So, Let’s Talk About Climate Change

Two science communicators offer advice on how to connect

Jeremy Hoffman at the Virginia Museum of Science

By Fritz Freudenberger

Jeremy Hoffman solved his problem with an annoying insect. The Climate and Earth Science Specialist at the Science Museum of Virginia needed a way to bring the abstract concepts of climate change down to Earth. As he considered the lengthening season of warmth and the lush Virginia landscape, the answer buzzed in his head: mosquitoes.

“People hate mosquitoes. I hate mosquitos. You hate mosquitos. That is a great way to make climate change tangible for people,” he said.

Hoffman earned his Ph.D. in geology in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. Now, he thinks a lot about how climate change will affect life on the East Coast.

“Insects like mosquitos are really only active in a small window of climate, so we are able to look at the number of days that are suitable for mosquito survivability in Richmond,” he says. According to his research, the number of days that Virginians could be prone to those itchy welts and that piercing buzz has gone by up about a month since the 1970s.

“From spring allergies, to coastal vacations and swatting mosquitos, climate change will negatively impact real, tangible things,” he adds. “It is important to me to accurately and effectively state the case for the science that tells us that these seemingly innocuous things are going to become very different in the future — and not just for me, but for a lot of Americans.”

According to Hoffman, the evidence of climate change is not as clear in Richmond as it is at the coast, where sea levels are rising, or in mountains, where glaciers are shrinking. “Here in Richmond we haven’t seen a major increase in the number of days over 95 degrees, and we haven’t experienced a super storm that can be directly attributed to climate change,” Hoffman says. “So my constant struggle is finding ways to make climate and the impacts that are happening elsewhere relevant to the people here.”

Research by Hoffman and other climate scientists has produced an overwhelming scientific consensus that there is a human fingerprint on a changing climate. However, in the United States, skepticism and outright hostility still fuel arguments over this issue. The nation inaugurated a president who called global warming a Chinese plot and elected perhaps the most scientifically unfriendly Congress in recent memory. What 97 percent of climate scientists believe is a non-issue has become contentious among nearly half the population of the country.

Meanwhile, scientists are fighting gag orders and funding threats to agencies with rogue social-media efforts and public marches. Many scientists and science advocates argue for more communication. Scientists need to engage citizens, they say, in ways that demonstrate that climate change is real, has a human cause and will have significant impacts.

A Political Hotbed

Gabrielle Roesch-McNally

Gabrielle Roesch-McNally thinks that political posturing may be part of the problem. Like Hoffman, the postdoctoral fellow with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Northwest Climate Hub in Corvallis specializes in science communication. Making science accessible to a broader audience — farmers, ranchers, landowners and the public agencies that serve them such as soil and water conservation districts — is part of her mission. Roesch-McNally finds it disconcerting that science has become politicized on a national level. However, she sees that, at the personal level, it is more complicated.

“I think it’s dangerous to view this binary of red vs blue states or rural vs urban and that our views are diametrically opposed or something,” she says. “There is much more middle ground, and finding a way to get in the door — to have a conversation about what’s happening — is really needed.”

Roesch-McNally earned her Ph.D. in sociology. For her dissertation, she interviewed farmers, land managers and worked with Extension Service educators in the Midwest about their perceptions of climate change.

She found that two-thirds of the farmers across the Corn Belt and, based on the research at University of Idaho, that a slightly smaller proportion in the Northwest accept that climate change is happening. “There are still a lot of land managers who don’t necessarily think humans are the main cause of climate change, but I see a lot of folks who are land managers who recognize that climate change is happening. And they believe it is something that they have to worry about and that it is part of the landscape of change,” she says. “I think in a lot of rural areas, more traditionally conservative areas, if folks are involved in land management and are stewards of their natural resources, they are experiencing these changes.”

Roesch-McNally sees a need to frame science as a source of practical knowledge and not as a political argument.

“Can we take the climate-science conversation out of politics to create more clarity and understanding of the issue for folks who are skeptical?” she asks. “To clarify that, ‘Hey there is a lot of good science out there, there is a lot of good information, there are a lot of impacts that you need to know about for your system, your world, your life’ — that is of interest.’”

Climate science is a complicated field even for those in it, but it’s easy for the public, she adds, to get left out of the conversation. “As a social scientist, I think a lot about how to understand who those audiences are, so that they are able to be part of a broader climate science conversation,” she says. Her main concern comes down to, “Who is listening?”

Many climate scientists approach communication with the idea that science is a system of deliverable facts. But, Roesch-McNally says, science informed by formal education, is not the only way of knowing the world. A farmer, for example, may not be formally educated in the finer points of the carbon cycle, but people who earn a living from the land are informed by their history and their intimate relationship with a place, and that knowledge is valuable.

“There is a lot of consensus on the science, but at the same time, as a social scientist, I am always trying to push back on the idea that science is this one overarching thing that we either know or don’t. Really the truth is a lot more complex,” she says. “All individuals aren’t going to respond to scientific information in the same ways. They are going to filter information into the cultural norms and social narratives that influence who they are in their world.”

Communication in Action

Scientific experience informs both Hoffman and Roesch-McNally, who aim to share what they have learned through research.

Hoffman earned his science chops and the respect of his peers but chose a career to communicate science beyond the seminar rooms and conference halls of academia. Results from his Ph.D. research in paleoclimatology at Oregon State were published in the journal Science with co-author and OSU adviser Peter Clark. They focus on global ocean temperatures and sea-level rise, which are affecting coastal cities worldwide.

“We seek to learn something very fundamental about how the Earth works without humans, and I think that is more important than ever,” Hoffman says. “Paleoclimatology really provides a background. It’s the baseline of what the Earth is able to do on its own, and it really allows us to gain a perspective about the roles that human play.”

Hoffman’s approach to science communication comes down to three steps: defining his audience, getting to the point and making it creative. He works with people of all ages, what he calls “K to Gray.” Different styles are necessary because a group of elementary students needs a significantly different message than a roomful of scientists.

Hoffman also relies on his artistic training to get beyond explanations that can become wordy and technical. “Painting, music and theater have captivated audiences for hundreds and thousands of years,” he says. “Those storytelling techniques can make science really exciting, even if it doesn’t seem that way from the outside.”

Not afraid to push the boundaries of communication, Hoffman also uses comedy. Humor and climate change make strange bedfellows, especially since research can suggest a negative outlook for our future. However, a background in improvisational comedy has helped him. (See Hoffman’s “Sounds of Skeptics,” on YouTube.) The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University teaches improv to help scientists as a way to open up and help them communicate more personally. The technique teaches players to take whatever material they are given and build on it in a positive way.

This approach contrasts with traditional technical communication that trains researchers to look for errors and correct mistakes to refine a final product. Think of the difference between painting, molding clay, sculpting a statue and chipping away at a stone. Improv has been recognized as an effective way to open scientists up, freeing them to speak spontaneously and conversationally, which can be more understandable to the public.

Acting Like Animals

One example of creative communication concerns a bumblebee. Hoffman’s group at the museum recently purchased animal suits — a bee, a polar bear, a shark — and have used them to produce videos that show these animals as characters. One of them is “Buzz Alldrone,” a spokesman for the endangered rusty patched bumblebee. Once common, the bee is on the verge of extinction and now occurs in only 13 states, including Virginia. Since the late 1990s the bee’s population has declined by 87 percent, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Pollination of crops such as tomatoes, cranberries and peppers could be affected.

In a two-and-a-half-minute skit, Alldrone gives a press conference about bees on the endangered species list. He explains why he was put on the list, the things people can do to help him get off it and why the issue is important. The museum is using this and other pieces in its honey bee exhibit.

“Even though it isn’t totally realistic, the skit is something that people might at least find ‘cute.’ At that point, they might listen,” Hoffman says. “We can talk about these bigger ideas that we want to expand on; then we try and find multiple entry points. Whether it be a visitor, someone on social media, or someone driving in their car to work, people have the opportunity to hear the science that we want to talk about.”

Making It Personal

Discussing the effects of climate change on communities, however, may not be so difficult in rural America as it is in a city. Farmers, ranchers and other land managers are closely tied to their land and see themselves as stewards. According to Roesch-McNally, people see that droughts are lasting longer, growing conditions are shifting and change is happening. These experiences can open the door to conversations about science, connect people on a personal level and break down political barriers.

“Engaging in conversation, finding common ground and looking for shared values break down that politicization and enable a conversation to occur, enable people to have a better appreciation of the science outside of the political realm,” Roesch-McNally says.

For talking with people who don’t accept climate change or that it is linked to human activity, Hoffman and Roesch-McNally suggest that respectful interactions go beyond politics. Hoffman sees these interactions less as a conflict than as an impasse. He always asks climate change deniers what would lead them to change their minds.

“Some people think that addressing this mentality head-on by explaining these misinformation campaigns can be useful. Others think that humanizing the activity of science helps to address it by making the scientist a person, not an institution,” he says. “I don’t think anyone has the skeleton key for connecting with everyone, but we always have the choice of presenting science as an inclusive, rewarding and fundamentally objective practice for understanding processes we encounter in the natural world.”

Even when she talks with people who don’t accept climate change, Roesch-McNally sees that respectfully personalizing the issue helps create a dialogue. Such conversations are needed before we can act on an issue. It’s this kind of dialogue that helps people build relationships and, eventually, trust what scientists have to offer. In her long term studies, connecting land managers to scientists, she found that this is just what happens.

“Participants had an experience of learning about the science coming out of climate and agriculture-related projects, and I think that sustained interaction helped folks to think a little differently about climate change. It also helped them to gain more respect and trust in scientists and the folks who are doing that work,” she says.

Bringing science to people is critical to the environmental safety and health of our planet now and in the future. Although we don’t know how efforts to engage the public will affect policy long-term, Hoffman, for one, sees short-term successes now.

“I see them in anything from the reactionary tweet to a talk, to the sharing of videos and articles on social media, to families taking extra time to stay for other programming at the museum, to the heartfelt reflective letter from older students and interns,” he says. “The desire to enrich one’s life with science is a hard thing to measure quantitatively but something I strive to instill in people every day.”

Editor’s note: Fritz Freudenberger is a graduate student in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University.

By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.