Let me tell you a story

Buses waiting to take COP21 participants from the train station to the meeting site.
Buses waiting to take COP21 participants from the train station to the meeting site.

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.

8 thoughts on “Let me tell you a story”

  1. Hi Eric! Thanks for making it possible to watch over your shoulder at COP21. How and what to communicate about climate science to the historic preservation community (and then what to do about it) is part of a larger project I’m working on right now. I’d love to hear/see if you come across sessions or exhibits on cultural heritage concerns and how they speak about specific risks and, in particular, timeframes for projections. One problem we’ve come across is that climatologists tend to speak in bigger picture stretches of time than boots-on-the ground preservationists can relate to. So, we’re following the lead of local coastal scientists, and looking at two to three decades’ change, a chunk of time familiar to most people from the popularity — and comfort with — 30-year mortgages. But then, of course, sometimes the drama of the longer time spans can be useful in getting people to pay more attention!

  2. I am excited to ‘peek’ into the Conference thru these reports. I’m heartened to learn about new [to me] communication strategies to convey very technical information to the general public in a way that will hopefully get many more people to focus on and recognize this worldwide problem and the urgency to act.

  3. I’m sure you know of the myriad efforts to collect and curate personal narratives about climate change — for example, the climate stories project or the more domestically-focused http://www.climatestories.us — but I also like the idea that metaphorical stories can be useful tools for helping people understand climate science and statistics. In my experience, storytelling can be a powerful way to help people make empathetic or values-based connections through which the science of climate change can feel more compelling… But that understanding doesn’t translate into a changed sense of urgency or responsibility. Of course, I’m working with teenagers who are 1) basically wired to be selfish seekers of immediate gratification no matter the risk, and 2) not allowed to participate in democratic government yet. So it’s extra hard for them to feel empowered, even though they completely buy in to the science and the warnings. (And they do tend to run across the street at ill-advised times, now that I think about it.) Ultimately though, the audience for the stories you’re talking about isn’t all that far removed from mine, and I think the work of making climate change RISKS personal to everyone is one of the most important aspects of building the political capital that will make policies enactable. So… I join you in feeling encouraged; thanks for sharing.

    PS – I hope your students will make their videos publicly accessible!

  4. Wow, Eric; this is exactly what I just posted a comment about in response to another one of your blog entries. I think you are really on to something here. I have my students look at parts of the IPCC report, but I can tell that it doesn’t do much to catch their attention.

    I like the idea of a one minute video to sue as a a summative classroom assignment. Have you tried this before or is this the first time through with it?
    I agree with Rabi, I hope your students’ videos might be on a public site.

  5. Thanks for the great post on communicating climate stories, Eric! And it’s exciting to hear that this is such a topic of discussion among organizations at COP21.

    Another project you might be interested in is FutureCoast, a recent creative-writing effort of sorts where individuals could submit ‘voicemails to the future’ with their recorded thoughts on what the world might look like due to climate change. Recordings vary greatly in their topics, the time period they are said to be recorded in, and the characterization of the narrators. Here’s the website: http://futurecoast.org/

  6. Hi Eric! As a growing and learning student in scientific matters, I can definitely relate to the struggle of understanding the technical aspects of the IPCC assessment reports. I think communication is extremely important, especially in climate control, because your exactly right “as human beings we respond to stories” and by communicating climate change in a more urgent and intriguing way we as a society are more likely to relate and start to see how climate change is impacting our every day lives.
    Also, I wanted to say the assignment that you are giving to your students is great. I think it is wonderful thought provoking way of getting your students to see the real life aspects from the technical aspects of climate change. What are some other ways we as students could do to better help understand climate change and get other people to understand as well?
    Thank you,

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