Scientists have been talking about global climate change for years, but sometimes it seems like we are speaking a language that no one else understands (otherwise, there would have been major changes by now, right??). Well it turns out, we have been speaking a foreign language. Most scientists are familiar with Climate Change 101, but now it is time for us all to learn Climate Change Communication 101.
UNC’s Institute for the Environment recently hosted a seminar on communicating climate science led by Susan Joy Hassol, the Senior Science Writer for the 2014 US National Climate Assessment. Climate change is usually not my blogging topic of choice, but I think it is critical that every scientist becomes more effective at communicating science, especially topics as pressing as our global climate. For some SciCom background, check out some of our previous posts on science stories and other science communication suggestions. Here I’d like to share some of Susan Joy Hassol’s tips and insights for finally making climate science click.
1. Get to the Point
With all of the misinformation and misunderstanding about climate, we need to focus on the real story and make it easy to understand. Scientists are used to the convention of Background Info, Scientific Methods, Results, then Discussion, but the general public wants the bottom line first. We need to keep that in mind when communicating about climate change. Don’t lose your audiences’ attention by starting with the background first. Instead, get right to the point and tell the story that needs to be told. Susan Joy Hassol suggests this simple statement that conveys all of the necessary points: 1) Climate change is happening now. 2) We know it is due to humans. 3) Climate change directly affects us. 4) 97% of climate scientists have concluded the previous statements. 5) We can do something about it.
2. Choose Your Words Wisely
We need to stop thinking about science communication as “dumbing down” the science. Susan Joy Hassol explains, “The only thing ‘dumb’ would be trying to speak to someone in a language that they don’t understand… Don’t be the American tourist in Paris that just speaks louder and expects to be understood. Use the appropriate language.” Like any “new language,” science communication takes practice but it is extremely important. For example, the image to the right shows words that mean different things to scientists and to the public. A mistake many people have made is using words that imply climate change is a “belief” or that scientists “agree” as if it is opinion. We need to make it clear that climate change is simply a scientifically proven process that is happening now. Also, the wording of our statements matters. Words affect how people feel and that affects how they think. For example, “Climate change is our fault” evokes guilt that can cause people to shut down, while “We are the cause of climate change, so it is our responsibility” evokes a feeling of responsibility and an urge to act. Words can even influence how people react to scientific evidence. Campbell and Kay 2014 found that when people were told that solutions to climate change involved “government regulations,” they rejected climate science. When others were presented “free market solutions,” they accepted the climate science.
3. Don’t Forget the Human Factor
We have all seen the images of polar bears clinging to melting sea ice to demonstrate climate change. Now this may come as a shock, but not everyone cares about polar bears. But you can bet that most humans care about humans, or at least themselves. We have to start explaining how climate change is a human problem, not just an environmental problem. It is not about saving the Earth; the Earth will survive. The question is, will human life as we know it be able to survive? Relating to your audience is a critical part of science communication and we need to make climate science matter to everyone, because global climate certainly affects all of us. This can also be helpful when speaking to people who already have an extremely closed mind about anything involving the words “climate change.” Instead of banging your fist against a closed door, try taking the “side door” approach of explaining all the human health and potential economic and social benefits of reducing our energy consumption and CO2 emissions.
4. Stay Positive
While we need to make the issue and threat of climate change known, that is not the end of the story. We also need to talk about how humans can be the solution. It is well known in science communication that people respond better to positive stories than to the usual doom and gloom. If we talk about climate change as an insurmountable problem, then why should anyone even try to do anything about it? Instead, we should present it as an issue that human ingenuity can actually solve. Susan Joy Hassol gave an interesting perspective: Climate change is a man-made problem. But that means it has man-made solutions. If it was just happening naturally, we couldn’t do much to stop it. (Humans have a bad track record at trying to control nature…) But (luckily?) we know how we have caused climate change, and we know what we need to do to about it. End your climate change communication with the possibility of hope so that people will understand the problem and want to be a part of the solution.