Wanted - crisis manager

Somebody is about to get the worst job in the world.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is looking for its first ever communications and media relations manager. Whoever gets the job is going to have one hell of a day, every day.

There is certainly outreach work to be done. World Bank research shows that only 38 per cent of Americans believe there is a scientific consensus on the need to address climate change. The truth is that somewhere between 97 and 98 per cent of working climate scientists accept the evidence for human-induced climate change.

Last month's Cancún climate summit was a washout - the only agreement that delegates reached was to avoid the difficult bits for now and to discuss them later. Imagine being the one who has to give that a positive spin.

Then there's the ongoing battle against climate-change deniers. The communications role was created in the wake of the Climategate scandal, in which researchers stood accused of doctoring data to make climate change look worse than it is. All the scientists involved were cleared by a number of independent panels, but mud sticks and has to be washed off.

Not that the communications manager will be allowed to suggest that the scientists tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth in future. That could be just as embarrassing for the IPCC. The last thing he or she will want to deal with is scientists shouting about how the IPCC has consistently overplayed the scientific uncertainties and underplayed the likely destruction from climate change.

When, for instance, the physicist Joseph Romm, a PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former member of the Clinton administration, accuses the IPCC of "vast understatement" about the impending crisis, what is the right spin to apply? You can't fight both the deniers and the scientists.

The same quandary arises from the actions of scientists such as Nasa's James Hansen and Richard Somerville of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. They have vaulted down from the fence and embarked on direct action - Hansen, despite being a government employee, has gone so far as to get himself detained on a number of occasions. The communications manager's spin on Hansen's next arrest will be fascinating
All of the above perhaps explains why the IPCC didn't want a scientist to do the job. As well as experience in "crisis management", applicants should have "an advanced university degree in journalism, international relations, communication, political science or a related field".

God forbid that the director of communications take the scientists' side. The last thing the IPCC needs is an inaugural press conference generating headlines such as "It's much worse than they've been letting on".

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze