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What’s the best way to talk about climate change?


You asked: what’s the best way to talk about climate change?

by Elise Goutte
|September 21, 2021

This story was published as part of our coverage of Climate Week NYC. Learn more on Climate Week, read our other stories, and check out our Events to come.

Hurricane Ida can be seen in this image taken aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Today, more Americans are worried about climate change than ever before. From 2014 to 2020, the proportion of people who said they felt “alarmed” by global warming nearly tripled, according to research from the Yale Climate Change Communication Program. But while public awareness of climate change is at an all time high, dinner tables and debate stages can still feel trapped in uncomfortable conversations. As part of State of the Planet’s “You Asked” series, scientists, journalists and content creators at Columbia explained why and how, through thoughtful climate communication, it doesn’t have to be.

The evolution of climate communication

Columbia Climate School climate scientist and professor Kate Marvel recalls when the main story of climate change was about its existence or not. Pundits like her have been pitted against skeptics on live TV with little time for well-meaning discussions. The relatively few stories that have spurred climate science have focused on what is happening in the natural world; for mainstream publications – and the majority of their readers – that meant climate change was synonymous with polar bears trapped in melting icebergs or burning rainforests in the Amazon.

Andrew Revkin was an environmental reporter with The New York Times for over 15 years before joining the Earth Institute as Director of the Initiative on Communication and Sustainability. He said the “newsroom standard” of prioritizing what happened that day made it difficult for issues related to progressive developments and long-term time horizons to take the lead. list. It is only in recent years, he noted, that climate change has started to “seep into other covers”, with journalists writing about its impact on other pressing social issues. such as public health and racial justice.

At the same time, climate solutions have become more visible and scalable, resulting in coverage that sees the crisis as can be mitigated, rather than just its consequences. Sabine Marx, former executive director of Columbia’s Environmental Decisions Research Center, said the shift has offered a psychological benefit in how the threat of climate change is communicated. “If I know there are steps I can take towards concrete solutions, then I’m much more likely to accept that there is a problem,” she explained.

Climate communication has also been supported by the proliferation of new forms of media. Sustainability student Lauren Ritchie, for example, founded the online platform The EcoJustice Project to make education and climate action more accessible to her generation.

“Gen Z are eager to learn and try to get involved,” said Ritchie. “Most of the time, I create content based on what I want to consume. “

Through social media features like Instagram Live, Ritchie gives her tens of thousands of followers the ability to hear first-hand from the people living and responding to climate change in their communities.

How to talk about climate change

Whether in person, in print or online, climate communication often begins where it ends: with the public. Marx explained that a person’s experiences and values ​​inherently shape how they choose to engage in climate change, if at all. As a result, what resonates with a financial investor in New England might not be what resonates with a farmer in the Southeast.

“Knowing your audience will allow you to overcome the information gap so that you can seek to fill a motivation gap,” Marx said.

With no shortage of potential audiences, climate communicators are constantly adapting the way they define the problem, a process Marvel has found to be truly empowering. “I don’t like to feel like a robot,” she said. “I think if you decide that there is only one way to communicate about this, and you have to say the same thing over and over again, then you’re going to burn yourself out very quickly.”

Journalist Brian Khan will use any combination of analogies, examples and recent weather events in his work to connect with his readers, including those who send him hateful messages. “As long as they don’t threaten my life, I will usually respond,” he said. “There is a surprising amount of commonality between people that you might not expect.”

Flooding in the Bronx the day after Ida’s visit to New York. Credit: Jim Griffin

While finding common ground doesn’t always equate to changing your mind, Marvel noted that it’s often “human conversations without ulterior motives” that are most productive. “When I talk about climate change, I want others to understand this thing that is really important to me,” she said, “and I want to learn from others. “

It is a strategy that Marx calls To”Climate change, rather than“ leader with“climate change. Starting with what’s relevant – raising kids, owning a house, enjoying long walks on the beach – the impacts of climate change can be linked to the shared reality of what’s at stake.” We want to open the door with something that is meaningful to people, something that is close to their hearts, ”she said.

The future of climate communication

Since climate communication has changed so much over the past two decades, it can be difficult to predict what will come next for the field as a whole. For Revkin, the future of climate communication will mean bringing more stakeholders together for in-depth conversations rather than writing for traditional media.

“Communicating on climate and sustainability is different from telling another good story,” he said. “It’s about putting brains in one place and getting them thinking about something they couldn’t otherwise, collaborating on something they can do more effectively together than on their own. “

Through his “Sustain What? A webcast series, Revkin has previously hosted a wide variety of experts to discuss issues ranging from global ecological restoration to the future of nuclear power. In the past year and a half, it has recorded more than 220 episodes which have attracted around a million listeners.

The creation of new shared spaces such as “Sustain What? Webcast series can also be used to advocate for greater diversity in climate discourse, which Ritchie, Marvel and Kahn say is desperately needed moving forward. “There are so many nuances in climate change,” Ritchie said, “and yet we tend to look at it through that privileged white lens.”

Marvel agreed. “It’s an existential problem if climate communication is a monolith,” she said. “No one person or group of people will be able to speak to all communities, so we need to raise diverse voices. “

Perhaps the most important part of climate communication is that it continues to happen in more and more places with more people, especially in the face of what Kahn has called the “epidemic of climate silence.” in the United States and around the world.

“People shouldn’t be afraid to talk about this stuff,” he said. “Having these conversations, however difficult they are, is the first step to actually taking action, adopting climate policy and doing this work. “