Getting Personal with Climate Change

If the crowd is any indicator, the standing-room only session on “Communicating the Climate Change Crisis” was front and center to the WREF 2012 conference.  Chair Chuck Kutscher opened the session by acknowledging frustration in conveying the world-wrecking gravity of the climate change crisis to the distracted and disbelieving many who could change it.  Climate change remains in the realm of political opinion, and “the science is not getting through.”   It sinks to the bottom of the list of national concerns despite evidence that consistently overcomes challenge and attack.  The blind-eye bent of our psychology stacks up bestselling climate change denial books to overshadow the climate change science tomes moldering on the academic shelves.   Psychology, politics, and entrenched economies all conspire to waste dearly-needed time.  Sometimes it pays not to dig too deeply for a reason:  (“I think plain old money is behind a lot of this,” says Kutscher), but this session is about how to reach people on a topic that still strikes many as dark science fiction.

Polar bears aren’t enough – people have to see the human face of climate change. [Photo Credit: Ralph Lee Hopkins, National Geographic
Most of the speakers challenged the common-sense notion that people act when provided with good reasons to do so.  Studies have shown that the more people are exposed to information and required to register an opinion, the more polarized they become in those opinions.  Research also shows that when we know a lot about a problem, we often don’t feel that we need to do anything about it.  Information alone can’t solve a problem – as in the case of well-predicted disasters such as the French heat waves and Hurricane Katrina.  Playing upon fear (when the enemy is ourselves) is perceived as manipulative and can backfire into apathy and denial when the capacity for worry is extinguished.  The disconnect between individual concrete action and immediate consequence exacerbates the problem.

Most speakers also acknowledged that the native language of science is greek to nonscientists.  “We are privileged to be sitting here in a dark windowless room talking about this,” says Max Boykoff, author of Who Speaks for the Climate?   Busy people have a hard time committing to a still-emerging problem, and the cautious, hedging jargon of climate change scientists does not have the crispness and brevity required by the mass media competing for their attention.  Tom Yulsman, who began covering the climate change problem in 1984, pointed out that mass media is a mixed blessing to the communication of polarizing issues.  When media is democratized, opinion is untested, experts are devalued, and “civil discourse is out the window.”

All the speakers had solutions for speaking in today’s vernacular.  Max Boykoff encourages us to embrace infotainment – to mobilize analogies and reduce abstraction, and to place hooks (like the hockey-stick curve of carbon emissions and temperature).   Lisa Dilling, of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, had a checklist:

  • Emphasize common interest among the stakeholders, as in the Montreal Protocol that has been successful in phasing out ozone-depleting emissions.
  • Make action easy.  Recognize that consumer choice is not driven by environmental interests – climate benefits must be built into other desires, as in equipment efficiency standards.
  • Stay true to the science.  State what is known and unknown.  Don’t take shortcuts in attributing extreme events to climate change.  The argument must stay watertight.
  • Keep goals realistic and attainable, and speak to a reasonable timeframe for solutions.


Drought is predicted for already arid areas. Here, in Gujarat. [Photo Credit: Amit Dave, Reuters
There is no silver bullet in this crisis, but our best angle illuminates the scale and the human face of widespread climate change.  Dennis Dimick, who as the Executive Editor of National Geographic has been communicating climate change in full color, knows how to help people visualize our twisted carbon cycle.  Coal is ancient photosynthesis, he says.  “We are burning a million years of photosynthesis each year.”  National Geographic’s legendary photos and graphics get the message through.   How do you make climate change personal?  Drought, famine, desertification – and the human consequences of 5-10% less total rain in already poor areas for each degree of warming.  This is a global security issue on a very human level, and we respond to what we see, not what we read.

Climate change is still emerging for most people.  There is some consensus on the existence of the problem, but there is polarization on who is responsible, and no agreement on solutions.  By embracing our everpresent graphic media, and by avoiding its pitfalls, we can help the human impact of climate change to become a conscious reality before it becomes a physical one.

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