Evan Girvetz is a senior scientist with The Nature Conservancy’s Global Climate Change program.
Recent public polls by the Pew Research center show a sharp decline in the percentage of Americans who say there is solid evidence that global temperatures are rising. This decline is likely due to factors such as economic hard times making environmental issues a lower priority for the public, and a few years of slightly lower temperatures caused by natural weather variability that mask the longer term increasing trend.
But I must think much of this also has to do with scientists not doing a good enough job of communicating the science — and I’d say more importantly the impacts — of climate change to the general public.
My Conservancy colleague Rebecca Goldman recently pointed out very nicely in this blog that scientists need to stop speaking in science speak, and tell our stories in a more simple and clear, yet provocative and dramatic way. What does that mean for communicating climate change?
- We need to make climate change a place-based issue. Climate change impacts will occur in specific places throughout the world, and will impact people in those places. Climate change will occur in your backyard, and it will affect you.
- We need to make clear that the impacts of climate change will be tangible. Agricultural productivity will decrease. Water supplies will decrease. Species ranges will move. Sea levels will rise.
- These impacts need to be communicated in engaging ways that speak to people about specific places. There is an entire cable channel devoted to maps to see what the weather will be like tomorrow or the next day in specific places people care about. We need use maps and other engaging graphical media to better communicate the specific climate-change impacts that are projected to occur in specific places. What are the specific impacts that are likely to occur in your backyard? What will your backyard be like in 20, 50 or 100 years?
- We have this information at our fingertips, but it has not all been put together. The Nature Conservancy’s Climate Wizard is a tool that allows people to see how temperature and precipitation have changed since 1951, and are projected to change by the end of this century. In a recent media outreach campaign, the Conservancy used the Climate Wizard to show how much each state is projected to increase in temperature by the end of the century. The message from the science was simple, and was well received by the media and public.
We can do better: Temperature change alone is hard to translate into impacts to your backyard. The science is there project changes to specific agricultural crops in specific places (like the loss of certain fruit crops in California), as well as for wildfire fire severity and health impacts. But these studies are hidden in academic journals or thick bureaucratic reports.
One of my favorite graphics is in the Midwest Regional Climate Impacts section of the latest U.S. Global Change Research Program Report. It’s the graphic at the top of this post:
- It shows how Illinois summers are projected to shift under future climate to be more like the current summers in eastern Texas by the end of the century.
- However, if climate policy is enacted that lowers greenhouse gas emissions, the summers there are projected to be not quite as hot and dry, more like those in Arkansas and Louisiana.
I think the graphic speaks for itself. We need to mine the wealth of scientific information on climate change impacts, and transform it into simple and clear, yet provocative and dramatic stories about specific impacts to specific places.
The science is there and the technology exists to do this — the Climate Wizard provides a framework to visualize climate changes — but we need to continue to be creative in the ways to tell the story how climate change will have specific impacts on specific places, and make people realize that their backyard will be impacted. The task is to produce user-friendly maps and engaging website applications showing how climate change impacts will occur in the “backyards” of people around the world.
Given that there is much work to be done on global climate negotiations, we need to work on developing these stories and interactive applications, then publicize them in anticipation of the upcoming climate talks that will be occurring in the US congress, and then in Mexico at COP16 in 2010.