• During a discussion on communicating climate change, audience members were able to submit questions and respond to poll questions using a smartphone app.

    During a discussion on communicating climate change, audience members were able to submit questions and respond to poll questions using a smartphone app.

    Photo: Justin Knight

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  • The panel discussion featured (left to right) John Durant, Drazen Prelec, Tom Levenson, Judith Layzer, Kerry Emanuel, Susan Hassol, and Chris Mooney.

    The panel discussion featured (left to right) John Durant, Drazen Prelec, Tom Levenson, Judith Layzer, Kerry Emanuel, Susan Hassol, and Chris Mooney.

    Photo: Justin Knight

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  • John Durant, head of the MIT Museum, moderated the panel discussion on communicating about climate change.

    John Durant, head of the MIT Museum, moderated the panel discussion on communicating about climate change.

    Photo: Justin Knight

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  • Judith Layzer, a professor of environmental policy at MIT, spoke about how to influence people’s opinions on the issue.

    Judith Layzer, a professor of environmental policy at MIT, spoke about how to influence people’s opinions on the issue.

    Photo: Justin Knight

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  • Drazen Prelec, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, spoke about the psychological barriers that cause people to resist changing their opinions.

    Drazen Prelec, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, spoke about the psychological barriers that cause people to resist changing their opinions.

    Photo: Justin Knight

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  • Chris Mooney, and environmental writer for the Washington Post, said that people regardless of political outlook can be mobilized to action by climate-related events that happen in their own communities.

    Chris Mooney, and environmental writer for the Washington Post, said that people regardless of political outlook can be mobilized to action by climate-related events that happen in their own communities.

    Photo: Justin Knight

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  • Tom Levenson, director of MIT’s program in science writing, emphasized the need to communicate with people through compelling personal stories.

    Tom Levenson, director of MIT’s program in science writing, emphasized the need to communicate with people through compelling personal stories.

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  • Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric chemistry, says he has found that an emphasis on potential solutions can have greater impact in swaying people’s thinking.

    Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric chemistry, says he has found that an emphasis on potential solutions can have greater impact in swaying people’s thinking.

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Communicating climate change: Focus on solutions

Communicating climate change discussion at MIT

MIT discussion highlights causes for optimism and the importance of emphasizing positive steps.


Panelists at an MIT discussion yesterday on how to improve communication about climate change said that while serious obstacles remain in making the issues and potential solutions clear to the public and political leaders, there is some cause for optimism, especially when the messages focus on readily available solutions.

The discussion, part of the MIT Conversation on Climate Change, was moderated by John Durant, director of the MIT Museum, and introduced by Nate Nickerson, MIT’s vice president for communications. The event — titled “Getting Through on Global Warming: How to Rewire Climate Change Communication” — featured journalists, scientists, and policy experts who deal with the issue of climate change. Durant opened the session by asking, given the often-polarizing nature of the subject, “how the MIT community … can do a better job of contributing to the discussion.”

Chris Mooney, an environmental reporter at the Washington Post, pointed out that rhetoric can quickly give way to action when people are confronted by serious impacts in their own backyards. For example, in Florida, four southern counties most affected by rising sea levels and storm surges are proceeding with serious countermeasures.

In that part of Florida, Mooney said, “the climate debate is not particularly partisan”:  People see the need for action to protect vulnerable coastal lands, and have focused on specific solutions — such as installing one-way valves in storm drains to prevent storm surges from backing up into homes.

Such contrasts between rhetoric and action provide a ray of hope, panelists said. Drezen Prelec, the Digital Equipment Corp. Leaders for Global Operations Professor of Management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, said that sudden and unexpected shifts in public opinion — on issues such as smoking and gay marriage — show that rapid changes are possible, even in the face of strong resistance from political leaders.

Judith Layzer, a professor of environmental policy in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, said that politicians will begin to take action on issues such as limiting greenhouse-gas emissions when it becomes clear that their constituents take the issue seriously enough to vote accordingly. “We only will make progress if we let them know we will vote them out of office,” she said.

Tom Levenson, a professor of science writing and head of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing, said that a key to getting people to internalize the importance of climate change is through memorable storytelling. “If you wish to communicate with human beings in ways that they will remember, you need a story,” he said.

Susan Hassol, director of the nonprofit group Climate Communication, said that research has shown that when Republicans who had resisted climate change are presented with potential solutions based on free-market mechanisms, they are three times more likely to accept those rather than solutions based on government regulations or taxes.

“We all want clean air and water and a better world for our kids,” she added — so it’s important to stress “how climate change is affecting these things.”

Kerry Emanuel, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor in Earth and Planetary Sciences at MIT, whose research has shown the potential for stronger hurricanes as a result of climate change, said that he has made a particular effort “not to preach to the converted, but to go to the heart of skepticism.”

Emanuel said he has spoken to numerous groups known for their opposition to measures to curb greenhouse gases, and for skepticism about the human influence on climate — including conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. He believes that such groups’ resistance has to do with their sense of possible solutions involving government actions.

“They have a very narrow perception of what the range of possible solutions is,” Emanuel said. “Once they understand there are solutions out there that they can embrace, then suddenly they start to accept the science.”

These audiences are much more receptive when presented with a panoply of possible actions, Emanuel added, including ones based on market forces, entrepreneurship, and national competitiveness. “There are a lot of things we ought to be embracing that are worth doing anyway,” he said, such as developing low-carbon energy technology that the U.S. might “sell to other countries, instead of buying it from them.”

Such technologies, Emanuel said, could include next-generation nuclear reactors and carbon-capture systems that could allow fossil-fuel power plants to operate with drastically reduced emissions.  

Hassol summed up lessons she has learned from her attempts to communicate about climate change: “We need to stop trying to give science lessons, and talk about the solutions. The sweet spot is on the solution side.”

When it comes to solutions, panelists said, MIT is especially well positioned to take a leadership role. Among many proposals that have been made through MIT’s “Idea Bank” on climate change, the panel discussed the possibility of opening an MIT facility in Washington to educate political leaders and their staffs on climate and energy topics. Another suggestion was the creation of a rapid-response team of impartial experts who could quickly respond to media reports that contain misleading or incorrect information.


Topics: Climate change, Climate, Environment, Sustainability, Policy, Politics, Special events and guest speakers, Community, Science writing, School of Science, SHASS

Comments

One thing that would help is if people made more of an effort to tell the truth about the relevant science. My particular peeve concerns videos which supposedly demonstrate that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. CO2 is indeed a greeenhouse gas, but the experiments shown in the videos give no evidence of that, and are persuasive only because the audience does not understand how a greenhouse gas works.

What the videos show is that CO2 is less transparent than ordinary air, absorbs more light. That by itself does not make it a greenhouse gas. Absorbing light coming up from the Earth and reradiating some of it back down warms the Earth, but absorbing light coming down from the Sun and reradiating some of it back up cools it, so the fact that CO2 absorbs isn't evidence it is a greenhouse gas.

The critical fact is that CO2 is more transparent to the short wave length light coming down than to the long wave length light coming up. The videos provide no evidence of that. They are fakes--bogus proofs which depend on the audience not understanding the relevant science. The most recent one I saw, from Mythbusters, featured a Berkeley professor, another one was sponsored by (among others) the Cleveland Museum of science. It's hard to blame people for not being convinced by true science when the people convincing them are perfectly willing to use what they know or should know are false scientific arguments.

Being deluged by the climate change game of constant doom and gloom, it's no wonder practical ideas to help are so rare. I offer my bet in the game of one miraculous Orca whale baby boom as testimony that there are practical, immediate, and effective scientific ideas that payoff big time http://russgeorge.net/2015/04/...

I hope the MIT Nuclear Science and Engineering Department will use this opportunity to step up!

"Climate Change" is down near the bottom of the list that general public cares about. They've heard all the Apoclypic predictions, watched the movie almost as many times as "Fozen" and generally decided that they have more important things to worry about than something that may or may not happen the future, and may or may not impact them directly.

They drive by, (or see the videos) of the existing wind farms and see with thier own eyes that only a few of the turbines are actully turning, and apparently only turning slowly, so thier natual conconculsion is ..... "See just another giant Boondogal. More Goverment programs wasteing money. No wonder thier energy bills are going up."

They look at the leaders telling them they need to save water and conserve energy, while these same leaders and spokespeople travel the world in Private Jets, live in giant houses ablaze with lights and watered lawns.

You can eplain to them all day long that the tips of thoose giant blages are moving at 400 MPH and that by design each turbine comes "on line" at a different wind speed. It won't matter. They've been blatently lied to by Politicians and now the Media so much and so often and been told the Sky is Falling so many times, they are long past beliving.

On the East coast, they are still digging out of several feet of "Global Warming".

In Florida, they spent alot of money on Hurricane Protection, many are starting to think they had more important projects that could have used that investment.

The west coast is concerned about fire protection and where is thier water coming from now. Ok, I put solar panels on my roof -- wheres my savings??

They all looked outside and determined ..... no, the sky is not falling......there is no wolf.....
Perception IS reality to the general public. The Environmental movement does't have a communcation problem. People heard what you said.

They just no longer believe the sky is falling.

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