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Scribing on Trust and Persuasion in Climate Communication: Part 2 in ScioClimate Series

Perrin Ireland

Posted August 29, 2013 in The Media and the Environment

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Here's how I drew my way through my biology degree at Brown University: I took conceptual visual notes all through classes and textbook readings (I decided I might have a business on my hands when students requested my notes for their fridges.) Because it's generally required on tests to write essays, I've learned how to pull larger concepts out of the visual distillations of my notes to spell things out for a reading eye. That's how I'm going to digest ScienceOnline Climate for people who were or were not there, because that's the idea of scribing- accessible science content for all kinds of learners. 

Day Two of ScienceOnline Climate started with Plenary Two: Credibility, Trust, Goodwill, and Persuasion. The aim of the plenary was to discuss the gap that might exist between the science of science communication and how we are practicing science communication. What do we need to know about what works and doesn’t work from a research perspective in order to have more impact when we’re on the front lines communicating? 

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Liz Neeley demonstrated her seasoned hand moderating this second plenary, which featured an impressive trio.

First on the list: Dr Dan Kahan, of Yale University, studies risk perception and science communication with the Cultural Cognition Project.

Michael Mann, Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Penn State University, contributed as a lead author of a chapter in the IPCC Third Scientific Assessment, earning him and the other authors a 2007 Nobel Peace Price, and is the author of a controversial climate change book called The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines. I gather that it became politically controversial because it states undeniable climate science.

Tom Armstrong rounded out the panel and is in possession of an equally lengthy bio. Currently, he’s Director of National Coordination for the US Global Change Research Program through the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. That group had a hand in President Obama’s recently announced Climate Action Plan (which sounds a lot like NRDC’s Power Plant Proposal!)

Dan Kahan led us off by reporting on some of his research that shows that the public trusts scientists, at the end of the day. (Do go read that blog- he really spells out his posiiton clearly.) He argues that the of act climate scientists advocating, and being attacked, was not the cause of the climate controversy, nor will it be the solution. Michael Mann underlined this idea, remarking that climate change has never been a scientific controversy. The climate science has been made a proxy for a political debate. He told a story about a climate-denying politician that had to skip attendance at a yearly climate deniers meeting because he got sick from an algal bloom in his local lake. [Ahem- that’s a symptom of climate change] Irony noted. 

“I challenge you to show me an issue that is not linked to climate,” said Tom Armstrong. Armstrong and Kahan emphasized searching out the motivations of one’s audience before attempting to talk to them and positioning that conversation within their goals. In Florida they want to talk about sea level rise and plan for it, but they do NOT want to talk about climate change. They also want to hear information from their brothers-in-arms, from people that have skin in the same game, as Armstrong reported from personal experience.

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Scientists are stuck in the habit of shouting about their empirical evidence to the public, as Kahan put it, and being drowned out by what Mann calls a “misinformation surplus.” Then that thing happened where do-good science and environmental communicators get quiet with awe when reflecting upon the persistent, terribly effective PR campaign tactics of industries with a vested interest in casting climate as a scientific debate. I always get a whiff in that moment of a frustrated, unspoken, blasphemous desire that “the public” just embrace science in the same unquestioning way they appear to accept word from powerful voices in the groups they identify with. Do people really want to be taught critical reasoning skills, or do they want packaged information they can readily use? Should we even tell "the public" we're talking about science?

Gavin Schmidt, climate communicator and scientist, took the mike during Q&A and remarked that everybody’s always advocating for something. His request is that the advocates say openly what they’re advocating for. Are you advocating for high-level public discourse on science? Are you advocating for science-relevant policy? Then tell us! Passionate words were exchanged, and Liz suggested this was a conversation best had over beers. [For more on using a bar stool to communicate climate, check out this Grist column by David Roberts.]

This was a nerd loop conversation to beat the band. It’s true that not everybody is having impassioned conversations about how to best cast climate in the public eye (a comment on my last #scioclimate blog suggested I'd lost all perspective.) I’d have liked to shout SUPER SPECIALIZED NERDS! at everybody there, toss aside my easel and run, but the catch about climate change communication is that how we handle this issue as a global community is literally life and death. Climate communicators must press on and keep trying to whack an effective approach out of the Higgs field of seeming hopelessness that climate change communication can be. Maybe everybody says that about his or her issue, but I mean- this is climate change. It’s it.

At least this group left the plenary with some tips on ways we could perhaps go- focus on the group a person comes from, try to communicate so as not to kick up the dust of competing groups, channel information through other locals with skin in the game that can be allies. What other tricks have you come up with that work well for approaching different groups on climate? Share in the comments section! 

Check out more scribes from #ScioClimate here.

Also be sure to read Liz Neeley's reflections on the event here. 

The Yale Climate Communication project's April report about how Americans communicate global warming

More on Kahan's research on how to communicate climate effectively from ensia.com.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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