Keep the Story of Climate Change Simple
By: Jim Hodges

You're talking about climate change with skeptics, who are sure that global warming is a myth.

"Remember, we were going to freeze in the 1970s, and that didn't happen," he might say. "Why should I believe you now?"

"Or, the weatherman is wrong half of the time he says it's going to rain," she will offer. "Why should I believe that you know something that's going to happen 50, even 20 years from now?"

Why indeed?

Susan Buhr, Climate communications workshop.

Susan Buhr advises conciseness and simplicity when trying to get your point across about Climate Change. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Click image to enlarge
Because you have facts on your side, Susan Buhr, director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences Outreach Program at the University of Colorado, said Wednesday to a roomful of people attending her workshop "Effectively Communicating Climate Change" at the Reid Conference Center at NASA Langley.

More important, you can learn to get your point and those of science across more effectively.

After all, she said, "it's the job of science to construct the understanding that best explains the evidence."

Buhr asks of the group: What is working and what isn't?

An answers for what is working include anecdotal evidence.

"Everyone likes a story," Buhr said.

What isn't working?

Being too technical.

"How many people have tried to explain this, and other people's eyes glaze over?" she asks.

A key is simplicity of message and understanding that people aren't as versed in science as you are. A recent survey showed, worldwide, that only about half of the respondents knew how long it took for Earth to go around the sun.

It's also understanding why the skeptics are skeptical and knowing that there are fewer real skeptics than you might think.

A recent study showed that only 7 percent of the population dismiss climate change completely, and only 11 percent are doubtful that its effect can be devastating.

That's as opposed to 33 percent – a growing number – of people who are concerned about climate change and 18 percent who are alarmed by it.

"The public discourse goes this way," Buhr said. "There are people who say it's not happening; then that it's happening, but humans aren't causing it; then that it's happening, but we can't do anything about it; and then, that it's too late to do anything about it."

Scientific evidence shows that all four assessments are wrong. Climate change is happening, and human beings are causing much of it.

But how to get that point across?

She suggests honing a personal "30-second elevator message" that's clear, concise and to the point. The message should use "plain language" and avoid jargon and overly technical verbiage; in other words, "anthropogenic" can be "human caused."

It should also include a scientific point or two, with an explanation of the process through which they were derived.

Metaphors can help with the message. "The sun provides the globe with more energy in an hour than the globe conserves in fossil fuel energy in a year," was one Buhr suggested.

Remember, too, the audience with which you are dealing. Talking about the danger of global warming in Colorado would probably not have as much impact on a Hampton Roads listener than hearing that it will cause bigger "dead zones" and storm surge in the Chesapeake Bay. Or that jobs eventually will be lost because of the long-term effects of climate change.

It's important to remember that 7 percent figure for people who are completely dismissive of global warming. That leaves 93 percent of the population.

"People who talk with you about (climate change) could just be confused, probably not skeptical," Buhr said.

In the end, she advises patience and suggests seeking a common ground. Regardless of how skeptical a listener is, there is probably something on which you can agree. For example, saving on energy helps the environment. But saving on energy is also good for the economy and for energy independence.

Above all, Buhr said, "don't talk about threats without talking about solutions."

Still, there are some who are unwilling to listen to any explanation. Again, remember that 7 percent?

"There's going to be some people who it's like knocking your head against a wall," Buhr said. "No matter what you do, you can't change them. They won't listen to scientific information.

"All you can do is to respectfully agree to disagree and move on because you have better places to put your energy."


NASA Langley Research Center
Managing Editor: Jim Hodges
Executive Editor and Responsible NASA Official: H. Keith Henry
Editor and Curator: Denise Lineberry