Communicating climate graphic

The comment haunted me in its wrongness:

“One volcanic eruption dwarfs human CO2.”

I jumped in.

“No, not even close, Don. Humans emit 100 times the CO2 that volcanoes do, every single year. Your willingness to spread false information doesn’t speak too highly of your judgment.”

My finger hovered over the “submit” button, but hesitated. “Don’t be mean,” I thought to myself.

I deleted the snark off the tail end of my rebuttal and re-framed.

“No, not even close, Don. Humans emit 100 times the CO2 that volcanoes do, every single year. This has been debunked over and over and over.”

The modified post still smacked of frustration but at least didn’t take it out solely on the questioner.

The response was, perhaps, about the last thing one would expect:

“I guess that is what I get for not actually checking something I heard. Thanks for the challenge. I am now more informed.”

“Wait, really? That never happens. Thank you for your follow-up.”

The enduring lesson from this exchange isn’t that the commenter conceded his point, but rather that I almost blew it. I was bracing for a fight, but this person was simply misinformed. I narrowly escaped the trap of attacking someone who had simply made a mistake.

Can you tell a wiseass from someone with a genuine question?

When faced with someone who appears dubious about widely accepted climate change science, how do you weed-out a hardened ideologue from someone with more genuine intentions? The answer lies right before us, but it’s one I missed in the exchange above. Even a single follow-up question, like “What makes you think that?” may be enough to illuminate someone’s perspective. Is a person expressing doubt, trying to learn more, or simply setting the stage for a deep dive into the latest conspiracy theories?

The previous article in this series explored the “spectrum of persuadability,” and how people resist climate change information for a variety of reasons. Not every person who has their facts wrong is a full-throated flat-earther. Some are casually repeating a tidbit they’ve heard. Others may not have given climate change much thought at all, and they may just have unresolved questions, doubts, and fears.

People who are noncommittal on climate change are likely open to new information, but their receptiveness warrants extra caution. Ungracious, condescending, or negative behavior from those trying to defend climate science can be counterproductive, a huge turnoff, slamming the door on a rare opportunity.

A mindset for learning, ‘an awesome opportunity’

Hannah Pickard answers the phone in a cheerful voice from her office in Boston’s New England Aquarium. “I’m sitting right here on the harbor,” she says of her enviable locale.

Just 11 years later after joining the Aquarium staff, she’s the program manager of a vibrant network of informal educators and scientists, called NNOCCI – The National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation. She ticks off the list of places where science educators interact with the public: “Zoos, aquariums, national parks, nature centers, and science museums.”

New England Aquarium exhibit
Danny Trifone of the New England Aquarium engages some young visitors in thinking about how the ocean is the heart of our climate system and how we must protect the ocean heart to bring the climate system back into balance.

These venues offer a quietly powerful way for people to learn about nature, science, or their local environment. Climate change is a regular part of the conversation. “Informal education reaches 150 million people every year,” says Pickard in an upbeat tone.

Better yet, people tend to come to these places in a mood for learning. “We have this awesome opportunity,” she says.

Pickard and her colleagues worked with the FrameWorks Institute, a communications thinktank, to test various approaches for engaging people about climate change. They’ve come up with strategies that can be adopted not just by museums and parks, but by many others too.

Guide toward a productive way of thinking

There are no “blank slates” among us. New information is always filtered through our existing ways of looking at the world. “Part of the strategy is listening and trying to figure out where people are,” says Pickard. “Listen for what’s underneath what they’re saying.”

Some people are in a place of uncertainty: “There’s always a new study, who do I trust?” Or fear: “I can’t handle climate change – it’s just too scary.”

After gauging someone’s starting place, Pickard recommends nudging them toward a re-framing that retains the essence of their original concern, but offers a more productive way of thinking about it.

For example, many are hopeless on climate change: “Solutions don’t matter – we can’t do anything about it.”

But the challenge can be re-cast. “Americans are innovators and problem solvers,” suggests Pickard. The sentiment is not a hard sell; most people would already agree.

Careful re-framing allows you to steer clear of overly political or polarizing aspects. “It’s easier to stay out of the rut than to have to dig your way out,” Pickard says. (Has she been eavesdropping on my Facebook conversations?, I surreptitiously wonder.)

“With care, you can get people to a positive place” she says. “The goal is a positive, solutions-oriented conversation.”

Ocean and climate change graphic
NNOCCI and FrameWorks Institute have developed an infographic that illustrates their research, juxtaposing the many unhelpful ways of thinking about climate change (in red on the illustration above), with increasingly productive views at the top of each list. The goal is to steer conversations into the green topics to allow for solutions-thinking.

It’s just a cycle – right? No … it’s become a ramp

An exhaustingly common point of confusion on climate change is that it’s all part of a natural cycle (this myth was addressed in the first article in this series). This misconception can be tough to dislodge because Earth does have natural cycles, so the adage is partially true. Which, in the end, doesn’t really make it true.

“Instead of ‘just a cycle,’ explain that we’ve thrown natural systems out of balance,” advises Pickard. The wisdom of this approach is that it doesn’t attempt to reverse an existing belief; it uses it as a foundation to build from. The Earth indeed has cycles, but excess CO2 has interrupted the natural ebb and flow. “It’s no longer a cycle, it’s a ramp,” she says.

Another frequent comment by museum visitors is that CO2 is natural, therefore it can’t be bad. “Should I stop breathing?” quips Pickard with a chuckle, replaying a typical conversation.

The idea of “regular vs. rampant” can help draw contrast between natural CO2 and human-caused emissions. “We now have a new source of CO2,” Pickard explains, “and those levels keep going up and up.” It’s a play on the “too much of a good thing can be a bad thing” line, and therefore readily understandable and often easily accepted.

One of NNIOCC’s go-to explanations is that greenhouse gases act like a heat-trapping blanket. “This is my favorite metaphor,” says Pickard, “Everybody understands a blanket.”

But Pickard is careful to not linger in doom and gloom. She circles back to our affinity for natural cycles: “The good news is we’re already working to get the system back in balance,” she says.

Solutions are an essential part of the conversation

Our brains have a hard time embracing problems that appear to be unsolvable. Part of why climate change has been a poster child for inaction is that solutions have been deliberately portrayed as unpalatable or ineffective.

To ease the emotional burden, and therefore make the problem easier to accept, Pickard says, “We talk about energy and solutions, not that anybody is good or bad.”

If someone is exasperated about the enormity of the problem, says Pickard, “This person doesn’t need a science explanation, they need to see the ways in which our neighbors are tackling the problem and see a pathway to join them.”

“Emphasize people’s ability to solve difficult problems with innovation and ingenuity,” reads a suggestion from a blog post describing NNOCCI’s approach.

To avoid helplessness and build support for climate action, Pickard suggests, “Help people see a role for themselves. They can actually do something.”

But Pickard is quick to note that personal lifestyle changes fall far short of addressing the problem. “Recycling [alone] is not the answer,” she says. Instead, be realistic that the scale of the solutions needs to match the scale of the challenge. Ideally, point to policy efforts going on in your own community so that people have a pathway to support or join existing projects.

“Solutions at the community and state levels get the most traction,” says Pickard. “Local issues help people feel directly connected,” while dodging the quagmire of national politics.

People are social by nature, and there’s an innate attraction in being part of a popular movement. “They don’t have to start on their own,” advises Pickard. “Name local groups doing good work, and look at what’s happening right now that people feel like they can join.”

Perhaps the most helpful re-framing is that we can work together for mutual benefit. Pickard’s voice is buoyant with optimism, “People want to be part of a group. They can see people around them doing the same thing. They want to be there for each other.”

Want to boost the effectiveness of your climate conversations?

* An infographic with 7 metaphors that have been field-tested to be effective in explaining climate change

* How to Talk about Climate Change and the Ocean – Research-based strategies for conversations.

* Expanding Our Repertoire: Why and How to Get Collective Climate Solutions in the Frame – Productive ways to talk about solutions, while avoiding common pitfalls.

This series will continue to explore different facets of climate communication, while showcasing the voices of scientists, communicators, and everyday people.

This series:

Climate change science comeback strategies
‘In it for the money’
Al Gore said what?
How to identify people open to evidence about climate change
How to sort out good-faith questions about climate change

Karin Kirk

Karin Kirk

Karin Kirk is a geologist and freelance writer with a background in climate education. She's a scientist by training, but the human elements of climate change occupy most of her current work. Karin is...