Monday, March 5, 2007
Creating a Climate for Change on Global Warming
What role has communication about global warming played in delaying action on this issue? And how might scientists, journalists and others do a better job of communicating about it to bridge the gap between a high degree of public awareness and a low degree of concern?
That's the subject of "Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change" edited by Lisa Diling and Susanne C. Moser, and published last month by Cambridge University Press. I haven't read the entire book yet, but I've read the introduction. And my sense is that any journalist who covers any aspect of this issue — and any scientist who may have to interact with a journalist on the subject — simply must read this book.
"Society at large does not appear to be deeply concerned with global warming, and as a result, is not yet acting on the ever-more urgent warnings emanating from the science and advocacy communities," Dilling and Moser write. Scientists tend to ascribe the problem to a lack of knowledge about the issue. "The familiar refrain goes something like this: 'If only they understood how severe the problem is … If only we could explain the science more clearly, train to be better communicators, become more media-savvy, get better press coverage … Why are they not listening? Why is no one doing anything?'"
Dilling and Moser cite research showing that while Americans are very well aware of global warming, only about a third are concerned or worried about it. "The disparity between these two findings — high awareness but low personal concern — shows that if creating urgency were just a matter of understanding the 'facts,' we would not be in the current conundrum," they write.
The way we communicate about climate change, they conclude, is not leading to action. And they identify a number of factors that make it difficult to communicate in an effective way. Among them are these: The issue has a lack of immediacy; the impacts are remote from most of our every day lives; the climate system is responding very slowly to greenhouse gases; people are skeptical that small actions such as driving less or changing light bulbs can have an appreciable impact. This is an incomplete list. Suffice it to say that Dilling and Moser identify a host of factors that make it terribly difficult for both scientists and journalists alike to communicate the urgent need for action.
And then news media, abetted by scientists, often make things worse. The authors point out that journalists have largely followed the lead of scientists in portraying the issue of climate change as primarily a scientific debate — global warming: yes or no? Scientists by nature emphasize uncertainty in their communication about issues, because this is what their research is often designed to narrow. Consequently, they tend to emphasize the things that are not known. And we've obliged the scientists in our coverage, discussing the issue in the same terms.
This has allowed opponents of action to "disproportionately" highlight the remaining unknowns. And to make sure we are being fair and balanced, we have often presented the issue as a debate between two equally ranked opponents, rather than accurately reporting on the consensus among the vast majority of scientists that humans are indeed responsible for global warming, and our impact is growing year by year. Making matters worse, Dilling and Moser point out that while there are more science stories than ever before, there are fewer reporters covering the science beat — fewer journalists with the knowledge to do the subject justice.
And then there is the issue of alarmism. In a letter in the Feb. 22 issue of Nature, Mike Hulme of the Tyndall Centre at the University of East Anglia in the UK, decries the alarmism he saw in British coverage of climate change following the release of the IPCC report. "The four UK 'quality' newspapers all ran front-page headlines conveying a message of rising anxiety," he writes. Adjectives like "catastrophic," "shocking," "terrifying," and "devastating" appeared in all nine newspapers whose coverage of the IPCC report he analyzed.
Dilling and Moser point out in their book that appealing to fear is "unreliable at best in prompting behavior change. Frequently, this technique leads to the exact opposite from the desired response," including denial, apathy, and actions that can create greater risks.
There is some good news for American journalists — at least I think it's good news. In his letter to Nature, Hulme of the Tyndall center said his analysis of media coverage in the United States showed that it generally adopted "a tone that facilitates a less loaded or frenzied debate about options for action."
But the less alarmist, more neutral coverage here in the United States has not yet bridged the gap between high awarness and low concern. So while we may be doing some things right, particularly lately, we've still got a long way to go. All the more reason to read Dilling and Moser's book.
-- Tom Yulsman