PCST Network

Public Communication of Science and Technology


Climate, Floods, and Forest Fires
Expert Communication About Uncertainty & Complexity

Eric Kennedy  

For forest, watershed, and fire managers, climate change poses a significant threat. Increasing droughts, extreme weather, temperature, and unpredictable precipitation patterns make it difficult to manage the interconnected threats facing forests and wild lands. Yet, these experts often exist in disciplinary and institutional silos, infrequently communicating with their colleagues from other agencies and subject areas about the intersections of fires, flooding, and watershed management. We conducted an ethnographic observation of a rare cross-disciplinary meeting aimed at bringing together American experts from each area to identify research gaps, data needs, and possibilities for collaboration across government and institutional silos. We documented and coded both the communication between experts and the ways in which they communicated with other institutions and the public. We developed a taxonomy that accounts for the different subjects discussed, framings used, and communication practices, and that enables us to more thoroughly understand how experts understand scientific data, model projections, and possible courses of action. In turn, this allowed us to examine how these scientists and decision makers communicate uncertainty, unpredictability, and incommensurability in both planning and emergency management phases. Our data allows us to make recommendations about where investments can be made to improve both internal and public-facing communication for public safety, environmental management, and hazard reduction around forest fires and flooding.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.