By Published: Jan. 20, 2019

Scientists can be climate advocates without tarring reputations, CU Boulder researchers contend

When it comes to communicating the science of climate change, who better than a climate scientist to serve as messenger to the public?

There is broad consensus by scientists that the earth’s climate is growing warmer out of proportion to expected historical cycles, caused in significant part by carbon-increasing human technology. And yet, many researchers and scholars with relevant expertise are reluctant to speak out, for fear that they will be tarred as “advocates” rather than objective scientists, at a cost to their reputations or those of their particular disciplines.

boykoff oonk

Max Boykoff and David Oonk

“Scientists are conflicted on the topic of advocacy. On the one hand, they feel a moral obligation to help society deal with important issues, but are simultaneously cautioned that tainting science with bias will undermine the credibility of science,” said Jane Lubchenco, then-president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, two decades ago. 

And that, argue two researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder, may be negatively influencing public awareness and knowledge of the scientific foundations of climate change science.

“When those recoiling from spaces of advocacy for evidence-based climate research are the relevant experts who hold insights for useful and informed commentary, these results show that they perhaps should be viewed as missed opportunities for further public engagement,” write Max Boykoff and David Oonk in December in the journal Climatic Change.

At the same time, they note, some scientists who do speak out may blur the lines between evidence-based science and specific policy outcomes, fanning suspicions among doubters. 

“The relationship between science and policy advocacy is incredibly sticky and fraught,” write Boykoff, associate professor of environmental studies, and Oonk, a graduate student and researcher at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. “Rather than treating advocacy as a vehicle to meet people where they are, some erroneously concoct visions of advocacy as an inappropriate exercise of telling others where this should be.”

Their research is part of a growing community of scholars examining climate communications—that which comes from scientists or from the mass media and is about climate science.

Surveying U.S.-based climate researchers and scholars, and analyzing interviews conducted through a joint effort of “Inside the Greenhouse” (a CU-based initiative to promote multimedia climate change storytelling) and “More Than Scientists” (a community of researchers), Boykoff and Oonk reach several conclusions about scientists’ attitude toward “the unresolved subject” of climate advocacy.

Among their findings:

  • There is broad agreement that climate change is a pressing issue.
  • Women are slightly more likely to see it as a pressing issue.
  • Those in the natural sciences are more likely than those in social-science fields to look askance at advocacy.
  • Those who are more sympathetic to advocacy are more likely to be influenced by the advocacy of someone with a small personal carbon “footprint” than someone with a larger footprint.
  • Younger researchers are more likely to change their own behavior in response to advocacy by a person who boasts a smaller carbon footprint than older scientists.

“You hear ad hominem attacks (on climate-change researchers), ‘We’re not going to listen to you because you have a large carbon footprint,’ or ‘You flew here to this conference,’” Oonk notes. 

“But in conversations with younger scientists, there is a kind of social responsibility or moral responsibility, ‘This is the world we are going to have to live in 10, 20, 30 years in the future. We have a very important role to play. That’s part of our job.’”

Some climate scientists concerned about their academic and public reputations simply go silent. They are hardly alone in their reticence to speak about this complex, politically sensitive topic. A survey by Yale and George Mason universities found that only 13 percent of Americans regularly talk about climate change issues in their lives. 

Reticent climate scientists “are unclear about where they could make useful interventions, and where they are stepping outside of their expertise,” says Boykoff, whose book “Creative (Climate) Communications” is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. “The resulting lack of engagement … comes at a time when engagement on the part of those relevant experts are most needed.”

Part of what we are trying to do is give people little more solid ground to be an advocate for science, information and evidence, without being tagged as plunging into advocacy for particular policy measures."

Boykoff and Oonk say it’s important to make clear that scientists can advocate for the evidence without addressing specific policy prescriptions, such as a carbon tax.

“We have distinguished between advocacy for evidence-based climate science and advocacy for particular policy outcomes, as the conflation of these advocacy approaches has contributed to confusion, individualism, apolitical intellectualism, and restraint,” they write.

“Part of what we are trying to do is give people little more solid ground to be an advocate for science, information and evidence, without being tagged as plunging into advocacy for particular policy measures,” Boykoff says.

They also say scientists must be cognizant of their audiences and how they may be perceived. Oonk cites an example related by climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe during a recent talk at CU Boulder, in which a scientist told her he wanted to go out and talk to “faith communities” about climate change.

“She answered, ‘Start with your own faith community and go from there,’” Oonk says. “The scientist said, ‘Oh no, no, I’m an atheist.’ She told him maybe the faith community is not your place to be advocating and talking.”

And, the researchers acknowledge, not everyone should become an advocate, regardless of their knowledge or passion: “These engagements are not for everyone,” they write. “Some see these endeavors as new and extra burdens on an already demanding job as a climate scientist. Moreover, some climate scientists may simply be bad communicators.”

“We are pretty good as a society in the United States at training scientists to be scientists,” Oonk says. “We’re not as strong at training them to be communicators and advocates.”