Wednesday, March 30, 2011

It's Not Easy Being Green, or Talking About it, Either.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you are more likely than most to accept the fact that there are changes in the earth's environment that are a result of human action, and that most of these changes are detrimental to our quality of life and that of future generations. The scientists call this anthropogenic climate change. Similarly, you are probably frustrated with the influence that the corporate-funded denial industry has on the debate – especially when the facts are so clear that the need for a “debate” on this topic seems silly.

Yet, a large segment of the public is either skeptical about climate change or actively denies that it exists. To address this issue, a group of scientists and journalists convened today at Rutgers University at a seminar entitled, “Communicating About Climate Change - Research and Practice.”

The symposium, sponsored by the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences on the Cook Campus, started with scientifically dispassionate presentations by a panel of experts – a Yale climatologist, a Rutgers ecologist, a government researcher, and an environmental journalist. There were a number of themes in the experts’ presentations:

When advocating for action to mitigate the effects of anthropogenic climate change, know your audience.  Studies have shown that 11% of the American population is dismissive about climate change and 12% are doubtful. Scientists and advocates should instead target the 31% that are concerned and the 23% that are cautious.

There are myriad reasons why communications on anthropogenic climate change have been ineffective to date. Showing stranded polar bears and melting ice caps may resonate with diehard tree huggers, but most Americans don’t live in the Arctic and those images are not effective. Likewise, when scientists talk about a four degree rise in the sea temperatures, most people are dismissive. After all, we are all familiar with much greater temperature variations in our weather. But one scientist compared a four degree change in sea temperature to a four degree rise in our body temperature. If your body temperature is 102.6, you are very sick.

The consensus of the speakers was that climate change science is difficult to understand and Americans tend to be anti-intellectual, making fact-based mass communication difficult. This is compounded by the fact that scientists tend to embrace uncertainty. No reputable scientist will say such-and-such will happen with 100% probability, yet Americans tend to hold climate scientists to a higher standard than they do other scientists, for example meteorologists.

Up to now, scientists have been reluctant to engage with climate contrarians, but to paraphrase the great philosopher Sarah Palin, “how’s that non-engagement stuff workin’ out for ya so far?”

Finally, scientists need to understand that the old communications paradigms are no longer valid. “We don’t all watch Walter Cronkite anymore” was how one scientist put it; and when the vast majority of the American public gets its information from Fox “News,” scientists need to be on the offensive using all of the other new media outlets that are available.

Along those lines, the the panelists agreed that scientists must be more proactive in educating the public. But this is a double-edged sword, because once scientists become advocates; this tends to call their scientific credibility into question. Hence, it was suggested that scientists stress education and leave the persuasion to the various advocacy groups. The major areas that the group felt the public needs education on are the difference between climate and weather (“Climate informs us on what wardrobe to buy, but weather tells us what to wear that day.”) and the emphasis on the long-term nature of the actions to mitigate the problem. Because of the vast nature of the earth’s ecosystems and the damage done since the Industrial Revolution, actions taken today may not show benefits for generations.

When asked by one non-science student about a resource that could convince her friends and family about the seriousness of the problem, one panelist mentioned an upcoming PBS series – “Earth – The Operators’ Manual,” which is set to be broadcast in April

While there is sharp division in the political sphere on the reality of climate change, as one scientist put it, “Climate change is not like Passover. It won’t only hit Democrats.” That’s the message that scientists and activists need to effectively communicate

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