Good news on climate change communication…from the AMS Meeting floor…and from Vermont.

Climate change communication? In many ways, a meta-challenge for our community. As a problem, climate change itself is big, complex, and urgent. How do we get our arms around it? And then how do we share our insights with another person? It’s a hot button issue. Even to breathe a word of it is to play with fire. It triggers emotion in both speaker and hearer. Except for a very small cadre of communication researchers, few of us have been equipped by study or training – or even the school of hard knocks, for that matter – to cope with it. For these reasons, communication of climate change often is the sum of all our professional fears.

But the challenge seems to be yielding to thought, analysis – and experience. [This shouldn’t be a surprise to scientists!] Hopeful signs are emerging from the talks and hallway conversations at the American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting currently underway in Seattle. Here are one or two. If you’ve been at these sessions, chances are good you can add several more.

Broadcast meteorologists represent an extraordinary resource to the nation and the world. We knew this already! But some communication scholars attending the meeting gave these ideas a particularly resonant voice. They presented data showing the public trusts broadcast meteorologists almost as much as scientists to deliver the climate change message. We have hundreds of broadcast meteorologists in our society; there are thousands more worldwide. In aggregate, they reach most of the world with their weather forecasts and related stories.

Meeting speakers backed up the statistical support with heuristic explanations why trust in broadcasters is so high. In a nutshell? We hear from them daily. The talks here at the meetings presented additional evidence suggesting that substantial numbers of weathercasters hunger to provide more climate information in their weather broadcasts, whether on television or on the internet. Speakers shared plans and work underway to reduce the effort required of broadcasters to supplement their routine forecasts with credible, easily understood climate facts and figures.

Want to see some of the best of these insights? Check out the Ed Maibach and his Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, or Bud Ward and the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.

Why is this good news? It means that the problem of reaching 7 billion people on every aspect of living on the real world – the Earth as resource, victim, and threat – has been reduced to the problem of reaching, say, 10,000: in science-speak, simplified by six orders of magnitude.

Second, other communication researchers demonstrated that sometimes scientists deliver their climate-change messages in ways that boomerang. Boomerang? Yes, as in the message having the opposite from the intended effect.


As with the first finding, this is hardly surprising. But the fact is, it helps to have someone from outside the Earth science field say it. So far, when any sector of the public has reacted negatively to the climate change message, as a community we have succumbed to the temptation to flog them with the same message, only repeated at higher pitch, and with less patience.

This doesn’t work at home. Are you married? In a relationship? Here’s how it works at my house. When I say something my wife doesn’t like to hear, 99% of the time, it doesn’t irritate her because she misunderstood me. She’s vexed because she understood me perfectly! It wasn’t my frankness, but the shabby, self-serving nature of my petty (selfish, rude, childish…) thought that got me in trouble. You and I live with this risk daily. And through practice, we’ve learned to handle it. The incentives are enormous! If we can succeed at home, surely we can reduce our boomerang communication in the workplace.

And why should this prompt hope? For this reason. If our messages boomerang, the cure lies in less effort, not more. [Find yourself in a hole? Stop digging!]. In the 21st century, when we’re all maxed-out, expending more effort is a non-starter. But less effort should work for us.

One highlight of yesterday’s meeting was the morning plenary. Sometimes these are sparsely attended, but yesterday the room was full. Journalists and broadcasters had a number of fresh insights for the large audience.

But particular refreshment and encouragement came from the floor. Alan Betts made the most memorable comment. He reported on his personal and professional experience from forty years of living and working in Vermont. He had a simple message. It was that when the conversation on climate change in Vermont focused on the real-world, on-the-ground-experience over those four decades – the earlier arrival of spring each year and the effects on plants and critters, the later arrival of fall, and myriad other signs and cues – that Vermonters of whatever political persuasion had little difficulty seeing that climate change was real, that human beings were contributing to the cause, and that action was both desirable and possible. This approach can and should work everywhere.

Parenthetically? We should all admire Alan. Virtually all the rest of us have aligned our fortunes with an institution, taking refuge in the shelter and security that institution – federal agency, major corporation, prestigious university – has provided. By contrast, for virtually all his career, Alan has done his research independently, supporting himself purely by dint of his personal reputation for scientific insight and integrity – his personal brand. And he hasn’t confined himself to pure science, but has dedicated himself to the application of that science for public benefit – to his home state and to the world. His name, alone, by itself, stands for something. Something good. Visit his web site. Read his work and learn something about his story. You’ll be glad you did.

Like, Alan, each of us, over the course of our lives and careers, builds a personal brand. It’s a reality we can’t escape. So let’s embrace that challenge, become the heroes and heroines of our lives…and along the way, listen, and speak from the mind and heart: communicate.

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