In times of crises, society often seeks guidance from scientists to improve its decisions. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have listened to virologists on talk shows, and even in podcasts, talk about mask mandates, vaccinations, and school closings. A similar pattern has emerged since the start of the war in Ukraine: this time, economists are talking about sanctions, embargos, and how we can alleviate the burden caused by high fossil-energy prices. What we learn from their communication during current crises may be useful for addressing upcoming crises.
As media coverage on the climate crisis has increased significantly over the past decade, the need for scientists to guide the public through either unprecedented climate action or a never-before-seen scope of climate impacts has increased as well. Achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement will require a drastic transformation of all economies, while protecting households and their incomes. In this sense, economists who analyze the impacts of climate change and of climate mitigation policies are likely to be the experts called upon for guidance in the climate crisis.
Whether tomorrow's experts are well equipped to deal with that upcoming challenge is questionable. Early-career researchers have primarily been taught to do good research in terms of theoretical derivations, programming, and writing down their findings for the scientific community. In many fields, the main target is publication in high-level journals and career advancement. Why and if there should be space for communication of research findings, for instance, on carbon pricing, to wider audiences is one of the topics we discussed in our online workshop on “Communicating Climate Change Economics.”
The two-day workshop was designed for early-career researchers who have little to no experience in science communication. The program was split between formal inputs from experts and hands-on exercises. The invited experts from different backgrounds included scientists, journalists, and practitioners who shared their experience and expertise. We practiced communicating to a non-academic audience our findings in climate economics, via writing and visualization. This variety of inputs and practice allowed us to see science communication from different perspectives and was very helpful in providing a full picture of what a good communication strategy can look like for climate economists. We learned the following:
Keep it simple
A guiding principle of science communication that applies for climate economists as well is to work out clear and simple messages. Keeping the messages clear and simple reduces possible distractions for the audience and prevents the researcher from getting lost in jargon and technical language. Apart from language, adjusting other related output (e.g., visualizations) to support the main message is also helpful. Graphs that work well in scientific papers may not be suitable for policymakers or a wider audience. If any of the information is too schematic or people want to learn more details, they will ask afterwards. In the end, science communication is a dialogue rather than a lecture.
Know your audience
Part of every science communication strategy is deciding who is the right audience for which content. Audiences are different. When communicating your findings to other researchers, potentially from various fields with different methodological backgrounds, you are preaching to the choir. This setting is different from communicating with the broader public, which can be described as shouting from the rooftops. These audiences require different communication approaches. For example, when speaking to the general public, personal stories help people get involved. Furthermore, you can adapt your language according to the present values and beliefs regarding climate change. More specifically, a carbon tax might be differently communicated to climate-change deniers than to persons who are already convinced we have to take action. The more we know about the people we are talking to, the more easily we can address their questions and concerns.
The media landscape has changed drastically over the past two decades, and thus, science communication has changed as well. Scientists rely much less on intermediaries from journalism and interact more directly with their audience. The primary example here is Twitter, which has become an important platform for communicating research findings. For early-career scientists, there is no single best way to communicate. Additionally, every scientist does not need to become a public figure who frequently appears on television. Ideally, one’s public communication strategy should be focused on a role and a strategy that suits one’s work and character. Remember that climate communication is more than communication of your own research but is rather done for the benefit society—keeping the idea alive that science can help prevent further climate change.