Problems & Solutions: Climate Communications
We are capable of just about any radical, unthinkable change when we are convinced it’s necessary. That’s where good communication comes into play: to help see the need for change, envision a future to work towards, and outline how to make that future a reality.
This logic applies to just about anything in life — climate change included. Without the proper communication of climate information (the science, its effects, its solutions, pathways for action), we cannot make informed decisions with clarity and good judgment. That is why I attended the UN Climate Action Summit and Climate Week NYC, and am on my way to the C40 World Mayors Summit in Copenhagen: to show that good communicators are at the forefront of the fight against climate change.
I was pleased to attend numerous events around climate communications. The New Republic and The New School brought journalists and activists together to discuss media coverage of climate change, The Climate Group brought businesses, creatives and NGOs together to discuss how they can raise awareness among consumers, and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication hosted a talk to discuss How to Talk About Climate Change to Your Friends and Family.
Below are my takeaways from these events.
We rely on scientists to communicate the science for us, but it’s not their job. They are not trained as communicators. They are trained to be on the cutting-edge, conduct research, put out reports, and move on to the next scientific pursuit. It is not their job to be public figures, distill the science in more accessible terms for the public, and repeat it over and over again. For many scientists, the fear of being called alarmist often holds them back. In more extreme cases, scientists put their personal lives at stake when they speak out. This was the case for scientist Michael Mann (and his family) who received death threats for simply doing his job.
Misperceptions around climate change prevent us from having constructive conversations. At The New Republic panel discussion, Genevieve Guenther from EndClimateSilence.org said climate deniers continue to exploit the semantic ambiguity of the word ‘uncertainty.’ Uncertainty as we know it (= something may or may not occur), does not mean the same as uncertainty in science (= something will occur, it depends how much). Yet deniers used this misperception to their advantage, convincing people that the science was still unsettled, which created a public debate that we are still caught in today.
These misperceptions were fabricated by very well-funded disinformation campaigns, led by the most profitable companies in the world. They were also covered by the media in a way that gave equal weight to both sides – facts vs. denial. That false balance in the media politicized science and bought corporate polluters more time to maintain the status quo, which brings me to my next point.
Climate change reporting is problematic. In terms of quantity, there is simply not enough reporting on climate change given the gravity of the situation. When climate-induced events occur (e.g. extreme weather, migration), the media focuses on the facts and direct consequences of an event and rarely attributes it to the climate crisis. In terms of quality and form, climate reporting is either too brief or too dense, too political or scientific, and typically unpopular. In a world of sensationalism and catchy headlines, media communicators don’t dig deep enough and are inhibited by the fear of being dubbed too technical and/or militant to their readers.
Let’s start by making climate information more accessible. Vox climate reporter Arielle Duhaime Ross gave me with this very useful tip: “pretend you’re talking to a really intelligent 7-year-old.” To go one step further, the objective is not to dumb down the information, but to crystallize it, says Meehan Crist from Columbia University. Adapt the information to an audience based on the knowledge, values and shared experience they hold. We must meet our audiences where they are, not where we are, and use the platforms that most resonate with them.
Let’s promote new ways of talking about climate change. Because climate change does not fit into the traditional news format (is it in the political section, the science section?), there is an opportunity to break molds and unlock new communication platforms. People need to learn about the climate crisis through new literary forms, such as science fiction novels, poetry, rap, comedy, music, and so much more. More accessible information, expressed in more ways, will allow us to step outside of the echo-chamber of climate communications and invite more people into the conversation.
Let’s brighten up the conversation. As Anthony Leiserowitz from Yale once said, “we have done a far better job communicating the problems of climate change rather than its solutions.” These new literary forms listed above thus have a role to play: communicate solutions and create positive future scenarios in which we’ve risen above climate change. It is so difficult to be actively engaged when you cannot envision the seemingly impossible. If exposed to brighter narratives, people will be more inclined to work toward a future they want rather than to run away from what’s to come.
That kind of forward-looking communication leads to the acceptance of our reality, the clarity of what’s to come, and the confidence that we can meet the climate challenge.
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