I was recently asked to speak about climate change communication at a large gathering of geoscientists. How do we change minds and move beyond political polarization? I know what doesn’t work: more data. Think of your average member of the general public as Reviewer 2: he’s made up his mind, he’s completely impervious to facts, and he probably dislikes you personally. This isn’t exactly fair—I’m sure most people would accept me after major revisions—but it’s true that most arguments about climate change aren’t about facts or evidence. They’re about worldviews and values, and more data isn’t necessarily going to help.
So what does work? It’s simple: I have no idea. But in trying to talk about science to voters, policymakers, and others, I’ve learned some lessons that may be helpful.
Beware the extremes
We know that loudness doesn’t mean correctness—otherwise we’d replace peer review with a televised shouting match. But one look at the online conversation, and you’d think that the country is hopelessly polarized and screaming at each other. A recent study of Twitter found that the most prolific twitter accounts were on the edges of the political spectrum, each sending hundreds of inflammatory tweets every day.
But the vast majority of Americans are somewhere in the middle—they’re concerned, cautious, or disengaged. Convinced climate change deniers make up less than 10 percent of the US population.
Tell better stories
My dad’s politics are, by his own description, “somewhat to the right of Atilla the Hun.” But even he eventually came around to accept that humans are changing the climate. I’d love to tell you that this is because his daughter is clear, articulate, and persuasive.
But what changed his mind was a famous beacon of morality: the insurance industry. My dad sees himself as a free-market conservative, and the noticeable lack of climate deniers at insurance companies made him take the issue seriously. These companies, after all, have no financial interest to believe in climate change if it’s not happening. A company that ignored climate projections could offer much lower rates to undercut its competitors. None of them do.
Insurance companies aren’t the only characters in the climate story. We can talk about the military, which treats climate change as a severe “threat multiplier” and worries about protecting naval bases from rising seas. We can talk about climate change as the civil rights issue it very much is, about poor areas and communities of color, about existing inequalities, gentrification, and displacement. We have so many true narratives and so many compelling characters to choose from.
We scientists are in a good place to do this—after all, we’re storytellers at heart. We build worlds on a computer and think about alternate futures. We deal in counterfactuals and what-ifs. And every scientific paper, no matter how carefully designed or robust its results, is a form of fiction. We have to select a few thousand words to convey something new, and we present it in a narrative form so other people can read and understand it. Imagine if scientific papers reflected the actual reality of doing science. They’d all be five thousand pages long and have sections on drinking coffee, being confused in seminars, updating Python packages, and having sudden inspirations in the shower. We know how to take messy reality and force it into a narrative—it’s the most important thing we do.
Confront the “deep story”
Never forget you’re competing with deeply entrenched pre-existing narratives. In the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book Strangers in Their Own Land, she argues that communities are held together by a “deep story” that explains reality and provides a guide to action. This doesn’t have to be true or even consistent to be powerful. She describes communities in rural Louisiana that, despite suffering economic and health consequences from pollution, are steadfastly opposed to government regulation.
The powerful deep story in these communities is of resilience, self-reliance, and resentment toward perceived outsiders jumping the line. This story, like most deep stories, is durable and almost impervious to facts, history, and outside reasoning. Any attempt to engage with the community must first engage with their deep story, and yours, too.
Lift every voice
When it comes to talking about climate change, nothing works. No one strategy is going to change minds or organize around climate action. Voters have diverse backgrounds, circumstances, and preferences. But so do we.
No one scientist is ever going to be able to speak to the enormous, fractious, polarized American public. And no one scientist should ever try. The scientific consensus contains multitudes. Someone who doesn’t listen to me might listen to a veteran or a businessperson or an evangelical Christian or a member of a marginalized community.
This is why it’s important that the scientists be representative of the wider public. We haven’t made enough progress on this—none in 40 years, in fact. Our community’s diversity problem isn’t just an inconvenience, it’s an existential threat. But it can be better. Organizations like SACNAS, Ciencia PR, Vanguard STEM, and 500 Women Scientists are working to make sure the scientific community looks more like the nation and world we serve.
Speak out yourself
That climate change is real, caused by humans, and likely to get worse is the overwhelming scientific consensus, and that consensus includes you. We don’t need a spokesperson, we need an enormous mobilization of spokespeople, and your voice is vital. I know that speaking out can attract trolls and abuse, and that communication isn’t valued or rewarded at many universities. People will say awful things to you. Well-meaning mentors may suggest that you wait for tenure that may never come. That nagging voice inside your head may call you an impostor.
Please don’t listen to them, so we can listen to you.