Climate Talk

Finally, things are moving. Internationally, last year's Paris accord was a remarkable statement of government concern over climate change. Nationally and locally, individuals, organizations, and industries have been mobilizing to do their part.

It's been a long time coming, considering how long the climate signal has been visible.

The greenhouse effect has been known for over a century. Some gasses, notably carbon dioxide and methane, trap heat from the sun in the earth's atmosphere. The increase in these gasses from burning fossil fuels has been known for almost as long, including an early warning from Alexander Graham Bell.

In December 1980, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the US Department of Energy issued a report beginning, "In adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, mankind is unintentionally conducting a great biological and geophysical experiment, [whose] probable outcome is beyond human experience." The report spelled out threats that included disappearance of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, melting permafrost, crop failures, climate refugees, and species extinction.

Thus, it has long been clear that we're taking a major gamble with our climate, and our future. Reasonable people act when faced with catastrophic threats. Why has our collective response been so sluggish?

Last October, leading scientists, activists, and communications experts came together to discuss what it would take to get climate the attention that it deserves. That workshop produced a report, Toward Consensus on the Climate Communication Challenge, summarizing the science on effective communication.

In general terms, some of its conclusions are obvious:
More immediate problems (jobs, kids, health) consume our personal attention.
Big problems require collective action by groups with conflicting interests.
Powerful forces attack any science whose findings threaten their interests.
Emotions (fear, powerlessness) can cloud our judgment.

A century of social science research has provided the detail needed to unpack these processes and focus action. When do people find time to work on long-term global threats? What kinds of international agreements are worth the struggle? How can disinformation be refuted, without affording it unwarranted attention? When do emotions mobilize, rather than paralyze or confuse us?

Toward Consensus argues that acting on that research will require unprecedented collaboration, and humility, among natural scientists, social scientists, and climate activists. Natural scientists will need to respect the social sciences, not just assume that more evidence will win the day. Social scientists will need to draw on all relevant results, not just their own specialty. Climate activists will need to test their communications, not just trust their hunches about what people need to hear.

Fortunately, the human side of climate science is moving.

In the 1980 report, social science was one of five working groups. After that, it almost vanished from the climate science scene. Now, though, it is getting more respect. Nature Climate Change was the first Nature journal to include social science; the new Nature Energy does as well. The National Academy of Sciences hosted two major colloquia on the "Science of Science Communication."

Collaboration among these communities is fostered by organizations such as Climate Nexus, Climate Central, The Climate Advocacy Lab, Climate Access, Yale Climate Connections, and Climate Outreach.

There are long lags in climate dynamics. Once the greenhouse gasses go up, it will be a long time until they come down. There are also long lags in human affairs. Once individuals, organizations, and professions set sail, it is hard to change their course.

Aligning the scientists, activists, and institutions needed to address climate is, therefore, akin to creating a pontoon bridge of supertankers. Toward Consensus shows the urgency of making that happen - so that the climate community does not willingly fly blind, by ignoring other disciplines that could inform its work, evaluate its success, and redirect it when it is failing.