The art of communication

8th May 2014

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Alison Forster

The ability to communicate climate science and have the confidence to challenge sceptics and deniers will become increasingly important skills for all environmentalists, argues Paul Suff

The release of the latest IPCC report in its fifth assessment of climate change attracted a good deal of media attention. The focus of the news stories varied depending on how the different media outlets view climate change, but some chose to concentrate on what the findings mean for energy policy, with several declaring that shale gas could help save the planet.

The Daily Mail, for example, went with the headline: “Fracking can help to slow global warming admit UN scientists.” The accompanying article argued that the IPCC report backs the government and its plans for a shale-gas revolution in the UK. Indeed, the IPCC report acknowledges that natural gas – whether from a conventional or unconventional source – could help wean the world off more damaging coal.

Greenhouse-gas emissions from energy supplies can be reduced significantly by replacing standard coal-fired power plants with modern, highly efficient natural gas combined-cycle power plants,” it states.

It is worth noting that in the US, where the proportion of gas from unconventional sources has more than doubled since 2000 (reaching 67% of all gas consumed in 2011), the switch from coal to shale gas is the main reason the country’s GHG emissions have been falling recently. Nonetheless, the IPCC’s seeming endorsement of gas extracted by hydraulic fracturing comes with a number of caveats and these were not explored in any detail by the Mail.

The IPCC points out that displacing coal with unabated gas is not a long-term solution, arguing that any fossil fuel power plants in operation after 2050 must be fitted with carbon capture mechanisms to prevent emissions to air. It also warns of the dangers of fugitive methane emissions from fracking operations – that is, emissions that escape during extraction or supply.

Replacing coal-fired electricity plants with gas-powered generation will only result in significant reductions in GHG emissions if natural gas is available and fugitive emissions are low or mitigated, says the report. And, the UN body warns, switching to natural gas should not substitute for investment in renewable energy technologies.

What is instructive for environment professionals about the mixed coverage of the IPCC report is the need to always examine the bigger picture and, rather than rely on newspaper articles, read for themselves what the scientists say and draw their own conclusions. That is important because, in many businesses, environment practitioners will be the first port of call for clarification on what the latest climate science means for the organisation.

Being able to communicate such findings effectively, as well as having the confidence to challenge climate sceptics and deniers, will become increasingly important skills for all environmentalists.

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