Cockpit Resource Management for climate scientists and policymakers

Climate scientists and political leaders could learn a lot from airline pilots.


Really, Bill? …and why tackle this today?

Why today? Because over the weekend, not one, but two influential environmental blogs with big readerships are touching on the subject – at least implicitly. In Dot Earth, Andy Revkin quotes Scripture (sort of) and asks readers to offer instances where they’ve found common ground with those of generally opposing climate-change views. Judging from the comment string, a few of his readers are struggling with his basic concept – let alone its execution. In Climate, Etc., Judith Curry posts on argument and authority in the climate fight, taking as her point of departure a post by that same title on the Council on Foreign Relations blog on Energy Security, and Climate. The CFR blogger, in reflecting on the recent dustup in the Wall Street Journal, is bemoaning scientists’ overuse of authority they’ve earned in their areas of expertise as a substitute for careful argument in other fields.


And because, fact is, if planes were piloted by (climate) scientists and politicians, airports and their environs would be a hellish landscape, littered with the wreckage and debris of crashed planes, awash with jet fuel, towers of flame sending huge plumes of black, oily smoke skyward.

And that’s not just because of any lack in piloting skills…but rather the result of how we scientists and our colleagues seem to prefer to communicate. We place (over)-much value on being right. We will go to great lengths to prove ourselves right. We’ll allow ourselves to be easily offended if someone suggests we’re wrong. We are prone to believe that a record of distinguished past accomplishment in science makes us right in the present, and to believe that distinguished accomplishment in one area makes us the expert voice in other contexts.

These attitudes have been tolerated – maybe even encouraged – for years in the climate-change arena.

By contrast, decades ago, airline pilots – our fellow human beings – recognized that same human frailty in themselves. They listened to the voice recordings from aviation accidents and near-misses. They could hear pilots and co-pilots mis-communicating, losing situational awareness. They heard garbled communications between pilots and air traffic controllers.

They saw this as more than an unfortunate human tendency. They saw it as a matter of life and death.

Driven in part by a survival instinct and in part by vigorous regulation and training, and under rigorous scrutiny by social scientists, especially psychologists, communication researchers, and others interested in organizational behavior, they established and continue to maintain programs of training aimed at stamping out such attitudes wherever they surface.

Want a flavor for this?

Then read this selected material excerpted from the Wikipedia entry on Crew Resource Management:

“CRM is concerned not so much with the technical knowledge and skills required to operate equipment but rather with the cognitive and interpersonal skills needed to manage resources within an organised system. In this context, cognitive skills are defined as the mental processes used for gaining and maintaining situational awareness, for solving problems and for making decisions. Interpersonal skills are regarded as communications and a range of behavioral activities associated with teamwork. In many operational systems as in other walks of life, skill areas often overlap with each other, and they also overlap with the required technical skills. Furthermore, they are not confined to multi-crew craft or equipment, but also relate to single operator equipment or craft as they invariably need to interface with other craft or equipment and various other support agencies in order to complete a mission successfully.

CRM training for crew has been introduced and developed by aviation organisations including major airlines and military aviation worldwide. CRM training is now a mandated requirement for commercial pilots working under most regulatory bodies worldwide, including the FAA (U.S.) and JAA (Europe). Following the lead of the commercial airline industry, the U.S. Department of Defense began formally training its air crews in CRM in the early 1990s. Presently, the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy require all air crew members to receive annual CRM training, in an effort to reduce to human-error caused mishaps.


CRM aims to foster a climate or culture where the freedom to respectfully question authority is encouraged. However, the primary goal of CRM is enhanced situational awareness, self awareness, leadership, assertiveness, decision making, flexibility, adaptability, event and mission analysis and communication. It recognizes that a discrepancy between what is happening and what should be happening is often the first indicator that an error is occurring. This is a delicate subject for many organizations, especially ones with traditional hierarchies, so appropriate communication techniques must be taught to supervisors and their subordinates, so that supervisors understand that the questioning of authority need not be threatening, and subordinates understand the correct way to question orders.

Cockpit voice recordings of various air disasters tragically reveal first officers and flight engineers attempting to bring critical information to the captain’s attention in an indirect and ineffective way. By the time the captain understood what was being said, it was too late to avert the disaster. A CRM expert named Todd Bishop developed a five-step assertive statement process that encompasses inquiry and advocacy steps:

  • Opening or attention getter – Address the individual. “Hey Chief,” or “Captain Smith,” or “Bob,” or whatever name or title will get the person’s attention.
  • State your concern – Express your analysis of the situation in a direct manner while owning your emotions about it. “I’m concerned that we may not have enough fuel to fly around this storm system,” or “I’m worried that the roof might collapse.”
  • State the problem as you see it – “We’re only showing 40 minutes of fuel left,” or “This building has a lightweight steel truss roof, and we may have fire extension into the roof structure.”
  • State a solution – “Let’s divert to another airport and refuel,” or “I think we should pull some tiles and take a look with the thermal imaging camera before we commit crews inside.”
  • Obtain agreement (or buy-in) – “Does that sound good to you, Captain?”

These are often difficult skills to master, as they may require significant changes in personal habits, interpersonal dynamics, and organizational culture.”

Or take a moment to look at this material lifted from a paper by Robert Baron, of the Aviation Consulting Group, entitled Barriers to Effective Communication: Implications for the Cockpit.

“In order to facilitate effective communication, one must understand how the process works. In its most basic model, two-way communication involves a sender, a message and a receiver. In some communications processes, communication might be one-way, but for the purpose of this paper, only the two-way process is identified. The following illustration shows the two-way communication process.

Sender (Encodes) >Message> Receiver (Decodes)> Receiver Becomes Sender and Encodes> Message> Receiver (Decodes)  (Zastrow, 2001)

When effective communication is at work, what the receiver decodes is what the sender sends (Zastrow, 2001). A breakdown in the communication process may occur if the intended message was not encoded or decoded properly. Comments may be taken the wrong way, a compliment may be taken as an insult, or a joke might be interpreted as a put-down (p.130). There may also be barriers in the transfer process; these barriers may include:

  • Noise, static
  • Multiple communications
  • Fatigue, stress
  • Distractions
  • Incomplete message
  • Ambiguous wording
  • Lack of credibility
  • Lack of rapport
  • Think in personal terms
  • Jargon
  • Boring

(Kirby, 1997)

Further examples of barriers to effective communication are extracted from the flight instruction domain. (2004) suggests that misunderstandings stem primarily from four barriers to effective communication:

1. Lack of common experience- The transfer of words from the instructor to the student are often misunderstood or not interpreted correctly. A communicator’s words cannot communicate the desired meaning to another person unless the listener or reader has had some experience with the objects or concepts to which these words refer. Many words in the English language mean different things to different people.

2. Confusion between the symbol and the symbolized object- Results when a word is confused with what it is meant to represent.

3. Overuse of abstractions- Overdependence upon words that are of a general nature rather than specific.

4. Interference- Includes physiological, environmental, and psychological interference.

(, 2004)”

[a quick note: go online, you can find many other references, and in these and other materials you can find transcribed conversations from cockpit voice recorders bringing the problem to life in the most vivid and tragic way. Those cited here just happened to be readily available.]

Might you and I recognize any similarities between the aviation context and the climate-change challenge here? Might we also see that we’re approaching the circumstances differently? In aviation, pilots, the companies they fly for, the airframe manufacturers, the federal agencies, and the flying public make flight safety paramount. All the actors subsume their egos in favor of this greater good. Fail to do so? They’re soon out of a job.

By contrast, when it comes to climate change, we seem instead to be standing on our individual rights. And note that we don’t get a free pass by claiming the problem isn’t real. Those pilots and co-pilots have the same problem. Often their key decision is determining whether or not to believe their instruments. [Is that light blinking because the landing gear haven’t lowered? Or is the sensor defective? Is the fuel tank empty? Or is the gauge faulty?]

Have some time? Then try the thought exercise of going through some of that CRM material and substituting the term climate scientists and policymakers for pilots and air traffic controllers, and make any other tweaks you think might make sense. Do you see parallels?


We usually see the aviation community as a highly-engineering-driven environment. But examination reveals a success story: harnessing social science to achieve a national goal. By contrast, when it comes to public safety in the face of natural hazards, or sustainable development, we’re struggling to replicate such success.

More soon.

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7 Responses to Cockpit Resource Management for climate scientists and policymakers

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