Rutgers Climatologist Tony Broccoli On Communicating Climate Science


Tony Broccoli has spent the past two decades working to engage lay audiences about climate change. For him, that interest has meant using concrete, relatable images: ice skating on backyard ponds and present-day heat waves and unusual storms.

Broccoli is a professor at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., where he works on climate modeling. Before returning to his alma mater, he spent 21 years at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, GFDL, in Princeton, N.J. He is also the editor of the Journal of Climate, and he has been a contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The Yale Forum caught up with Broccoli at a recent Miami workshop it sponsored, with support from the McCormick Foundation, for broadcast meteorologists. Broccoli spoke there to help meteorologists understand the basics of climate science. Read on and watch the short video below for his advice for journalists and scientists on accurate, thought-provoking climate communication.  But first this question and answer exchange:

Rutgers’ Tony Broccoli, an effective climate communicator.

Let’s say I’m a journalist who knows nothing about climate science because all of the environmental reporters at my paper or station have been laid off. Do you have tips for me on how to grapple with climate change?

I think the first of piece of advice I would give is to recognize the way that science works. Science proceeds relatively gradually. Insights are not “Eureka!” moments where someone suddenly pops out of their desk chair and says, “My gosh, I’ve found something new about the climate!” We tend to learn about climate very incrementally, and what we know today about climate change is really the result of research that’s been going on for more 40 years.

Similarly, when new studies come out that tell us something about the climate, we have to put those studies in some perspective. It’s not always wise to chase down the latest study and to try to elevate that to a level above everything else that we know. It’s really the full body of evidence about this topic that informs our understanding of climate.

Very often, news stories are about conflict. And conflict is very important because in the political arena, it’s how we resolve differences of opinion. It’s how we resolve different visions of what the world should be. In science, conflict usually occurs about things that are very technical. And those conflicts don’t necessarily apply to our basic understanding of an issue like climate change. If you’re looking for conflict, you’ll find it. But that may not necessarily be the real story.

What’s your advice for scientists on communicating to the public and to the media?

Try to imagine that you’re sitting there, listening to someone talk about something that you don’t understand. When I’m preparing a talk for a general audience, I try to think about the questions that I would like to understand if there were somebody giving a talk about economic policy or about human health — both areas that are outside my specialty. What are the kinds of things that I would be wondering about?

Sara Peach

Sara Peach, an environmental journalist, teaches environmental journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: sara@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @sarapeach)
Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Rutgers Climatologist Tony Broccoli On Communicating Climate Science

  1. P Gosselin says:

    Many studies show that the frequency of “teachable moments” is near a record low, e.g. tropical cyclone energy, tornadoes.

    Weather extremes, err, teachable moments, can be found everywhere thoughout history.

    Teachable moments? Come on. Is the professor really serious?