Communicating about climate change

By Joseph Cone, Communications Director, Oregon Sea Grant

I remember when I felt that the climate change workshop would go well. After a period of planning and preparation, our Oregon Sea Grant team arrived in Port Orford not knowing how the diverse community group would respond to the issue of a changing local climate when we were all actually face to face. So, after introductions and a brief discussion of some overall goals, our team explained why and how to make a “concept map” — each individual’s simple diagram of how he or she perceived a particular idea — in this case, the local effects that they were concerned about and that they thought might be linked to a changing climate.

For about 10 minutes, the group worked on their own concept maps and then put post-its next to each other on sheets of poster paper. As we all looked at the array, the 10 community members — a schoolteacher, fisherman, mayor, city manager, environmental leader and others — saw that they held both concerns in common and some that were individually distinct. Through discussion, we rearranged the post-its into clusters until everyone was satisfied with the way their concerns had been sorted.

“Everyone’s ideas are up there” … “no one’s excluded” … “we’re beginning to see an overall picture,” said members of the group. Bingo. With contentious issues such as climate change, a good place to begin is to have each voice within the group be heard.

This isn’t the end-point, of course, but it does highlight what’s often missing from national discussions of climate change and what can happen in a small group context in a workshop: actual two-way communication, listening respectfully, contributing respectfully.

Know the Audience

We started listening long before the face-to-face meeting. Like other professional communicators and similar climate programs on campus, including those of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, my Extension, education and research colleagues and I use methods such as surveys, focus groups and interviews with target populations before we start engaging them on the substantive issues — what a particular community may want to do around climate change.

From our 2008 surveys of coastal decision makers in Oregon and coastal property owners in Maine, for example, we learned about not only what information related to climate effects they thought they needed, but also what personal attitudes and other behavioral factors they held that were influencing their actions and intentions to act on information. Without understanding those attitudes and beliefs, we wouldn’t really know what information might be directly useful or how best to present it. In both states, one communication tool we used was short videos that specifically addressed concerns the intended viewers expressed. (Follow-up surveys confirmed their value.)

Focusing on the decisions that individuals and communities feel they need to make to address a recognized problem yields a much more constructive conversation than does focusing on global warming itself, we find. No surprise there, really: if coastal residents are concerned about flooding, that’s tangible and relevant to them. Whether people caused it by increasing use of fossil fuels that led to global warming is, for most, an abstraction — and an invitation to argument.

Public Opinion on Global Warming

Americans certainly have differences on the subject, which puzzles some people. How do we explain that despite about two decades of scientific pronouncements about global warming and the environmental, economic, and social hazards that it presents, just 63 percent of Americans now believe that global warming is happening? Only 50 percent believe it’s mostly caused by human activities, and that percentage has declined 7 points since 2008, even while global greenhouse gas emissions have increased, according to an ongoing study by Yale and George Mason universities (nationwide survey of adults conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication in November 2011).

Clearly, if “getting the word out” about the science was the only determinant of whether Americans believe the science about humanity’s contribution to global warming, we’d have higher percentages believing than 50%. But, of course, the calculation that each of us makes with the myriad of topics that are presented to us daily is far more complex than if we were blank sheets walking around waiting to be filled by indisputable facts.

If the understanding and framing are used to promote respectful dialogue, this seems like good manners. If they’re used only to construct persuasive “messages,” however, this seems just like more of the same one-way monologue.

We’re all drowning in information and in competing claims on our time, making attention the scarce resource, as psychologist Herbert Simon observed way back in 1971 (“Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World,” in Martin Greenberger, Computers, Communication, and the Public Interest, Baltimore, MD, The Johns Hopkins Press). Before we turn up the volume on this or that “communication” about science, then, a good first question would be, have we dialed into the right frequency that the other party is tuned to? Guessing isn’t good enough. As a recent federal government report about climate communication pointed out, “there’s no such thing as an expert in communication, in the sense of someone who can tell you ahead of time (i.e., without empirical study) how a message should be framed, or what it should say.”

Hence the research that we do on the populations we hope to work with. Beyond the empirical research and specific communication strategies we employ as a result, our team uses tools from behavioral and decision research to guide our efforts. Still, I agree that gaining others’ attention by focusing on concerns of importance to them and providing information that helps with their decisions are worthwhile, even if they are missing part of the challenge. What is to be done — if anything — about the 25% of Americans in the Yale/George Mason research who are “dismissive” or “doubtful” about global warming — and who may be actively hostile, even in the face of the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists?

Values Before Facts

Probably the first thing to recognize is that for all of us — except maybe the climate scientists themselves — every new science “fact” is not a fact of our direct experience but rather one received from someone else. Thus, either we have to collect evidence about it or accept the words of others. “So, just like any other kind of fact,” as researcher Dan Kahan of Yale mentioned during an interview that’s part of our Communicating Climate Change podcast series, “your beliefs are going to be influenced by your values in exactly the same way as any other kind of belief that you might form.” (see a transcript of Kahan’s remarks)

Those who do believe scientists tend to have one set of “cultural” values, according to Kahan and his colleagues in the Cultural Cognition Network, while those who don’t, typically have another set. So, for example, if today’s fact appears to undercut other deep-seated value beliefs that are far more important to you than the fact du jour, what do any of us do? We tend to discount the “fact.” So don’t expect all Americans to suddenly believe any particular thing.

What one does with this insight to improve science communication is a topic of intense interest and discussion among communication researchers and practitioners. (Indeed, the National Academy of Sciences is holding a conference to discuss the “Science of Science Communication” in May.) Many advocate using an understanding of others’ values to frame scientific information in a way that’s congenial to those others. If the understanding and framing are used to promote respectful dialogue, this seems like good manners. If they’re used only to construct persuasive “messages,” however, this seems just like more of the same one-way monologue.

Being sensitive to the other person, curious about them, attempting to understand them and what they think about the topic of the communication, and responding to them thoughtfully as they engage the conversation — we know this works in our personal lives. It’s not the end, but it may be a way forward. Even with communicating about climate change.

Oregon Sea Grant has assembled online resources about climate change and a series of podcasts delving into communication practice and theory as they relate to climate change.