Sunday, July 13, 2014

Speaking About Climate Change

Is this the important battle to win?
In a recent post (Climate Change is Real...And?), I laid out my views on global climate change. To summarize: claiming climate change does not exist is as foolish as claiming the Earth is flat or that the Sun goes around the Earth. At the same time, I'm very critical of the way climate scientists and environmentalists engage the public on this subject. By focusing on models that do not credibly prove their often hysterical predictions for the future, I believe climate scientists have not only have encouraged the irrational skepticism they complain about, but they have also drawn attention away from the real problems society faces related to this issue. 

Happily, in what can only be described as an ‘at last!’ moment, a major news outlet (BBC) has instructed its journalists to stop giving air time to those who deny climate change is real. In doing so, the BBC is helping to shift the popular discourse around climate change from the three-ring circus of extremist politics to the public policy discussion it should be. As Sir Mark Walport - Government Chief Scientific Advisor (GCSA) in the UK - pointed out in a recent Guardian article, society needs to discuss how to respond to climate change. This includes investigating the role of science and technology, the pros and cons of alternative energy sources, and even the impact of livestock. 

Walport goes on to make an even more important point. He states: "We can only have a good conversation about this if we have good communication from the scientists. More scientists need to do it and they need to do it well." The italics are mine, used to emphasize that part of the reason the public discourse on this subject is so poor is because scientists have spent too much time discussing 'climate change' which, as a concept, is not intuitive enough to drive public consensus.

To explain what I mean by this, remember that one reason it was hard to shake geocentrism as a belief (aside from the violently anti-science mentality of the Catholic Church) is that when you look at the sky you see the Sun, Moon, and stars move across it, set, and then rise. From this, it's easy to conclude the wrong thing: that everything revolves around Earth. Climate change faces the same scenario. It's easy to have doubts about the Earth heating up when you experience the coldest Spring in recent memory or a winter with especially heavy snow. Normal observation appears to directly contradict the claim. People roll their eyes and say, "Oh you know those scientists..." 

Of course, scientists do try to explain why cold springs and heavy snow don't disprove climate change. However, at this stage, the debate is already lost. To crystallize: by focusing on 'climate change' scientists have run the public discourse off the rails in a way that makes it virtually impossible to get back on track. The public discourse will never go anywhere as long as the focus is climate change theory or the veracity of some model predicting weather in 2114. As Walport says, scientists need to talk about climate and "they need to do it well". Rather than improving the quantity of engagement, I would argue scientists must improve the quality of what they say. 

To this end, let's identify some of the many tactics scientists and environmentalists have used for ages to communicate about climate change. These tactics have given climate science a bad name, have simply failed to get the public discourse moving in a productive direction, and need to be abandoned:
  • Inciting Hysteria - The Eastern-seaboard-will-be-underwater-by-2050 stuff may be entertaining in Hollywood disaster movies, but scientists who spout it just come off as shrill and alarmist. Besides, these kinds of claims are based on models, which are not evidence of anything. Keep your credibility by leaving the crystal-gazing to the astrology folks.
  • 'Could Scenarios' - As in: "We could see another dust bowl develop in the US heartland". Yeah, that's interesting and...I could die in plane hijacked by a jihadist. There could be an Ebola pandemic next year. You could get skin cancer from too much sun exposure. There's a reason people ignore warnings of what could happen: because most of it doesn't. 'Could Scenarios' are a one-way ticket to irrelevance.
  • By 2030... - See inciting hysteria and 'could' scenarios. Don't waste people's time with your theories about the future. If you want people in 2014 to act then talk to them about 2014.
  • Tugging at Heartstrings - The most obvious example of this is the recent PR polar bears facing extinction. I know people will hate me for this but...who cares? Don't get me wrong, I care. I would love to save polar bears. However, if they do go extinct, it's not going to really impact me. And, more importantly, it's not going to impact 99.9% of human beings. If you want to mobilize people, you've got talk about something that measurably impacts them.
  • Days of Future Past - Examples: "Living in cities will become unhealthy" or "starvation will become widespread". Uh. Huh. Excuse me, what planet are you living on? 
  • Gibberish - Example: "In some models, ocean currents appear to be disrupted, potentially leading to a possible....." - The ..... is me not listening to you anymore as you drone on about something that may or may not happen at some unknown point in the future and which may or may not cause such and such to some unknown degree and I don't really understand any of it anyway...oh look, there's a new episode of The Kardashians on! 
Avoiding these tactics would eliminate most of the climate change discussion everyday people are most often exposed to. So what should scientists and environmentalists talk about instead? Two broad areas: here and now. I argue that scientists will be much more persuasive if they build intuitive sensible talking points focused on what's really happening right now. The only further requirement is that the talking points address topics broad swaths of people are affected by (i.e., no polar bears). Just a few examples of the desired tonality:

  • Due to changing weather patterns, yields from several crops have shrunk [insert %], leading to higher prices for a wide range of food [give examples].
  • Water acidification levels have destroyed coral reefs which harms sea life we depend on for food
  • Due to shifting weather, firefighters are seeing increased wild fires causing [insert damage in dollars per year]
  • Chart the annual cost of damage from storm surges in adjusted dollars over the last twenty years.
  • Hotter temperatures in recent years have slowed productivity of agricultural, transportation, and construction workers by [insert percentage] a year, leading to [insert dollar impact]
Note that there are no apocalyptic predictions here. No abstract climate change gibberish. Just concrete problems that are demonstrable in the here and now and in dollars and cents. They are also about topics (food, the economy, and disasters) that people care about. The nice thing about moving away from a focus on climate change science is that these issues much more persuasively convey that there is a problem. Therefore these issues - unlike abstract, impersonal climate change discussions - are far more likely to motivate action.

Robert Rubin, economist and banking executive
Coming full circle, once the discourse goes in this direction it's going to get much easier to introduce the broader issue of climate change. For example, the recently released Risky Business report (click here to go to their very impressive website) brings together the acumen of business and risk management experts to quantify in detail what the projected costs of climate change are (and also what they will be). 

This approach would seem to run afoul of some of the 'don't do' suggestions made above. However, the Risky Business report has a huge edge in credibility given that it's produced by someone other than polar bear huggers and climate scientists. Further, by giving the discussion a concrete basis in the present, projections then become more relevant. Partnering with business people in this way will likely be critical to repair the damaged credibility of the climate change discourse and to get the discussion moving in a productive direction.

In summary, to be effective at mobilizing people in stemming the problems we face from climate change, scientists need to do more than follow Walport’s advice and speak about it. They need to get smart in how they speak about it. That means getting their heads out of their (ahem) climate models and talking about climate change in a way that is meaningful and credible to people in the here and now.

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