One of the most critical areas of scientific research is also the most controversial.

Climate change and global warming is an especially interdisciplinary field of study, which brings enormous complexity to telling the story of our planet. The political climate poses more challenges still.

How can scientists and science communicators work to better inform the public about topics related to climate change? As part of our Pier 17 Science Studio series on science communication, we reviewed research into science communication looking at this problem. Here are seven practical ideas scientists can apply today. 

Start with the basics

While pandering to an audience doesn’t help anyone, it’s important to understand who your audience is and what they need to know to understand climate science. If you want to reach an audience beyond scientists, you may need to build a bridge to help them understand the scientific method of inquiry.

It should also help you choose the words you use. Speak plainly, but also understand when you need to explain the jargon of your field. Something as simple as explaining that “positive and negative feedback” in an ecological model doesn’t mean “good and bad” can really make a difference in someone’s understanding of what you’re explaining.

Use Metaphors Wisely

One roadblock to communicating climate science is that many people misunderstand the principle of “climate inertia.” Many believe that rising temperatures are tied to the level of emissions in a linear, rather than exponential, way. This leads to the common belief that cutting emissions would have an instant or near-term effect on global temperatures. That makes a “wait and see” approach seem plausible – that if it the climate gets too crazy, we can cut back on CO2 emissions to quickly stabilize things. 

The mental model at work here is something like a bathtub spigot: reduce the flow of water and we can stop the tub from overflowing. What’s key is that we have to drain the tub faster than the water flows in, or the tub eventually overflows anyway. This is an effective means of communicating the problem with “stabilizing emissions” at their current level. Scientists need to be clear that those emissions are adding to a tub with a clogged drain.

Look for patterns in misunderstanding, and note the mental shorthand people are using. Breaking those “shortcuts” can be an opening to understanding and spark action. It’s also an opportunity to be entertaining: walking people through a “mind-blowing” challenge that shows these mental models at work is a great opportunity for hands-on experiences, humor, and storytelling.

Facts Persuade, Stories Inspire

Statistics are extremely powerful in convincing people that there’s a problem. But that isn’t the same as inspiring people to do something about the problem.

Stories about other people are interpreted as an emotional experience, making it more visceral than data, charts, or lists of chemical interactions. A review of communications research has shown that stories are most effective when they have a human face: stories about companies or advocacy groups are about as effective as statistics in inspiring action. This is one reason that describing the health effects of climate change is so promising.

Ideal anecdotes are local and brief, and include people ideologically aligned with your intended audience. These kinds of stories have been shown to be more effective at shifting positions among climate change skeptics than factual evidence. This is an opportunity and a problem, however: anecdotes that contradict factual evidence are also considered more effective at polarizing people against factual evidence.

Communicate the Consensus

A challenge for climate science research is that the public disputes the very nature of scientific agreement within the scientific community itself. Though 97% of scientists agree that humans cause global warming, less than half of Americans polled in 2013 (42%) believed scientists were in agreement. It’s getting worse: In May 2017, 87% of Americans didn’t know this. 

Effectively communicating the consensus of climate change, however, has proven to be surprisingly simple. Across preconceptions and political beliefs, a pie chart can show the consensus quite effectively. Paired with storytelling (“If 97% of engineers told you not to drive across a bridge, what would you do?”) these formats were shown to help people understand the scope of scientific consensus.

It’s a rare easy win in the complex world of climate science communication. Take it!

Be consistent

Trust is an important aspect of communicating climate change. There is some debate about the role of scientists: are they meant to persuade, or inform? That’s up to you. The world needs those who persuade skeptics, but also those who inspire believers to understand even more about what’s happening.

One bit of research can help you build trust regardless of your adopted role: be clear up front with what you’re doing and why. When an audience understands your motives, they’re more likely to trust you.

If you aim to persuade, be clear about it, carefully separating the facts from your persuasion. If you aim to present facts clearly, be very careful about how you frame that information. In the end, an audience will trust you if they know what you’re trying to do. You can set the rules, but once you do, you have to follow them to maintain your credibility with skeptics.

One caveat: there’s actually nothing better for building trust than one specific kind of inconsistency! If you can pair up with a converted skeptic, the audience is more likely to assume that the evidence was convincing enough to change their mind.

Stay Away from Doomsday

A common mistake in climate communication is painting a “hellscape” scenario, which can quickly overwhelm the audience with a sense of powerlessness, rather than inspiring action. Communicating massive-scale problems can actually cause people to feel psychologically distant from those impacts.

Of course, fear often “sells” stories in the media. That can be counter-productive if sensationalized reporting on climate science alienates people from action, rather than inspires it.

In discussing research, be aware that “fear frames” are easily adopted and work to produce a counter-productive narrative. Can you find something interesting and novel, or a local human interest angle on the story? If climate change can be framed locally, personally, and in the near-term, it also has the benefit of moving from an abstract fear to a tangible, visible goal.

Become Extra-Interdisciplinary

Climate Science is already a remarkably broad field of study, connecting a range of scientific specializations across fields. But communication requires an even broader coalition of creatives, artists, and writers. These experiences can range from collaboration in community art projects, to advising on art in an educational curriculum, to taking improv classes to improve your public communication skills. It’s not just a way to communicate your research, it can also inform your own thinking about the impacts of climate change.

Join us!

On July 20 we’re continuing this discussion on climate change with communication experts and artists at a free event. We hope you can join us!

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Photo: US Geological Survey, “Climate Impacts to Arctic Coasts.” Public Domain via Flickr