May 20, 2015

Learning HOW to Talk About Climate Change

My friends, it is a wonderful time to be a life-long student! Right as my children are transitioning into independence and I'm past changing diapers or even providing for their every meal, massively open online courses, or MOOCs, are coming into their own. Not only that, they are being ofered for free by the best educational institutions partly as a public service, and partly to showcase their best professors.

You can find excellent online courses on statistics, Dante's Inferno, Python programming, growing award winning orchids - and climate change.

I've so far taken four courses on the science of climate change and climate policy. It wasn't always a piece of cake - I did sweat the problem sets on that MITx course given by Kerry Emanuel - but these came naturally to me as I am, at heart, a science geek.

But if I also want to be an effective climate communicator, I'd better get a handle on how to bring the message that we need climate action. There are online courses for that too! Right now, there are two ongoing, each with a different perspective.

One is "Making Sense of Climate Science Denial" at edX, given by a team led by John Cook of the University of Queensland (Australia), a premier climate communicator and the founder of the Skeptical Science website that offers climate science to the general public, as well as pointers on how to debunk the climate myths that are promulgated by the fossil-fuel funded deniers.

The course goes over the psychological barriers (in the minds of the audience) that climate communicators have to overcome before their message can be heard, and lays out the tricks used by the merchants of doubt to discredit climate scientists and to dampen public will for action.

It's a lively course, well produced and well presented, and the feedback so far has been very positive. I would have loved to take this course, but there are only so many hours in a day, and I'm enrolled in a different online course. This one has only tangential bearing on climate change, but is all about communication.

This is a course on "Framing", also at EdX, given by Hans de Bruijn of the University of Delft. To a science geek, it has been eye opening. Scientists tend to think that the truth is self-evident, and that if you speak it clearly enough it is inevitable that people hear you.

Alas, the real world doesn't work that way.

The truth, far from being self-evident, must be brought by persuasion. And the harder the truth, the more persuasive art you need to get your message through. And there are very few truths harder than that of climate change.

The course starts simple, by pointing out examples like people calling the same organisation either "terrorists" or "freedom fighters" depending on what frame you want to cast them in. Then it goes into the principles of framing itself, with plenty of examples from contemporary politics (politicians and their speech writers are master framers). The really cool thing about this course is that they show video clips where actors play out these various frames, so that you can observe them casting their frames in real time.

To a simple geek like me, this course opens a window onto a whole new world! Every week I learn something that changes the way I look at messaging. I've never felt so inept at doing homework, certainly compared to the other people taking the course - I can tell since we grade each other's assignments.

I will never be a politician, but now I can't help but feel respect for the people who understand this art of framing, and know how to make counter-measures if someone else has framed you in an unflattering way: how to re-frame your way out of that.

It's already become clear to me that the rebuttal of climate myths is only a small part of good climate communication, and indeed that it should not be given too much prominence. On the contrary, it's time to re-frame that discussion to put the myth makers on the defensive not the climate scientists. Calling them Merchants of Doubt is a good start. There are a number of less polite epithets, such as "shills" and "trolls" (and others less publishable).

One of the principles of effective communication is that you must establish a personal connection with your audience. This makes intuitive sense to most people, but a scientist has been trained to carefully exclude the personal element from all her professional writing, since science has billed itself as objective and value-free.

But people's perception of climate change is far from objective, and it is certainly not free of values. Consider for instance the effectiveness of religious leaders who are calling for climate action on moral grounds.

The importance of a personal connection with your audience was brought home to me last week, when I spoke at a conference on my journey from scientist to climate communicator. In a marked departure of my previous climate change presentations, I talked about how climate change has affected me personally: how sea level rise is threatening the places where I have lived, and how wild weather is affecting the food on my plate. Sure, I was explicitly asked to talk from a personal angle, but the course really encouraged me to not hold back.

The response stunned me. Usually, people compliment me on the talk, have a few questions and go away. I can only hope that I've sown a seed in their minds. This time, people came up to me with enthusiasm, and asked me if I could give a talk to their clients / church / environmental organisation. I was really blown away. Later, a good friend told me that this talk was way better than the science-only talk she had seen me give before, and was genuinely happy at how my communications skills had improved. What feedback!

So I am going to stop putting scientific objectivity foremost, and I'm going to keep speaking from the heart. After all, it is to the heart that I am speaking, more than to the head. Sure, you need the head to understand the urgency of our predicament. But it is the heart where action originates.

On to the next week. Who know what other revelations this course is yet to bring!



You may also like:
1. How to Spread the Word about Climate Change - Even if You're Not a Climate Scientist
2. Global Warming Denialism May Have Origin in the Victorian Frame of Mind
3. Turns out Americans ARE worried about global warming consequences - they just don't realise it.
4. Global Warming Fact of the Day facebook page: Climate news, denial free. Curated by CelloMom.


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