Would you cross the road if there was a one-in-three chance you’d be hit by a bicycle? (Maybe.) Would you cross the street, holding the hand of a child, if there was a one-in-three chance you’d be hit by a bus? (Probably not.)
I’ll bet that the above questions grabbed your attention more than this would:
Limiting the warming caused by anthropogenic CO2 emissions alone with a probability of … >66% to less than 2°C since the period 1861–1880, will require cumulative CO2 emissions from all anthropogenic sources to stay between … 0 and about 1000 GtC (3670 GtCO2) since that period. These upper amounts are reduced to about… 790 GtC (2900 GtCO2) … when accounting for non-CO2 forcings as in RCP2.6. An amount of 515 [445 to 585] GtC (1890 [1630 to 2150] GtCO2), was already emitted by 2011.
The latter is a quote from the “Summary for Policymakers” in the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) from Working Group 1 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The former is an example of how to communicate essentially the same idea in a different way, focusing on the 1/3 risk of surpassing 2° C even with the quoted emissions budget, and how extreme and dangerous that would be. The example comes from Keith Tuffley, one of the speakers at a very interesting session I attended on Monday. The event was organized by the IPCC, requesting feedback on how they could better communicate the results that they present in their assessment reports. The IPCC is the body charged with assessing the science related to climate change, and their reports are widely viewed as the gold standard in presenting a consensus view of scientists about these issues. At the same time, the reports have also been criticized for being hard to read and understand.
To distill a very interesting discussion down to its essence, the bottom line of the contributions of the panel members, and the questions and answers that followed, was this: as human beings, we respond to stories. So to communicate the results of climate change, we need a layer of storytelling between the technical details of the reports and the listening ears of the world. As a scientist and a teacher, I think that is exactly right. And indeed it is the same message that my Swarthmore colleague Tristan Smith has been conveying, bringing the work of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science to Swarthmore’s campus via a series of workshops for our students on how to be better communicators. I’m also assigning the students in my Climate Change class this semester to make one-minute videos of themselves explaining the real science behind one “climate myth” of their choice.
The session did not ultimately answer the key question of whose job this is. Is it the IPCC’s job to tell more compelling stories? Personally, I don’t think so—their primary focus has to be to continue to convey the latest science, including its technical detail and its uncertainty. And, as Paul Lussier of Yale pointed out in the session, what resonates with one group may not resonate with another—your story may not be my story. Lussier is the founder of the Science Communication with Impact Network (SCWIN), and he argued that effective climate change communication should start by connecting with values: Do you care about food? About the oceans? About livable cities? About social justice and equity for low-income people? Any of these things can connect with climate change, and Lussier argued that you will be more willing to dive into understanding the science of climate change if your point of entry into the issue is via something you value, rather than climate change being a (relatively abstract) idea in and of itself.
In that light, it’s encouraging to see the number of organizations here at COP21 that are focused on telling the climate change story in different ways and engaging people via particular issues that resonate with them. As for me, I’ll keep telling the stories in the ways that I can, and I hope that you will, too.