on any bit of cold weather to say it proves that global warming is not happening and we're all a bunch of idiots (or worse).

Some basic facts

No matter how many times we say that 'global warming' means a rise of average temperature across the world, decade-by-decade, and not every year being consistently warmer than the last in every place on Earth, there are still those that get this mixed up.

Yes, in 2009 we did have the coldest December in the UK for 14 years and a big freeze in early January 2010; but the UK covers less than half of one thousandth of the Earth's surface.

2009 was actually the sixth warmest year on record as far as global temperatures were concerned, 2010 was the second warmest year on record, after 1998.

The five warmest years were, in ascending order, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2010 and 1998. The last decade, the 2000s, was the warmest on record, followed by the 1990s and then the 1980s - so the world is definitely warming up.

So why do people not seem to understand?

To be fair, people often make the same mistake but in the other direction, and link every heatwave, major flood, drought and famine to global warming. Of course, we know that these things happen anyway, even without climate change - they may happen more often under a warmer climate - but it is wrong to blame climate change for every single event. Climate scientists know this, but still there are people outside of climate science who will claim or imply such things if it helps make the news or generate support for their political or business agenda.

Climate sceptics accuse climate scientists of exaggerating the evidence for human-caused climate change in order to secure their own funding; but actually I think that any vested interests in 'talking up' the problem lie elsewhere.

The focus on climate change is now so huge that everybody seems to need to have some link to climate change if they are to attract attention and funding. Hence the increasing tendency to link everything to climate change - whether scientifically proven or not.

Do climate scientists do enough to counter this?

It's easy to blame the media and I don't intend to make generalisations, but I have had journalists phone me up during an unusually warm spell of weather and ask "is this a result of global warming?". When I say "no, not really, it is just weather", they've thanked me very much and then phoned somebody else, and kept trying until they got someone to say yes it was.

'Talking up' the problem then gives easy ammunition to those who wish to discredit the science. They do not care whether the wrong information came from the scientists or from a second-hand source, they just say (quite rightly) that it's wrong and, therefore, why should they trust other parts of the science.

Climate scientists need to take more responsibility for the communication of their work to avoid this kind of thing. Even if scientists themselves are not blaming everything on climate change, it still reflects badly on us if others do this. We cannot simply say it is everyone else's fault; we need to be very clear about what can be used as evidence for, or against, climate change.

If we do not help the media, non-government organisations and the public to understand this, we have done nothing to stop people getting it wrong.

Long-term, large-scale trends and the overall statistics of extreme weather events can, and should, be part of this evidence base. Individual weather events, from heatwaves to big freezes, cannot be used either to prove or disprove climate change.

If our science is misunderstood and misused, and then turned against us, it really will be a case of We've Been Framed.

Last updated: 27 September 2013