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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

How to communicate climate change? With hope.

"The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life." Pope Benedict XVI. Spe Salvi §2

Last week I took part in three days of training on public policy and the science of climate change. NOAA’s Coastal Services Center brought the workshop to Rhode Island with the help of the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Institute and the Narragansett Bay Estuary Reserve, which is a partnership between NOAA, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, and my agency.

About three dozen state and local officials took part in a whirlwind of presentations and activities on climate and coastal sciences, policy, and example practices of climate change adaptation. The trainers were wonderful and the networking among the local participants will be invaluable.

Day three of the event focused on communicating climate change. The trainers did an evenhanded job of managing ideological presuppositions among the group, especially when it came to issues of communicating with those who do not “believe” in climate-change science.

To make their points and to generate discussion the trainers used a number of videos—either professional public service announcements for widespread use or those made with less funding for smaller audiences.

One that I liked most was the least controversial. It nicely demonstrates the relationship between trends and variations. That is, for the purposes of climate discussions, how weather and climate differ. This is an important distinction because too often people experience a snowy winter and determine that climate change isn’t really a reality. Watch how the video explains all this with a readily accessible metaphor.

A second video, a British public service ad that also includes a dog, won much less support. Most of us thought it a bit manipulative. One participant said that it was “tricky” and advised against such emotional techniques. My counterpart in the state’s drinking water section and I both found the drowning dog a bit much. And we are not alone in our assessment. In looking for the video, I discovered that it has stirred up a cottage industry of spoofs that lampoon the video's "scary climate monster" imagery. But watch the original and then I'll make a final point (oh, and this video is part of a series, so feel free to stop it at the ending tag line or else it will jump to the next one.):

While I wouldn’t endorse this ad, I understand the creators’ frustration. Like so many of us, the makers of this video wanted to capture the attention of those who think it wise to help future generations (all of them) enjoy the planet. I also found the ending helpful because it offered hope: In the face of major global crises, there are small things that you and I can do, like use less electricity. Offering the individual homeowner (and children) hope—steps that we can take and so that we can exhibit some control—was a topic that we returned to often in our discussions on climate communication.

A much better video was this one from Climate Wisconsin. Its creator is spoken word artist Elijah Furquan. He and the team that assembled the visuals have created a very real, incarnational look at how a warming climate impacts every day people—in this case the urban poor and elderly. Great, great job.

The final video falls somewhere between the one with a drowning puppy and the one by Climate Wisconsin. This one dramatizes a 2011 Washington Post commentary by Bill McKibben of

The trainers surprised us with the video after they had us read the commentary quietly to ourselves. After reading it, most of us agreed that the piece, as text, seemed “snarky,” as one of my colleagues put it. But I understood McKibben’s frustration. Indeed, I might have written a piece like that myself.

But was it effective? According to this assembly of folks from state and local governments, the answer was mixed and leaned toward no. The takeaway became the delivery and not the content. And as my friend Bill Jacobs pointed out, there are some factual issues in the piece. For my part, I very much appreciate McKibben’s desire to show trends—to connect the dots of climate change and in doing so make a substantial case. But McKibben mocks the “mantra” that no single weather event can prove that the climate is changing. And yet that is actually the case: The climatologists and meteorologists I deal with typically stop short of saying that this or that storm occurred because of climate change. And as noted before, I am not especially keen on using tragedies to influence policy debates.

But many of these stylistic concerns largely evaporate when you listen to McKibben’s piece narrated to targeted images framed with a dramatic score. You should read the piece first and then watch the video and see (and hear) the difference:

Your thoughts? Effective? Manipulative? Both?

Communicating the realities of climate change science requires a great deal of thought about the audience, the message, and about our own levels of frustration. Certainly, science is giving us profoundly dismal news. (If the updates received at last week’s training were correct, the actual trends in sea-level rise are moving past previous upper-end projections.)

And yet, communicating dismal news requires hope.

While a recent PEW study indicates that worldwide many of us are putting climate change on the top of issues of concern, there are still a great many others who do not or cannot accept what is already occurring. Many may be frightened into into a fatalistic mentality that all is lost, so they'd rather not deal with the subject at all.

This is where people of faith—of hope—have a place. As Pope Benedict instructs us in Spe Salvi:
As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well.
And what is true in the spiritual realm is also true in the material. In our dialogue within secular realms, we may not be able to use the specifically Christian terms we wish, but we must bring hope. (I was biting my tongue at various points in the training because the answers I wanted to offer were answers rooted in the Gospel. And so I used terms like “common good,” “natural law,” and “what it means to be human.” I believe these terms made my points well enough for the setting.)

There is much work ahead for Catholic ecologists. We must enter this conversation on climate change and authentically, charitably, and unabashedly offer the truth, the life, and the way.

Sure, being effective may mean offering daring, dramatic words and images—much like the Climate Wisconsin video. After all, Our Lord often shocked and startled his listeners with dramatic images and unexpected conclusions, but He did this so that His message resonated with the soul.

And thus the point: The most important question is not the communication techniques that we should or should not use. Rather, the question is what motivates us. Are we seeking to communicate our message of hope out of love and concern, or are we seeking to manipulate with dire predictions for the sake of wielding power to control other people’s choices?

Again, here is where Catholic sensibilities can make a world of difference. By reminding our colleagues that the true basis for sounding the climate alarm is hope, we make difficult conversations more effective because we can ground them in eternal truth and sacrificial love.

1 comment:

  1. Bill, this is very thoughtful and admittedly I'm saying this without having (yet) watched the videos. I need to take the time to do this. The topic reminds me of a conversation you and I had over dinner in April; to me it's an ever-evolving subject, how to get the message across. In short, I don't and never will believe that anything that smacks of "preaching" will do it. Well, we'll have to continue this. A fascinating topic.


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