Study Calls for Clearer Communication of Climate Data

Study Calls for Clearer Communication of Climate Data

ASU Sr. Sustainability Scientist Dr. Nalini Chhetri (second from left) describes a picture she drew to illustrate the language barriers between the science community and emergency managers. The question of how to improve communication between the two was a major focus of a Climate and Risk Management Workshop held at DEMA on July 13.

PHOENIX--“We (academics and policy makers) do not do a good enough job communicating the importance of mitigation planning” Dr. Nalini Chhetri explained, holding up a picture of two deadpan faces drawn in blue marker.

“Poor communication of climate science,” she said to others at her table, “is one of the important reasons mitigation planning [for climate extremes, threats, impacts and resulting risks] is not being made a priority.”

The observation that mitigation planning for extreme weather impacts is getting short shrift—was the focus of daylong discussion at a Climate and Risk Management Workshop hosted by the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA) on July 13.

The workshop brought together representatives of federal, state, tribal and local government; academia; and the military to consider the findings of a study conducted by the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University (ASU).

Chhetri, a Sr. Sustainability Scientist at the Wrigley Institute, was one of five lead investigators whose job was to help improve how climate science data—and the extremes it portends—is presented so as to inspire increased investment in risk mitigation and planning for severe weather events.

The research team based its eventual recommendations on data collected in more than 40 interviews with emergency and risk management professionals, and observations made during hazard mitigation meetings in Maricopa and Coconino counties.

ASU and DEMA presented their findings at a workshop for emergency and risk management stakeholders in Flagstaff in May 2015, and summarized them in a white paper titled [The] Current State of [the] Mitigation Planning System in the Southwest: Identified Gaps and Recommendations for Increased Efficacy.

The paper identifies several knowledge and communication breaks, including a shortage of objective climate information, which have resulted in the emergency management community at large basing mitigation planning decisions on “perceived risk rather than true risk.”

Decisions are often made according to perceived risk because climate change data is not readily available. Moreover, when the information is at hand it isn’t written in plain language, which fosters miscommunication and misunderstanding—both obstacles to getting local jurisdictions to plan for extreme weather events.

“The science community publishes a tremendous amount of climate information that isn’t easily translated into user friendly formats for risk managers,” said Anthony Cox, DEMA Assistant Director of Operations and Coordination, and a member the investigative team. “As a result, emergency managers plan for immediate hazards (or those they have empirical evidence of) instead of 10 to 50 years into the future.”

Participants in the aforementioned workshop thought that comprehension of climate data would improve if the information were articulated at a fourth-grade level and presented as graphics. One of Chhetri’s hopes is that the study will lead to changes in the variety of climate information offered and its presentation.

DEMA Deputy Director Wendy Smith-Reeve doesn’t need to be convinced of the communication and knowledge gaps between climate scientists, elected officials and emergency managers; she knows they are there. Her focus—and that of most in the room on July 13—is bridging those divisions.

“We must learn how to communicate complex [scientific] information to emergency managers and decision-makers,” said Smith-Reeve. “We must find ways to make information on climate change accessible and actionable at a local level. It’s no exaggeration to say the conversation that we have here today is critical to our success in buying down future risk.”

Hazard mitigation planning is done to reduce the impact of emergencies and disasters on people, property and the environment. The DEMA Planning Branch maintains the State Hazard Mitigation Plan and provides planning assistance to local and tribal governments. FEMA requires state and tribal governments have hazard mitigation plans as a prerequisite to receiving disaster recovery funds after a presidentially-declared disaster. Local jurisdictions must have plans to receive grant funding for mitigation projects.

For more information on the hazard mitigation planning process at DEMA or to read the State of Arizona Hazard Mitigation Plan (2013), visit

The Global Institute of Sustainability,, is part of the ASU School of Sustainability. The Institute is focused on “use-inspired” research in pursuit of “practical solutions to some of the most pressing social, economic, and environmental challenges of sustainability.”