How to get the message across on climate change

As the science of climate change gets clearer, the public gets more confused. Are there ways to fix that?

For many scientists working in the field of climate research, one of the most alarming trends has nothing to do with the climate itself: It’s the poll numbers showing that even as scientific projections of global climate change get ever more certain, public perceptions about climate change are getting ever more skeptical.

Why is there such a huge — and growing — disconnect? John Sterman, the Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, says there are specific characteristics of climate change that make it unusually difficult for people to grasp. But the good news, he says, is that there are approaches that can help bridge that gap in understanding.

For example, Sterman’s group has developed climate simulators to help policymakers, business leaders, the media and the public learn about the dynamics of climate change and the consequences of the choices we must make. 

“When experimentation is impossible, when the consequences of our decisions unfold over decades and centuries,” Sterman says, “simulation becomes the main — perhaps the only — way we can discover for ourselves how complex systems work, what the impact of different policies might be, and thus integrate science into decision making.”

Sterman’s analysis was published this month in a special issue of the journal Climatic Change devoted to the subject of how to improve the communication of climate science to the public, the media, business leaders and lawmakers.

Scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), among others, have made an ever-clearer case “that climate change is real, that it’s happening now, and that much of it is caused by human activity,” Sterman says. And yet, “in the U.S., at least, more and more people disagree with the science. Despite the enormous efforts and success of the IPCC and scientific community in assessing climate change and the risks it poses, their efforts to communicate those results are not working.”

Sterman says that more research on the scientific specifics of climate change, while important, is “not going to solve the problem.” While some scientists suggest that public resistance to efforts to control emissions has to do with worries over the weak economy, Sterman says that “the poll results show something much more troubling: People increasingly deny that climate change is happening.”

“These are not disagreements about how we should respond to the risks of climate change,” he says. “This is denial of the scientific facts. Political ideology, not science, increasingly determines what people believe to be true about the physical world. If you believe that responding to climate change will hurt your industry or increase government control over your life, one way out is to construct a worldview in which it’s not happening.”

It’s possible for people to cling to such views, he says, partly because “the scientific community has done a poor job of communicating.” Some scientists think the answer is more research to narrow the uncertainties, and more public education on subjects such as how the carbon cycle works. “That just doesn’t work,” Sterman says. “Telling people facts doesn’t change their beliefs.”

Research on risk communication, Sterman says, shows that “you have to start where people are, with how people see the world.” The issue of climate change, by its nature, creates “a perfect storm of public confusion,” he says. That’s because the climate is “a complex system, global in extent, and involves long timeframes compared to what people ordinarily think about. The climate is affected by the actions of every individual and every nation, and what we do now will affect the world we leave to our children.” 

In addition, with climate change, “you have very powerful vested interests seeking to confuse the public, for ideological and pecuniary reasons,” he says.

Sterman’s research also delves into specific aspects of climate change that add to public confusion. One common misunderstanding, he says, is the difference between emissions and accumulations of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2). “Most people think if we stabilize emissions, we’ll stabilize the climate,” he says. “But that’s wrong. If we stabilize emissions today, atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations will continue to grow.” 

To explain why, Sterman uses the analogy of a bathtub: Greenhouse gas emissions are water flowing into the tub, and natural sinks — forests and oceans, which absorb CO2 from the air — are the drain. As long as the water pours in faster than it drains out, the water level continues to rise.

But today’s emissions are about twice as large as the flow out, so merely stabilizing emissions means the level of water in the tub will keep rising. In Sterman’s research, more than 80 percent of people surveyed made this error in understanding. 

Andrew Hoffman, a professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan who was not involved in this research, says this study is important because “too much of the attention so far has been on only the scientific part” of climate change. By studying the economic, social and political dimensions as Sterman has done, he says, “we’ll start to understand this a lot better.”

Topics: Climate change, Environment, Faculty, Media, Policy, Public opinion, Science writing, Engineering Systems, Management



So tired of you guys feeling so guilty and trying to make us feel guilty for what the SUN is doing...

and this is MIT? Really?

The real point too many scientists do not understand is that people fear the message of Global Warming because the perceived consequence of acceptance is that some authority group gets to seize control of their lives. That is an unacceptable result and if the science community fails to recognize that fact they will find people prefer the death of the whole Earth to acceptance of their message.

Your message must change. It must become a message of solutions that do not require people to give up control of their lives.

This current warming period started about 30,000 years ago when this interglacial warming started. This warming period looks pretty much like the five previous ones - though maybe not as warm as some. If we are going to be serious about looking at global climate we must look at the whole picture. Looking at data from the last decade or century for a phenomenon that is tens of thousands of years long is just bad science.

Gee I guess public perception has nothing to do with the millions of dollars spent on climate change denial propaganda by the oil and coal industries and the slant of the most watched news network in the country against climate change .... there is no way the science community as its currently organized can match those resources. Furthermore, scientists are by nature motivated by the search for the truth, and they wrongly assume others are as well. They would be up against people whose motivations are money and power, and on a battlefield of their, not the scientist's, making.

There are conflicting views appearing in both print and electronic media on Global warming,Climate Change,Acid Rains etc., The average person is confused. It is the duty of eminent people and Institutions like MIT to give the correct picture.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

What utter rubbish. Please provide ANY shred of actual EVIDENCE that man has caused any of the average global temperature increase since the Little Ice Age.

Let's first try, 'How NOT to get the climate change message across'.

Things not to do:

1. Don't merge the message with politics.

2. Don't sign up a political figure to be the message spokesperson.

3. Don't get mad and insult people when they don't immediately sign on to the message.

In those three items, we recall that politics are, by their very nature, as divisive a format as any in modern society. We therefore know that political figures are themselves very divisive and that by merging our message with both, there will be an immediate polarization of the same. And because we understand the human condition, we have to understand that once we create a politically polarized climate, we will either accept that we flubbed or we'll be calling those who disagree with us all kinds of horrible names.

Now then, go out and spread the word WITHOUT politics so that the world will listen to what is said and NOT who is saying it.

Hello jahzwolf,

There are three main reasons why the warming here is not due to any change in solar insolation.

1) For the sun to be the cause measured insolation at the top of atmosphere must have increased for over one hundred years. This has not occured.

2)By the inverse square law any global increase in Mars temperature caused by the sun would cause a much larger change here than we have experienced.

3)If the sun were the cause of our global warming than EVERY SINGLE body in the solar system must be shown to be warming. This is not happening.

So the article you link to fails and has long since been debunked. See here:


On the one hand you claim current warming started 30,000 years yet your last sentence claims that data has only been looked at "from the last decade or century". This is untrue as this site explains:

Your time periods are completely wrong and we have not been warming for your claimed 30,000 years.

Climate Audit is an unreliable site published by non experts: Now what question do YOU have that has not been debunked?

I agree with the author and I would also like to suggest that maybe it would be helpful to, at times, move away from the dichotomy of "belief" or "non-belief" in human caused Climate Change. As we know, this has become so politized in this country (to the amusement and bewilderment of peoples from other nations)that a way to break through the impasse might be to simply ask those who feel most threatened by straightforward science, how they feel about simple things such as clean air and water. I think we can all agree that these are important things to have for ourselves and future generations. And wouldn't it be a good idea to carry out actions and policies as a national and global community that would help maintain the widespread availability of such essential components to our survival. Such actions might include developing cleaner sources of energy, preserving and protecting some of our forests and watersheds, etc...

It's time we start asking some of the politicians who absolutely deny any type of human-caused climate change if they believe in clean air and water, and see what they have to answer and what ideas they can come up with to secure those vital services for their loyal constituents.

It would have been nice if the author had asked Dr. Richard Lindzen, an atmospheric scientist and Professor of Meteorology at MIT to weigh in on this topic.

American Physical Society Meeting

U Mass Amherst

19 Nov 2011, 1:00PM

I will present "Data Supporting Anthropogenic Global Warming: Balancing Economics and Ecology", as per my link

This includes a 2010 publication in SCIENCE, "Atmospheric CO2: Principal Control Knob Governing Earth’s Temperature;" also a June 2011 publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science "Reconciling anthropogenic climate change with observed temperature 1998–2008"

All these conflicts are manufactured by the mass media. Those who own and support the mass media perpetuate the message that the science is unsettled when that is far from the trust. A recent analysis of almost 1300+ researches in the field, their publications and citations show 98% agreement with the IPCC.


Thanks for the link - some of the comments there already do the job of putting it in context.

The best way to &#34get the message across&#34 is to quit using rhetoric like &#34deniers&#34 when someone raises a valid statistical question. Let's face it; 90 percent of the work in climate science is statistical analysis - it's time to quit pretending that you have to be a climate expert to ask a valid math question.

Most of the time, instead of addressing the larger issue (that many people are raising different statistical questions), a proponent will smarmily cherry-pick their favorite item of controversy, and dismissively link to a rebuttal of THAT, as if that is to completely satisfy all need for further discussion. No wonder people get their "backs up" and start to tune makes the topic start to look like just another personal squabble.

Unfortunately, all of these steps seem to get employed even here (mostly #3).

Either they would have to paint him as an idiot for not falling into line - which doesn't look good for MIT - or they would have to give airtime to his "heresy"...which doesn't help "the cause".

How would you suggest responding to "adb" immediately above? He obviously wouldn't accept AGW if it was a cream pie all over his face; he'd say the sun did it. Reminds me of the wicked son in the Passover Seder; how do you bring him(her) into the conversation when he is in such extreme denial?

People have already lost control, they just don't want to acknowledge it. Their fear and anger is an attempt to deny this reality. Denial. Denialists.

Providing more "solutions" won't cut through their fear & anger because real (effective) solutions involve giving up cars, air travel, endless electronics from China, etc.

I agree with LeeJamison100. People will naturally attempt to protect themselves from an overwhelmingly terrifying message. The more scary the more the herd blocks its ears. A panicked population of people is the scariest prosoect of all. Focus on solutions, on success in the new Green Economy and we can move forward together.

Climate spokespeople say the same old same old message “that climate change is real, that it’s happening now, and that much of it is caused by human activity,” or virtually identical words to that effect as if they lacked an individual response; as if a central bureau had issued a directive and all are parotting the party line. I know that's not true but if we were to write a comedy and wish to comically show collusion by criminals we could have interview after interview with the suspects all saying the same thing.

Scientist come from areas of expertise but they never say how their observations have matched the theory.

People will deny as long as they can Loup loup but with the storms predicted by Jamison's book (Storms of my grandchildren)turning up ahead of prediction denials can't last much longer. Once the American people realise they are in a technology race everything will change. Effective communication will show Chinese factories churning out the cheapest most efficient solar panels on the market and cities bustling ahead with zero carbon installation. Luckily for the US nepotism is slowing them up.

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