When it comes to climate change, one of the frustrations that experts routinely voice is that the concept sometimes gets lost in translation. That’s not all surprising. Climate change is complex science, after all, and the topic is still relatively new to those of us non-scientists. The term “global warming” was first used in 1975 – hardly ancient history. The Beatles had broken up five years earlier.
So the learning curve still appears to be steep. One of the lingering problems noted by Carl Wunsch, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physical Oceanography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is that many people routinely confuse “weather” and “climate,” which doesn’t help matters.
Our current blog topic, of course, is the distinction between those two words. In our previous blog on the subject, we learned about the difference between the two. Weather is what we’re seeing outside now. Climate is the average weather that a region experiences over a significant period of time.
Our guest blogger today, Cara Pike, the director of Climate Access, has the challenging job of bridging the gap between scientific research and those government agencies and organizations that are seeking to implement change.
On its website, Climate Access, spells out the dilemma this way:
“Those in government and non-profits trying to communicate to the public about climate change say that they often lack the time and resources to digest the latest research and incorporate it into their campaigns. Similarly, researchers wish to know more about how their findings are playing out in the field.”
But when “climate” and “weather” are routinely confused, one can see the hurdles that Pike faces. She is undaunted, though. Much is at stake, of course, considering how climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing us. Her fascinating insight follows:
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But just what do you mean when you say “climate?”
Our climate is the collection of our weather patterns – the wind, precipitation, temperature and storm trends that prevail within a region over time. Weather patterns affect just about everything in our lives – the ability to grow the food we eat, the kinds of infectious diseases and pests that can thrive and affect our health, the amount of water we have for drinking and maintaining our property, and our efforts to keep our homes and families safe from extreme weather events.
How is that different from weather?
Weather is about the short-term wind, precipitation, temperature and storm patterns within a region, versus the averages over time.
But climate change changes weather, correct? Is that why there may be
Most people do not understand the difference between climate and weather. We all tend to focus on the daily or short-term weather forecasts so we can decide when to bring an umbrella, wear an extra layer, or pack sunscreen. We remain relatively unaware of what the long-term average atmospheric trends are and this does create confusion. For example, a single storm event often cannot be attributed to climate change, yet the overall trend around the increase in extreme weather events can.
What’s the biggest challenge in communicating about climate change to
The majority of Americans accept climate change is happening and is a serious concern. The challenge is that most people do not have a clear sense of how and when it will impact their lives, and what can actually be done to address it. Feeling “tension” around climate change without have a sense of “efficacy” or what the “benefits” of action might be creates dissonance that causes many to become overwhelmed and tune. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that the fossil fuel industry is engaged in a propaganda war to intentionally place doubt around the certainty of the challenge and what it means for our lives. As a result, in many communities, people do not feel comfortable talking about climate change with colleagues, neighbors, or even friends, even if it is foremost in their minds.
What are the lessons learned in the past decade about communications
involving climate change?
I’ve been focused on climate communications and behavior change for the past eight years and over that time, I think we have made progress in terms of learning how best to communicate the challenges and opportunities global warming presents. While we still have a lot of work to do in terms of creating a climate story with a clear and compelling vision for the future and a path that can get us there, at the same time there has been the acknowledgement that taking an ”information-deficit” approach with engagement efforts is not enough. Scientific literacy is an extremely important issue that needs to be addressed, yet we have also learned about the need to tap people’s values, worldviews, and identities around climate change. Fortunately, some efforts are starting to address this need by going beyond traditional media approaches to develop peer support programs, social media networks, and other mechanisms that connect people with others who care for support and inspiration.
Are there any emerging trends that you see that are working to help
people understand what is meant by climate change?
In 2009, The Social Capital Project produced a guide to framing the climate conversation called Climate Crossroads. At that time, our research showed potential around shifting from the scientific uncertainty frame (Do we know enough to act?) to a preparation frame (People are already acting to prepare for climate impacts…) as a way to build understanding of what climate change means for our lives. This approach is gaining momentum and showing promise as communities across the country are downplaying climate impacts to the local level and sorting out how to respond to the changes. This approach has unfortunately been advanced by the increase in extreme weather events in the United States and around the world over the past year. These extreme storm events are acting as a wake-up call for many, including those who are still uncertain about climate change, given their toll on communities and the economy. Another trend to consider has been around addressing the psychological aspects of climate change and developing processes that support people through the steps of recognizing the challenge, understanding its implications for our lives, mourning the loss of our fossil-fuel lifestyles, and then finally letting go and moving into a phase of designing solutions and new ways to live.
From those trends, do you have any predictions for how communications
should be focused in the year and decade ahead about this topic?
For the most part, I think we have failed to consider climate change as a long-term communications and public engagement challenge. Given the urgency of the issue, the tendency has been to focus on near-term efforts, versus building a strong constituency base for action over time, with a focus on youth. Climate change will be one of the defining issues for generations to come and we need to start approaching the work by considering at least the next decade of activities, not just the next year.
There is more to be done in terms of identifying what the role of the public is or should be in making the transition to low-carbon, resilient communities. To date, climate change has been seen mostly as a scientific, engineering, and policy issue; however, human history illustrates that transformational change happens when the largest number of people in a culture are engaged in collective actions that have profound economic, political and social effects. More efforts are needed that support people emotionally as they move through the stages from disinterest to defending their climate actions. People tend to get involved with issues, environmental and otherwise, when they feel part of a community that they care about and have a sense of meaning in their lives. What bigger challenge to infuse our culture with a sense of purpose and community than coming together to address climate change? Finally, while we need to meet people where they are at on the issue (i.e. approaching climate change from a national security, emergency management, or public health angle), we also need to carve out more space in the culture to allow for climate change to be discussed directly and openly. This is a tough challenge as it intersects with other major trends such as civic disengagement, the role of money in politics, and the polarized political environment yet important to address because too much ground is given up if we allow the ‘c-word’ to become culturally unacceptable to use.
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Thank you Cara Pike for your time and expertise. We wish you the best of luck in helping bridge the gap between experts in climate change and the public agencies that seek to use the information to help create dialogue and change.
Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.