The latest Hollywood natural disaster movie, Geostorm, is tanking in theaters this fall. We are once again invited to explore a cinematic vision of a self-inflicted catastrophe, complete with volcanic magma flowing through downtown areas, hailstorms tearing through city buses, and monsoons toppling skyscrapers like sand castles. As unbelievable as this movie might seem, those of us who watch it can’t help but be reminded of this year’s series of extreme weather events worldwide that not only emphasize current climatic changes but also portend future climate scenarios.
In addition to recent extreme events, such as massive hurricanes in Texas and Puerto Rico occurring in series and the hottest months on record across North America, climate change also brings seemingly less sensational environmental disturbances, such as increasing variability in rainfall and earlier snowmelt. These actually are no less dangerous. Collectively, the effects of climate change are having massive environmental and economic consequences globally, such as the loss of valuable topsoil, invasions of non-native plant and animal species, and increasing rates of disease.
Nonetheless, the strong and steadfast resistance in some U.S. quarters to climate change, or at least to the overwhelming role of humans in causing it, suggests that contemporary disaster headlines are not convincing skeptics. Public discourse and other media messages that feature extreme scenarios might be responsible for some of the disregard for climate science and even obfuscation of the issue. Too many of the messages in the media and public arena effectively portray climate change as an inevitable, sweaty death sentence, a description that is likely to stifle dynamic discussion.
About 80 percent of media coverage of climate change, and 90 percent of coverage of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, framed the subject in terms of disaster, according to a 2013 study by James Painter, head of the Journalism Fellowship Program at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Some particularly hysterical recent pieces have even proclaimed that changes will occur so rapidly that the world will be uninhabitable (and we will all be dead) in the next 10 years.
This tone and communications tactic is likely to be ineffective. Decades of psychology research reveal that individuals are extremely poor at assessing future negative consequences of current behaviors. Individuals tend to employ emotion, rather than facts, to make judgements, suggesting that warnings about the impact of climate change might not be adequately evaluated by skeptics. Discussions of climate change instead should be reframed to highlight opportunities for change and possibilities for cultivating environmental and economic benefit.
Reframing could include accounts of previous ways that people have effectively tackled environmental problems or adapted to a changing climate. For example, the discovery of a growing hole in the ozone layer, a region in the stratosphere that absorbs most of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation, led in the 1980s to the development of the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty that called for the eventual disuse of chemicals (chlorofluorocarbons) responsible for the hole. A sufficient number of individuals internationally modified their purchasing behavior to reduce atmospheric chlorofluorocarbons, which subsequently led to a cessation of ozone layer damage. (Experts now think that by 2032, ozone levels will return to 1980 levels, so we may face another opportunity to do even better with our policy discussions.)
As a second example, in Canada’s Western Arctic, native communities are adapting to higher temperatures and earlier snowmelt by modifying their hunting strategies. Melting permafrost destroyed access routes to hunting grounds, so community members have created new trails, identified new hunting grounds and targeted different species.
Other ways to reframe the climate change discussion so it offers more optimism and opportunities for resilience include highlighting emerging climate-smart agricultural technologies. Optimizing fertilizer use on farms by strategically applying nutrients at the appropriate rate, in the right place, at the right time, can reduce overall fertilizer application emissions while also enhancing water quality. Descriptions of the economic benefits of directly addressing climate change also can put discussions in a more positive light. A recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that a standard requiring that 25 percent of all electricity come from renewable energy sources by 2025 would create nearly 300,000 new U.S. jobs, far more new jobs than would result if we relied on coal and natural gas.
If there is any hope of changing minds and behaviors on this crucial issue, those of us driving discussions of climate change have a responsibility to engage climate skeptics. Appeals using more optimistic language might be our best strategy for doing so. Reframings must steer clear of the endless quibbling over minor details of climate science findings and instead repackage forecasts into more digestible and immediate material. Such a strategy could revive dialogue and transform skeptics into allies.