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Knight Science Journalism Bootcamp speakers cite communications as key to climate change progress

“The climate change crisis is no longer primarily a scientific problem. At this stage, it is a communications issue.”

That assessment, from Scott Denning, Monfort Professor of Atmosphere Science at Colorado State University, was a frequent refrain during a recent MIT Knight Science Journalism “Bootcamp on Energy and Climate.” Many of the distinguished presenters at the intensive three-day course emphasized that scientists have established the evidence about climate change, and journalists now have a crucial role to educate the public about its impacts.

The 12 presenters also agreed that the stakes are high for their work. In his remarks, Philip Hilts, director of the KSJ program, said: “The future of our species depends on better policies in energy and climate issues — and that progress requires an informed public.”

This point of view is also emphasized in "What We Know," the 2014 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, published not long after the KSJ Bootcamp. In a podcast, Nobel laureate Mario Molina, chair of the IPCC report, distills the findings to four points (climate change is taking place; it is happening already; it is about risk; we can deal with this), and notes that the primary purpose of the accessible report is to engage the public and professional communicators to help catalyze forward-looking climate change policy.

Educating journalists

The Energy and Climate Change Bootcamp is part of an ongoing series of short courses created by the KSJ program, which each year admits 13 exceptional, mid-career science journalists from around the world. The Fellows spend a full academic year at MIT honing their science reporting skills, and working alongside scientists and researchers in MIT labs. The only one of its kind in the world, the program has run for 31 years and created 320 alumni who are now continuing their science writing at major news outlets in 40 countries. Four times a year, the KSJ program offers the intensive bootcamps, which are attended not only by the Fellows, but also by other journalists who apply to participate.

“We believe that reporters need access to the best minds across science and technology to fulfill their mission,” says Hilts, “and we want to share MIT's resources with science journalists broadly. We know it is hard for many journalists to get away from major institutions for an entire year. However, many more can break away for a few days at a time, so we designed the short courses to reach more of the science journalism community.”

The Energy and Climate Bootcamp has been held each year for three years, reflecting the complexity of the topic and its increasing significance. The most recent speakers, who included leading scientists and spokespersons in the field, gave presentations that ranged from the current science about climate change, to the attitudes of the American public on the issue, and how climate change issues can be addressed in a difficult political climate.

Talks on the basic science of climate change

Denning began his presentation by reviewing the fundamental science behind anthropogenic, or human-caused, global warming. He explained that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere trap radiation, or heat, warming the Earth’s surface. In balanced proportions, greenhouse gases function similar to a blanket surrounding the Earth, by maintaining temperatures within a range that enables life to thrive. 

As increasing amounts of carbon dioxide are emitted into the atmosphere — through the burning of fossil fuels for transportation and industrial purposes, as well as the generation of electricity — the blanket grows thicker and traps more heat, which leads to a considerably warmer planet.

Recognizing and observing the evidence

Despite the scientific evidence that substantiates climate change, it has been difficult for the public to appreciate its potential consequences, said Susan Solomon, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate Science in the MIT Department of Chemistry, during her presentation. 

In Solomon’s analysis, this gap between evidence and awareness occurs because very few traces of global warming are visible locally. Lacking immediate signs in their own territory, many people still do not perceive the enormity and impact of the climate change phenomenon.

Given this situation, Solomon observes, the climate change conversation has also digressed into a debate that is more about individual beliefs, rather than actual science. “This issue attracts all kinds of interesting discussions about people’s personal beliefs of what the world should or could look like,” she said. “The conversation has now morphed into a discussion about the world’s future — but without a basis in the scientific evidence, and how to solve this accelerating threat to our life on earth.”

Public perception

The wide range of individual beliefs among the public on how and when to embark on addressing climate change is a primary obstacle to policy chance and action, according to Tom Zeller, Jr., a current KSJ Fellow. “For some folks, the problem remains a very distant one, and they discount the need to take immediate drastic or expensive actions. For others, this is a clear and present emergency with deep moral implications.”

Nevertheless, Zeller, Jr. believes that the increasing amount of research conducted about climate change, in addition to other factors, are helping to alter the general public perception about the situation. 

“It’s worth noting that most Americans do accept that the climate is changing and that human activity is a driver,” said Zeller. “And, as the science gets more specific on how grim things might ultimately get, that will help more people comprehend the seriousness of the issue. I also think some of the bizarre weather patterns we’ve been experiencing, regardless of whether or not they can be directly tied to anthropogenic global warming, are helping bring the issue to the forefront of public awareness.”

Reformulating the climate change message

During his presentation “Energy, Climate, and the American Public,” Stephen Ansolabehere, Professor of Government at Harvard University, offered a suggestion about language and emphasis. He noted that while most Americans are concerned about climate change, describing the issue as “global” climate change makes the problem seem faraway. And since most Americans are not primarily motivated by realities that seem remote, the usual phrase “global climate change” will not, by itself, be effective for building support for new energy policies. 

Instead, Ansolabehere encourages policy makers, scientists, and journalists to show the importance of preventing and remedying local environmental damage caused by climate change. Most of us, he said, have a heightened concern for what is occurring in our own backyards, communities, and regions.

Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Reporter/Writer: Kierstin Wesolowski
Published 10 April 2014

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