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Communicating the Risks of Climate Change

How to Get Facts Through the Static of an Emotionally Charged Culture War

By Renee Cho

Apr 22, 2010

Over the last two years, doubts about climate change have risen in the U.S., while concerns that it is a serious threat have dropped. One found the number of Americans “dismissive” of global warming had more than doubled since 2008 to 16%.

Such statistics are likely due to several factors, including the economic downturn, the negative hype surrounding “Climategate,” and the IPCC’s flawed glacier report. But when the overwhelming of earth scientists say global warming is occurring, why is scientific evidence still unable to communicate the urgency of the climate crisis to a large portion of the American public?

On this 40th anniversary of Earth Day, let's step back a moment and take stock of the situation.

Is Communicating Science the Problem?

Scientists trying to communicate factual information about climate change have often been criticized for not being effective communicators. They are to steer clear of scientific jargon, use more metaphors and reframe questions when making presentations. But is persuading the public that climate change is an urgent concern really their responsibility?

Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist with NASA, believes scientists are responsible for communicating what they know, and that because they have been researching climate change for many years and have an appreciation of its probable costs to the planet, their opinions should be given more weight.

To help people understand why science has credibility, “scientists have to be straight — they should demonstrate who it is doing the science, how they do it, what people are thinking and what the implications are,” said Schmidt. “But scientists should not be expected to weigh in on policy or politics, because that’s not their expertise.”

Many people attribute the controversy over climate change to the notion that the science is too complex and is not being communicated effectively, but if that were the whole story, beliefs about climate change, its risks, and what to do about it would likely correspond to educational levels. They don’t.

Risk Perception and Emotions

A large portion of the American public does not believe climate change is an urgent threat because of how risks are perceived.

“Our human system of risk perception evolved to deal with immediate, obvious, and simple threats,” said David Ropeik, a consultant in risk perception and author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts. “We are still principally run by affective, instinctive and emotionally charged inputs.”

Of the brain’s two processing systems, the experiential and emotion-driven side of the brain is the stronger motivator for action, but science traditionally presents information about climate change that is geared to the logical and analytic side.

“Scientists want people to understand the science … but first you have to get their attention, then they will deal with the science,” said Sabine Marx, managing director of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions () at Columbia University.

Because climate change is abstract in time, in scale and in its effects, most people tend to view it as a future problem. Communicators must find ways to make the abstract concrete in order to get people’s attention.

One way to do this is to make connections to immediate experiences, such as, for example, extreme local weather events, while being careful not to directly connect climate change with the weather, since climate models project changes over a much longer time frame. “Whether extreme events are linkable to climate change or not, we can say that with climate change we will experience more events like these, to give people an immediate sense of what it will be like,” said Marx.

Need film to dramatize the reality of climate catastrophe

I appreciate Renee's article. I am a climate activist. I see the critical challenge for humanity is to grasp the reality and the mind-boggling magnitude of the danger before the irreversible tipping points that Hansen describes are crossed. The scale of the threat to civilization - widespread drought, massive shortages of food and fresh water, regional wars over diminishing life-supporting resources, governmental breakdown, and collapse of civil society - *HAS TO BE TAKEN OUT OF THE ABSTRACT.* In the early 1980s, ABC broadcast a film called "The Day After" which depicted the reality of nuclear war. It had a huge impact. We need a high quality film equivalent (with the requisite movie stars) that can dramatize and make real the danger of climate catastrophe. Without such a reality check, the fossil fuel industry and its money may well be able to destroy meaningful climate legislation (as they already have done in the House) and overwhelm all those fighting for the future of life.

Are People Stupid?

It might be difficult for people to understand that we have a hole in ozone as they cannot see it!
However the change in our climate is all around.

Surely the weather changes must give some indication that something is not right!

Risk is a Functional of Likelihood, Which Begs the Question:

What are the chances an infinitesimal (.04%) trace gas (CO2), essential to photosynthesis and therefore life on this planet, is responsible for runaway Global Warming?

Answer: Infinitesimal

The IPCC now agrees. See the IPCC Technical Report section entitled Global Warming Potential (GWP). And the GWP for CO2? Just 1, (one), unity, the lowest of all green house gases (GHG). What’s more, trace gases which include GHG constitute less than 1% of the atmosphere. Of that 1%, water vapor, the most powerful GHG, makes ups 40% of the total. Carbon dioxide is 1/10th of that amount, an insignificant .04%. If carbon dioxide levels were cut in half to 200PPM, all plant growth would stop according to agricultural scientists. It's no accident that commercial green house owner/operators invest heavily in CO2 generators to increase production, revenues and profits. Prof. Michael Mann's Bristle cone tree proxy data (Hockey stick) proves nothing has done more to GREEN (verb) the planet over the past few decades than moderate sun-driven warming (see solar inertial motion) together with elevated levels of CO2, regardless of the source. None of these facts have been reported in the national media. Why?

A little context might help

John's comment is a great example of the problem. He assumes that if he talks quickly and uses big numbers that people will blindly believe him because without context they can't understand. Here's the context: CO2 has a global warming potential of 1 because it is the benchmark other greenhouse gases are compared against. Scientists, including the ones he cites, do not consider its impact infinitesimal at all -- far from it. The reason that only people like this talk about "solar inertial motion" is that scientists have studied the impact and found it doesn't come close to creating the changes they're seeing in the climate. What is changing, and what matches the temperature rise, is the amount of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere by industry over the past two centuries.

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