Opinion: Climate Change Communication


I may, perhaps, be providing a less popular view or one which isn’t the “flavor of the week”. But I’ve been hearing a lot of people recently in science discussing the communication of climate change. There has much criticism of how some have chosen to communicate. Examples: Statements considered “dire”; assuming moral or intellectual superiority if someone disagrees with the most sound parts  of the science; being condescending, etc.

First off…I do agree with the idea that people need to treat people right and fair. Do not treat people like they are less than you or unnecessarily scare them into submission. We need to communicate what we know and how we understand it and listen to what people have to say.

But with that said…

The science of climate change (and it’s main mechanism…global warming) has been gaining scientific ground since the 1970s. The understanding of the greenhouse effect and carbon dioxide goes back to the mid-1800s. I was born in 1984. Climate scientist James Hansen went before Congress in 1988 to give the realities of what climate change means. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the UN was formed in 1988. It’s 2017. The climate of Earth has warmed dramatically since then and as a result we are witnessing impacts on our world from more extreme meteorological and climatological events, extinction rates 1000 times higher because of humans with a possible mass extinction event underway in the biosphere and millions around the world and increasingly direct impacts on human health. Meanwhile too many deny what is happening because data isn’t enough. And in many cases, many of the people we are trying to convince are not only disinterested in learning, but have a sharp anti-intellectual bent based on politics or even religion. I have no problem with people being politically conservative or religious, but that is the reality of who most of the “deniers” are. So are we not supposed to call out people who are grossly thinking irrationally or being outright deniers (not skeptics, skeptics can be convinced) in order to protect their feelings and “hopefully” convince them we are correct? Climate scientists are routinely attacked by denier politicians and on social media and their reputations dragged through the mud. Hell, even threatened. Who speaks up for the integrity of the science and scientists while we all sit around trying to be nice and protect the feelings of people who are not interested in what we have to say, respectful or not?

Southern California Wildfires in Dec. 2017.

I guess the reason I’m rather sharp about this is because I think Americans largely discuss this topic from a position of privilege. In America, climate change is still a joke for many or largely downplayed. “Look at all this snow, I guess they got 5 inches of global warming hahaha”. “I get climate change is an important issue, but do people really think it’s as important as [insert political issue here]”. And other various statements. I think there are two issues at work here.

A woman wades through a flooded village in the eastern state of Bihar
Extreme river flooding in Bihar, India in August 2017.
  1. In the US, we are dealing with the impacts of climate change, but we (generally) still have the resiliency to face what’s happening. In the developing world, this is not the case. There have already been significant increases in extreme events relative to the mid-20th century (droughts, fires, heavy precipitation leading to issues such as increased property destruction, even more importantly, crop failures putting more people at risk of undernourishment). And in some places, there’s sea level rise becoming a problem. In the developing world, this is not a game, or a joke or something to be denied. It’s in their face. Even if individual event/event types can’t be conclusively attributed to climate change, understanding climate change is a *systemic* process of our climate heat engine, adding more energy can cause more extremes across many categories. How much to developing nations realize these growing extremes? They’ve realized it enough to basically demand the industrialized nations who have caused a vast majority of the warming of Earth via 20th century emissions, to work to limit warming to as low as possible and pay for their mitigation measures. Unfortunately, they are largely ignored because their countries are small and not economically influential enough (Paris Agreement basically is business-as-usual lite), so the world is failing and they will suffer the worst impacts of global failure first.
  2. Climate change is to outright deniers “something that’s always happening” or even to many of those who understand the basic science a more significant concern of the future. 2100 comes up a lot. Or perhaps “We have 10 years” which was since the late 1980s. How many times can we have 10 years to seriously discuss these problems? Climate change is happening now and changes *are* going to accelerate and be abrupt as we move forward. How can we discuss these issues if too many people think they know better than a PhD with 30 years of research experience? If the PhDer asserts in a blunt manner that they know better, we might think that’s intellectual superiority and unfair assumption as we all have different experiences beyond education. And technically that’s true…but if one is degrading someone because they are educated and they trust what they see over data, can we call it what it is? Anti-intellectualism and in some cases even moral superiority as it may be based on religion or politics is just as bad if not worse to our society than anything. This is clearly something anyone can be out of line on.
  3. Us “intellectuals” seem to be having debates about how to best communicate climate change. We should talk about the worse case scenarios, should be have lots of hope and solutions, this and that. My view? Tell the truth! How can we do anything about climate change if people do not actually have an appreciation of what we are facing in terms of how it can directly harm human society and our biosphere? I’ve noted that even many outside of climate science do not fully appreciate what is happening now and how bad it could be. The “worse-case” is not…it is the path we are on in all of its unpleasantness unless we make the necessary changes needed. Every time I hear “stop being alarmist” I hear “don’t tell the truth”. It’s not being alarmist to discuss alarming things. This used to be an issue in meteorology. The US didn’t used to issue tornado warnings for fear of causing panic and freezing people up. Well, they didn’t know what was coming and were target practice for tornadoes smashing their towns. Yes, provide actionable info. “Go here to learn more”, “Vote for politicians who care about you and your children’s health and prosperity”…connect climate change’s shift to more extreme conditions to extremes which have already occurred and discuss how they will become normal as new extremes appear. “Yes we’ve always had droughts, but these droughts will come in more rapid succession, which is why we must have mitigation policies to prevent this from happening”. Tell people how these changes are already happening. Give people options how to act, but be real, otherwise, why should they be concerned about the issue? Especially when we as scientists get more bogged down about how everything supposedly gets attributed to climate change vs. simply providing a strong message about the seriousness of the situation, especially NOW, not just the future.
Carbon Dioxide concentration history over 800,000 years.

Respect goes both ways and if I’m going to respect the views of someone who doesn’t automatically agree with the science, I expect that person to respect my views and intelligence. Otherwise, I won’t trash that person, but I will move on. Some (and perhaps most) people are NOT looking to be convinced. And that’s something science communicators have to face. Not just trying to respectful, but also respecting yourself and not allowing lack of openness, compromise or cognitive dissonance stand in your way to providing knowledge. I’ve learned this from my experience as a meteorologist who are used as target practice all the time for supposedly being wrong 50% of the time (we are quite accurate), or anger over warnings (which have saved thousands of lives over decades). Climate change communicators should be respectful, be blunt, say things the way it is (consensus and personal scientific view), but not afraid to respectfully point out incorrect views and statements they KNOW are wrong and not afraid to move on if someone doesn’t want to listen. Most people will or will not figure it out on their own time, anyways.

Carbon Dioxide emissions scenarios and projected temperatures based on climate models. The world is on the business-as-usual path-RCP 8.5 for global average temperature near 4.5 degrees C/8.1 degrees F. The Paris Agreement would likely yield a temperature by end of century of over 3 degrees C average/5.4 degrees F globally. But nasty impacts are already happening now with temp near 1.2 degrees C/2.2 degrees F.

Oh and more thing. If you don’t regularly even attempt to communicate climate change to people, don’t lecture others on how they should do it. I particularly don’t want to hear the “Now is not the time to talk about climate change” meme. I discuss these issues to people whenever I can and have encountered this criticism. If you have a problem with how its done, do it and do it better. It’s actually one of my motivations for creating this site. People who care about these issues care about the seriousness of it and the people and animals it is and will harm further. Trust me, communication is even more challenging than you believed and chances are you do not understand just how serious it is even if you think you do or even some of the latest science, which is evolving rapidly. The focus needs to be on helping the citizenry be educated on these issues so we have a healthy planet as well as defending our integrity from those who would diminish our importance in informing society.

–Meteorologist Nick Humphrey

(pictured at the top is a version of the famous “hockey stick” temperature curve by Mann 1999).


Author: Meteorologist Nick Humphrey

Meteorologist and geoscientist in Lincoln, NE. Seattle, WA native. Love weather, storm chasing/photography and planetary science.

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