Can SciComm help tackle climate issues?
Are we just dividing ourselves further trying to communicate this issue?
Sheeva here - I hope you had a great summer and, if you’re a student, are settling in for a great semester. This summer, our weather here in Oklahoma was among the hottest I’ve experienced. One day, I went outside at the peak temperature of 109F just to feel what it was like. I didn’t like it. I missed our regular, hot but not unliveably hot weather.
Thanks to this summer’s heat wave, I couldn’t go outside for two weeks. I had to switch my exercise routine to an indoors one rather than go on my regular walks outside. I couldn’t wear makeup because it all smudged in the heat. The only solution was to stay indoors and stay in air conditioning which just uses up more fossil fuels and makes the problem worse.
I see evidence of climate change all around me, but I find it difficult to talk about. The main reason is that just the phrase “climate change” feels so political — hell-bent on undoing the energy industry backbone of red state economies in places like Oklahoma, West Virginia, Texas, and others. Here in Oklahoma, the energy industry is a main source of revenue for our state, and when there is volatility in the industry, it affects everyday Oklahomans.
Getting back to semantics, I like the phrase “climate resilience” used by FEMA. Some may argue I am tiptoe-ing around the topic rather than engaging with it, but isn’t that part of the problem? We’re talking past each other on this important environmental issue. If we can’t even have a conversation about this issue, how can we solve it?
Having done a ton of work in the COVID-19 vaccine communications space, I have some ideas for effective communication on environmental issues that can bridge partisan divides. Obviously, one key to communicating climate change is to make it real for people — what are the impacts, who is impacted, and why do those impacts matter? For me, the pinnacle of COVID-19 vaccine messaging was the takeaway is that the vaccines prevent severe hospitalization and death due to the virus. Can we come up with a similar takeaway when it comes to environmental issues?
Climate change or climate resilience — whatever you want to call it — is more than using phrases like “climate change” and making a super intellectual argument. It’s about engaging people on the issues, and we, as science communicators, have limited time to do so. Fossil fuels are nonrenewable, by definition, so that means they will someday run out. When that happens, states that rely heavily on fossil fuels for their economies will suffer. Here in Oklahoma, one year that oil prices went down, our local schools lost millions of dollars in funding. So, it’s not a workable solution to eliminate fossil fuels entirely as a solution to preventing global warming.
The way our current oil and gas ecosystem is set up, conflicts in places outside of the United States can cause huge changes in our oil and gas prices. In Republican circles, this is often discussed as a reason to develop “energy independence” from foreign oil. Could moving away from foreign oil be the launchpad that unites Democrats and Republicans to invest in US-based energy infrastructure, including renewable energies?
Beyond finding common ground on fossil fuel policy, there’s also the broader issue of keeping our Earth healthy — its oceans, land, rivers, mountains, and so on. Not being mindful of pollution will impact our children’s health, our own health, and the health of ecosystems that we currently use to grow food. Without healthy oceans, for example, there will be no fish, and when there are no fish, fishermen will lose their jobs. See how it’s all connected? It’s more than just an intellectual argument — it’s a very real argument about the future of the way we live.
The Department of Defense has classified climate change as a national security threat because it impacts things like social instability, the need for humanitarian aid, and geopolitical tensions. What if the Federal Emergency Management Administration, which deals with natural disasters, runs out of money because we have too many extreme weather events? The multifaceted impacts of not tackling climate change / climate resilience are in many ways unfathomable.
I hope I’ve convinced you that climate change / climate resilience isn’t just about the environment. It’s about our health, local economies, and even our very survival. If you think beyond the United States, the impacts are even more real: combatting food shortages, making sure there is clean water to drink, avoiding natural disasters that occur due to increasingly extreme weather.
Can communicating those impacts lead to better policies to support the health of planet Earth?
Growing up, like today’s youth, I worried a lot about global warming and the state of our Earth. I often felt like nobody was paying attention to the important task of taking care of our earth. Back when I was a kid, Carl Sagan even testified to Congress about climate change. Check it out here. Why haven’t we done anything about it in the ensuing years? Hopefully, the answer is not because finding common ground is too difficult. As humans, we can always find common ground with others, to achieve shared goals, even if the common ground is just that we all like living on our great planet.
Can we continue Carl Sagan’s work and pick up where we left off with effective science communication that drives effective, commonsense policies?
Below, Fancy Comma’s Kelly Tabbutt writes about ways to approach this difficult topic with specific examples in the context of farming. Keep reading for her advice on communicating this important issue!
Climate change and extreme weather are occurring and being discussed with greater frequency every year. However, there are still many opinions about the severity and immediacy of this issue and even some disagreement as to its veracity. As such, discussing climate change, extreme weather, and changing temperature and seasonal climate patterns can be difficult. Thankfully, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), part of the United Nations, has created six simple guidelines to facilitate communication. Read on to learn about these guidelines and ways to implement them to discuss climate change’s impacts in the agricultural sector.
“CLIMATE CHANGE” AND LANGUAGE
It’s no secret that “climate change” is a term that triggers a range of reactions. The crux of the polarization around the phrase “climate change” is the way that it is attached to political identities, ideologies, and policies. Most people agree that climate change is real and a real threat. However, most people do not believe that it is the most immediate threat, especially when compared to economic threats like depression.
There are other ways of communicating the environmental and climatic issues that are occurring because of climate change: “extreme weather events,” or “inconsistent” or “changing weather patterns” are terms that capture this. However, to understand these as outcomes of climate change requires communicating them as anomalous: unique to the current age, patterned: occurring regularly, and meaningful: occurring with increasing frequency and severity.
The key to communicating the importance and immediacy of climate change is to make it something that is apparent and has an immediate and significant effect on their everyday life and what matters to them.
IPCC GUIDELINES FOR COMMUNICATION
The IPCC has created a set of six simple guidelines for discussing climate change and related environmental issues. These guidelines are focused on increasing understanding and responsiveness to the issue of climate change across ideological lines, educational levels, or personal experiences.
The six guidelines for communication are:
1. Communicate confidence.
For your audience to trust you, they need to know and trust that you have the authority and knowledge to speak about the issue. If you are a non-scientist or are not an environmental scientist, you can focus on the communicating the credentials of the scientists you are relying on for your information and the validity of the research you are discussing.
In discussing the effects of climate change and extreme weather on agriculture practices and harvests, you can rely on the work of accredited scientists working for recognized national or international organizations or coalitions such as the National Association of Conservation Districts’ (NACD) Report on Soil Health and Weather Extremes.
2. Make it a real-world issue.
You need to make the issue something that makes sense to your audience and make the evidence and impacts something that they can clearly see.
We depend on agriculture for food. Extreme weather or changing seasonal patterns not only affect our personal experiences but also the ability of agriculture to meet demand for production. When farmers can’t plant early enough or have to harvest to soon or too late or lose part of their crop to frost, drought, flooding, or other issues, this creates very real and immediate issues — for farmers, for our food ecosystem, and for the economy.
3. Connect with what matters.
The key to getting your audience to understand and care about what you are saying is to make it matter to their everyday life.
Farmers provide the most necessary part of life: nourishment. They are also seen as the backbone of the country. They are symbolic of hard work, dedication, and modest lifestyles. Economic downturns, industrialization and urbanization, and environmental challenges threaten their work and the nourishment of the national and often international populations.
4. Tell a human story.
In any science communication, you need to connect to your audience as a human who shares the same interests, concerns, and common experiences.
The NACD report was based on interviews with farmers across the United States. Sharing their responses verbatim helps connect the audience to their personal experiences. Showing the challenges they face, how it impacts their livelihood, and their struggles to combat these environmental challenges tells a compelling story about the impacts of climate change.
5. Lead with what you know.
Climate change research is continually evolving. Build confidence by starting with information that you are certain of.
Extreme weather and seasonal climate patterns are changing with every passing year. Research is evolving just as quickly. However, this does not mean information we have now is not reliable. Using research about changing temperature highs and lows, their frequency, and how this impacts soil health provides clear, compelling, and comprehensible validated evidence.
6. Use effective visual communication.
Pictures, bar graphs, pie charts, and other easily understood visual aids are an effective and memorable way to communicate complex information.
Graphs showing increasing warm temperatures, decreasing freeze seasons or events of drought, flooding, or other weather disasters provide a clear and understandable snapshot of climate change effects. Pictures of the destruction wrought by extreme weather or changing seasonal patterns, especially when shown next to pictures of a healthy crop are also very effective.
Climate change, increasingly frequent and severe extreme weather events, and changing seasonal patterns are all around us but still difficult to discuss. A large part of the issue is the way that the term and topic of “climate change” is politicized and thus polarizing. Another related issue is the way that climate change is discussed, specifically, the issue of finding ways to communicate climate change to anyone so they can understand it and understand what they can do to fight it regardless of their education level or personal experiences with it.
What do you think about the phrase “climate change” versus “climate resilience” or even less polarizing phrases like “environmental sustainability” or “environment”? Chime in below in the comments!
What we’ve been reading (and writing):
Our fellow freelancers often share helpful info on Twitter. Check out this Tweet thread for information on ways to price social media strategy services. Stefan Palios kicks off a series of answering viewers’ questions on his YouTube here. Also, Michelle Garrett, host of #FreelanceChat on Twitter (Thursdays 12 pm Central) recently provided helpful tips on offboarding clients. Definitely check out #FreelanceChat if you have not already!
Working less and the trend of “quiet quitting” perhaps reflects a two-year period of intense work from home (and associated burnout) in the pandemic. If you want to work less, you might be interested to read this blog from Kat Boogaard.
Check out this three-part podcast from Nature discussing the links between politics and science.
Struggling with pricing your services as a freelancer? You need to read this post from Andy Strote.
On the Fancy Comma blog, we’ve been writing about thought leadership, the benefits of white papers, and the history of science communication. We also interviewed our colleague Bri Barbu.
That’s it for this month’s newsletter! If you thought it was a good read, please share it on social media. Thanks for reading!