press release or a 3-page executive summary. On the other hand, if scientists are concerned about communicating to the public, it would help to keep in mind that reporters have a limited time to write their stories. Likewise, the public is much more inclined to read a 30-page report word for word than they are a 300-page report. The important lesson here is to be cognizant of time limitations, for better or worse, which impact reporters and the general public.
Regarding the communication of uncertainties in general, certainties are news, while uncertainties rarely are. By making a considerable effort to communicate uncertainties, the certainties were more readily accepted. Most of the media reports acknowledged the uncertainties highlighted in the report, and they were clearly highlighted by the White House. However, the focus was the Academy telling President Bush how certain the NAS was about global temperatures rising, greenhouse gas emissions contributing to this, and future impacts.
To focus attention on the scientific questions of climate change, the composition of the committee was critical to its integrity. The committee included leading scientists with a wide range of publicly recognized views, who achieved a consensus on the central issues. The process of constructing the report was made intentionally clear and public. Furthermore, by keeping the report to the science of climate change the message was clear and easier to communicate. The extension to climate change impacts and mitigation would have cluttered the message.
When it was decided to release the report earlier than expected on the afternoon of June 6, the NAS was prepared to do so instantaneously by releasing electronic files of the report. Having documents in electronic versions that can be e-mailed and posted on the Academies’ Web site is key to disseminating news in today’s world of constant news cycles and the instantaneous flow of information. By posting the climate change report to the Web, it was available for anyone to read in its entirety before it could be misrepresented.