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How can climate scientists better communicate their work to the public? by Bob Sipchen

(Sierra Club, Communications Director)

Scientists’ job is science, and they’ve been doing strong climate science for decades. Environmentalist activists have long understood the results of these scientists’ research, and recent polling suggests that the media and public are not far behind in grasping the facts of climate disruption and its potentially catastrophic implications.

Anyone reading this probably twitches with impatience at how long it has taken the cold, hard science of climate disruption to sink in, From a communicator’s perspective, however, scientists and their journalistic (and vice-presidential) intermediaries have actually done a better job than anyone could reasonably have expected of sharing this complex story with an ever-distracted public.

Rather than offer advice, therefore, I think we should be saying, “Good work, scientists! It appears that you’ve not only nailed the science, but managed to convey your findings just in the nick of time.”

As a favor, however, you might consider helping those of us whose job it is to get people to do something about climate disruption by considering a somewhat counterintuitive tweak to the way you talk about the crisis: Accentuate the positive.

Your colleagues on the brain and behavior side of the scientific spectrum have good evidence, after all, to support the commonsense notion that people react more constructively to scary news if it is underscored by a measure of realistic hope.

The facts you’re uncovering are, indeed, terrifying. But terrified people often curl into a ball and weep. And as you know, we need people to take action. Fast. So you might also consider including a touch of solutions-oriented optimism when communicating to the public about the results of your research.

Don’t laugh. Thanks in no small measure to climate scientists doing their research and getting the word out, humans have lately been wracking up small but meaningful victories against global warming.

For example, please consider telling your audiences that burning coal as fuel use may be the single worst contributor to global warming, and that by standing up to the coal industry, activists have kept 377 coal plants from being built in recent years and accomplished the retirement of another 129 old plants. Note, too, that largely as a result of this resistance alone, U.S. carbon emissions have retreated to 1992 levels.

Tell them too, perhaps, that because of a decades-long push by concerned citizens, the United States has at long last put in place mileage standards for new passenger vehicles that will eventually lower greenhouse gas emissions by another ten percent.

Also, please, tell them that while some scientists have been bolstering our understanding of the climate threat by drilling for ice core samples in Antarctica, charting ocean oscillations in the Pacific and pondering differential equations to project atmospheric currents, others have been creating ever-more-efficient and economical solar panels and wind turbines. On a good day in Germany solar provides up to 50% of the total power. In the U.S. solar panels are popping up on homes nationwide. In Iowa as much as 20% of the total power comes from wind.

It is not science fiction to suggest the hopeful possibility that a new era of clean energy prosperity is already being born. Remind your audiences, in other words, that computerized climate models, while stunningly sophisticated, so far lack the processing power to accurately factor in one complex variable: Our self-aware species’ ability, at least in theory, to willfully alter its fate.

A few links:

Bob Sipchen is the Communications Director for the Sierra Club, SIERRA Magazine editor-in-chief, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, author, adjunct professor at Occidental College. Follow him on Twitter @SierraBob.

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