Communicating Climate Change Effectively

Caring about climate change can be emotionally exhausting, especially given the current political climate. Shortly after Nov. 8, Vox’s climate and energy writer David Roberts penned and published an article titled “Trump’s election marks the end of any serious hope of limiting climate change to 2 degrees: Widespread suffering and misery from climate change are now effectively inevitable.” The temptation to accept a fatalistic outlook is powerful, particularly when many, including the President of the United States, remain apathetic. However, one can retain a somber sense of realism while simultaneously maintaining the hope that climate action can be effective.

At Stanford, students are encouraged (both by peers and by initiatives such as those by Stanford Residential and Dining Enterprises or the Office of Sustainability) to conserve electricity and water, to reduce food waste, to recycle and even to consume less meat. Student activists continue to push the university to divest endowment funds from fossil fuel companies. But sustaining optimism in the face of climate change can be a difficult task. The more we learn about the various forms and consequences of climate change, the more depressing our future seems. Why switch off the lights when you leave a room, choose to switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet, or call for Stanford’s fossil fuel divestment when these actions are the futile last shots of a war already lost? Seemingly much more significant are President Trump’s promises to revive the coal industry and “cancel the Paris Agreement.” Against this rightfully gloomy backdrop, how does one fight off an almost inescapable wave of pessimism?

I spoke with climate change advocates, experts and educators at Stanford and beyond to try to better understand their personal frames of mind when thinking about the issue, as well as their perspectives on the political landscape.

First, there is a need to acknowledge the deep “sadness” that accompanies truly caring about climate change, says Richard Nevle, the deputy director of the Earth Systems program at Stanford. He shares that the role humans have played in bringing the planet to the point of mass extinction and extreme loss of biodiversity is personally devastating to him; yet when I mention the cynicism or defeatism that this sense of devastation would seem to inspire, he gives a knowing chuckle. The climate and the environment are far too all-encompassing to view in a binary of optimism or pessimism, he warns. Blind optimism can lead to denial of the severity of the problems that lie in store and can beget a false sense of security. But overpowering negativity can prohibit the motivation necessary to make inroads where possible, and while there exist irreversible tipping points, there also remains a wide spectrum of potential outcomes, varying in degree of catastrophe, dependent on our actions today. Noting that “as humans we have the rare ability to feel profound sadness,” Nevle observes that embracing the suffering and disappointment that comes with caring about climate change and its impacts is what can motivate us to seek opportunities to mitigate that suffering for others. We must revel in that capacity for compassion and balance it with the pull of hope.

Josh Lappen, a student leader of Fossil Free Stanford who remains as committed to this cause as ever, describes the solace he finds in the inherent incrementalism of climate action. He even suggests that, despite the occasional setbacks, technology and policy seem to be slowly but surely driving us towards a safer future. He gives the example that California is an exemplar in that aspect; state subsidies on solar power production drove improvements in efficiency whilst providing cleaner energy for the entire state.

In recent weeks, the New York Times’s new conservative columnist, Bret Stephens, has sparked a national debate about the notion of uncertainty in relation to climate change. Stephens’s controversial first column, titled “Climate of Complete Certainty,” encouraged skepticism of climate advocates by likening the faith Democrats placed in election polls and models that wrongly predicted a Clinton victory last November to the trust in scientific consensus that climate advocates use to support their efforts. Stephens was lambasted by climate scientists, environmental reporters even at his own newspaper and liberals around the world for what they decried as a false equivalency and denial of reality. But in speaking with Dr. Nevle — before the column was published — I found that the concept of “uncertainty” about the future is actually one of his greatest sources of hope. As a climate scientist himself, Nevle knows more than most about the graveness of the situation we face, but he also acknowledges that some of the most apocalyptic projections that are colloquially spoken of may not be accurate and even the ones that are based on more solid scientific foundations are potentially avoidable. This uncertainty about the future, he suggests, can be powerful; it should, he says, inspire people to play a more deliberate role in shaping that future. Nevle draws upon a Martin Luther King Jr. quote to make his point: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

But the debate sparked by Stephens’ column highlights more than just the oft-overlooked nuance of the concept of certainty regarding climate change; it calls attention to the role climate communication plays in shaping the attitudes of those who support or oppose climate action.

Because some use the lack of complete certainty — a mythical possibility — as justification for inaction, climate advocates must reckon with the fact that a more effective framework than relying on “science” is needed to spur change.

We are living in an era of “information fatigue,” says Emily Polk, a lecturer in Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) who specializes in climate communication. Learning more can be difficult, she says, especially the more we learn about that which is lost and at great risk. She suggests that an alternate way to build and sustain optimism and motivation for action is to try to develop a sense of community. The key to making people care, she emphasizes, is to give them personal connections to the issue.

“Facts are not enough,” agrees Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. She argues:

Social science studies indicate that arguing over facts often deepens the divides between us. Most objections [to climate action]are couched in “science-y” sounding language, but when you have a conversation, you soon realize that the real objection lies in in the fact that [objectors]are more threatened by or afraid of what they think are the proposed solutions to climate change than they are threatened by the impacts of climate change. Those who reject the reality of climate science, the vast majority of the time, are the people who are opposed to big government solutions.

This phenomenon that Hayhoe describes is academically known as solution-aversion and is applicable to more than just climate change. In November 2014, researchers at Duke University published a study on motivated disbelief. Noah Diffenbaugh, a renowned climate scientist and Stanford professor, shared it with his freshman introductory seminar (aptly titled “The Global Warming Paradox”) students. He analogized climate solution-aversion to Stanford students who routinely deny the risk involved in riding a bicycle without a helmet (because of a subconscious prioritization of their appearance) despite the vast amount of evidence available to the contrary.

Climate action opponents, Hayhoe says, “think that the government should have as little as possible involvement in their personal lives, and they see climate change as one of the biggest ways in which the government can invade their personal lives — telling them how to set their thermostat, what type of car they’re allowed to drive, how much water they’re allowed to use — and ruin the economy at the same time.” One thing that climate advocates can do to change this, she says, is to make the impacts relevant and tangible and to present solutions that climate action opponents agree with ideologically.

Rob Jackson, chair of the Stanford department of Earth Systems Science, describes this reframing of the climate change conversation in an interviewwith Stanford Report. Jackson hopes to bridge the political gap in climate advocacy by shifting focus from science to matters like jobs, security and health.

We need to relate to people’s daily lives. People care more about improving human health than reducing greenhouse gas emissions. If I say coal use in the United States dropped by 20 percent in the last two years, slashing carbon dioxide emissions and future climate change, many people would yawn. If I say the same drop in coal use will save 3,000 American lives this year by reducing air pollution, people notice. Both things are true.

Jackson and Hayhoe seem to agree that more information on the scientific consensus on climate change as a real and dangerous phenomenon will do little to change people’s underlying political ideologies. What is needed, Hayhoe suggests, is “more information on what specific impacts are occurring in the places that we live that are affecting things that we already love and care for.” These types of arguments can be much more compelling to those who would otherwise remain apathetic about the environment.

Nevertheless, whereas Jackson and Hayhoe suggest highlighting climate change’s impact on every community, Nevle asserts that a key component of climate apathy in the United States can be attributed to what he describes as a “poverty of experience.” Recognizing this fact is an important step to understanding opposition to climate action. Simply labeling climate action opponents as “selfish” is unproductive; attempting to cultivate a greater sense of empathy without contextualization is futile. Empathy at a distance is impossible without visibility and at least a limited understanding of the problems at hand. Having lived the majority of my life in India, I had the perverse privilege of being able to see the direct effects of climate change. I was surrounded by communities that face the direct impacts of rising sea levels and unbearable heatwaves. My visits to see family in New Delhi compel me to breathe in toxic pollution to which the vast majority of the city’s 19 million inhabitants, many of whom will experience ruinous health effects, have become normalized. Closer to Mumbai, I interact with people whose economic well-being hinges upon sufficient and predictable rainfall; erratic monsoons and subsequent famine can be disastrous for these communities. These experiences made climate change painfully visible to me and to those suffering communities, but it is unrealistic to expect people who have, as Nevle says, “never had their hearts broken” to feel a true sense of empathy for the communities affected by climate change.

This underscores the need for visibility. The term “charismatic megafauna” describes large animal species that are widely popular and are therefore used by environmentalists to elicit sympathy and foster action (think polar bears stranded on shrinking icebergs), but to really inspire compassion the devastation of climate change needs to be shown to be a fundamentally human issue. The photograph, for example, of Omran Daqneesh, the Syrian boy pulled from the rubble of a destroyed building in Aleppo, sitting dazed in an ambulance sent waves across the world. Such horrible photos reportedly influenced President Trump decision to order air-strikes in Syria, a reversal of his prior stance of non-intervention.

Art, photography, literature and film all have the power to instill empathy, to show the ways in which suffering is caused and promote thinking of ideas for how it can be alleviated. It was probably with this mindset that Diffenbaugh, the faculty moderator of the Three Books program (the assigned readings for the entire incoming freshman class at Stanford), selected Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. While the book is ostensibly a fiction novel, it fits the theme of sustainability and equity, focusing on the suffering and resilience of a family facing Hurricane Katrina. The human effects of climate change desperately need more visibility, not to promote hopelessness, but to help spur change.

Vivan Malkani, a sophomore studying political science, is a staff interviewer at Stanford Politics.

This article appears in the May 2017 issue of Stanford Politics Magazine.