By Robert Bernstein
“Climate Literacy Tool Kit” was the title of the latest Humanist Society of Santa Barbara presentation. Given by Caltech-trained physicist Mark Boslough.
He very kindly shared his slides with us here.
Boslough works at Los Alamos National Laboratory on planetary defense from meteor impacts, among other things. Humanist Society president Judy Flattery hopes he can return for a talk on that subject as well.
Judy introduced our speaker by relating the issue of Climate Change communication to the Ten Commitments of Humanism that appear on the American Humanist Association web site here.
Boslough noted that Climate Deniers like to call themselves “Climate Skeptics” which creates problems with the media. Jim Balter noted that “Climate Science Deniers” would be a better term.
Boslough referenced an excellent article in Skeptical Inquirer by Ray Hyman called “Proper Criticism”.
He offered Ray Hyman’s Eight Commandments for skeptical criticism:
1. Be prepared
2. Clarify your objectives
3. Do your homework
4. Do not go beyond your level of competence
5. Let the facts speak for themselves
6. Be precise
7. Use the principle of charity – assume the other person is not acting maliciously
8. Avoid using loaded words and sensationalism
Being a true skeptic carries much responsibility. One must stick to facts and let those facts speak for themselves.
There is an entire industry of climate science denial funded by the fossil fuel industry. They have made the issue “political” which makes it taboo socially. It should not be. It should be no different than talking about the Earth going around the sun. He noted that only ¾ of Americans know that fact! About the same percentage who know about Climate Change!
Communicating on the issue is not about getting people to have an epiphany. It is more about nudging people on a path to understanding. You don’t have to be a scientist to do this. In fact, it is more about social bonding. He wants to see everyone involved.
Boslough presented a brief summary of “Five Climate Facts” by Ed Maibach and John Cook:
It’s Real. It’s Us. Experts Agree. It’s Bad. There’s Hope.
And the corresponding Five Denialist Claims:
It’s Fake. It’s Natural. Experts Disagree. It’s Fine. It’s Hopeless.
Boslough showed an amusing cartoon of a person who can’t come to bed because someone is wrong on the Internet. It seems futile but it is important to correct things. You have to be “surgical”. You could be responding to a Russian bot. Or to someone who is deliberately just trying to waste your time.
It is more effective to persuade the silent people who are watching. He thinks Nextdoor is better than Facebook or Twitter if the goal is to convince people. Nextdoor only allows real people.
A key resource that Boslough recommends is”Communicating the Science of Climate Change” by Somerville and Hassol in Physics Today – October 2011. This article gives the details of effective communication on Climate Change. It is directed at ordinary citizens, scientists and the media and has recommendations for each.
You can read it here. That article starts out citing another reference recommended by Boslough. It is called “The Six Americas” and was developed by a team from Yale and George Mason universities.
The Six Americas represent the spectrum of feelings about Climate Change:
Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful, Dismissive.
The good news is that the trend from 2014 to 2019 is very encouraging.
The bad news is that Doubtful and Dismissive people are often very certain in their views. Increased education often serves to make them even more certain in their rationalizations.
The Physics Today article explains that the public thinks there is far more controversy among scientists than there really is. Even among those who are alarmed, only 44% think there is scientific agreement.
The public also confuses Climate Change with the ozone hole. They think that Climate Change is caused by the ozone hole, aerosol spray cans, toxic waste, nuclear power and the space program.
The article notes that acceptance of Climate Change tracks with the strength of the economy. In difficult times, people seem more likely to reject the science.
The article even notes that for most of human history people have seen the weather as the province of God. So they simply cannot accept the idea that humans could affect it.
They chastise the media for presenting Climate Change as a controversy with two equally valid sides.
The article is also a plea to scientists to meet people with language the public understands. Tell people the ways Climate Change will directly affect the economy and basic needs like food, water, housing, safety and security.
More extreme weather will create water shortages and make it more difficult to grow food in most places. Rising sea levels will flood areas far inland in coastal states. This will destroy existing housing and force millions of people to move.
Climate Change increases the extremes of hot and cold and wet and dry, depending on location. Hotter oceans make hurricanes more powerful and destructive. A warmer atmosphere holds more water, creating more powerful rain storms when that water comes out of the sky.
Scientists are used to presenting the facts first and then the conclusions at the end. They need to invert this when speaking to the public. Scientists also tend to put all of the unknowns up front. Again, they can save that for later when speaking to the public. It is not a matter of being dishonest. It is a matter of speaking clearly about facts that are clearly known.
The article even offers a table of common terms to substitute for science terms for better clarity.
Climate Science has advanced to the point where we can identify causes far more accurately than the public realizes. This branch of the science is called “detection and attribution”.
Analogies and common points of reference can help, too. They invite scientists to become better story tellers. To craft simple messages that are memorable. And to repeat them often. And to show your passion. This goes against the training of most scientists, but it is essential when speaking to the public.
The situation is not hopeless, but it is urgent. CO2 remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. It is not enough to reduce the amount we put into the atmosphere. We have to completely stop adding CO2 by around 2050. Every year we delay moving toward zero makes the transition that much harder
They point out that not acting is also making a choice. A choice that affects future generations who have no choice.
Boslough compares Climate Change communication to medical triage. He calls it Influence Triage. You want to give resources and time where it is likely to make a difference.
You can raise the alarm level for those who already agree. But you can also engage with deniers whose minds might be changed. Especially if they have influence over others.
Boslough quoted British military historian B. H. Liddell Hart: “The real target in war is the mind of the enemy commander, not the bodies of his troops.”
If you have something in common with those you are trying to reach, be sure to use that for social bonding. He showed a photo of himself cutting wood with a chain saw. People like seeing that you are a practical person with real world experiences
Boslough went on to have several volunteers do a role playing exercise. The audience is supposed to guess which of the Six Americas categories the volunteer is playing. The players got into it well and the audience was able to figure out what role they were playing.
After the talk Boslough sent me this cartoon that mistakenly got left out of his presentation.
This comes from the Cranky Uncle series that he used elsewhere in his presentation.
Boslough invited people to join his Nextdoor group at: https://nextdoor.com/g/8rnb2pptm/
To participate in future Humanist Society events go here https://www.sbhumanists.org/inquire and ask to join and/or ask to join the email list as a non-member. They will let you be a visitor for one or two meetings.