The art of talking climate science

The art of talking climate science

Communicating science to non-experts in compelling, convincing ways feels more important than ever. But the accepted language of academic reporting as well as the established norms of most scientific fields can set scientists up for trouble.

Here’s a perfect example: When the International Panel on Climate Change says “very likely” they mean greater than 90 percent. But researchers have found that to a non-scientist, “very likely” sounds more like a 62 percent chance. That’s a big difference. And on the flip side, when scientists say “very unlikely,” they mean less than a 10 percent chance. But the rest of us hear a totally different story, guessing it means something like a 41 percent chance—far more probable than it actually is. These misunderstandings show up among non-scientists all over the world. And the consequences may be grave.

Political opponents of climate action use confusion to sow the seeds of doubt and stall progress.

So, what’s a scientist to do when a news reporter calls?

The main thing is to be prepared! Thinking about where non-scientist audiences are coming from helps scientists remember to “translate” jargon, acronyms, and technical terms into plain language and to start with the basics in order to put new information into context. Being ready with short, simple takeaways keeps us focused on what’s important rather than overdoing the details. And a few key phrases can highlight top takeaways (For example: “Here’s what we know for sure,” “The science is clear,” “Here’s what’s important.”)

Here is a short video outlining four messaging guidelines to equip scientists with compelling messages. These tips are adapted from research and communication strategies developed by climate science messaging experts Richard Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol (See more of their climate messaging work at

(Want a non-video version of this Flashcard? Click here.)

Video magic by Meaghan Robbins.

See also: Climate Change in Plain Language

Sightline Institute is a Seattle-based think tank providing policy analysis and messaging resources to build strong communities, a green economy and a healthy environment. We believe true sustainability exists at the intersection of environmental health and social justice.

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