Climate change and its impacts on the environment and human well-being are getting more and more attention worldwide. The Paris Agreement aims to bring all nations into the combat with climate change and has set an ambitious goal: keeping the global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century (and preferably aiming even lower, below a 1.5 degree Celsius increase). As of March 2017, 194 UNFCCC members have signed the treaty, of which 141 members have ratified it1.
In our Science for Environmental Management graduate class this past week, our discussion on the subject of climate change touched a remarkable range of topics, including the research itself, international agreements, scientist and public interaction, and even religion and morality. During this discussion, myself and another graduate student from China both agreed that most people in China believe in climate change, as we more often have warm winters and the rainfall/snowfall patterns have changed a lot in recent years. As the highest carbon dioxide emitter in the world, China has included addressing climate change in its mid- and long-term planning for economic and social development, and has promised to peak its CO2 emissions around 2030 by adjusting industrial structure, increasing energy efficiency, optimizing energy structure, and so on. China is advocating for a low-carbon and green lifestyle, and encouraging people to adopt more sustainable behaviors, such as taking public transportation and using electronic bills.
However in the United States, human-caused climate change is still fiercely debated by climate change skeptics, perhaps more so than in any other country. Climate change deniers argue that temperature rise is not the result of human activities, but has been happening naturally over the years, and they have already taken actions to spread this disinformation to the public. Recently, the Heartland Institute, a nonprofit research and education organization which is known for rejecting evidence of human-induced global warming, sent a pamphlet titled “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming” with a DVD, in which the human role in climate change is rejected, to approximately 25,000 science teachers nationwide.
One idea we discussed was a counterpoint to the pamphlets sent out by the Heartland Institute: should a section on climate change be incorporated into curriculum standards as a requirement for schools at the state level? It is our obligation to make our children understand that climate change is an issue caused by human activities and has huge impacts on human health and well-being. However, few primary school teachers are provided with the necessary training for such a curriculum. Where would they get this knowledge?
One of the successful examples is the Maryland-Delaware Climate Change Education, Assessment, and Research partnership, known as MADE-CLEAR. Started in September 2012, and led by faculty members in the University System of Maryland and Delaware, this program focuses on providing support for middle and high school teachers, as well as outreach to teachers and students of all ages2.
Yet climate change scientists still have a long way to go. Based on a study by researchers from Yale and George Mason universities, as of November 2016, only 70% of Americans think global warming is happening, and only 55% of all respondents believe that global warming is mostly caused by human activities3. Thus, more effective science communication with the public and policymakers is imperative. Before communicating with the public, climate scientists should learn a few tips to keep the audiences engaged in the conversation.
First of all, figure out what audiences care about. Instead of spending a lot of time explaining the melting sea ice in Antarctica and the Arctic, it is more helpful to talk about how the ice melt will affect peoples’ lives and connect with their personal interests. Second, choose words with caution. Some words may be perfectly normal to scientists but confusing or misleading to the public. For example, “uncertainty” could be interpreted by the public to mean that scientists are still not sure about the issue, and “ocean acidification” may trigger fears that people will melt if they enter the water. While it may not be a bad thing to use scary words, explaining what they mean (in the latter case by describing the pH scale) is important.
The Guardian has listed twelve tools for communicating climate change more effectively on one webpage of its climate change section4. In brief, what should be kept in mind is that narrative skills help reach people and effective communication is a conversation, rather than an argument or a lecture. Learning, developing, and practicing such communication skills is essential for climate scientists because they play a critical role in conveying the most up-to-date climate science to the public and policymakers.
The world is warming and humans are the primary cause of it. This is not conjecture, but is based on facts and evidence5. NASA and NOAA data showed that 2016 was the warmest year on record globally, and that 16 of the 17 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001. They also stated that the 1.1 degree Celsius rise of the earth’s average surface temperature since the late 19th century was largely driven by increased CO2 and other man-made emissions to the atmosphere6. It is astounding to see climate change deniers choose to ignore the facts and take such a huge gamble, putting themselves and future generations’ well-being at risk. As cartoonist Joel Pett illustrates below, the choices we make to halt climate change have a multitude of additional benefits. It is time we all work together to create a greener and healthier world.
1. “Paris Agreement“. United Nations Treaty Collection. 8 July 2016.
2. National Science Foundation Awards: CCEP-II MADE-CLEAR – Maryland-Delaware Climate Change Education, Assessment, and Research. Retrieved April 3, 2017, from: https://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward?AWD_ID=1239758.
3. Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., Rosenthal, S., & Cutler, M. (2017). Climate change in the American mind: November 2016. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
4. 12 tools for communicating climate change more effectively (July 6, 2015). Retrieved April 3, 2017, from The Guardian.
5. Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol. Communicating the science of climate change. Physics Today. October 2011, vol. 64, issue 10, 48-53.
6. NASA, NOAA Data Show 2016 Warmest Year on Record Globally (January 18, 2017). Retrieved April 3, 2017, from NASA.