Communicating climate science - Science and Technology Committee Contents

3  Communicating climate science

27. We set out to examine the routes through which individuals obtain information on climate change, how effective these are and to what extent they are trusted. Scientists, traditional media, the internet and government all play a role in providing information and are trusted to different degrees.

The media

28. James Painter from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism told us that whilst it is not clear to what level media changes opinion, or behaviour, there is agreement that it has a "huge role in setting the agenda for what people talk or think about".[48] He also explained that the media plays a crucial role in public knowledge of science:

    In the specific area of science coverage, most people in the UK get their information from the media, so the way the media report and frame climate change is one significant input into public understanding of the topic.[49]

29. Professor Greg Philo, of the Glasgow University Media Group (GUMG), told us that "the media have an enormous impact on behaviour and belief" and forms "the key source of information, especially the BBC, for what people believe on almost any issue you want to name".[50] With regards to climate change, the GUMG research found that the most referred to single source of information (58%) was TV news, usually the BBC.[51] Dr Shuckburgh found that "TV news was the most cited source of information on climate science".[52] The BIS Public Attitudes to Science 2011 survey found that "people's most regular sources of information on science tend to be traditional media, such as television (54%) and print newspapers (33%)".[53] It also found that people mistrusted how science was presented in the media:

    People also have concerns about the reporting of science. Seven in ten agree that "there is so much conflicting information about science it is difficult to know what to believe" (71%) and that "the media sensationalises science" (70%).

30. The Science Media Centre praised some of the efforts of both newspapers and broadcasters in covering climate change but it stressed that fundamental problems remain with the presentation of climate change as a news topic:

    many of the underlying values remain in newsrooms: the appetite for a scare story, the desire to overstate claims made by one individual, the reluctance to put one alarming story into its wider context, 'journalistic balance' that conveys a divide among experts where there is none.[54]


31. We were interested to understand what shapes the level and tone of media coverage of climate science. We were told that, in science programming, there was always a need for something new, or a new creative approach, to drive coverage.[55] Channel 4 told us that "communicating science by broadcasting is tremendously difficult" and that "if you simplify science, you often make it wrong, so the process of working with science is by degrees much more complex than the process of working with other subject areas".[56]

32. This is also a difficulty when considering news coverage as "often, there is not that much new to report, and that can be a problem".[57] David Jordan, Director of Editorial Policy and Standards for the BBC, told us that "news is about change and things being different" and that climate coverage will be competing with other news stories, including the recession.[58] Editors told us something similar: "the general overarching narrative has not changed that much. It is the same story being told over and over again".[59] The same issue was highlighted by journalists who told us that "you cannot write the same story every day". Catherine Brahic, of the New Scientist, told us that "what matters, is that the public understand that the message is still the same, it is still there, and it is not an issue that has gone away".[60] Mr Jordan, told us that "politicians driving an issue and talking about its importance and policy developments in relation to it will be clearly important to our news agenda".[61] James Randerson, of the Guardian, explained that "from an editor's point of view, if politicians are talking about it, we report it. It gives us something to report, so if politicians are not talking about it there is one fewer source of stories".[62] Professor Philo also emphasised the role of politicians in ensuring a subject receives coverage because politicians "are seen as opinion leaders; they are what media specialists [...] would call primary definers".[63]

33. There is evidence that increased politicisation of the issue has polarised debate in the UK media. James Painter's research suggests that "the presence of politicians espousing some variation of climate scepticism, the existence of organised interests that feed sceptical coverage and partisan media receptive to this message, all play a particularly significant role in explaining the greater prevalence of sceptical voices in the print media of the USA and the UK". [64] On the other side of the argument, when the use, in schools, of Al Gore's documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" was challenged in Court, a High Court Judge considered it to have been prudent that the Government had revised guidance for teachers to highlight nine 'errors' and exaggerations within the film. Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent for the Guardian, told us that "a perception that senior politicians were trying to appeal to a certain part of the populace and had the idea that they could win support by being sceptics [...] has affected the way stories are written in some parts of the press or the media more broadly, and we as journalists have had to grapple with that".[65] The Minister, Greg Barker, echoed this when he told us that "I think it is fair to say that the science has become a bit of a political football, and that is regrettable".[66] Professor Pidgeon was of the view that "the impacts of media reporting on attitudes may be less important than the actions and statements of the elite commentators (politicians, prominent personalities, business and NGOs, and government departments) which prompt that reporting".[67]


34. Submissions to our inquiry commented on a tendency for the media to approach climate science as an argument about two equally valid points of view, rather than discussion about scientific facts, and on the false balance of views being presented as a consequence. Professor Pidgeon questioned whether the "norm of ensuring balanced reporting [...] is appropriate where the scientific evidence is so overwhelming".[68]When questioned about the balance of views in the media, Sir Mark Walport told us that climate change "is not a matter for opinion or belief. It is a matter of fact whether humans are altering the climate or not. There is a correct answer to this question".

35. In his Review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC's coverage of science commissioned by the BBC trust and published in July 2011, Professor Steve Jones, concluded with regard to science coverage: "in general, its output is of high quality".[69] However, he also stated that the BBC"must accept that it is impossible to produce a balance between fact and opinion" and recommended that it take into account "the need to avoid giving undue attention to marginal opinion".[70] Professor Jones highlighted the recent efforts made by the BBC to find a climate sceptic scientists to comment on the publication on the Physical Science Basis for IPCC Fifth Assessment Report as an example of false balance:

    The producers of the recent Today Programme piece on the new IPCC report tried, we are told, more than a dozen qualified climate scientists willing to give an opposing view but could not find a single one (a hint, perhaps, that there is indeed a scientific consensus on global warming). Instead, they gave equal time to a well-known expert and to Australian retired geologist with no background in the field: in my view a classic of "false balance".[71]

36. The continuing discovery of new perspectives on the climate is necessary to keep the issue in the media but novelty also has a downside. Newspapers thrive on controversy.[72] Dr Randerson, from the Guardian, drew our attention to the:

    tendency for news desks to like things that are new and surprising and favour the underdog. A general issue with science reporting is that mavericks tend to get more coverage than perhaps they deserve.[73]

A former environmental editor for the BBC,Richard Black, thought that disproportionate coverage in the media of sceptical views of climate science was because:

    [climate sceptics] have managed to paint themselves as David in a fight with Goliath, which is a very appealing situation. Everyone has some kind of empathy with that. It is not really true, but they have done a very effective piece of image management.[74]

Ros Donald, from Carbon Brief highlighted how editorial decisions may also change the way an article is read: "there may be quite a straight-up report of a scientific paper, but it would be given an outrageous headline that suggests global warming has stopped".[75]


37. The Glasgow University Media Group (GUMG) told us that they found that "the BBC, across media, remains a highly trusted source—it was felt to be the least partial, and most serious about addressing the issues".[76] In many of our written submissions the BBC was specifically praised for a great deal of its coverage[77] but the BBC itself was initially reluctant to provide either written or oral evidence to this inquiry. They justified that reluctance on the grounds that climate change is "a matter of reporting and journalistic inquiry, and one where our strong reputation for independence is paramount".[78] We considered, given the importance of the BBC in the public eye, it was necessary for us to hear from the BBC in public session.

38. Alongside the BBC, we also took evidence from Channel 4 and Sky. Both clearly stated their position on climate change to the Committee. Fiona Ball, from Sky, told us that, as an organisation, it took the view that "climate change is one of the world's greatest challenges" and it had a wide-ranging strategy aimed at "raising awareness and understanding of the impact of climate change".[79] Ralph Lee, from Channel 4, told us "we are past the point where the debate is about whether or not climate change is happening [...] there is massive scientific consensus on that".[80]

39. In contrast, David Jordan, Director of Editorial Policy and Standards for the BBC, was less emphatic on the status of the science, stating that:

    The BBC believes that it has an important role to play in explaining climate science, climate change and global warming, if that is what is happening, to its audiences. All our evidence is that, although we do not have specific evidence of climate change itself, the BBC's audiences expect it to deliver high-quality programming that is informative and educational about science in general and, therefore, about climate change in particular.[81]

Although, later in the evidence session, he seemed less sceptical:

    There are now very few people who say that no global warming is happening and it is not the result of man-made activity, but the debate has moved on to the precise ranges and all sorts of other questions.[82]

40. Earlier in this report we saw that the majority of the public does not have a good understanding of climate change and its causes and a significant number of people would like to be better informed.[83] Despite this, David Jordan believed that there was no lack of understanding among the BBC audience on climate although "that may well have occurred in the early stages of climate science".[84] Given the weight of evidence disputing this, we wrote to David Jordan on this very point, asking him to expand on his evidence for this.[85] His response stated that:

    The BBC does not measure or monitor our audience's level of knowledge about climate change.This would not fall within the BBC's remit and would, in any case, be extremely difficult to quantify.[86]

41. We acknowledge the difficulty for broadcasters in maintaining coverage of climate change when the basic facts are established and the central story remains the same. We consider it vital, however, that they continue to do so.Our greatest concern is about the BBC given the high level of trust the public has in its coverage.It did not convince us that it had a clear understanding of the information needs of its audience and we note its rejection of Professor Jones' recommendations on climate.

42. This is not to say that non-scientists should be excluded from the debate, the BBC has the responsibility to reflect all views and opinions in society and it is worth remembering that not all frauds and mistakes in science have been uncovered by scientists. Where time is available for careful consideration and discussion of the facts, it should be possible to explore more detailed consideration of where the science is less certain, such as how feedback mechanisms and climate sensitivity influence the response of the climate to increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Scientists, politicians, lobbying groups and other interested parties should be heard on this issue but the BBC should be clear on what role its interviewees have and should be careful not to treat lobbying groups as disinterested experts.

43. Lack of appropriate training for news editors may be an issue. The importance of their role was explained by David Jordan who told us "editors of individual programmes (whether news or otherwise) are responsible for fact checking their content before it is aired".[87] Professor Jones raised the issue of training in his review and there have been efforts by the BBC to address the problem.[88] However, we were very surprised to hear that the science training for the BBC provided by the College of Journalism, and introduced at Professor Jones' recommendation, did not include any direct interaction with scientists because "debates about science are approached from a journalistic point of view".[89] It is not clear to us how a 'journalistic point of view' which presumably emphasises accuracy, can be at odds with a scientific approach whose prime objective is the establishment of empirical fact.

44. David Jordan told us that, in the BBC Trust Review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC's coverage of science, Professor Steve Jonesrecommended the BBC "regard climate science as settled in effect and, therefore, it should mean we should not hear from dissenting voices on the science of climate change. We did not agree with that".[90] Professor Jones took issue with David Jordan's assertion and in a submission to our inquiry made it clear that this was a strong misrepresentation of the content of his review:

    Attempts to give a place to anyone, however unqualified, who claims interest can make for false balance: to free publicity for marginal opinions and not to impartiality, but its opposite. [...] Why the BBC remains so obsessed with contrarian views on this subject I do not know.[91]

This lack of distinction within BBC News between proven scientific facts and opinions or beliefs is problematic. The BBC editorial guidelines include guidance on accuracy. These were also referred to by David Jordan in evidence to us. However, these state "accuracy is not simply a matter of getting facts right.If an issue is controversial, relevant opinions as well as facts may need to be considered. When necessary, all the relevant facts and information should also be weighed to get at the truth".[92]

45. The BBC News teams continue to make mistakes in their coverage of climate science by giving opinions and scientific fact the same weight. BBC guidelines have stringent requirements for the coverage of politicians and political parties. For example, any proposal to invite politicians to contribute to non-political output must be referred to the Chief Advisor Politics. The BBC could benefit from applying a similarly stringent approach when interviewing non-experts on controversial scientific topics such as climate change.

46. The BBC uses another rule that works in its coverage of political issues, particularly during elections. The likely or historical electoral success of an individual party determines the coverage of that party and its manifesto proposals thus avoiding false balance. The BBC could reasonably apply similar rules to those representing minority views on scientific issues.

47. We recommend that the BBC should develop clear editorial guidelines for all commentators and presenters on the facts of climate that should be used to challenge statements, from either side of the climate policy debate, that stray too far from the scientific facts. Public service broadcasters should be held to a higher standard than other broadcasters.


48. During our inquiry concerns were raised about inaccurate and misleading reporting of climate science by newspapers. Bob Ward and Naomi Hicks from the Grantham Research Institute were critical of the role played by newspapers:

    much greater damage to the public interest is resulting from inaccurate and misleading coverage by the UK's national newspapers in print and online. In particular, some newspapers are able to exploit the systemic weakness of the self-regulatory system.[93]

James Painter noted the increased coverage of sceptical opinion in the press in both the US and UK and outlined the findings from his research into the drivers for newspapers that include sceptical coverage or opinion:

    It can be to do with the overall political ideology of the newspaper; it can be an editor or proprietor imposing his or her will; it may be that that type of sceptical column appeals particularly to the readership.[94]

49. Concern was expressed about the difference between the accuracy of reporting in news items, which was generally viewed as acceptable, and the frequent inaccuracies seen in some opinion pieces or personal columns. James Painter told us that "many of the uncontested sceptical voices or opinions were to be found in the opinion pages rather than the news pages".[95] Richard Black, former BBC Correspondent, was critical of the coverage in the Mail on Sunday and the regular inaccuracies that appeared:

    This is something that TheMail on Sunday clearly does not have a problem with because it has done it many times before. Complaints have been submitted and mistakes pointed out, and the same thing carries on happening. Whether one wants to see that as part of a polarised or increasingly variegated media landscape, or see it in terms of a political game, depends on how one looks at it.[96]

James Painter told us that despite "lots of evidence that people distinguish between news and opinion" what worried him was the finding in his research that "that there is an awful lot of uncontested sceptical opinion in the opinion pieces and editorials in much of the right-leaning press".[97] Fiona Harvey, Environment Correspondent for the Guardian, told us that this distinction may not exist when reading an article on the internet, as readers could have arrived at a page via many different routes.[98] Lewis Smith, a freelance journalist, explained that there was an inherent bias in newspapers which affected which stories they covered; "it is never going to be delineated as opinion, but in reality it is opinion".[99]

50. Despite two invites, neither the Daily Mail nor the Daily Telegraph were able to attend an evidence session with the Committee. However, they did each, eventually, agree to provide a written submission. This limited engagement contrasted with that of the Guardian, which dedicates a significant amount of effort and resources on their coverage of environmental issues and climate change in particular. The Guardian now has the equivalent of seven full-time journalists covering environment and science;[100] its website also has a climate change FAQ section, which includes short responses that are reviewed by the Met Office.[101] James Randerson explained the reason behind this increase in coverage:

    We took a strategic decision about five years ago that, looking at the swathe of opinion in the scientific literature and the voices of people like the Royal Society and so on, this was a major scientific issue, with potentially profound societal and economic consequences. We felt it was difficult to do that justice through the normal way of covering any other issue, so we took the strategic decision to up the register of our coverage.[102]

51. There would not appear to be a significant difference between papers in their assessment of the science. The Daily Mail told us that "in climate science there is almost universal agreement that the climate is changing, and humans are having some impact on it".[103] The Telegraph's submission stated that "in terms of our editorial policy, it is that the climate is changing, that the reason for that change includes human activity".[104]

52. Differences arise in how they interpret the implications. The Telegraph is of the view that "human ingenuity and adaptability should not be ignored in favour of economically damaging prescriptions", though it failed to provide us with the evidence on which it bases this view.[105] The Mail considers climate science to be a political issue and is of the view "that not every piece of science by every scientist should be reported as fact".[106] This ambiguous view of science may explain the claim in the Mail's submissions that scientists were predicting an ice age 20 years ago. An examination of the scientific knowledge at the time shows that this was clearly not the case, although it was widely and inaccurately reported as such in the media at that time.[107]

53. The Telegraph was clear that it did not see itself as a participant in the debate about climate change. Its sole responsibility was to its readers and "presenting them with a compelling daily package of news and features that they are happy to pay for".[108] Both newspapers relied on their readership to distinguish between factual news reporting and commentary by columnists and absolved themselves of any responsibility for the content of opinion columns. The Telegraph told us "we report information, and rely on our commentators to interpret it."[109]The Mail also made a clear distinction between its own views and those set out in opinion pieces, telling us their readers are "very familiar with the way it reports news and comment".[110]

54. We are very disappointed by the heavy reliance that the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph place on the ability of their readers to distinguish between fact and opinion on climate science. This is especially the case because opinion pieces about climate science in these publications are frequently based on factual inaccuracies which go unchallenged.


55. The Glasgow University Media Group study found that, after traditional media, the internet was cited most (19%) when respondents were asked specifically about further sources of information used.[111] Dr Burch, from the Science Museum, emphasised the potential for using "multiple routes for multiple audiences in order to communicate and engage around this issue".[112] The Met Office told us of "a need and appetite for increased and informative communication on climate change" and pointed to their website traffic and engagement with social media as evidence for this.[113] Lord Deben, Chair of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), told us the internet is an important form of communication for the CCC.[114] Both the Committee on Climate Change and the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) highlighted their use of Twitter as a means of communication;[115] DECC specifically mentioned its use in quickly "responding to factual errors".[116]

56. In a written submission, Dr Phillip Bratby, told us of the level of trust he and other members of the public who are sceptical about climate change have in the internet as a source of information:

    Most members of the public who have an interest in "climate change" get their information from widely trusted internet websites and a few independent media correspondents who do not have vested interests and tell the truth.[117]

Andrew Montford, himself a source for sceptics on the internet,[118] concluded that some become climate sceptics because they "realise that the [traditional] media is only telling them the environmentalist side of the story, which again makes them suspicious".[119]

57. Catherine Brahic, of the New Scientist magazine, explained that the internet was often a forum for debate and that "climate change articles, especially anything that relates to politics, get a huge amount of comments".[120] She cautioned against reading comment threads and taking them"as a representation of the public views at large. They tend to be the views of people who have very strong opinions".[121] James Randerson confirmed the level of interest, telling us that people were "very interested in these topics, and they tend to do very well online".[122]

58. The Grantham Research Institute highlighted how the internet, by its very nature, allows for inaccurate information to be rapidly absorbed into the mainstream debate:

    the primary way in which climate change 'sceptics' damage the public interest is through the spread of inaccurate and misleading material via websites to sympathetic journalists in the mainstream media, creating an 'echo chamber of climate change denial.[123]

We would expect a topical and policy relevant scientific topic such as climate change to merit an obvious online presence from the Government aimed at communicating the science to the public clearly and consistently.It was therefore disappointing to find that, despite claims from the Government and organisations such as the Met Office that they increasingly use online means to communicate, there is little evidence of any significant activity to support these statements.

59. The internet and social media are increasingly used by the public when seeking to verify media reports or obtain further detailed information about climate change. TheGovernment and other trusted bodiesare currently failing to make effective use of internet or social media to engage with the public and provide accurate scientific information about climate change.


60. We received evidence from Government Departments and from non-departmental bodies such as the Environment Agency, the Met Office and the Committee on Climate Change. These are the bodies and organisations that should be interpreting the science and putting in place an effective, evidence-based policy response. If the resultant policies are to gain public support, the Government and its agencies need to properly articulate the science supporting them.

61. In its submission to us the Government stated that "it is essential to have a simple, clear evidence-based narrative about climate change, its causes and likely impacts in the public domain and regularly reported in the media".[124] However, in oral evidence to us, both Lord Deben and Fiona Harvey told us that, in their view, this was lacking.[125] Professor Slingo, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Met Office, told us that there is still "quite a lot of work to do to create these narratives that people can relate to. That is where it is not just about the climate science, but the translation of that and what its implications are, and then taking it down to the local level"[126] and cautioned against "having too many multiple voices with different messages".[127] The Royal Academy of Engineering was of the view that "consistency across government departments and policies is particularly important".[128] Mr Paul Crick, Director of Planning and Environment at Kent County Council, expressed his frustration with the lack of clear messaging from the Government:

    Clear messages from trusted sources are what win public support. It does not help, when their national adaptation programme is soft launched, that things like the feed­in tariffs are changed and business cases that we previously had for solar panel installations that had a payback of three to five years all of a sudden have a payback of eight years plus. [129]

He concluded that there is currently a "conflicting message" coming from central Government when it should be about"consistency, clear messaging and consistent policy".[130] David Kennedy, Chief Executive of the Committee on Climate Change told us "someone needs to take charge of the story" and "we can provide a story, and we aim to do that [...] but in terms of cascading and multiplying that narrative there has to be an important role for the Government. There is more that both central and local government can do once there is a story".[131]We consider the lack of a narrative strongly reflects a lack leadership in climate change.

62. The public expects clear leadership from Government. Professor Pidgeon told us that people want Government to take a lead.[132] Local authorities told us that in the public's view climate change is a problem that is too big to address at a local level and "it is for national Government to decide or take leadership on",[133] that "what regularly comes up when we are talking to the public is that the roles of local and central Government need better clarification and communication".[134] Katie Stead from Kirklees Council told us that their surveys "show almost 100% of people agreed that they had a part to play in terms of an impact on climate change"but they were looking for a lead on exactly what to do from local and central Government.[135]


63. There has been internal wrangling amongst Ministers and a lack of clarity about what Government considers the climate science to show; all of which have been widely reported. Most recently the Rt Hon Edward Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, referring in a speech to Conservative politicians, criticised those "seizing on any anomaly in the climate data to attempt to discredit the whole".[136] He was of the view that "it [undermines] public trust in the scientific evidence for climate change—which is of course overwhelming" and concluded that "we can see around us today the possible consequences of a world in which extreme weather events are much more likely".[137]The Evening Standard published a response to this from the Minister of State for Business and Energy, the Rt Hon Michael Fallon MP, who was quoted as saying that "unthinking climate change worship has damaged British industry and put up consumer bills".[138]These comments were subsequently widely reported in the press.That coverage contrasts with media claims that Owen Paterson MP, Secretary of State of for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, whose department has responsibility for climate change adaptation, is less engaged with the climate agenda and may even doubt the need for action on climate change.[139]

64. The lack of clear, consistent messages from Government has a detrimental impact on the public's trust in sources of information on climate science. This was highlighted as an issue by many witnesses, as discussed earlier.[140] It also, as we have seen, has an effect on the quantity and tone of media coverage of the science.[141]

65. The Minister, Greg Barker, told us that previous Government efforts to communicate with the public about climate science, in particular the "Act on CO2 Campaign", had not been successful. A reduction in available funding had also had an impact on departmental activity.[142]The Minister mentioned initiatives such as the 2050 Calculator, a toolkitfor school, an energy road show and the use of social media but admitted that the Department's efforts were "a work in progress".[143] He told us that in his view no Government had got it right.[144] The 2050 calculator was only mentioned in one other submission to our inquiry.[145]

66. More recently the focus within Government has shifted. Professor MacKay, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, stressed to us that one of the Government's principal roles in communication was to fund climate scientists and to "support those scientists in communicating the science themselves to policymakers and the general public".[146] Sir Mark Walport, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, was of the view that as "many people as are competent to deliver the message do so".[147]

67. The Minister also told us that, when it comes to communicating about climate science, "there is an underlying strategy and a clear acceptance of our respective responsibilities".[148] However, Professor MacKay described this as a "process" rather than a communication strategy which consisted of "having roughly monthly meetings to co-ordinate DECC, the Met Office and others".[149] The lack of a proper strategy was illustrated by the response from John Hirst, Chief Executive of the Met Office, who, when asked for details of what happened within Government at a strategic level to co-ordinate communication about climate science, told us:

    That is a question that is difficult for me to answer because I do not have a role or an influence on the strategic communications of climate science on behalf of the Government.[150]

Professor MacKay told us that the Met Office was one of the organisations DECC regularly met with to coordinate a "comms strategy".[151] There is very little evidence that this is being translated into any kind of effective strategy for communicating to the public.


68. The Met Office is the UK's National Weather Service. It falls under the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and operates on a commercial basis. The Met Office Hadley Centre, set up in 1990, is funded by DECC and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). The purpose of the programme is to "provide up-to-date, robust and traceable scientific evidence to government on climate variability and climate change".[152] In its submission the Met Office told us it was focused on the needs of decision makers and their science was not, therefore, specifically aimed at the public.[153]

69. The Met Office does however already devote some effort to communicating climate science to the public, despite not having a specific mandate to do so.[154] In its view, there is "both a need and appetite for increased and informative communication on climate change that allows the public to increase their understanding of the issues, the basic science, and the latest challenges of climate change research".[155] Mr Hirst, told us "we would welcome a greater responsibility for communication of science".[156] The Met Office also provided us with evidence of the traffic on their website between 2011 and August 2013, with over 700, 000 visits to their climate pages and over 90,000 visits to climate posts in 2012.[157] They also had, in March 2014, 200,760 followers on Twitter.

70. We asked what preparation the Met Office had made for the publication of the first part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report (IPCC AR5). We were told there were a whole series of efforts planned, including briefing several key organisations.[158] After publication of IPCC AR5 we were able to find only a single web page on the AR5 report and two blog posts, and three messages on Twitter, one of which linked to the Met Office webpage.There have been some belated updates to the website and, while the information aimed at the public is now better than at the time of the publication of the report, it was disappointing, initially to find so little information with limited efforts to make it engaging to a lay audience.

71. The Met Office is an organisation seeking to have a greater role in the communication of climate science. As such we would have liked to have seen greater effort to communicate to the public on the publication of the IPCC AR5 report. It should have been more timely with information that should be far more accessible to the public at large.


72. The Environment Agency told us that, with regards to climate change, it focused on priority risks and sectors in the National Adaptation Plan and therefore its service was aimed at organisations and businesses rather than the general public. However, it also worked with partners to help the public and communities understand their risk of flooding.[159]

73. The Environment Agency has found that audiences are usually interested in climate change only to the extent that it affects their direct interests and have concluded that it is more productive to focus on impacts such as flooding or drought. It does not tend to talk about the science[160] and has found that"it can also be effective to focus on adaptation actions (solutions) rather than climate (uncertain problems). In many cases, no or low-regret actions can be taken that make sense regardless of future climate".[161]The Agency has also found that "using more active language, such as 'adapting to a changing climate' and being 'Climate Ready' helps audiences to move on from the idea of climate change being remote and something they need to believe in, to needing to take action now".[162]

74. Whilst we accept that the Agency's focus is on adaptation and resilience to climate change we are disappointed to see the limited value placed by the Agency on communicating the wider context.That this may be counterproductive in the long term was illustrated by some of the reaction to the extreme winter rain recently experienced in the UK and the resulting criticisms of the Agency's work on flood prevention.[163] We note that the trust that the Environment Agency believed it had achieved on the risk of flooding may have been damaged.


75. The Committee on Climate Change's (CCC) role is to advise the Government on meeting its carbon targets and monitoring progress in doing this. The CCC told us that whilst public understanding was not directly a matter it took into account it is an important consideration in its work.[164] Under the Climate Change Act 2008, the CCC "must have regard to the desirability of involving the public in the exercise of its functions". The Chair of the CCC, Lord Deben, told us of his aim of involving the public more.[165] However, he was reluctant to accept any significant extension of the CCC's work in communicating science, instead viewing its role as enabling others to do so.[166] The CCC was also critical of the Government's efforts:

    The Government has not succeeded in presenting a compelling narrative to the public over the need for action, and the components of an effective response. It has at times been alarmist, and has given mixed messages.[167]

David Kennedy, Chief Executive of the CCC, also highlighted the failure to provide a narrative "I think there is a sense in the Government that we have moved on and we do not need a narrative any more" because the Government's view was that it was already delivering a policy response.[168]


76. The requirement for Local Authorities to report on progress on meeting climate targets has been abolished. However, most continue to work in this area. As a result many local authorities are involved in communication about climate change at a local level.

77. We heard from Kirklees Council, which has been engaging with the public for the last ten years to reduce domestic carbon emissions and tackle climate change with a strong focus on improving energy efficiency in its area. It now has plans to stimulate a local green economy and create jobs.[169] We also heard from Kent County Council, which focuses on coastal flooding and the impacts of severe weather and is committed to taking action to address climate change.[170]Both are members of the Local Government Association's Climate Local Initiative.[171]

78. Paul Crick, of Kent County Council, told us that his council saw its actions to address climate change as part of its local leadership role and part of the Kent Environment Strategy.[172] Katie Stead, Environment Officer at Kirklees Council, told us how the messages her council used to engage the public had changed over time. They now focused on those with more direct resonance such as "how to save money on their fuel bills and how to improve their health and wellbeing by providing more affordable warmth and comfort in their homes".[173] Local authorities use multiple avenues to communicate and their experience demonstrates that people are motivated to take action. Financial benefits alone are unlikely to drive behaviour change.[174] They have found that "tackling areas street by street is incredibly powerful in stimulating uptake by word of mouth and seeing neighbours take up an offer".[175] Kent County Council found many residents "citing uncertainty as a reason not to take action".[176] Successful tools in communication included focusing on outcome, keeping information local to make it relevant, and identifying actions for communities which ensured climate change was seen as more of a challenge than a threat.[177]

79. We heard from Government, government agencies and bodies at national and local levels working at engaging with the public on mitigating and adapting to climate change. We found little evidence of any significant co-ordination amongst them to communicate the science.Neither is there any indication that the Government is regarded as a primary, or even a reliable, source of information on climate science by the general public.


80. The Glasgow University Media Group told us that the public had a high level of trust in scientists, academics and other experts.[178] This was supported by the findings of an Ipsos Mori poll from 2012 which found that scientists would be trusted by 66% of respondents if they were giving views on climate change. There was relatively little trust in other sources of information, including journalists and politicians and the poll found that 15% of respondents said they would not trust anyone.[179] The Government also emphasised trust in scientists in its written submission, referring to a Carbon Brief poll which found that 69% of respondents thought scientists and meteorologists were very (20%) or quite (49%) trustworthy "in providing accurate information about climate change".[180] Tom Sheldon from the Science Media Centre told us:

    Trust in science is routinely so high because science is not led by an agenda; it is neutral. Climate data tell a very important story that needs to be heard, but the evidence itself is politically and socially neutral. Scientists need to communicate that.[181]

81. Communicating research findings is, increasingly, seen as an integral part of a scientist's role. Sir Mark Walport, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, told us "I do not think that scientific research is complete until the results are communicated. Part of that communication is communication to the general public as well as to the specialist audiences that scientists normally communicate with".[182]Dr Emily Shuckburgh's research indicated that while "many of the participants [in her study about communicating climate] found it difficult to relate to scientists [...] nevertheless many felt it is important to hear directly from the people who are doing the research".[183]

82. This level of trust in scientists is not reflected among those sceptical about the science. Many submissions to the Committee from individual members of the public express views such as:

    Scientific and engineering institutions are not trusted because of their perception as Government propagandists being funded by Government (he who pays the piper calls the tune).[184]

Andrew Montford, author of a blog "with a focus on dissenting opinion in the climate and energy debate"[185], when asked about his trusted sources on climate, responded "it is probably nobody really. You have to verify everything. Peer review is completely overdone".[186] We cannot agree with this contention as we made clear in our report Peer review in scientific publications, in which we concluded that peer review was "crucial to the reputation and reliability of scientific research".[187] Nick Pidgeon summarised the concerns often expressed by those who are sceptical:

    People who are sceptical about climate change—there are about 15% you could define currently amongst the UK population—said three things. They said the point about, "You couldn't trust the scientists." The second group said, "No, it's all natural cycles," and actually there is a sense in which that is not entirely untrue, because climate change is a combination of natural and anthropogenic forcings. The third thing was, "Actually, this is a get up job because the Government wants to tax us more."[188]

Professor Chris Rapley told us that "for those who have formed an opinion that they do not accept the premise, lack of trust in the science community is a key rationalising factor".[189]Greg Barker MP, Minister for Climate Change, told us that the approach to those who are sceptical should be to "listen to their views and treat them with respect, but we should not let the views of a relatively small minority dominate the whole agenda".[190]

83. We were interested in how trust in climate scientists may have been compromised by the "Climategate" story surrounding the disclosure of climate data from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in 2010.[191]In our inquiry into the matter, we concluded then that "climate science is a matter of global importance and of public interest, and therefore the quality and transparency of the science should be irreproachable".[192] Needless to say this still applies, so it was reassuring to hear from Professor Sutton that the leak of the UEA e-mails and subsequent reviews has stimulated "debate about how to make climate science more open".[193] Professor Slingo also commented that there was much more openness about the science as a result:

    Scientists have never been secretive, but what we clearly did not understand was that, in a situation as important as dealing with climate change, this whole business of openness, transparency, open data wherever possible, was critically important.[194]

84. With respect to the impact on the public trust in climate scientists, the Glasgow University Media Groups told us that, in their research, "individual stories disappear. Even with Climategate, nobody raised that with us. The only people who even remembered it vaguely were those in East Anglia. The e-mails were from their local university and they remembered it for that reason. Nobody else had any recollection of it".[195]

85. The science community has recognised that it is important that scientists themselves communicate science, particularly climate science.[196] Media training, such as that now offered by the IPCC to contributing authors, is one way to address this[197] but engaging with the media is time consuming and it can interfere with scientists' core business of research.[198]Professor Rowan Sutton, Director of Climate Research at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, told us that "there is not an understanding across the board about the need to communicate effectively".[199]

86. Climate science is an area of both relevance and interest to the public and scientists are the most trusted source of information on this subject. It is, therefore, especially important that every effort is made by all publicly funded scientists working in this area to actively engage with the public, either directly or through the media. It must also be recognised that there is a minority of the public who in all likelihood will never trust anyone on climate science.


87. We received submissions from The Geological Society, The Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Meteorological Society. The Royal Society, despite initially declining to formally respond to the inquiry, provided us with both written and oral evidence and we were grateful for the intervention the Society's president, Sir Paul Nurse, on this. The Royal Academy of Engineering told us that learned bodies had a role in ensuring there was a consistent message about climate science:

    What is vital, but challenging, is a consistent message from all parties that does not shy away from these difficulties and uncertainties. Government, industry, academia and learned bodies all have a role to play in providing the public with a coherent message.[200]

88. The written submission from the Royal Society was not as extensive as we expected. However, it did highlight its role in "providing independent and authoritative scientific advice to UK, European and international decision makers".[201] The Society also told us that it worked on a wide range of issues related to climate science "with a particular emphasis on communicating accurately the most up-to-date science to non-specialist audiences".[202] Professor John Pethica, speaking on behalf of the Royal Society, agreed that, as a body in receipt of public funds, it had an obligation to communicate to the public about climate science.[203] We found it difficult to establish evidence of this activity. The Royal Society'sjoint publication ofClimate Change Evidence & Causes[204]on 27 February 2014 with the US National Academy of Sciences,was its first publication on climate science since the publication, in 2010, of Climate Change: a summary of the science[205]and, though it has held several scientific conferences since then on various aspects of climate science and participated in a briefing event to parliamentarians, the Society has not held any public event on climate science. The last event with any relation to climate was held nearly three years ago, in March 2011,which focused on carbon storage.[206]

89. The Royal Society receives the majority of its funding, £47.1 million a year, from the Government. Block 2 of its delivery plan up to 2015 is for Science Communication and Education but, of the £515,000 a year allocated to science communication since 2011, very little appears to have been spent on communicating on climate science.[207] The public profile the Society has on this issue is due to the ongoing debate about climate science taking place directly between Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, and Lord Lawson from the Global Warming Policy foundation. This debate has been widely reported in the press.[208]

90. Sir Paul Nurse has very publicly engaged with prominent climate sceptics in the past.But the same is not true of the Royal Society as a whole. The launch of its joint report with the US National Academy of Sciences could have been used better to promote and communicate accurately the most up-to-date science to a non-specialist audience.

91. The Royal Society is a publicly funded body with a responsibility to communicate about science. We encourage it to step up to that responsibility.


92. As a Committee we have always been of the vital importance of science in informing evidence based policy. However, in the case of climate change, discussion and disagreement about the policy response have become disagreements about the validity of the science. This difficulty in separating discussions about the science, which is a factual debate, from discussions about the appropriate policy response, which is a matter of judgement, was referred to by witnesses. This is of particular concern for scientists, who are wary of being drawn into areas outside their expertise. As Professor Sutton told us:

    Sometimes scientists can be drawn in to comment on things that, frankly, they should not comment on, because an interview goes in that direction.[209]

93. Professor Tim Palmer, from the Royal Meteorological Society, said that it was important for scientists to focus on the science when talking about climate change:

    As a scientist I try to separate [how science will affect society] from the science issues, especially when speaking in public. I believe that the public's confidence in climate science and climate scientists may increase if it is felt that the scientists can take a mostly disinterested view on climate policy.[210]

94. We were told that "confusion between the science and the politics bedevils the public dialogue" and that "the profound policy implications of climate change mean that public discussion often constitutes policy debate masquerading as science". [211]ClimateXChange, the research group that advises the Scottish Government on climate change issues, told us why, in their view, communicating about climate change had become so complicated:

    Climate change is a politicised debate involving conflicting interests and challenging societal and individual habits. The discourse on climate change is complicated by difficulties in communication between science, policy, the media and the public. There is space for miscommunication, resistance and politicisation at any stage of the discourse.[212]

Carbon Brief highlighted how this confusion is reflected in media coverage: "rapid jumps between detailed scientific specifics, broad scientific conclusions and pundits or politicians arguing about climate policy are unlikely to increase understanding in audiences".[213]RCUK wrote that "whilst most publicly-funded climate scientists will acknowledge that their research is relevant to society, engaging in what can often be a challenging dialogue about controversial issues can be a daunting task".[214]

95. The National Centre for Atmospheric Science indicated that this did not mean that scientists had no role in the policy discussion, "it is not the role of publicly funded climate scientists to advocate any specific policy responses, but it is part of our role to explain the likely or potential consequences of alternative policy choices, based on current scientific understanding".[215] Professor Sutton, told us that scientists should be involved in "explaining, on the basis of the available evidence, the potential consequences of different policy choices. That is very different, of course, from advocating any particular policy".[216] Professor John Womersley, Champion for RCUK Public Engagement with Research, expressed similar views: "I think it is completely appropriate for scientists to become involved in the public policy debate, if they wish to, to make sure that that debate remains evidence-based, but it is not mandatory".[217] Professor Palmer, was more cautious and expressed the view that scientists should simply present the science and allow politicians to discuss its relevance to policy.[218]

96. The politicisation of climate science has made it extremely difficult to discuss the science without becoming involved in climate politics. This makes a dispassionate assessment of new climate data extremely difficult. The communication of these findings can be subject to politicisation before their implications are fully understood. This heightened political context makes scientific progress or debate very difficult.

48  James Painter, Ev 157,para 11 Back

49  Ibid para 12 Back

50   Q25 Back

51   UK Energy Research Centre, UKERC Project Final Report, Climate change and energy security, December 2012, p8 Back

52  Emily Shuckburgh, Rosie Robison and Nick Pidgeon, "Climate Science, the Public and the News Media",Living with Environmental Change,September 2012  Back

53   Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, Public Attitudes to Science, May 2011 Back

54  Science Media Centre, Ev 144,para3 Back

55   Q87 [Ralph Lee] Back

56   Q84 [Ralph Lee] Back

57   Q87 [Ralph Lee] Back

58   Q88 [David Jordan] Back

59   Q162 Back

60   Q163 [Catherine Brahic] Back

61  Q92 Back

62   Q171 Back

63   Q8 Back

64  James Painter, Poles Apart: the international reporting of climate change scepticism,2011 Back

65   Q202 Back

66   Q352 Back

67  Understanding Risk Research Group, Cardiff University, Ev 122, para23 Back

68  Ibid, para22 Back

69  Professor Steve Jones, BBC Trust,Review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC's coverage of science, July 2011, p15  Back

70  Professor Steve Jones, BBC Trust,Review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC's coverage of science, July 2011, p17  Back

71  Professor Steve Jones, Ev w127 Back

72   Q194 [Mr Lewis Smith] Back

73   Q175 Back

74  Q194 [Richard Black] Back

75  Q135 Back

76  Professor Greg Philo and Dr Catherine Happer, Ev 140,par 8 Back

77   Science Media Centre, Ev 144, section 4; Q64 Back

78  BBC, Ev 174 Back

79  British Sky Broadcasting Limited ("Sky"), Ev 151 Back

80   Q114 Back

81   Q83 Back

82   Q108 Back

83   Para 23 Back

84  Q90 Back

85  What is the BBC's understanding about the level of knowledge about climate science amongst television audiences? What are your views on the findings published by the Glasgow University Media Group and Shuckburgh et al? Back

86  BBC, Ev 174 Back

87   BBC, Ev 174 Back

88  Ibid Back

89  Ibid Back

90   Q93 Back

91   Professor Steve Jones, Ev w127  Back

92   BBC Editorial Guidelines, Section 3: Accuracy [website as of 18 March 2014]


93  Bob Ward and Naomi Hicks, Ev w87 Back

94   Q136 Back

95  James Painter,Ev 158 Back

96   Q193 Back

97   Q135 Back

98   Q199 Back

99  Ibid Back

100  Ibid Back

101   Q169 Back

102   Q158 Back

103  The Daily Mail, Ev 181 Back

104  The Daily Telegraph, Ev 180 Back

105  The Daily Telegraph, Ev 180 Back

106  The Daily Mail, Ev 181 Back

107  Peterson, Thomas C., William M. Connolley, John Fleck",The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus", Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, vol 89, (2008) 1325-1337; and National Academy of Sciences, Understanding Climate Change: A programme for action, 1975  Back

108  The Daily Telegraph, Ev 180 Back

109  Ibid Back

110   The Daily Mail, Ev 182 Back

111   UK Energy Research Centre, UKERC Project Final Report, Climate change and energy security: Assessing the impact of information and its delivery on attitudes and behaviour, December 2012  Back

112  Q41 Back

113  Met Office, Ev 137, par1 and Q262 Back

114  Q313 Back

115   Q314, Q377 Back

116   Q377 Back

117   Dr Phillip Bratby, Ev w5 Back

118  Bishop Hill Blog Back

119  Andrew Montford, Ev 105 Back

120   Q169 Back

121  Ibid Back

122  Q159 Back

123  Bob Ward and Naomi Hicks, Ev w86 Back

124   Government Departments, Executive summary,Ev 130 Back

125   Q203 Back

126   Q295 Back

127   Q264 Back

128  The Royal Academy of Engineering, Ev w80 Back

129   Q224 Back

130  Ibid Back

131   Q314 Back

132   Q36 Back

133   Q216 Back

134   Q224 Back

135  Q226 Back

136  Rt Hon Edward Davey MP, Energy Divided? Building Stability in Energy Policy, 14 February 2014  Back

137   Ibid Back

138   "Cameron urges rail and power firms to help flood victims - after warning Thames crisis could last two more weeks", Evening Standard , 14 February 2014  Back

139  For example: "Climate scepticism blamed as Owen Paterson slashes spending on global warming", The Independent, 26 January 2014 " Owen Paterson at odds with Cameron whether storms caused by climate change", The Telegraph, 9 January 2014 Back

140   Para 59 Back

141   Para 32 Back

142   Q362 Back

143   Q354 Back

144   Q354 Back

145  Understanding Risk Research Group, Cardiff University, Ev 118 Back

146   Q353, Q354 [Prof David MacKay] Back

147   Q424 Back

148   Q362 Back

149   Q363 Back

150   Q255 Back

151   Q363 Back

152  Met Office: Weather and Climate  Back

153   The Met Office, Ev 137 Back

154  Ibid Back

155   The Met Office, Ev 137 Back

156   Q263 Back

157  The Met Office, Ev 137 Back

158   Q289 [Mr John Hirst] Q291 [Prof Julia Slingo] Back

159  Environment Agency, Ev 170 Back

160   Q216 Back

161  Environment Agency, Ev 173, para 28 Back

162  Environment Agency, Ev 170, Summary Back

163   "UK floods: Environment Agency board backs chairman Lord Smith", BBC, 11 February 2014

"Climate change means we won't in future be able to engineer our way out of flooding", The Guardian, 11 February 2014 Back

164  Committee on Climate Change, Ev 136 Back

165   Q312 Back

166   Q314 Back

167  Committee on Climate Change, Ev 136 Back

168   Q314 Back

169  Kirklees Council, Ev 165 Back

170  Kent County Council, Ev 160 Back

171  Local Government Association, Climate Control [website as of 18 march 2014]  Back

172   Q220 Back

173   Q214 Back

174  Kirklees Council, Ev 168 par 4.5 Back

175  Kirklees Council, Ev 169 Back

176   Q216 Back

177  Kent County Council, Ev 160 Back

178  Professor Greg Philo and Dr Catherine Happer, Ev 140, para 9 Back

179  Ipsos MORI,Public attitudes regarding climate change, 2 February 2012 Back

180   Carbon Brief, How does Carbon Brief's polling fit in with other research?, 2 April 2013 Back

181   Q4 Back

182   Q458 Back

183  Emily Shuckburgh, Rosie Robison and Nick Pidgeon, "Climate Science, the Public and the News Media",Living with Environmental Change, 28 September 2012, p19  Back

184   Dr Phillip Bratby, Ev w5 Back

185  Andrew Montford, Ev 105 Back

186   Q134 Back

187  Science and Technology Select Committee, Eight Report of Session 2010-12, Peer review in scientific publications,HC 856, p88 Back

188   Q43 Back

189  Ibid Back

190   Q380 Back

191   Science and Technology Select Committee,Eighth Report of Session 2009-10, The disclosure of climate data from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, HC 387-I, Back

192  Ibid Back

193   Q76 Back

194  Q275 Back

195   Q10 [Professor Philo] Back

196  For example, Q59 [Prof John Wormsley] Back

197   Q65 [Prof Rowan Sutton] Back

198   Q75 [Professor Sutton] Back

199   Q57 Back

200  The Royal Academy of Engineering, Ev w80 Back

201  The Royal Society, Ev 149 Back

202  Ibid Back

203   Q71-Q72 Back

204  The Royal Society, Climate Change, Evidence and Causes, 27 February 2014  Back

205  The Royal Society, Climate Change: a summary of the science, September 2010  Back

206   The Royal Society, Carbon storage: caught between a rock and climate change, (Lecture), 24 March 2011 Back

207  The Royal Society,Royal Society Delivery Plan 2011-2015 p3 Back

208  "Manmade global warming: a stormy meeting between sceptics and believers", The Guardian,13 December 2013; and " The secret society of warmists", The Telegraph, 30 November 2013 Back

209   Q64 Back

210  Royal Meteorological Society, Climate Change Simulation by Tim Palmer, 1 February 2013  Back

211  UCL Communicating Climate Science Policy Commission,Ev 127, para 25 Back

212  ClimateXChange, Ev w59 Back

213  Carbon Brief, Ev 133 Back

214  Research Councils UK, Ev 115 Back

215  National Centre for Atmospheric Science, Ev 107 Back

216   Q66 Back

217   Ibid Back

218  Ibid Back

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