Thursday, May 21, 2015

How Climate Scientists Can Communicate the Science to Policymakers

Last week we took a look at how climate scientists can communicate the science to scientists in other fields. That was Part 1 of a three-part series on how to communicate climate science to all three target audiences - other scientists, policy-makers, and the public.Today in Part 2 we'll look at how scientists can communicate with policy-makers.

Why this is so important should be self-evident. Policy-makers - Congressmen, Presidents, Executive Agencies (like EPA), and their equivalents at state and international levels - are the ones charged with determining the correct policies needed to address the unequivocal science of man-made climate change. Sure, virtually all the candidates from a particular party who want to be president have offered up various versions of denying the science and/or have argued no action is necessary, but the fact is the science is so unequivocal that even that particular party will have to take action. So how do scientists adequately communicate the science to these policy-makers and policy-maker wannabes?

Obviously this starts with having a clear understanding of the science, something we've talked about in previous posts. Let's assume that's the case. Here are some things that climate scientists can do in an effort to reach out to policy-makers:

1) Write white papers: But keep them short, preferably bullet points. Despite the conventional wisdom, policy-makers are busy people who spend many hours keeping up with debates with colleagues on the Hill (for example) while maintaining contact with constituents back home (not to mention all those fundraisers with lobbyists and supporters). They are not going to be reading any actual scientific literature, nor would they likely understand it if they tried. [Note: by "they," I mean their staffs.] So write shorter white papers, again with a lot of white paper and bullet points, that succinctly summarize the main points and gist of the science. As much as you think policy-makers need the details, they don't. All they need are the basics so that they can grasp the unequivocal nature of the data and conclusions.

One caveat on this point. Some policy-makers, e.g., regulators or science-trained legislators, will want more detail and will ask tons of pertinent questions. When you find one of these by all means be ready to devote significant effort to accurately and clearly keep them informed of the science. As I write this the name Sheldon Whitehouse, Senator (D-RI) immediately pops into mind.

2) Comment on relevant legislation: There are several facets of this that I'll lump into one line item. State and Federal legislators often propose bills or make speeches (see "Sheldon Whitehouse" above) that may or may not ever make it into law. Get your comments on the record. At the federal level there is a docket for most legislative actions so as a scientist you should look for opportunities to put the science on record. This also holds true for proposed regulatory actions. The USEPA, for example, has various rules and regulations related to climate-influenced action; put your comments and a summary of the data in the record.

3) Reach out to legislative staff: While each legislator (especially US Congressmen/women and Senators) have their own staffs, they each also sit on several committees, and those committees each have a staff. Speak to them. Send them comments. Offer your expertise. Last year a group of climate scientists offered to give a briefing to Florida Governor Rick Scott, and after some public pressure, he let them come in and explain the basics of climate science (which he promptly ignored). In a similar vein, both the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry and the Society of Toxicology arranged for briefings with Congressional committee staff charged with modernizing the nation's top chemical control law (TSCA). Will staff always pay attention? Not always. But they won't know at all if you don't offer.

4) Testify at hearings: This is easier said than done since you have to be invited by one of the party's in order to get on the agenda. This is where making the effort to get information in front of key regulators, legislators, and their staffs pays off. But here's the kicker, once you get an opportunity to testify, don't waste it by simply rattling off the science they should already know. Certain legislators will "play dumb" or make statements that are miming the usual talking points provided by lobbyists. Don't let them get away with it - tell them when they are wrong, and do it directly. [Secretary of State John Kerry did it right, for example, when he explained to Senator Marco Rubio that Rubio's much stated beliefs about the Iran talks were "absolutely wrong." (see about 2 minutes in)]

A note on this point as well. There is a certain decorum expected in all legislative and regulatory proceedings, so I'm not advocating yelling "you lie" when someone, well, lies. But as scientists and citizens we all have an obligation to make sure policy-makers understand the science correctly, and that means calling them out when they repeat known falsehoods. They simply don't repeat the same talking point verbatim over and over by accident, so don't let them get away with it. The danger of directly calling them on such things brings with it the likelihood that you'll find it hard to be asked to testify to that committee again, but if that is what you're worried about then you will be doing a disservice to the science and the public.

5) Reach out to their constituents: Legislators are supposed to act in the best interests of their constituents, but all too often they conflate "lobbyists/campaign funders" with "constituents." Sadly this is a result of our current political system, but if enough of their constituents press them for action, they will be forced to take action. So reach out to the public in those states, for example, where Senators or Representatives are hurting the voters due to their denial of the science and subsequent need for action. An obvious example, one of many, is Oklahoma, which faces increasing drought risk and economic instability from climate-related changes even as their senior Senator pitches snowballs and quotes scripture in his denial of the science. If you live in Oklahoma and your area of expertise is impact of climate change on drought, or conversely, understand how wind or solar can be employed in Oklahoma, then make sure Oklahomans know it.

Next week's post will take a more in-depth look at how scientists can reach out to the public.