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Ogmius Newsletter

Something to Talk About: Rethinking Communication and Climate Change
by Lisa Dilling

This has been a tremendous year for climate change science. The capstone event, of course, was the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize jointly to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore. The citation reads: “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change”. Mr. Gore’s communication efforts are called out specifically by the Nobel Committee, which stated: “He is probably the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted [to combat climate change].”

And yet, when the 13th Conference of the Parties met last month in Bali for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, nations could only agree on a “roadmap” for a process of negotiation—actually adopting new measures was beyond the comfort level for the Parties involved at this juncture. The existing Kyoto Protocol, with its targets of reducing emissions at least 5% for the Parties involved, will not come close to preventing much higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. To keep CO2 from doubling or tripling from pre-industrial levels, much larger reductions are needed. And the challenge for adaptation has barely begun to be addressed by the existing international framework. With attention and awareness at perhaps an all time high, why have we not yet embarked upon an effective strategy to counteract and prepare for climate change?

I would submit that we are not yet talking about what we ought to be talking about in order to move forward. The documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” featuring Mr. Gore epitomizes our current approach to communicating about climate change—the slideshow that the film is based upon is nearly entirely devoted to the scientific causes and observed and anticipated impacts of climate change. Only perhaps a quarter of the movie touches upon the challenge of how we might respond, and even then the scope of the challenge is not truly discussed. The real “inconvenient truth” of the climate change story is how difficult it is to bring about the necessary changes, whether to our energy infrastructure, our transportation choices, or our preventative and adaptive capacity. And yet it is precisely discussion of these issues that is needed in order to move forward and respond to climate change.

Communicating about science is of course essential to bringing awareness of the problem to the world’s attention. Climate change is the kind of problem that “creeps up” on society (a term coined by Mickey Glantz at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, or NCAR) and without the discoveries and hard work of scientists, the issue would likely have remained undetected until large-scale impacts were at hand. But our communication and media coverage of the climate change issue now seem to predominantly consist of escalating frightening predictions of the future, documentation of rapid changes already occurring, and threats to species and humans in far flung corners of the globe. Advocacy groups have resorted to extreme imagery, such as a child about to be hit by a train, to depict the urgency of the issue and presumably spur people to action. The scientific findings about climate are not exaggerated, and the picture can be frightening, but the overall effect of this barrage of information is to overwhelm and “distance people from the problem” according to researchers at the Institute for Public Policy Research in the UK, who describe the language used by the media as “climate porn”. Andy Revkin of the New York Times sums this up on his blog, “dotearth”, by asking: “…If quiet warnings are ignored, and the politics of fear is as empty as pornography, what is a message on climate risks and responses that is true to the science, but also effective?”

My colleague Susi Moser of NCAR and I, along with about 40 other colleagues, pondered a similar question in 2003—why, given high levels of awareness, was the urgency to respond to climate not more evident in society? The disconnect between the urgency of the problem as perceived by scientists, compared with the societal perception of urgency, is an interesting conundrum. And this disconnect begs the question, how can the problem become more urgent, and therefore more of a priority for societal action? Various lines of evidence across disciplines, from psychology, to social marketing, to communication, suggest that appealing to fear is an ineffective strategy for motivating change on the issue. Similarly, the literature on the public understanding of science indicates that simply providing more scientific information is equally unlikely to motivate change. Both strategies have been heavily relied upon in communication on climate change to date.

Our survey of research thus far suggests that there are indeed other communication strategies that may prove more fruitful in motivating change on climate. With a problem so large and seemingly complex as climate change, it is important to communicate in such a way that audiences are empowered to act, rather than being made to feel afraid, and, potentially, despairing, rejecting or apathetic. The risk of just such reactions is a real one, as problems that are overwhelming can provoke denial or inaction as a coping strategy. Messages that include solutions that are practical and accessible can therefore be more effective. Of course the solutions that are discussed must also be effective, accessible, and realistically make a difference. It does no good to exhort an audience to take the bus more often if there are no practical routes that allow them to reach their daily destinations. Audiences can also experience a disconnect if the solution seems inordinately out of keeping with the scale of the problem (i.e. if we all just change our light bulbs we will fix the problem). Of course many actions do add up to a substantive difference, but it is important to keep a realistic perspective on the ultimate scope of the changes that will be necessary—i.e. at least an 80% reduction of CO2 emissions by many accounts.

Another strategy that may seem counter-intuitive is to not talk about climate at all. Experience at the city level suggests that other values, such as saving money, creating a desirable image, or keeping up with neighbors may be more effective motivators for saving energy, for example, than the less tangible message of combating climate change itself. Advocates have argued that reducing our oil consumption will have beneficial effects on national security (and, coincidentally, on our CO2 emissions as well). Improving a city’s resilience to future hurricanes or droughts is a win-win situation, as we know damages from these can already be devastating, regardless of what the future may bring in terms of climate change. Adaptation to climate is a conversation topic that has thus far remained fairly “taboo”, as some advocates for CO2 reduction measures have labeled such discussion as defeatist and even counterproductive to achieving emissions reductions. In reality, science tells us we will need to consider both mitigation of emissions and adaptation to impacts as we are committed already to a certain amount of climate change.

These brief examples suggest that the answer may not lie in increasing the urgency of climate change itself, but rather in finding ways to link everyday priorities to positive climate actions. By finding those actions that are compatible with climate goals and opening the discussion to solutions rather than emphasizing dire consequences, we just may spur the conversation towards more effective actions.

On a policy level, we also need a more realistic conversation about the scale of the problem. Examining the various measures to reduce emissions outlined in the “wedge” calculations of Pacala and Socolow in Science magazine in 2004, it becomes clear that any of the strategies would require a monumental effort in itself. For example, Pacala and Socolow estimate it would take 3500 ‘Sleipners’ (Norway’s experiment in carbon capture and storage in the North Sea) to reduce emissions by 1 gigaton a year (1 billion metric tons) by 2054.

Which brings me back to the efforts of Gore and scientists to communicate about climate change. Scientists often feel uncomfortable speaking about issues that they are not themselves experts in. When asked to discuss climate change, they will focus on the science, the part they feel they can evaluate with their technical expertise. Many will specifically say that they do not wish to go out on a limb to comment on policy, or discuss the implications of the scientific information they are presenting. As Susan Solomon, Co-Chair of Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and National Medal of Science recipient said in a recent interview with the Boulder Weekly: “I think the best service I can render is to keep my input on the scientific plane.” There are, of course, ways for scientists to partner with others who are experts in the policy options, but perhaps also this suggests that we need to look beyond scientists as the only catalysts for public conversation on climate. Fortunately, there are other leaders beginning to speak on climate—from those in the business community to those in evangelical churches across the nation. As James Rogers, the CEO of Duke Energy, one of the largest electric power companies in the U.S., puts it: “…I am convinced that it is prudent to take action now to address what we do know (about climate change).” [quoted on the Pew Center on Global Climate Change website.] Each leader finds what appeals to her or his constituency, and thus the message is transformed into something meaningful in its own context.

Ironically, Gore is in a perfect position to discuss the true challenge of climate change. As a national-level politician who has followed the issue for many years, he can speak to many of the thorny issues of the practical matter of switching energy systems, taxing carbon, raising fuel efficiency for vehicles, improving zoning laws in flood zones, encouraging better stewardship of water and other scarce resources, and so on. But Gore has thus far chosen to focus his communication on climate science. He follows the same logic as many others—that we need people to understand the science and its dire implications before we can expect people to act in response to climate change.

Until we rethink this logic, we are destined to repeat the same failures of communication of the past 30 years. We need to develop new strategies, new messengers, and new ways of stimulating discussion and action that will be effective to respond to the changes in climate that are upon us. Science tells us that we just don’t have another 30 years to wait.

Lisa Dilling