Communicating Climate Change

Even as the science of climate change has grown stronger and more compelling, public acceptance has grown weaker and more partisan. A recent guest of the Woods Hole Research Center and the Marine Biological Laboratory, renowned climate change communications specialist Susan Joy Hassol recently presented a range of causes for this dilemma and demonstrated how we can improve our communication.

Climate change. Many find the topic difficult to understand, while others find it difficult to communicate. Fortunately research done by social scientists sheds light on the matter. Ms. Hassol shared some of the findings and conducted a workshop to teach scientists how to better communicate their work.

Part of the problem is that scientists often struggle to articulate the facts for a general audience. For a start they like to use phrases like ‘positive feedback’ and ‘degrees of uncertainty,’ and words like ‘sequestration’ and ‘aerosols.’ However, the average person might think that a positive feedback loop is good, when it’s not, or that a degree of uncertainty means that scientists don’t know what they’re talking about, when they do, or that aerosol is a can of hairspray.

One of the things that makes us human is the ability to talk to each other; yet now, faced with one of the most threatening global situations in the history of human civilization, we’re doing a dismal job of just that. Ms. Hassol says that much of it has to do with context.

  • People have a limited ability to worry. If they’re overwhelmed, they can’t think clearly or act well.
  • With limited time and resources to learn about and analyze global warming, it’s easier to learn about it via powerful misinformation campaigns, businesses and groups with a strong interest in status quo.
  • A lot of very intelligent and wealthy people don’t want the general public to engage with climate disruption issues, because they think it would cost more to fix the problem than to live with it.
  • Most people don’t like change.

SBCfire

Talk about things happening here and now, like this forest fire in Santa Barbara County. Courtesy USFS.

 
What does the great body of climate science tell us? From satellite imagery down to field measurements and surveys, virtually all scientists (98%) agree that this is the Earth’s most drastic warming period ever (the start coinciding with the beginning of the industrial revolution), and that our use of fossil fuels is causing it. The good news is that US science is trusted by 75% of the American people. This leaves us with an important conclusion for scientists in general. They should look at how they can improve the way they talk about their findings, in the process engaging the public in an honest conversation about climate disruption and what is needed to address it.

Ms. Hassol suggests that scientists can do the following:

  • Be prepared to correct misconceptions about what causes global warming—it’s not the ozone hole; toxic wastes, aerosol sprays, or volcanoes (historic evidence shows cooling beneath volcanic clouds), or increased solar radiation (NASA satellites have measured this and found it contributes less than 10% to the numbers).
  • Do the math, calculate and communicate in quantitative analogies that people can understand, for example, “Did you know that the annual water flow generated by melting Greenland ice is equal to 225 times the water used by the city of Los Angeles in the same period?”
  • Talk about things happening here and now: climate disruption is causing drought in Texas, flooding in the midwest, forest fires in California, rising sea level in Woods Hole.
  • Talk about solutions, about meeting the challenge, innovation, opportunity, economic growth, multiple benefits, and American pragmatism—all of which are needed to address the problem, and which have long been embodied in the national psyche.
  • Look at ways to get entire communities fired up about saving energy; many US towns—and the entire state of California—are achieving remarkable savings.

What works? Frame a few well-chosen points in a memorable message using analogies, metaphors and stories. When friends and family ask WHRC Senior Scientist Josef Kellndorfer to describe his work, for example, he uses the analogy of a radiologist. “A radiologist uses imagery to diagnose and treat disease in the human body,” says Dr. Kellndorfer. “We use satellite imagery to monitor and assess ecosystems on patient Earth.” He then shares his Earth observation findings with policy makers.

“Lead with what you know, appealing to shared values and describe positive ideas and solutions,” advises Ms. Hassol, who emphasizes that environmental science communicators should not play Chicken Little, but rather The Little Engine That Could.

Nobody said that learning to communicate the facts about climate disruption would be easy, but scientists are determinedly stepping up to the challenge. “There is a very fine balance between communicating the urgency of climate change and that we must do something about it, and just communicating doom and gloom,” summarizes WHRC Postdoctoral Fellow Marcia Macedo, who attended the workshop. “We have to get people feeling engaged, and show them that they can help solve the problem. Focusing entirely on the negative just makes people want to give up.” Dr. Macedo’s current research focuses on land use dynamics and ecological tradeoffs associated with agricultural expansion in the Amazon.

“I work at the interface of deforestation and food production,” adds another workshop attendee, Postdoctoral Fellow Gillian Galford. “I was challenged to think about how I present the importance of my work and findings in the form of a story, and how I adjust it to be audience-specific. I would need to tell one version to an indigenous group, but a different version to a large-scale venture that is trading directly with Europe.”


Susan Joy Hassol has worked for over 20 years to help communicate the science of climate change to a wide variety of audiences. She has written and edited numerous high-level reports, testified before Congress, written an HBO documentary, and appeared on national radio and television shows. She is currently concerned with helping climate scientists improve their communication and with improving media coverage of climate change. Visit her website at www.climatecommunication.org.

Watch the event video.