The Science of Communicating Climate Science
By Thomas Anderson
There is now a body of science devoted to the communication of climate science, in particular, how to communicate this complex subject to non-experts. Progress on changing our collective addiction to fossil fuels has been greatly limited by many factors that go into our understanding of climate change and what we can do about it. So how do we communicate more effectively when we are talking about climate change? This is the question Joana Tavares is asking in addition to her PhD studies at UC Irvine.
“The Science of Communicating Climate Science: Strategies I’ve Tried and New Approaches to Test” was the title of the presentation Joana gave to 30+ people on October 17 at Bolsa Chica State Beach Visitor Center. Joana asked the audience about their perceptions of climate change. Are scientists united on the cause? Do solutions to the problem already exist? What are the causes of our inability to act?
The science on climate change—the effects of increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—has been clear and known since 1959. 97 per cent of scientists on Earth agree that climate change is real and caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Global CO2 emissions continue to rise on every continent except Europe. All the technology currently exists to make an immediate switch to clean energy. If we weighed the costs of this massive change against the cost of mitigating damages caused by increasing floods, droughts, more intense weather, disruption to economies and food production, it would not cost a cent more to make the switch.
These facts, however, are mostly lost to the failure of effective communication. Politicians and corporations exploit this failure. The Yale Program on Climate Change, climatecommunication.yale.edu, conducts scientific research on public climate change knowledge, attitudes, policy preferences, and behavior at the global, national, and local scales. It has found that our opinions about climate change are shaped more by cultural issues and experiences than by simple knowledge of facts. Political orientation and educational attainment affect our views more than access to information. We all process new information through filters, through our “baggage.” Studies have shown that around the world people align information with their political views. In the United States, conservativism creates a strong filter regardless of the amount of education, and climate change is often perceived as a “liberal” issue. Values and emotions determine behavior and beliefs.
How then, Joana asks, do we effectively discuss climate change with others? Through trial and error she has found four keys that assist effective communication. First, know your audience. Be respectful. Use facts of scientific consensus but understand that not everyone speaks the same language or cares about the same specifics. Discern whether you are talking to people who are concerned or who will never be convinced. You cannot simply tell someone he or she is wrong or make them feel guilty. Second, be human. Do not be afraid to show that you are vulnerable, afraid, excited; find your voice. Worry, interest and hope were the strongest words associated with people who are concerned about climate change. Tell personal stories about your direct observations and experiences in nature to which your audience can relate. However, do not feed into fear. Fear paralyzes and disempowers, fear makes people think there is nothing they can do.
Third, be prepared for everything but do not take what comes personally. Understand how everyone is shaped by his or her emotions and cultural experience. Know when to be silent or walk away. Fourth and last, focus on what is most important: pathways to solutions. Talk about the economic benefits of growing clean energy sources: “Aren’t great new jobs already coming out of our demands for change?” Most people care if they do not personally know how to effect change.