by Becca Nelson, '20
This summer, my parents woke up to find a news crew standing in our driveway. We live in a quiet little suburb of Chicago, where this kind of thing never happens. The scene was eerie. The night before, torrential rains had flooded our neighborhood, turning our street into a channel of murky brown water, filled with litter and broken branches. The lights from the cameras flashed off the water, creating jagged shadows. The Des Plaines River, which runs through our neighborhood reached a record high. A couple streets down from where I live, my neighbors were forced to evacuate their homes. Kids floated down the streets in inflatable rafts, laughing and playing, despite the health warnings about entering the water. My neighborhood sits on a floodplain, but this was the second one hundred year flood we had in the last few years. Normally, hundred year floods have a 1 in 100 chance of happening, but their frequency is increasing with climate change.
In the weeks following the flood, I realized how lucky I was. I watched news footage of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria pounding the Caribbean and Southeastern United States. The hurricanes disrupted the lives of millions of people, including some of my friends and family. Warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico due to rising global temperature exacerbates the frequency of hurricanes. These natural disasters with their profound social and ecological consequences create an opening for starting a dialogue on climate change. Yet having a thoughtful discussion that catalyzes collaboration and action can be difficult in America’s polarized climate. This summer, I conducted a literature review on how to most effectively communicate and teach about climate change as a part of environmental education research I was doing in Dr. Nicole Ardoin’s Social Ecology Lab. After reading through pages of peer-reviewed journal articles, I learned the following tips about how to more effectively discuss climate change.
Foremost, optimism is far more effective than alarmism in inspiring people to take action. When the effects of climate change are portrayed as inevitable and apocalyptic, people tend to either lose their sense of efficacy in addressing the issue or roll their eyes at what they see as over exaggerated paranoia. I often get overwhelmed watching documentaries that provoke alarm without discussing solutions, thinking about how large my own carbon footprint is and how limited my agency is in tackling climate change. In contrast, messages that focus on how communities have the ability to adapt by adopting concrete actions can instill a sense of hope and urgency.
Besides the tone of the discussion, whether climate change is discussed as a social or scientific problem can also greatly influence people’s response to it. Environmental education researcher K. C. Busch researched how social and scientific portrayals of climate change were presented in the classroom. The scientific discussion of climate change appears to be much more common in schools and emphasizes empirical evidence for climate change and how it will impact the environment globally. Social discussions, however, that portray its negative effects on our society at the local scale are underemphasized in the classroom even though people tend to be more influenced by climate change’s social consequences.
Psychological distance of climate change can also affect people’s level of concern. In other words, people who believe that climate change will threaten their community or similar communities in the near future are more likely to see climate change as an important issue than people who believe that climate change will happen far in the future and far away from where they live. Discussing how climate change will affect people and places at local level can raise more concern than using vague and global terms. For example, the research I did this summer looked at how redwoods can educate visitors at California State Parks about the local impacts of climate change. The devastation from the recent hurricanes hits much closer to home for some Americans than images of polar bears stranded on melting ice floes.
Public perceptions and barriers to feeling concerned about climate change vary demographically throughout the United States. It’s important to understand what perspectives your audience comes from. For example, people in some cases distrust experts who come from outside their community. So imposing a message about climate change on a community rather than fostering an open dialogue can be ineffective. Collective action toward climate change can arise organically from within communities through networks of concerned individuals that spread in a decentralized manner. Stanford biology professor Dr. Deborah Gordon started an online initiative called Land Talk that seeks to empower people all over the world to document changes in weather and land within their own community. The website features stories in which a younger community member interviews an older member about changes within an area based on their personal observations. If you are interested in hearing their stories or sharing your own, you can learn more here.
Ultimately, how we talk about climate change influences the actions we take from lifestyle changes to environmental policy. Watching news footage of my flooded neighborhood was a wake up call for me.
References and Further Reading
Jones, C., Hine, D. W., & Marks, A. D. (2017). The future is now: reducing psychological distance to increase public engagement with climate change. Risk Analysis, 37(2), 331-341.
Scannell, L., & Gifford, R. (2013). Personally relevant climate change: The role of place attachment and local versus global message framing in engagement. Environment and Behavior,45(1), 60–85.
Busch, K. C. (2016). Polar Bears or People? Exploring Ways in Which Teachers Frame Climate Change in the Classroom. International Journal of Science Education, Part B, 6(2), 137-165.
Maibach, E. W., Leiserowitz, A., Roser-Renouf, C., & Mertz, C. K. (2011). Identifying like-minded audiences for global warming public engagement campaigns: An audience segmentation analysis.
Leiserowitz, A. A. (2005). American risk perceptions: Is climate change dangerous?. Risk analysis, 25(6), 1433-1442.
Koepfler, J. A., Heimlich, J. E., & Yocco, V. S. (2010). Communicating climate change to visitors of informal science environments. Applied Environmental Education and Communication, 9(4), 233-242. and tool development. PloS one, 6(3), e17571.
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