3 Reports Bring a Wake-Up Call: Change the Conversation

Three scientific reports echo the message that climate change and its impacts are here and now, with more to come. So how to change the conversation to reach beyond the already informed and connect to a much larger population?

Margie Turrin
May 08, 2014

It is the first week of May and already this month we have been put on alert. Three reports have reached our in boxes and mobile devices, each released by panels and agencies with solid credentials and reputations for scientific excellence. The content is different, but the thread that connects them is reliable and consistent — climate change and its impacts are measurable both here at home and around the world, and the future is on track to continue with accelerated results.

All of this points to an urgency to change the conversation to reach beyond the already informed and connect to a much larger population. But how? The response to this question is perhaps as complex as the climate system itself.

A snapshot from the National Climate Assessment  2014 newly released report highlights impacts for the Northeast United States.
A snapshot from the National Climate Assessment 2014 newly released report highlights impacts for the Northeast United States.

Tuesday’s release of the third National Climate Assessment from the U.S. Global Change Research Program caused me to wonder how many people have read reports one and two? We can be certain it is not enough. So how do we engage more broadly with the public, connecting the expansive range of individuals who need to be part of the climate discussion with this rich resource?

Optimized for mobile devices, this new release is designed to reach people where they are spending their time…on the move. Graphics are interactive and accessible, and can be downloaded or shared through social media. Impacts and concerns can be viewed by region, bringing this information to a personal level with local impacts. Yet even with interactivity and an enhanced localized perspective, will this third report be enough to change the conversation? Planning and care has gone into how to use this report to teach, to educate and to connect…but in the end the format is still a report, with the responsibility on us to bring it to life.

Cover from the newly released report from the National Research Council: The Arctic in the Anthropocene: Emerging Research Questions.
National Research Council report: The Arctic in the Anthropocene: Emerging Research Questions.

The second release this week, “The Arctic in the Anthropocene: Emerging Research Questions[1],  identifies emerging issues for future arctic research. How is this National Research Council report related to the National Climate Assessment? Consider its title: The Anthropocene is a label many have applied to the “geologic age of humans” identified through our impact on the planet. A warming climate is without question one of the largest of our human impacts, and it will continue to affect the Arctic at a higher rate than the mid-latitude regions, leading to the need to reexamine our research priorities there. The connection to the national assessment is tangible.

The third release came earlier this week from Yale’s Project on Climate Change Communication, a group best known for their report called Global Warming’s Six Americas 2009, identifying differences in individual beliefs in the reality of climate change. The groups’ newest report continues to examine the varying perspectives on climate that permeate our country, this time focusing on individual views on the stability of the climate system.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people’s strength of belief in climate change affected their mental model regarding the stability or fragility of the overall climate system. Those with the lowest conviction that climate is warming feel the climate is stable and climate is a random system, while those who are convinced the climate is warming see the system as fragile, poised more tenuously at a precarious threshold.[2]

Mental Models of the climate system from Yale's Project on Climate Communication.
Mental models of the climate system from Yale’s Project on Climate Communication.

Three excellent and informative reports, but how do we bring them to life with different communities of individuals? And how do we stop identifying people as victims, or the cause of climate change, and move towards “solution space” in our conversations? While the reports are important, the conversations and opportunities we create around them are critical. If conversations continue as they have without “listening” and “connecting,” the reports will be a mere status update, not the tool for change we need. Here are two different approaches to “changing the conversation”…

The PoLAR Voices initiative weaves fictional and real characters together through storytelling about climate experiences.
The PoLAR Voices initiative weaves fictional and real characters together through storytelling about climate experiences.
Listening — Listening is central to the “storytelling” journey of PoLAR Voices, launched this week as part of the Columbia Climate Center’s Polar Learning and Responding Project (PoLAR). The Voices project weaves together a journey introducing fictional and real people, all intersecting through their experiences in a changing climate.“Many of us only notice one or two climate trends from where we sit, and we think only about the day’s weather during the morning commute. Beyond what we see day to day, there is a journey, a great journey, involved in stitching together the human story of the change we face today.”[3] Launched as a series of audio adventures, PoLAR Voices tackles the challenging topic of climate change using scenarios and story lines to explore the implications of environmental change and societal choices.Scientists have found that stories help in breaking down barriers that can exist with difficult and complex problems. Trusted figures that are introduced can help make a personal connection to a larger-scale event, and can engage a greater diversity of people. PoLAR Voices’ blend of people and experiences includes everyone from neighbors to science researchers. We listen. Listening and hearing are essential skills that allow us to absorb information fully without feeling pressured to respond. Tune in, and join us to listen as the journey begins to unfold, or dig in deeper and listen to the scientist for this episode talk about the wildly meandering “river of air,” our jet stream, that is wobbling more freely with a warming Arctic, and causing chaos this year as it drove the polar vortex into North America.
Jody Sperling performs "Arctic Memory" in a costume designed to mimic Arctic sea ice.
Jody Sperling performs “Arctic Memory” in a costume designed to mimic Arctic sea ice.
Connecting — We all have various circles of people that may or may not intersect. Linking together diverse circles of individuals pulls us into new conversations and builds new connections. Further connecting these circles builds chains that lengthen and intersect even more diverse groups. Imagine it is like a children’s spirograph, with circles connecting, circles inside each other, circles spinning wildly, each different and unique but all part of the bigger picture.Recently we joined circles with dancer/choreographer Jody Sperling at her Dancing in the Arctic event. This was a prelude to “Project Ice Melt,” an artistic dance creation to result from Jody’s six-week journey to the Arctic aboard the US Coast Guard Cutter Healy. Embedded as part of science research cruise focused on arctic sea ice, Jody will choreograph a work around sea ice and upon her return will host a lecture/demonstration on her experience.Her time-lapse dance pieces are evocative, seemingly inspired by the natural world. Her drive to convey the science story of changing arctic sea ice to her audience connected her to our PoLAR project. This was a circle that was new to us, and we were anxious to connect and understand. Jody’s dance opened the door for the conversation to begin. You can join Jody and her circle of connections at JCC in Manhattan on June 30 to learn more about her trip, see clips and for further conversations around the climate.These are two innovative examples that break open the climate change conversation. They don’t focus on paralyzing people with the guilt of being “part of the problem”; rather, they help move us toward an opening that engages people with “you are part of the solution.” Let’s empower people at a local level to bring solution-based changes.Reports formulated at the national level are important because of the powerful resources that can be brought to the table, but connecting at ground level is critical. Let’s get to work, and start building from the bottom-up.For a quick “how to” list on building from the bottom up, we include this six-point list generated by ecoAffect:
  • Lead With Solutions – start with empowerment.
  • Focus on Opportunities – climate change can provide positive opportunities, so use them.
  • Keep Things Local – we understand local better than the global impacts.
  • Empower People – reinforce that we can make a difference and help people identify how they can help. 
  • Do not Fall Into the Information Trap – instead of citing data, focus on common values, opportunities and solutions.
  • Do Not Try to Be a Scientist – be a friend, a colleague — fill the same need in their lives you always have. This is your trusted position

Suggested links on the National Climate Assessment: http://www.globalchange.gov/climate-change, or: http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/report

American Geophysical Union: http://thebridge.agu.org/2014/05/06/the-climate-change-conversation-needs-your-voice/

Communicating the report: http://ecoaffect.org/2014/05/06/6-tips-for-communicating-about-the-national-climate-assessment/

For teachers – teaching climate change: http://www.climate.gov/teaching/2014-national-climate-assessment-resources-educators

Videos to support the regional sections of the report: http://vimeo.com/channels/nca

[1] (National Research Council. The Arctic in the Anthropocene: Emerging Research Questions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2014.)[2] Jennifer Marlon, Angelo Lan, and Anthony Leiserowitz (2014). Climate Note: How Stable is Earth’s Climate? Yale University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. [3] http://polaraudio.wordpress.com