2010-12-16 21:24:17Wrap-up of Dept of Climate Change workshop
John Cook

On Wednesday, I attended a climate communication workshop organized bu Australia's Dept of Climate Change. it featured many scientists, both physical and social, from CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology. I went there in sponge mode, hoping to learn as much as possible about how to more effectively communicate climate change to the general public. As that is the goal of all of us here, I thought I'd share the highlights of the day.

The most thought provoking talker was Iain Walker, a social scientist from CSIRO. He researched the psychology of how people respond to climate info. His research suggested the way to make climate change relevant to people was to connect concern about climate change with other common concerns. Eg - children, health, the area they live in, jobs, mortgages, energy bills. We need to make climate change personally relevant before people will care.

He described research he'd done into people's emotional reactions to climate change info. There were two main reactions: irritation (from skeptics) or fear (from those who think humans are causing global warming). The problem is both emotions don't lead to action - both inhibit behaviour. So we need to focus on emotions that mobilise people to action. He also suggested we need to connect actions on climate change to everyday, common actions, like commuting, electricity use, buying 2nd hand products. So a recurrent idea was tying climate to common themes people can relate to.

Another interesting theme introduced by Iain and some of the other speakers is that people are strongly influenced by friends and family. Thus social networks are an important part of climate outreach and can be leveraged by giving people scripts or guidelines on how to talk about climate change. I thought this idea had intriguing possibilities with Twitter and Facebook.

Another social scientist, Craig Cormick, presented his research that found that when a scientific issue is complex, people make decisions based on their values. The more complex, the more likely values come into it. He gave a great quote, "We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are".

A common theme was it was much easier to change peoples' behaviour than change their attitude. But the paradox lies in the fact that we can't change behaviour without regulation. But we can't get politicians to enforce regulation unless there's a public consensus (eg - people's attitudes change). So it's a catch 22 loop - where do you start? The obvious answer is you start with strong political leadership but where to with no strong leadership? My guess is we aim for all three - change attitudes, change behaviour and advocate for regulation. It's a tough question but a crucial one that needs to be asked in any climate outreach - what is our goal?

Several talkers mentioned there experiences that the phrase "climate change" was often a stumbling block for certain audiences. So it was important to be sensitive to your audience and tailor your message accordingly. Get to know the values of who you're talking to first. A conversation about climate change might get you nowhere but a conversation about sustainability or strengthening the economy through renewable energy might be more productive.

There was an entertaining talk from IPCC lead author Neville Nichols who outlined how he convinces a skeptic taxi driver in 15 minutes. He explains that climate science is not a new science but one of the oldest sciences. That it's well tested and made many successful predictions. He produced a card he often gives out with a photo of John Tyndall's 1859 lab experiment that proved CO2 was a greenhouse gas. He quotes a 1972 prediction from Sawyer who estimated warming by 0.6C by the year 2000. He was out by only 0.05C. But what if the taxi says warming stopped in 1998? He then produces another card out of his pocket with a graph of global temperature, showing 2000 to 2009 as the hottest decade on record. After handing out all these cards, he concluded by describing himself as "John Cook without an iPhone".

It was a long, thought provoking day, possibly raising more questions than answers. Social science is extraordinarily complex, making climate science look simple in comparison. The sad reality is there is no magic bullet - messages need to be tailored to each specific audience. It's hard to know how that applies to us, publishing to the world over the Internet. But I'm intrigued by the idea of connecting climate concerns to common concerns and would like to find out more about past attempts to do this. At the airport, I spoke to some CSIRO scientists who had examples of this kind of effort so I hope to get in touch with them soon.

2010-12-16 21:38:16Oh and the day's lowlight
John Cook

At one point, we all sat around tables to discuss various issues and Craig Cormick made a joke while I was drinking coffee. I laughed, spraying coffee all over the table and his notes. Not my best moment :-)
2010-12-16 21:48:57

Where I live climatological data say average max is 17 °C and min is 7 °C. A few days ago we went from 28 °C to 2 °C in less than 36 hours. I found it easier to talk about global weirding (thanks to Thomas Friedman) instead of global warming; this is what people see with their own eyes. Starting from this well recognized fact, I was able to explain why this is happening. I think this was my most successful try with not informed/aware/interested people.