How to talk to Joe about climate change

From 03.03.2011.  This is a posting from Intermountain Climate, a blog that I kept on climate change during 2010 and 2011 while serving as Director of Environmental Science at the University of Idaho. 


Earlier this week I attended the tri-agency meeting on Global Climate Change Education at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA.  The three agencies represented at this meeting were NSF, NASA, and NOAA, each with its own programs in climate change education.  I am the principal investigator on a NASA grant that provides funding for University of Idaho faculty to work with secondary school teachers to develop a curriculum on climate change.  Because I have zero formal training in education, my team of educators is far more important than I am in working with the NASA program.  My principal role in our project is to bring valid climate change science to the development of this new curriculum.  Some of my colleagues have been lukewarm in their embrace of this project, which I interpret as a concession to political reality in Idaho.

It is arguable that the seminal speaker on Monday was Susan Hassol, who specializes in climate change communication.  She has a long pedigree of advising on public documents including the impacts assessment for the US.  Simply put, her topic was how to talk to Joe Sixpack about climate change.  She laid out some obvious, but nonetheless powerful, principles about how to communicate this important and challenging issue.

The speaker that preceded her, Matt Nisbet, had shown some startling statistics suggesting that those promoting the reality of human-caused climate change have outspent the deniers and delayers by 2:1 over the last five years.  I confess that I was surprised at this because I would have bet that Big Oil and Big Coal were outspending the enviros.  Nisbet claims that quite the opposite is true with respect to direct outlays including those associated with political lobbying (this work will be published later this spring, and I have many questions about these numbers).  Yet, despite a massive investment of about $1.5 billion, the hearts and minds of US citizens are progressively leaning toward doubting that human-caused climate change is important, and that it may not even exist (Figure below).  How could this happening?  Nisbet noted that part of the answer is the false belief that the economy will be negatively impacted by mitigation efforts.  It is plausible that the recent massive economic downturn has so negatively affected Joe that he has progressively rejected and disconnected from climate change as an issue.  This is illustrated by the report Six Americas from the group at George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication working with the Yale Climate Change program (Leiserowitz et al. 2010).

Obviously, we are losing the battle, and Susan Hassol thinks that part of the problem is the inability of scientists to communicate clearly and effectively to the public.  Her organization,, specializes in training scientists in how to communicate, and from what she showed us, we are a sorry lot when it comes to effectively getting out the message.  Susan published a review of this in a recent issue of EOS.  Here are some of the words that we need to excise from our vocabulary because they have very different meanings in a scientific context than when used in common parlance. The scientific meaning is in parenthesis. 

aerosol (tiny suspended particles) – the stuff from a spray can
enhance (to amplify) – to make better
positive feedback (to amplify) – to improve
negative feedback (to reduce) – to make worse
radiation (any part of the electromagnetic spectrum) – stuff from nuclear bombs
theory (a working understanding of some aspect of the universe) – just a guess
error (confidence interval) – a mistake
uncertainty (confidence interval) – we don’t know
anomaly (variation relative to a baseline) – something unusual 

Many more – enrichment, fix, disruptive, etc… 

More importantly, Hassol suggests that we modify how we express some of the concepts that are fundamental to climate science.  For example, she views the term greenhouse gas as jargon and suggests that we should say “heat-trapping gas.” Anthropogenic should always be “human-caused.” We should never ask our audience to convert degrees C to degrees F in their heads; etc…

For me her most challenging suggestion is that we sidestep the issue of human-caused climate change in order to engage our audience in a discussion of something more immediate and relevant to them, say, foreign oil or energy.  Obama did exactly this in his SOTU address when he talked at length about alternative energy, but did not mention the words “climate” or “carbon” once.  I do not entirely agree with this tactic.   This may be OK when I am having casual conversion with Joe, but I think at the national level we must be clear about the enormity of the challenges that we face.  Switching to clean energy is part of the solution, but by no means a complete answer.  We simply must decarbonize the world economy, and I see no way to accomplish this without speaking directly about human-caused climate change. 

Directly, or indirectly, this means that we must put a price on carbon that is linked to its impact on the climate system.  Coming in through the “side door”, as Hassol suggests, is not possible because the vested interests are not fools.  They are well organized, well funded, and extremely aggressive.  The predictable frontal assault on anything “green”, including clean energy, is evidence that the extreme right that now controls many state legislatures will assail even common sense solutions in order to maintain the status quo.

Addendum:  Michael Mann was one of the participants in the Tri-Agency meeting.  Given my adventures with the hockey stick, meeting him was a high point of the event.