Communicating science to the masses is understandably a daunting task. The descriptive language of climate change is abstract and laden with scientific glossary. Climate change is a subject that implies consequential thinking, often thrice-removed, and making connections, with consequences usually in the not-so-near future. The change of climate is incremental, barring occasional climate catastrophes, and does not drastically disrupt peoples’ lives. Given that climate change is about consequential reasoning, in general, it requires a higher order of critical thinking to make logical connections in the relatively complicated chain of cause-effect outcomes.
The glossary of climate change is not part of the general public’s vocabulary (see https://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/glossary.html ). According to the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the U.S. can’t read. That’s 14 percent of the population. 21 percent of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can’t read. This means that 54% of the USA population is functionally illiterate. How does one construct a narrative of an abstract subject, laden with scientific glossary such as of climate change, whose effects are not a regular occurrence in their backyard, that is within the relatable grasp of the public mass? In general the public responds with some concern to the visuals of the climate catastrophes; but only the ones in their close proximity, may cause some climate anxiety.
Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale Project on Climate Change Communication in an interview with Heather Smith (www.grist.org ) states the following in response to one of the questions (you will find the whole interview here, which is worth reading: http://grist.org/climate-energy/whats-the-best-way-to-communicate-about-climate-change-this-expert-offers-some-insights/ )
Q: So if people are so poorly suited to calculating risk around climate change, what risks are we actually good at managing?
A: We’re pretty good at tangible, concrete, simple decisions. “What am I going to have for lunch?” “Can I eat that?” “How do I get from here to work?” We make thousands of decisions every day. Things are working pretty damn well most of the time. It’s just that there are problems that we are not well built for. We are essentially Stone Age critters. We haven’t really evolved biologically in thousands of years.
Dr. Leiserowitz points to a gap of communication between the language of climate change and the grasping the impending reality among the general public. How does the general public process, for example, when they hear a word like “carbon footprint”? Perhaps a dinosaur from the movies? Words such as “climate change” do not generate an emotion; mapping change from what to what is too abstract? So, may be, we should call it climate anxiety. Terms such as biosphere, carbon dioxide emission, ecosystem, greenhouse effect, global average temperature, are words that do not capture the imagination of the average members of the general public. This gap of communication is the difference between functional illiteracy and the nature of the subject of climate change.
The challenge is how to communicate science to the general public. The very term “climate change” does not evoke any sentiment, and far less any action. In a recent story in the NY times about the nomination of Mr. Bridenstine to head NASA, it recounts the Congressman’s remarks, who represents Oklahoma, which illustrates the point how people have difficulty connecting with climate change (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/02/science/jim-bridenstine-nasa-trump.html ):
“People often say, ‘Why are you so involved in space issues?’” Mr. Bridenstine said at the commercial space transportation conference. “‘You don’t have any space interests in Oklahoma.’ You bet I do. My constituents get killed in tornadoes. I care about space.”
It is interesting to note that the elite print media, which has an audience in low numbers, cover issues related to climate fairly regularly; however, popular print media, tabloids, which are read widely by the general public, provide gruesome pictures of devastation when climate related acts do take place, without any reference to climate change. How does one make catastrophe tangible? What is the impact of the mediated images of catastrophe on the general public (masses)?
Jonas Anshelm/Martin Hultman in Discourses of Global Change (2015) point to an interesting outcome in Sweden based on a series of articles in Swedish newspaper “Dagens Nyheter” under the title of “Aftonbladet” (Climate Anxiety). Understandably, the very title itself is enough to get the readers engaged and drive to action. Bjoern Hagen in his book Public Perception of Climate Change: Policy and Communication (2016) points to a global survey about the importance of climate change issue among the general public. Only 30 % of the population in the USA consider climate change as “very important,” 35.4% “important,” 18.5% “low importance” and 15.7% “unimportant,”the “least salient” issue of concern, far below violent crime, schools, employment, poverty. Whereas, in Brazil only 2.4% said it was unimportant, 3.9% in Mexico, 3.3% in Spain, 3,5% in Germany, 2.3% in Japan, 6.3% in UK, and 5.2% in Netherlands.
Susanna Priest in her book Communicating Climate Change: a path forward (2016) tries to forge a path forward by recognizing that traditional media alone will not address the problem of addressing the climate change concern with the kind of urgency that is needed. She advocates to go beyond journalists and scientists, vital as they may be. She proposes “smaller deliberative events” for public engagement, preferably face to face than online following a cue from the experience of National Citizens’ Technology Forum (in one of their studies only 3% opted for online).
Climate change is political, therefore diﬀerent actors with diﬀerent discourses will be found in society. Climate change is policy; in democracy citizens shape public policy, and only an informed electorate can help legislate right policies. Climate change is individual and collective, and only an informed individual and engaged community will be able to address climate change.
This complex subject of climate change as important and urgent it is, it is also not so easy to present it to the general public, while they are dealing with other closer to home existential threats, such as poverty, neighborhood violence, poor school choices for their children, etc. Nonetheless, as Susanna Priest proposes, an engaged conversation of the consequences of climate change must take place beyond the traditional media outlets, in a language that is accessible to all.