LPI's Dr. Warbach on How to Better Communicate About Climate Change

Dr. John Warbach, from the Land Policy Institute, provides insights on climate change and how to better communicate about it from the Building Climate Solutions Conference held in January 2014

John Warbach, PhD, Land Policy Institute

By: Dr. John Warbach, Associate Director of the MSU Land Policy Institute

I overheard at the gym recently: "During this cold winter is probably not the time to talk about global warming." Often it seems there is no good time to talk about global warming. While recent polls suggest a majority of Americans accept that there is global warming, conversation about it can be difficult. A recent Pew survey indicated that climate and the environment are the most divisive topics in America right now. In part, Americans believe climate change mostly affects Polar Bears and Penguins and, in part, they don't believe there is anything they can do as individuals to reverse it. There is also a lot of effort spent by the climate change deniers, and many scientists use counterproductive communication approaches.

I recently attended a conference, Building Climate Solutions, which was held by the National Coalition for Science and the Environment in January 2014. It provided myself and other attendees with the latest information on climate change, and addressed what solutions are available to help slow or reverse global warming, and how we can adapt our communities to the existing and coming changes. This includes how to talk about climate change. It was attended by about 1,100 representatives of nonprofits, community organizations, media, local, state, national governments (U.S. and other nations), academics and scientists. Some of the keynote presentations are available online. As there is a widespread impression that conservative groups are most adamant that climate change is a false premise, or oppose government involvement to implementing solutions to climate change, a special effort was made at the Conference to include conservative voices and to discuss communication with conservative audiences.

First, a quick review of some facts I learned about climate change that were presented at the Conference:

  • There is variability in the warming, over time and geographically. Some areas are warming, while others are cooling but, overall, the Earth is warming. While North America experienced frigid temperatures recently, most of the rest of the world has experienced an unusually warm spell. The winter of 2013-14 is one of the warmest, globally.

  • Between 1950 and now we have had short cooling episodes, but all within a context of an overall warming trend. Think of it as a jagged line, mostly sloping upward, but with occasional downward jags. The trend line has been inexorably up in temperature. The upward jags are longer than the downward jags.

  • Most of the warming is felt in winters.

  • Crop yields globally are down.

  • Only about 2% of global warming is happening in the atmosphere--air doesn't hold heat well. Ninety-four percent of warming is occurring in the oceans--which does hold heat well and water expands as it warms.

  • There exist natural activities around the Earth that would tend to cool it were it not for the human-contributed carbon overwhelming the cooling effects (such as volcanic ash spewing).

The key to finding solutions to climate change problems is how we communicate about climate change. The speakers addressing communication about climate change agreed on the following set of parameters:

  • Use credible messengers; people the various audiences respect. 

  • Work with the audience's values and present solutions in a way that seems acceptable to audiences. Some conservative audiences may hold conservative religious beliefs, or be opposed to government intervention, or both. For example, a scientist who begins talking about carbon levels in the atmosphere not being so high in 800,000 years, will close off communication with an audience that believes the Biblical accounts of the age and formation of the Earth. Similarly, climate solutions, such as a carbon tax in which the revenues generated go to government instead of individuals, may not be supported.

  • Use language people know and understand.

  • Talk about facts, not science. Americans respect science to an extent--it has provided much to our society. However, in the climate sphere, the complexity can overwhelm to the point of people giving up. Temperatures are factual measurements that can inform.

Much of the discussion about climate change focuses on the impacts our children and grandchildren will experience. This diffuses the urgency to understand and act. Climate change is about current impacts, not just impacts our children and grandchildren will experience. So we need solutions now. Current impacts include:

  • Increased fire risk due, in part, to droughts and in some places, an increased death of large areas of forest, because damaging insects are no longer killed by cold winters.

  • Sea level rise is already happening (four to 10 inches depending on the location). So far, little of this is due to melting ice. Rather, it is because water expands as it warms, and the oceans are warmer in some areas than others.

  • Increased extreme/severe weather conditions. While these events are not necessarily caused by climate change they are made worse.

Discussions about how to respond to climate change focused on the two legs of climate change: mitigation and adaptation. According to Petra Tschakert, Associate Professor at the Geography and Earth and Environmental Systems Institute at Penn State, there should be a third leg--transformation. Transformation means to transform our thinking about the economy, the environment and relationships with each other. In his keynote address, another Penn State Professor, Richard Alley, Evans Pugh Professor of Geosciences, suggested we consider the Golden Rule as playing a role in our approach to climate change. The poorest people in the world are essentially subsidizing the wealthiest. The poor suffer most in terms of climate change impacts--lowered food growing capacity and the spread of disease. The rich contribute the most carbon.

While we are experiencing climate change and disruptions now, there are projections of greater change and disruption in the future. Based on measurements over time, the tropics are expected to have warm season average temperatures warmer than current record highs in 30 years. In Southeast Michigan, and northern Ohio, warm season average temperatures are expected to exceed current highs in 60 years. These changes are likely to lead to increased species extinction; migration of insects, animals and plants; and disease. It also suggests we need to think about how to develop and redevelop the built environment to protect people from greater extremes of temperature, precipitation and rising sea levels.

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