Researchers are constantly learning more about the impacts of climate change, but findings tend to be complex and nuanced. Personal beliefs about global warming and climate change exacerbate the challenge to effectively communicate about climate science.
The majority of Missourians believe that climate change is happening, are worried about global warming, and believe that schools should be teaching climate change (Figure 1). Yet, personal and political conversations on climate can be contentious and awkward.
For more information about the survey question wording and methodology, please visit YCOM: climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us
Due to the difficulty of effectively explaining climate science to non-experts, many different groups research effective communication strategies, including the Yale Program for Climate Communication, the Climate Outreach team of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Climate Communication Project, among countless others. Steps to effective climate communication are best summarized by the IPCC.
Steps to Effective Climate Communication
- Be a confident communicator
Despite what we might see in mainstream media, scientists are generally trusted and seen as reliable messengers for scientific information. Be authentic and confident when communicating about climate science. However, while you’re likely the expert on climate science, remember that your audience has expertise too. Be respectful and willing to answer questions to the best of your ability. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking about a certain topic, that’s ok! Feel free to say you don’t know, but you’d be happy to find more information. Hopefully this will leave the door open for future conversations.
- Talk about the real world, not abstract ideas
It may be difficult for Missourians to grasp the impacts of “increased global temperature” and “more extreme precipitation events”. Rather, it is important to use local examples that clarify what these impacts may be. For instance, rather than referring to the global increase in temperature, you may be able to break down what that means for urban heat islands, like St. Louis and Kansas City. Will there be more days with greater than 100 degree temperatures in the summer? Or think about what those numbers may mean for people in rural communities. Will warm spring temperatures begin earlier in the calendar year, potentially giving farmers the opportunity to plant sooner? Will extreme heat in the middle of the summer be detrimental to their crop growth and development?
A recent article in Nature Communications is titled “Climate change will affect global water availability through compounding changes in seasonal precipitation and evaporation.” Great! What an important finding! Now, what does this mean and how can you explain it to someone else? When you open the article, look for figures or data that may directly relate to your region. For instance, in this paper, they show a map (Figure 2) of different precipitation regimes worldwide. Missouri falls on a regional boundary, which according to the legend would fall into moderate or high mean annual precipitation (mm/day) and moderate to high mean apportionment entropy (AE). Let’s narrow this a little further and focus on one category – high mean annual precipitation and high apportionment entropy (HPHAE) since it appears that most of Missouri falls in this category. Based on the definition in the paper, we can generalize that this regime will experience higher precipitation rates and lower intra-annual variability, and thus, rainfall will be uniformly distributed and will likely meet human and ecological demands.
Here are some examples of how you might break this down even further to relate these findings to real-world issues in Missouri.
“This past spring was wetter than normal because we had so much rain. I recently read a paper that predicted that Missouri would continue having wet weather conditions due to climate change. It doesn’t mean that there won’t ever be drought, but we may want to get used to these wetter springs.”
“It seems like every year we have to plan for flooding on the Missouri River. Climate scientists predict that flooding may continue to be a problem since Missouri is likely going to have more rainfall year-round, according to an article I recently read. Do you think that cities could use that information to develop flood mitigation strategies?”
- Connect to what matters to your audience
Beyond using real-world examples, you can be even more effective by customizing those examples to your audience. Above, we mentioned the impacts of urban heat islands, but what if you’re talking to someone who can comfortably be in air-conditioned buildings all summer? Perhaps you could relate to them by discussing the increased energy costs they might accrue to keep indoor temperatures comfortable. If you know you are going to be communicating about climate change, be sure to prepare by researching your audience and their values.
The same principle holds true when you’re communicating with your family. We all have likely experienced awkward conversations with relatives who are climate skeptics. However, this is an audience that you know really well! Try to relate climate science to family traditions, the occupations of your family members, or other shared memories. “I used to love our ice fishing trips after Christmas, but it’s sure disappointing that the ice usually isn’t thick enough the past few years. Do you think this could be due to warmer temperatures in the winter? I think this is a local impact of climate change.”
- Tell a human story
You’ve probably picked up on this trend in the above examples, but it’s worth repeating. When you’re communicating about climate change, talk about the impacts on people. Think about how weather patterns associated with climate change, such as flooding or warmer weather, may affect people’s health, wealth, or recreation. Some examples may include discussing the impacts of warmer temperatures on air quality or energy costs. If air quality is diminished, people with asthma or other respiratory illnesses will be more vulnerable to asthma attacks or have even more difficulty breathing. In order to keep your apartment at 72 degrees in the summer, your electricity costs will likely increase with warmer temperatures. Tell a story rather than just sharing facts.
- Lead with what you know
Climate change projections are just that – projections. However, there are some projected impacts of climate change that have broad scientific consensus (e.g., fossil fuels are causing the atmosphere to get warmer). While you shouldn’t completely ignore uncertainty, it’s best to lead with what you and the scientific community knows with certainty.
For example, when you’ve mentioned that the climate is getting warmer, you’ve probably heard the retort that goes something like, “Last winter was one of the coldest in recent memory. I don’t believe that it’s actually getting warmer.” Here’s how you might be able to reply. “Almost all scientists agree that the global atmosphere is getting warmer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be warmer each year in Missouri. It’s a little harder to predict what local areas are going to experience, but University of Missouri atmospheric scientists have created models that show less changes in temperature locally, and greater changes in rainfall patterns. Have you noticed any differences in rain and snow compared to 10 years ago?”
If you’re committed to sharing climate change science, you’re likely going to have some awkward, confrontational conversations. To overcome some of these barriers, emphasize shared values and points of common ground. Be respectful and listen to other’s perspectives. The goal of these conversations should not be to convince someone that the science is correct, but rather to empower others to adapt to and mitigate impending changes in local climate conditions. Best of luck!