The toughest job in the world?

No, I’m not claiming it’s mine! It’s a title taken from the news section of the Nature website. This is the news (actually slightly old news now, my university portal news reader is obviously behind the times) that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are looking to employ their first communications chief. For anybody not aware of the IPCC they’re the people who come up with much of the climate change stats quoted in the news, the people who won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize alongside Al Gore and the people who are often at the forefront of climatological science methodologies and results.

Putting aside my amazement that such an important and prominent organisation doesn’t already have a communications chief (here I was thinking science communication issues were actually becoming a thing of the past!) I’ve spent a lot of the day wondering if this is actually the toughest job in the world. Possibly not, I decided, but choosing the person for the position could well be. Over Christmas I read the Dan Brown book ‘Deception Point’ and, putting aside the fact it’s the literary equivalent of 24 after about series 2 (I watched that too…it was a good holiday), I mentally linked the two together. In the book the President hires a supposedly objective public figure to validate a supposed meteorite trapped in the ice containing fossils. She wasn’t a scientist or a glaciologist or a geologist or a biologist but her separation from these subjects meant she could assimilate all the data equally and therefore come to a balanced conclusion about the authenticity of the find. My point being, can we do this with climate science? Unless you’ve lived in a remote Himalayan cave for the past 20 odd years you will have heard about it fiction and started to form your own ideas and biases.

Who do they employ? A supporter of current anthropogenic climate change theory would cause people to worry that contradictory data was being ignored. One the other hand, a climate change sceptic may help people believe the data has been rigorously scrutinised but a bias against global warming could be just as dangerous as one for it, if not more so. A tough job already and we haven’t even though about the important part of the job title ‘communication’. This one person has to deal with politicians and policy, scientists, pressure groups and even just the general public wanting the facts. One of the most important jobs of the IPCC was to quantify, or at least explain, the uncertainty surrounding climate change science. It’s probably the first time in human history we’ve ever had to discuss uncertainties with as much prominence as the results themselves and it needs almost a whole field of study to itself; what really is the most accessible way to present “we think….”? The lucky candidate for the post will have to realise that indefinite answers are not well liked, and will tread a tightrope – damned if global warming catastrophes never come to be and damned if they do. I look forwards to seeing who they employ and the impact it has.

References:

Schiermeier, Q. (2010) The toughest job in the world? Nature doi: 10.1038/news.2010.692. Published online 24.12.10 [accessed 11.01.11]. Available from: http://www.nature.com/news/2010/101224/full/news.2010.692.html

Brown, D. (2004) Deception Point. Corgi. ISBN-10: 0552151769

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