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Pitch

Establish a web portal that curates expert-endorsed climate change information online, to improve information accessibility for non-experts


Description

Summary

Why?

‘Online communication already is, and will increasingly be, an important facet of climate communication'[1]

In 2012, Schäfer found that, although usage varied between countries, the Internet had already become a more common source for climate change information than friends and family.[2]

In 2014, a study based on Google Trends data found that Internet searching of ‘climate change’, ‘global warming’ and related terms increases at particular times, such as when extreme weather is experienced.[3]

Yet the Internet is a difficult source. As a search of ‘climate change’ and related terms shows, climate change information online is overwhelming in quantity, fragmented across sources and disciplines, fleeting (where it concerns climate-related developments in science, economics, health, etc), time-consuming to wade through, and of uncertain trustworthiness.

What?

Establish an independent, cross-disciplinary web portal that curates ‘gateway’ expert climate change knowledge, to make information-finding easier and less confusing. It would have features such as live online Q&As with climate change specialists.


 

Does something like this already exist?

No. Governments and key organisations provide websites and publications aimed at improving public understanding of climate change, but focus only on its scientific aspects[4]—an important, but not sufficient, perspective for public engagement.

Further:

  • some of these sources are subject to credibility issues or ideological uncertainties, which obscure their communication efforts;[5] and
  • they do not explain possible climate change impacts in relatable form, or allow the public to directly engage with experts.

 

Other websites collate information on climate change, but are targeted at those working within the area rather than at the general, unconverted, public.[6]

In sum, it is hard for the general public to find easily digestible information on climate change from the various disciplinary perspectives, and that they know to be credible.


What actions do you propose?

In 2007, Lorenzoni et al found that a key barrier to public engagement with climate change was ‘a lack of basic knowledge about [its] causes, impacts and solutions’. While information was available, they said, people did not necessarily translate it into knowledge or action for reasons including:

  • lack of knowledge about where to find information;
  • perceived information overload;
  • confusion about conflicting information or partial evidence;
  • the format of information being inaccessible to non-experts; and
  • the information source not being credible or trustworthy.[7]

 

The Internet, as a primary information source, exacerbates all the above. An independent global, cross-disciplinary web portal, as described below, would help to address these issues, and in turn provide a more solid foundation for effecting sustainable attitudes and behaviors.

Overview

The portal would aim to clarify the state of the climate change debate, while avoiding ‘alarmism’. It would be made credible by expert endorsement and participation.

At base, it would set out:

  1. the fundamental arguments for and against climate change action, as endorsed by (as relevant) a majority of climate scientists (where majority consensus exists), by economists, by health specialists, and by political scientists;
  2. the potential impacts of climate change, from the perspectives of different sectors of society (eg, air travellers, farmers, the military) in various geographical locations—and of any adaptation measures being taken in those sectors—as put forward by relevant specialists; and
  3. government policies and laws on climate change.

 

It would also be a ‘gathering place' for members of the public to engage with experts (via Q&A sessions).

Form

The portal would have a minimalist design, focused on ease of use, and have interactive components. It would assume a time-poor audience and thus have quick reference points and, to the extent possible, aim for short, simple communication, and avoid technical language.

The target audience would be the significant proportion of the public that fall between the extremes of climate change belief, who are neither outright dismissive nor highly engaged but are ambivalent.[8]

The portal would be trialled in English.

Content: site map

1.     Climate change knowledge

This part would be divided into up to 5 self-contained disciplinary categories, to allow issues to be considered on the terms of their own discipline.

a)    Science

This section would outline the fundamentals of climate science about which there is substantial consensus, which would be made credible by endorsement from climate scientists, institutionally and/or individually (such as with an online petition).

Note: The aim of this section—and of the web portal generally—is not to provide detailed or comprehensive information on the state of climate science (such as the IPCC does) but rather to clarify, for the public, the state of the climate science debate at the most basic level.

The portal would, though, link to credible websites that do have detailed scientific information and analysis.

             Why?

Despite increased general awareness and media coverage of climate change globally, there remains considerable uncertainty among the public about whether humans are contributing to climate change.[9]

Moreover, the public underestimates the level of agreement among climate scientists that climate change is happening. For example, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC) found in 2014 that

'only one in ten Americans (12%) know that 90% or more scientists have concluded human caused global warming is happening. As many Americans – (14%) – think fewer than half of climate scientists have reached this conclusion. Another three in ten Americans (29%) say they “don’t know” (28%) or didn’t answer the question (1%).'

This is important because, as van der Linden et al (2014) say, ‘recent research has repeatedly shown that the perceived level of scientific agreement on human-caused climate change actually functions as a critical “gateway belief”’.[10] Similarly, Anderegg and Harold (2009) suggest that, where the subject matter is technical—as is the case with climate change—laypeople ‘must use the state of the debate among experts as a proxy for the likelihood that different answers to a question are correct.'[11]

Studies have shown that levels of public understanding and belief fluctuate over time, and are influenced by numerous factors including media coverage (both quantity and quality),[12] controversies (eg, the publication of emails from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit in 2009),[13] and the visibility of skeptics.

Moser’s observation, in 2010, that '[b]asic understanding of the problem...remains superficial and vulnerable to frequent revision'[14] is as true now as it was then.

This is especially problematic because climate change is the site of vested interests and politics, and the public debate:

is “a deeply contested area [with] considerable competition among (and between) scientists, industry, policymakers, and [NGOs], each of whom is likely to be actively seeking to establish their particular perspectives on the issues…"[15]

This competition invariably highlights uncertainties, which can lead to what is referred to in psychology as ‘uncertainty transfer’. In this context, it means that ‘uncertainty over one aspect of climate science and policy gradually and subtly spreads so that uncertainty and skepticism are generated about a related though different aspect of climate science.…[This] may counterintuitively serve to increase some people’s uncertainty about the reality of climate change.'[16]

Amidst this, the scientific majority is often sidelined by minority voices, which are more vocal and disproportionately represented in the media and online.[17]

As a result, the scientific consensus regarding the occurrence of anthropogenic climate change—this important ‘gateway’ knowledge—appears to many outsiders more as scientific division. 

            Feasibility

In 2009, Anderegg and Harold analyzed scientific publications and academy statements to determine the level of scientific agreement on various aspects of climate science. Based on their assessment and relative weighing of expert opinion, they concluded that more than 95% of the scientific community agreed on 6 particular aspects, as outlined in their paper.[18]

This suggests that there is scientific content that could receive significant collective endorsement.

There is some precedence for collective endorsements, as scientific institutions have issued joint statements on climate change-related issues, for eg through the global network of science academies.

Ultimately, though, the feasibility of a collectively-endorsed statement would be a question we pose to climate scientists and scientific institutions.

a)    Economics

This section would outline the main economic arguments for and against climate change action, and the assumptions underlying these economic calculations, as contributed to by economists.

It would air various viewpoints on, for example, the effect of climate change on economic growth, and whether climate change action is more costly than the alternative (eg, a relevant source might be Risky Business (USA, 2014)).

b)    Health

This section would collect scientific information on the actual or potential health impacts of climate change, as this link can be lost amidst noise.

In the American context, for eg, a 2014 YPCCC report found that few Americans were aware of the health consequences of climate change.

a)    Politics

This section would reference analysis of the impact of climate change on issues such as national security, climate refugees, conflict.

b)    Technology

This section would outline the potential for, and barriers to, climate change action from a technological perspective (‘cleaner’ energy sources, sustainability in architecture and design, etc).

2.     Impact—by sectors

This part would organize information on impacts in a form relevant to most people, and outline what countries and/or sectors are doing to adapt to them.

The inclusion of sectors would be largely expert-driven, ie it would depend on whether and what information exists, and its quality.

General example: possible sectors

 

Specific example: air travellers

In 2013, a scientific study found that climate change was likely to, by mid-century, increase the amount and strength of clear air turbulence experienced during air travel over the North Atlantic Ocean, with consequences for passenger safety, journey times and costs.[19]  

Separately, the NATS UK and EUROCONTROL have each undertaken climate change risk assessments and adaptation planning for their aviation industries, which they have published in reports.

A section on ‘air travellers’ would summarize the findings of these sources, and of any other source that meets (published) criteria relating to trustworthiness and relevance.

Where a source is publicly available, or permission has been granted to do so, the portal would also link to or provide a copy of it.

Note: Anyone in the world would be able to suggest an edit or addition to the portal’s content, except to the ‘science’ section as that would be premised on collective endorsement. Suggestions would need to be supported by publications that are well-regarded within the relevant discipline (eg, peer-reviewed journals in science) and evaluated by a review board.

There would be mechanisms to help ensure objectivity and credibility. For example, the portal would be transparent about its criteria for inclusion, including the relevance of conflict of interest/funding source/etc. If a suggested edit or addition were to be rejected and the suggestion was based on a study or other publication, the reasons for rejection would be published.

3.     Summary of countries’ positions on climate change

Currently, information on governments’ climate change positions is hard to find, yet knowledge about what governments are doing influences individuals’ willingness to act. Studies show that individuals’ perception of government action—or lack thereof—constitutes a barrier to them engaging with the issue. This contributes to what is known as the ‘governance trap’, whereby individuals are reluctant to act where governments are not (either actually or apparently), while at the same time politicians in some countries fear being punished by voters if they mandate lifestyle changes—with the result being that ‘neither…acts in a decisive way’.[20] Further, the obscurity of this information means that governments are less accountable for what they are doing. Thus, this section would outline government climate change policies and laws.

Note: To avoid politicization, this section would provide only information, and not purport to make any judgment on government stances or measures.

4.     A ‘gathering place’ for interaction between the public and climate change experts

Studies on climate change communication show that:

  • audiences tend to reject messages that are simply negative and unaccompanied by information on practical actions to minimize risk;
  • the ability to question the source of information increases trust; and
  • social networks are among the most trusted sources of information.[21]

 

To that end, the web portal could provide a platform for the following:

  • A regular (eg, fortnightly/monthly) online Q&A session with specialists in climate change from various disciplines (science, economics, health, law, etc), in which the public can submit questions. Its frequency could be increased around major events, such as Live Earth and COP

 

Potentially, also:

  • a review mechanism that allows evidence to be challenged, and for those challenges to be responded to
  • short online tutorials/videos on climate data research
  • a system for rating the ‘quality’ of referenced sources

 

5.     Dictionary

This would include terms that are common within the climate change community, but may be unfamiliar to those outside it—for eg, mitigation vs adaptation, climate finance, etc. 


Who will take these actions?

Pre-implementation stage

We have undertaken an initial scoping and feasibility assessment for this proposal, and refined it based on feedback so far. We have now entered this contest to seek wider feedback, and to gauge levels of support for a portal such as this. 

If there is support, we would establish an implementation group to determine issues, including: possible funding sources; expert endorsement process; potential collaborators in relation to both content and implementation; website development and design; promotion.

Implementation stage

The portal would, at minimum, require actions from:

●  Climate scientists and/or scientific institutions – to endorse a collective statement on the occurrence of anthropogenic climate change (see 'Science' section above). To begin this process, a statement would need to be pre-drafted by a climate scientist/s and circulated among universities and scientific institutions globally for consideration

●  Two or more specialists from each discipline (ie, climate science, economics, health, politics, technology) – to advise on the inclusion criteria for the relevant discipline, and possible content

●  Specialists from each discipline:

  • to be part of a review board that evaluates material from that discipline for inclusion, in accordance with the inclusion criteria. After the portal is launched, the review process could either be rolling, or happen at regular intervals; and/or
  • to participate in an online Q&A session.

 

The level of commitment from specialists could be less or more, one-off or ongoing, depending on preference.

●   Staffers/volunteers:

  • to collect/seek out relevant information from credible sources
  • to summarize information for inclusion, if possible in liaison with the source’s author

 

●   Website designer, developer – to build the portal, in accordance with user-centered design principles.


Where will these actions be taken?

As a key rationale behind this proposal is to address the fragmentation of climate change information, the portal would be global in scope. However, this does not mean that the portal would seek to be all-encompassing, or comprehensive. Rather, as outlined above, the portal would be divided into general categories; within these, the specific content will be governed by what information already exists, its quality, and its general relevance.

In practical terms, the online nature of the portal means that anyone in the world with Internet access could potentially use, contribute to and participate in it.


How will these actions have a high impact in addressing climate change?

Our proposal would have a high impact by addressing several identified, but as yet insufficiently addressed, problems for public engagement: information fragmentation and overload, cross-disciplinary noise, credibility uncertainties and short-term media cycles. It would do so with respect to a key source of climate change information for the public, the Internet. 

The portal would emulate and build on good online communication examples, within and outside science, to provide centralized and delineated cross-disciplinary information—’gateway’ knowledge—in a way that is:

  • objective, transparent & easily digestible
  • based on evidence of what people prioritize and want to know (eg on Google Analytics, Quora questions)
  • interactive

 

We believe that the state of the climate change debate, of public understanding, and of the Internet, have all reached a point where it is now both necessary and possible to implement a portal such as this, and that its potential impact would extend beyond the online.


What are other key benefits?

The portal could help improve policy making and effectiveness.

First, elected governments are influenced by public opinion, and improved public understanding would give governments more motivation and space to explore policy options.

Second, where policies require voluntary take-up, being able to contextualize them in climate change terms may help their promotion.

This is important, because governments in key countries, even when they have the will to act, are unable or unwilling, for political reasons, to regulate the public’s behaviors to meet carbon reduction targets.

They thus must try to incentivize individuals to act, for eg on home energy efficiency. But ‘climate change’ has proven to be an ineffective incentive in itself, and certainly not one that equals short-term considerations (eg, financial). Partly because of this, such policies are often ad hoc and difficult to sustain.[22]

The portal could help explain why climate change is considered to warrant societal attention.


What are the proposal’s costs?

The bulk of the proposal’s costs would relate to:

  • website development and design
  • website maintenance and upgrades
  • registering and renewing a domain name
  • staffing. We think that, at a minimum, the portal’s development and content could be overseen by a fairly small team, for example 1 full-time staff member and 2-3 part-time staff members, in conjunction with volunteers. The main responsibilities of the team would relate to coordination, liaison, research, promotion, admin, strategy and IT.

 

We have undertaken some preliminary research on costs, but would want to consult with web developers and designers, and others who maintain websites with a similar scope, to determine them more precisely. We have not yet had the opportunity to do this, and would welcome any input on this aspect.  


Time line

Short term (0-2 yrs)

The focus would be on developing and implementing the portal in a way that is sustainable in the longer term.

To that end, there would be a phased process.

  • Phase 1 – feasibility assessment and support-building: Consulting with experts in the various disciplines, in climate change communication, and in website design and development; market research into what people want or seek information on, through, for eg, surveys with members of the public, and Google Analytics; formulating indicators of success for the portal; researching ‘best practice’ in similar contexts; obtaining funding.
  • Phase 2 – development and promotion: developing website design and content (inc. sharable content); refining credibility and objectivity safeguards for the portal; website testing with focus groups; promotion to the public.
  • Phase 3 – general roll out to public: after the portal is launched, it would allow for feedback from the public as to ways to improve the website, and we would use analytical data and feedback to develop it further.

 

Medium term (3-10 yrs)

We would hope that, in the medium term, the initial development and implementation processes would have helped to embed, and normalize, the portal as a ‘go-to’, first stop, information source within the wider climate change debate.

The focus here would be on maintaining, and ideally enhancing, the credibility, usability and usefulness of the portal for example, by refining existing processes and introducing new features and associated offline activities in response to feedback.

At this point, we would also develop a longer-term strategy for the portal, to account for the inevitable (and likely unforeseen) developments in ICT that would have occurred in the meantime.


Related proposals

  • Teaching Fusion To The Public (On Wikipedia) - https://www.climatecolab.org/web/guest/plans/-/plans/contestId/1301413/planId/1314407: This proposal has the same general notion as ours, of making visible knowledge that already exists.


References

[1] Schäfer, “Online communication on climate change and climate politics: a literature review”, WIREs Clim Change 2012, 537

[2] Ibid 534

[3] Lang, “Do Weather Fluctuations cause People to seek Information about Climate Change?” Climatic Change 2014: ‘Search activity increases with increases in extreme heat in summer and extended periods of no rainfall and declines in extreme cold in winter … [It] also increases with decreases in average winter and spring temperatures … The results indicate that all groups in the political and educational spectrum have weather triggers that elicit increased information seeking …’: 292-3

[4] Eg IPCC, UK Royal Society, US Government, NASA

[5] For eg, many governments worldwide (inc. the US) are not well-trusted by the public, and the IPCC has been the subject of past credibility attacks that have made it vulnerable to climate skeptics. See, eg, 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer global results; Leiserowitz et al, “Climategate, Public Opinion, and the Loss of Trust”, American Behavioral Scientist 2012, 819-20

[6]  Eg the World Bank’s Climate Change Knowledge Portal; the Climate Knowledge Brokers Group

[7] Lorenzoni, et al, “Barriers perceived to engage with climate change among the UK public…”, Global Environmental Change 2007, 450-2

[8] Pidgeon, “Public understanding of, and attitudes to, climate change”, Climate Policy 2012, s90

[9] See, eg, EESI (USA 2014 surveys)

[10] van der Linden, et al, 256

[11] Anderegg & Harold, “Climate science and the dynamics of expert consensus” Stanford Center for Conservation Biology 2009, 3

[12] See, eg, Moser “Communicating climate change…” WIREs Clim Change 2010, 32

[13] Leiserowitz et al, 828

[14] Moser 32

[15] Schäfer 528

[16] Pidgeon s94

[17] Climate scientists do not have a significant presence online, and where they do, it is fragmented (eg across blogs) and not easily found: see Schäfer 532. Internet search results are instead dominated by other stakeholders in the debate, who command less trust from the unconverted public (eg the media, governments, NGOs, industry)

[18] Anderegg & Harold 15

[19] Williams & Joshi, “Intensification of winter transatlantic aviation turbulence in response to climate change” 2013 Nature Climate Change 3, 644–8

[20] Pidgeon s89

[21] Ibid s96; Goodwin & Dahlstrom, “Communication Strategies for Earning Trust in Climate Change Debates”, WIREs Clim Change 2014; Lorenzoni et al, 452

[22] As Lorenzoni et al, say, the ‘limited attention given to behavioural change in the UK’s climate change policies … focuses on voluntary reduction of energy use by individuals, encouraged through provision of information and economic incentives and subsidies. To date, however, this approach seems to have had little or no impact on individual behavior ... Although energy conservation can be enacted without an understanding of climate change (eg, if financially motivated)…, mitigation policies risk being ineffective or rejected by a public lacking an understanding of the issue’: 446