24 February 2020

Dinosaurs Under the Tundra, Part 1: Talking about Climate Change with a Climate Skeptic

Posted by Shane Hanlon

Raj Pandya at AGU’s annual meeting. Credit: Raj Pandya.

By Raj Pandya

Note: This is part one of a two-part series.

I was at home over Christmas when my father-in-law’s wife started talking about the dinosaurs that used to be in Alaska. At first, I thought she was just sharing a cool geologic fact, but it turned out she was making a point about natural climate cycles.  She went on to say that she loved her little Honda and she just wanted to be able to drive it.

It was a pretty amiable conversation, and we moved onto other topics, but it got me thinking about how I could have responded – about effective climate communication.  AGU’s own Shane Hanlon literally wrote the book (well, actually a blog) on this: “Having the Climate Change Talk With Your Family.

I’ll talk more about that in Part 2 of this blog.  For part 1 of this blog, though, what if I didn’t try to convince her, and instead tried to learn from her?  For me, community science, which helps communities use, guide, and contribute to science, also means responding to critiques of science.  What if I used her comments – and comments of others like her – and tried to use them as guidance for climate research?  Here is what that might look like:

  1. Invest in technology. As she made clear, people like cars. Why not focus on all the things that people like: Electric cars that kick butt, veggies that taste like meat, domestic renewable energy. How can people hold onto those things and avoid emitting carbon? This is actually an opportunity – Fossil fuels are finite, so get started on alternatives now and get a jump on the competition.
  2. Invest in Adaptation. My father-in-law’s wife is very careful. She carries a lifejacket in her car in summer, just in case of flash floods. So, that is the first climate change question to answer: how are extreme events changing, and what can we do to be prepared for it?
  3. Invest in Ensembles: Like others, my father-in-law’s wife worries that we might be over-emphasizing extreme projections. I am not sure that’s totally fair, since the lifejacket in her car suggests she gets why you pay attention to extremes. Nonetheless, she is pointing toward another approach: robust decision making. A much large ensemble of projections would allow people to test decisions in a range of scenarios  without having to agree on (or argue about) the likelihood of any particular climate projection.
  4. Go Beyond Models: She didn’t say this, but I am 99% sure my father-in-law’s wife doesn’t find climate models useful. (That isn’t surprising, climate models are designed primarily for scientists to understand the climate system – which they do well – but not necessarily to help with policy, planning, or decision-making.)  Let’s increase our attention to making model output useful – through improved downscaling, enhanced monitoring, regional modeling, etc. Let’s also invest in the social and economic research that will help us understand and support climate decisions.
  5. Do Local Science. It’s true in real-estate, politics, and probably climate change that “it’s all local.” My father-in-law’s wife doesn’t feel a stake in the Paris Accord, but if she could own a decision to deal with extreme heat in her town, that might be a different story. We need to invest in research, translation, and action that begins from local questions and works upward.

Here is what I think I learned.  People like my father-in-law’s wife have legitimate and reasonable concerns about climate research, even if they are hard to hear at first. Responding to those concerns can enrich and advance our research, improve adaptability, and even promote mitigation. And maybe it can even build allies. I’ll expand on this in part 2.

– Raj Pandya is the Director of AGU’s Thriving Earth Exchange.