Jun 06, 2023

Daniel Swain: UCLA climate researcher on importance of clear climate communication

Data | by Tess Townsend, Director of Communications | 2 Minutes

UCLA climate researcher Daniel Swain acts as an advisor to ClimateCheck. Swain received his PhD in Earth System Science from Stanford University, and holds joint appointments at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, the Capacity Center for Climate and Weather Extremes at NCAR, and at The Nature Conservancy. His research focuses on the dynamics and impacts of extreme climate events in a warming climate.

Swain prioritizes science communication and outreach in his work. He’s active on Twitter and YouTube, and runs the Weather West blog, which provides information about California weather and climate. He regularly interfaces with journalists and community members to translate complex climate science to a general audience (including via Twitter and YouTube). He sees science communication as a way to contextualize and distill important information about climate change to communities, individual consumers and .

Swain works with ClimateCheck on developing metrics, leveraging existing data, generating new data on climate risk, and communicating information about our products.

“I see my work with ClimateCheck as an opportunity to integrate cutting edge climate science in a context where I can make a difference beyond the academic bubble,” he says.

We spoke with Swain about the challenges and importance of clear climate science communication, and why communicating climate risk in clear terms is critical to helping businesses and consumers adapt and respond to our changing climate.

ClimateCheck: You describe yourself as both a research scientist and climate science communicator. What’s different about those two roles?

ClimateCheck Advisor Daniel Swain: As a scientist-communicator, I spend about half of my time doing scientific research, writing papers, writing code, looking at data, assessing how things have changed and how they will change in terms of extreme weather and a warming world. I spend the other half of my time doing different kinds of public facing science. So that might mean doing interviews with journalists, writing the Weather West blog, being active on twitter, giving community talks – not just disseminating my own research, but offering broader context for climate science and the implications for society. If we are just showing the numbers in isolation, what is the point of understanding extreme events in our warming world, if not to understand their impact and ways to mitigate them and prevent societal harm in the first place?

ClimateCheck: It sounds like you don’t feel it’s a given that science is communicated clearly or that science will be translated in a way that is clear. Can you talk more about that?

Daniel Swain: It’s definitely not a given, and this is for several reasons. Communication and research are different things that require different skills, and we should not assume that a person who is good at one is good at the other. Sometimes institutions may support you as either a researcher or a communicator, but not as a scientist-communicator. This is why I really value the role I have, and wish there were more roles like this in different areas of science. It is challenging to communicate information to individuals and companies in a way that is both accessible and clear but also accurate and nuanced. It’s a balance, and some do this better than others. It’s not a given that data providers working with businesses and enterprises will strike that balance. Some data providers may speak in customer-friendly terms, but aren’t diligent about the science. ClimateCheck stands out because it gets the balance right — it’s a company that's taking the details seriously and really working to get the science right, instead of rushing to generate data products quickly at the expense of accuracy. At the same time, ClimateCheck is really centering the people who are using the data, and making sure that what they put out is actionable. That sounds like it should be a given for climate data providers, but I don't think that’s how it is done everywhere.

ClimateCheck: Why is it important to clearly communicate climate risk to consumers and businesses?

Daniel Swain: Climate science informs our understanding of climate-related risk, which impacts everyone. But often, the research itself doesn’t make it outside of the academic bubble. It’s important to have a communication bridge between the research and those who could benefit from it, because the information has real world implications. Contextualizing the data is just as important as the data itself, because you can have sound data that is presented poorly, or you could have a product that seems great but is actually built on shoddy data. ClimateCheck is transparent in communicating the sources of data and methodology and strives to communicate scientific nuance.

ClimateCheck: What are the consequences of unclear science communication?

Daniel Swain: Unclear communication is problematic, because people are going to rely on this research. And if it looks like the information could be correct, I think a lot of folks are just going to assume that it is and that the company, institution or individual researcher has done their due diligence. Ultimately, the goal should be to produce something that is compelling because it is accurate and interpretable. It’s also important to communicate that what “accurate” means in this context and set expectations accordingly, since the nature of science is that some answers will evolve over time. Climate science is always advancing. Climate science communicators — such as academic researchers like myself, as well as data providers like ClimateCheck — need to acknowledge uncertainty and revise their messaging and what they are putting out there as the science evolves and more data becomes available. It is important to think about what the scientific uncertainties are, and to use the most relevant data for a product, rather than the most convenient dataset. I think that’s the most honest and scientifically defensible approach, and I also think savvy consumers of information realize this.

ClimateCheck: Do businesses need to be wary of inaccurate climate risk information?

Daniel Swain: There is this idea that I and some other folks call the “use and abuse” of climate data in the fields of finance, insurance and reinsurance, where there is a scramble to get data and be the first entity in the market to fill an information void. Sometimes companies use data that is nice and shiny but not necessarily accurate or appropriate for that specific product. The problem is, if you start selling products based on this data, people start making decisions on the basis of them. Those may end up not being the best decisions. Something that I appreciate about ClimateCheck is the explicit desire to  communicate uncertainty and that the underlying datasets are constantly improving over time, based on the most updated and reliable information and models. So it’s not that the information will always be perfect. But the key question is: are you presenting the most accurate information that you have at this moment? And at the same time, are you communicating that there may be new and better information in the future?

ClimateCheck: What challenges make it difficult to communicate climate risk in an easy-to-understand way?

Daniel Swain: Certain important aspects of the science are still developing, and by giving in to the pressure to provide certainty, you end up compromising on the quality of your analysis. There can also be a lot of variation among scientists in how certain climate-related hazards are defined and measured, which makes it difficult to communicate the nuance for the general public. An example of this is how drought is discussed. Some scientists focus on a lack of precipitation as a primary or even sole metric for drought, while others also consider how drought can come about through very warm temperatures and high evaporation. And then there are definitions of drought that are not just a question of what the climate is doing — it’s also a question of human water management. So there’s the challenge on the data side of how to come up with drought metrics that encompass the full spectrum of drought and what drought actually means for people and the environment. This is something that we’ve been working on at ClimateCheck. We’re working on honing how we convey the nuance of drought to a broad audience. The goal is to keep closely following the best available science, which evolves over time, and adapting as our understanding evolves and more data becomes available.

ClimateCheck: How does a business or enterprise know whether a climate data provider offers accurate information?

Daniel Swain: It’s often really difficult to discern what information is accurate unless you have the appropriate technical background. A lot of people running investing firms or insurance companies don’t have backgrounds in climate science, which is understandable. This situation puts the onus on climate risk data providers to establish credibility as companies that take accuracy seriously, as opposed to trying to always be first and have the newest and shiniest product. One thing that is very important in evaluating a climate data provider is transparency. When I’m advising a company on whether a particular data product is reliable, the first thing that I do is look at the experts on the team.I also look to see how transparent that data provider is in explaining their methodology and data itself. It’s important that providers are clear in explaining where their data comes from, how they analyze it, and the limitations of their data and analyses. This is another thing that sets ClimateCheck apart from other data providers, because we explain what key metrics we look at for each hazard type, which enhances credibility and trust in ClimateCheck’s products.

Looking to incorporate climate into your risk assessments?