Richard C.J. Somerville

Scripps Institution of Oceanography

2015 Climate Communication Prize Winner

Richard C.J. Somerville was awarded the 2015 Climate Communication Prize at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 16 December 2015 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.”


Richard Somerville has made monumental contributions to the collective effort to communicate climate change to the public. These efforts include contributions to AGU’s own communication and outreach mission. At the AGU Fall Meeting 3 years ago in San Francisco, Richard, working with Susan Joy Hassol and the newly formed Climate Science Rapid Response Team, jointly conducted a series of workshops for climate scientists, providing critical training to these scientists, including the next generation of climate science communicators.

Richard coauthored with Susan Joy Hassol an influential article “Communicating the Science of Climate Change” in Physics Today. In this article, he presented a number of key science communication concepts to the community. For example, the article showed how emissions would have to be ramped down rapidly as the timing of peak emissions is increasingly delayed. The diagram communicates the urgency of climate change mitigation in a compelling manner.

Richard has also played a critical role in organizing the scientific community to more effectively combat the misinformation and disinformation that is sadly so omnipresent in today’s media coverage of climate change. He played an influential role, for example, in drafting a letter from 38 climate scientists to counter a particularly misleading op–ed published in the Wall Street Journal. The letter of response began with Richard’s very effective rhetorical question: “Do you consult your dentist about your heart condition?”

One of the tougher things for climate scientists to talk about effectively is the relationship between climate change and extreme weather. Too often, scientists, as Richard has noted, lead with what is not known, rather than what is known—a fatal communication blunder. Richard has been out front in talking about the conundrum, coaching a whole generation of climate scientists in how to communicate the actual connections in ways that are effective and accurate.

Richard continues to do all of these things even as he has, along with other University of California, San Diego (UCSD) faculty, developed and begun to teach a new massive open online course (MOOC) on climate change. Entitled “Change in Four Dimensions,” the course covers the physical, sociological, technological, and humanistic aspects of climate change.

Richard is currently the primary scientific adviser for Susan Joy Hassol’s Climate Communication group while also serving as distinguished professor emeritus and research professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography/UCSD.

—Michael E. Mann, Pennsylvania State University, University Park; and Jeffrey T. Kiehl, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colo.


With great humility, I profoundly thank AGU for awarding me its Climate Communication Prize. I thank Jeff Kiehl and Mike Mann for nominating me, and I thank Nature’s Own for the cash award that accompanies this great honor. All the previous winners of this prize, Gavin Schmidt, Jeff Kiehl, Kevin Trenberth, and Katharine Hayhoe are my friends and colleagues. I have learned much from them about communicating the science of climate change. I also gratefully acknowledge the late Steve Schneider, who taught all of us. I agree with Steve’s wise advice to everyone who communicates science: Know thy audience; know thyself; know thy stuff.

I have also learned much from scientists who have mastered the art of communicating science with the broad public through television, notably Neil deGrasse Tyson and the late Carl Sagan. Many fine scientists have excelled at speaking and writing for the general public, including John Tyndall, who put the greenhouse effect on a firm physical foundation in 1861. Elizabeth Kolbert is a superb science writer who writes often and powerfully about climate change. All these people have inspired me.

I must single out the immense benefit I have had from working on climate communication for more than 25 years with Susan Joy Hassol. Our partnership is unusual. Susan is a professional communicator, not a scientist, but she has acquired a deep understanding of climate science, and she has an uncanny ability to explain complex scientific topics in clear, compelling English. The website -climatecommunication​.org showcases many products of our collaboration and is a one–stop shop for anybody who wants to do better at communicating climate science.

There are many obstacles to communicating climate science clearly. Communicating well is like skiing well. Nobody is born an expert skier, but it can be learned, and a good way of learning is taking lessons from experts. We know that excellent science can inform wise policy and that communicating the science effectively can help the world cope intelligently with the challenge of climate change. I hope that many more climate scientists will make the effort to improve their ability to communicate science with the wider world. I thank Sylvia Bal, my wife of 50 years, for her unwavering support. I thank the many colleagues who have worked with me. I thank AGU and Nature’s Own for establishing this prize in climate communication and for honoring me with it.

—Richard C. J. Somerville, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla