Kevin E. Trenberth

2013 Climate Communication Prize Winner

Kevin E. Trenberth was awarded the 2013 Climate Communication Prize at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 11 December 2013 in San Francisco, Calif. The Climate Communication Prize is funded by Nature’s Own, a purveyor of fossils, minerals, and handcrafted jewelry in Boulder, Colo. The prize honors an “AGU member-scientist for the communication of climate science, and highlights the importance of promoting scientific literacy, clarity of message, and efforts to foster respected and understanding of science-based values as they relate to the implications of climate change.”

Citation

We, Kevin’s friends and colleagues, are pleased to have prepared his nomination package. Across the broad and expansive climate science community, there are very few people who have a history of sustained engagement like Kevin. Whereas many people have worked to convey the importance of climate change, Kevin has tirelessly done so for decades. In addition, the breadth of his activities is astonishing. It includes innumerable interviews on radio, on television, and in printed media over the past 30 years. He has also taken on many leadership communication roles within the scientific community, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to name just one.

But more than quantity, Kevin is known for the quality of his communications. He has been at the forefront of adeptly and accurately conveying our state of knowledge, including the uncertainties and caveats, to a public that prefers to deal with the black-and-white world of certainty. He has worked especially on how storms, rainfall, and extremes can change with climate change and has reframed the way these are talked about from “You can’t blame any single extreme weather event on global warming” to “The temperature has increased globally and there’s now 4 percent more water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere than 30 years ago. As a result, the burden now falls on those who assert there isn’t a global warming component to extreme weather events to prove they are correct.” He has moved the conversation down a civil yet honest avenue and simultaneously enhanced his own credibility. Through Kevin, the public understands that humans are causing the climate to change and dangerous consequences abound. On the other hand, we have also learned from him there are clear things we can do to reduce the risks of climate change, including reducing our emission of heat­trapping gases.

As a final note, it is important to recognize that communication is not a focus for many young scientists. It is not the metric by which scientists are judged and promoted. It is also fraught with public attacks from those that fear the messages that science has to bring. To these young scientists, the role of AGU in acknowledging the important role scientists play as communicators and the standard Kevin has set are strong motivators. There is a pathway before young scientists who desire to be excellent in their technical work but also excellent at relating their work to the larger society. Kevin and AGU have helped create that pathway.

Simply said, Kevin Trenberth exhausts superlatives, in his research and his multidecade commitment to communication. It was an honor for us to nominate him.

—JOHN ABRAHAM, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn.

Response

I am delighted to be recognized with this prize. I want to first thank AGU and the prize committee and, especially, Nature’s Own for establishing this prize in a field that has become contentious and highly political. It did not used to be this way. Following the media frenzy with the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, there was hope at the 2009 Conference of Parties meeting in Copenhagen that an international framework agreement on climate change might be achieved. It was not to be. Planned actions to address issues of climate change were undermined by huge funding of misinformation by vested interests. It was not helped by so-called “climategate” in which many emails illegally hacked from a computer server at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom were released, cherry picked, distorted, and misused by climate change deniers. Minor errors in the IPCC report were blown out of all proportion and ineffectively addressed. I was caught up in all this, and one of my many emails went viral: the “travesty” quote in which I bemoaned the inability to close the global energy balance associated with short-term climate variability but which was misinterpreted as saying there was no global warming. These examples highlight failures of communication.

I have long been engaged in providing information and educating the general public since the early days in my career when I was a junior weather forecaster in the New Zealand Meteorological Service in the 1960s. My background is unique in this regard. But the abusive emails and protests I received and other experiences following climategate reinforced my resolve to increase outreach and join other “rapid responders” in correcting misinformation and in providing information on climate change and how it is manifested. I greatly thank John Abraham, who led my nomination for this prize and who has been leading the rapid response team with Scott Mandia. I also thank the other seven nominators, many of whom could also qualify for this prize. It is wonderful to see that AGU has joined in and increased outreach on climate (and other) issues.

I have given many public lectures to mostly appreciative audiences of all sizes, and I would like to encourage other climate scientists to speak out about and publicize our wonderful science and not be daunted by the inevitable abusive emails they will receive: Don’t take them personally. Unfortunately, scientists who publish an important climate paper must expect abusive responses, but I implore them not to retreat into the ivory tower. Instead, they should look forward to some of the highly appreciative letters of thanks that come from groups to whom talks have been given. Climate change affects us all and especially the future generations. It is important and an ethical issue. I regard it as our responsibility to reach out and do what we can in as many ways as we can conjure up. Please join us in educating the public about climate change and thus building the political will to put an appropriate price on carbon.

—KEVIN E. TRENBERTH, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colo.