17 December 2010

Communicating climate change: How to win over the public

Posted by mohi

An overflowing room of AGU Fall Meeting attendees learned they must lose their jargon and have a clear message to most effectively communicate about climate change science. The Tuesday workshop, organized by AGU’s Public Information Office, featured author Chris Mooney, climate communications trainer Susan Joy Hassol, and climate researcher and professor Richard Somerville.

To understand how to get people to listen, it helps to understand why they reject or accept some arguments but not others. Mooney explained that people are more or less inclined to believe information if it fits with what they want to believe; it’s not a matter of intelligence. For example, he highlighted survey data that found college-educated Republicans are less likely to believe that humans are causing climate change than less-educated Republicans. In addition, most Americans don’t know scientists or how science works, which leads most of them to get an F when it comes to climate knowledge. For instance, Mooney cited research by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, which reported that “large majorities incorrectly think that the hole in the ozone layer and aerosol spray cans contribute to global warming, leading many to incorrectly conclude that banning aerosol spray cans or stopping rockets from punching holes in the ozone layer are viable solutions.”

To combat these problems, Americans need to hear about climate change from a variety of sources, including scientists. But scientists will be misunderstood if they speak to non-scientists using the use same words they use when they speak with colleagues, Hassol said. Jargon like “antropogenic” and even “greenhouse gas” are stumbling blocks (people may think greenhouses are the problem, instead of “heat-trapping gases”), but there are also words that mean different things to the public than they do to scientists. For instance, Hassol said, “scientists frequently use the word ‘enhance’ to mean increase, but to lay people, enhance means to improve or make better, as in ‘enhance your appearance.’ So the ‘enhanced greenhouse effect’ sounds like a good thing.”

There are dozens of words common to climate change research that have the same problem, she said: error, values, risk, uncertainty – even “aerosol,” which means a small atmospheric particle to scientists, but means “spray can” to many other people. Hassol published some additional examples in this Eos article.

Having a clear, simple message that is repeated several times will help listeners absorb the information, she said. Scientists can use metaphors to make processes more clear, and relate large numbers to something concrete that people are familiar with. She recommends practicing as much as possible, especially before doing media interviews.

Somerville, who has himself given many interviews and lectures on climate change, listed examples of how those who promote the idea that climate change may not be happening use common denial tactics. They include using fake experts, cherry-picking data, and using logical fallacies and misrepresentations.

Science, on the other hand “is self-correcting, given time,” he said. “It does not work by unqualified people making claims via the media.” Scientists should get to know the common climate denialist arguments so they can be prepared to answer them effectively, he said.

While speaking out on any topic carries some risk, particularly for those who don’t yet have tenure, he said, it is necessary to improve the public’s understanding of the problem and so society can more effectively respond to climate change.

–Kathleen O’Neil, AGU Science Writer and Public Information Specialist