Why climate change research needs social scientists

Last month, the Priestley International Centre for Climate was officially launched by Sir Alan Langlands, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds, with a special message from astronaut Piers Sellers.

The centre aims to provide international solutions to the global problems raised by climate change and its impact on society and ecosystems. The centre is directed by Professor Piers Forster from the School of Earth and Environment, and I am a deputy director, along with Professor John Plane from the School of Chemistry.

To address climate change, it is not enough to just focus on researching solutions. The solutions will also need to be implemented. If policy makers, practitioners and other stakeholder audiences do not see the need for proposed solutions, they may not be implemented. Climate scientists therefore face the challenge of communicating their findings to diverse audiences.

The Priestley International Centre for Climate recognises the need for effective communications about climate change and proposed solutions. It therefore actively involves social scientists in addition to climate experts from a variety of technical disciplines. Social scientists bring theories and methods for understanding different audiences, developing communications and testing their effectiveness.

Working in the Centre for Decision Research, my colleagues and I aim to understand and inform consumers’ decisions. As part of our work, we look at how messages are communicated by experts in different domains, and how those messages are received by different audiences.

Our work has focused on climate change as well as other fields. Across domains, we have found that experts often use jargon that is unfamiliar to their non-expert audiences. They also have a tendency to focus on topics that they themselves find compelling, but that do not necessarily address what their audiences need or want to know to make more informed decisions. Below are two examples:

First, traditional communications about climate change have warned about “global warming.” Our research and that of others has found that many people in the UK feel good about the prospect of warmer weather. We have found that UK residents are concerned about climate change, but their concerns are more strongly related to their perceptions of wet (vs. hot) weather. We therefore recommend that climate change communications targeting UK residents address concerns about wet weather, including heavy rainfall and flooding. We have also developed strategies for reducing UK residents’ optimistic feelings about heat waves.

Second, we have found that climate experts often design overly complex graphs for communicating their findings. Although these graphs often look beautiful, they tend to include too many messages at once (eg how temperatures and rainfall have changed in different locations over time.) For most people, graphs are more effective if they use a simple design to communicate one main message.

In the Priestley International Centre for Climate, climate experts and social scientists are collaborating with different stakeholder audiences, so as to make climate communications more useful. Together, we aim to promote better strategies for addressing problems associated with climate change.

Professor Wändi Bruine de Bruin outlined this research in a presentation at the launch of the Priestley Centre, which can be viewed here.

Professor Wändi Bruine de Bruin and Hannah Preston

Professor Wändi Bruine de Bruin is co-director of the Centre for Decision Research and deputy director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate