Years of Living Dangerously, a big-budget, 9-episode TV documentary, tries to communicate the seriousness of climate change through personal stories and first-hand experiences of people across the globe. To make sure they get the science right, the producers collaborate with a panel of distinguished experts. We interviewed one of them: Dr. Katharine Hayhoe from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.
Why is it so difficult to communicate the seriousness of climate change and the scientific consensus to people outside of science? What are your experiences?
Many of us believe that accepting the reality of climate change threatens things we hold dear: our personal liberties, our ideology, our job security, and even our faith. When we are that worried and even afraid of losing something so important to us, trying to convince us just using facts is fruitless. The information will just go in one ear and out the other.
This problem is compounded by the fact that, until just recently, most people living in the United States (except for those in Alaska!) were not seeing any actual impacts of climate change with their own eyes.
So the problem has been perceived as a distant, far-off threat, while the solutions are perceived as an imminent, real-time threat. That’s a tough hurdle to overcome.
How do you deal with climate skeptics?
With people who have genuine questions and concerns, it’s important to spend time understanding where they are coming from and what they are concerned about. These concerns are real, and they’re important. By demonstrating how climate change — and climate solutions — are not incompatible with conservative, or faith-based, values we can often overcome many of the objections to the reality of the problem.
On the other hand, about 15% of the U.S. falls into “category #6” of the Six Americas of Global Warming, a category called “Dismissive”. For many of the people in this category, there is really no way to talk to them that would ever make a difference. Even if God (or Rush Limbaugh?) appeared right in front of them with flaming tablets of stone saying “Climate Change is Real and Dangerous,” that wouldn’t change their minds.
As scientists, we often fall into the trap of focusing on people in the Dismissive category because they are the most obviously and often the most vocally opposed to what we have to say. However, we have to remember that they represent only a small segment of the population and — most likely — one that we cannot hope to change.
Years of Living Dangerously is not so much about climate change as about storytelling, about people who are affected by and people who do something about climate change. For producer Joel Bach this personal component makes for a far more compelling story than just “something about climate change”. Do you think there is a message in here for climate scientists who want to engage with the public?
Yes, I think there definitely is. Why do we care about climate change? Let’s be honest: the Earth will survive. We care about it because of people and the environment in which we live. Our society is built on the assumption that climate is relatively stable. We build our cities within a few feet of sea level; we have entire neighborhoods with almost no air conditioning because it didn’t used to get hot enough to need it; we have all kinds of infrastructure that assumes a given risk of flood, freeze, drought, or heat. Today, that assumption is no longer valid. And because climate is no longer stationary, that means our infrastructure and human society in general is no longer perfectly adapted to its local environment. The more climate changes, the worse the problem becomes. And this problem is already affecting real people in the places where we live today. It’s no longer only about the polar bear – it’s about us.
One way for scientists to learn to communicate and perhaps to use a more figurative language can be to read fiction literature. Another way might be to take a course in English or in communication. What is your personal secret recipe to make sure people “get” your message? What were your biggest helpers in becoming a more successful public speaker and writer?
There are many different ways for us to improve our communication skills. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend several media training workshops early in my career that helped me to distill my information down into manageable, digestible messages. A lot of it was also trial and error: asking people whose opinions I valued to give me their honest opinion of my slides, my presentation, and my messages. (Have to leave the ego at the door for that one!) A third important step was to spend a lot of time understanding who I was talking to. Our communication can only be effective if it meets existing needs; and how will we know what those needs are unless we spend time talking to people about them? And the fourth is just to get out and do it. There’s nothing like feeling as if your presentation was a complete flop to motivate you to get it together for the next time!
This interview by Toni Klemm originally appeared on the Early Career Climate Forum.