The Failure of Climate Communication: Science & Solutions

Elly Rostoum | MIT Climate Change Blog
May 4, 2015

MIT has had a long track record of research and engagement on the topic of climate change and the issues related to it.  In September of 2014, MIT launched the MIT Climate Change Conversation, which follows on the traditionally open atmosphere at MIT, which fosters interactions among people working in very different fields of study. The goal of the Conversation is to explore all interdisciplinary approaches spanning science, engineering, management, policy, and more to help define how MIT can advance the dialogue on climate change.

MIT has also been home to many centers, programs and initiatives tackling climate change: The MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change brings policy and science together to advance both frontiers by creating an environment where scientists and economists can work side-by-side to explore the interplay between our global environment, economy, and human activities, and the potential impact of policies intended to stabilize these relationships. Additionally, the MIT Climate CoLab is a project of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence whose goal is to harness the collective intelligence of thousands of people from around the world to address global climate change. This crowdsourcing platform allows individuals to work with experts to create, analyze, and select detailed proposals for what to do with climate change. At MIT’s  Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) Department, cutting edge research is done to examine the history and interactions of these systems in order to predict future events and states with greater accuracy.

As part of the MIT’s Climate Change Conversation Spring Lecture Series, a key challenge we have tackled is the a communication failure rooted in language and ideology that has plagued the discourse around climate change, and contributed to the slow paced action around it.  During our event, Getting Through on Global Warming: How to Rewire Climate Change Communication, a distinguished panel of experts discussed the different aspects of this communication failure and the best solutions to help solve the climate problem. We had a chance to speak with one of our panelists, Susan Joy Hassol, a climate change communicator, analyst, and author who has been making climate science accessible for 25 years. Director of Climate Communication, Susan helps scientists communicate more effectively and provides information to policymakers, journalists, and others. She has authored and edited numerous reports, written an HBO documentary, and appeared on national media. In her recent talk, ClimateTalk: Science & Solution, given at a TEDx event, Susan discusses how a resolution of the climate communication failure is essential to unleash our ability to solve the climate problem. You can watch the talk here

We had a chance to catch up with Susan during her visit at MIT, our discussion:

Climate change. Would you say it is the most important challenge we face this century?
Oh yes. Left unchecked it’s an existential threat to civilization. It’s the mother of all challenges, in that by tackling climate change, we’d also address a range of other challenges like job creation, health issues, social equity, environmental protection, and security concerns. But just because it’s the most important challenge doesn’t mean it's the most daunting. We have almost everything we need to solve it: the technologies, the policies, and recent polls show that there’s broad public support across political lines for climate action. It won’t be easy, but nothing important ever is. It will be quite cheap, though, compared to the consequences of inaction.

Is the challenge in tackling and generating action on climate change largely a communications failure?
Communications failures are major obstacles to action. They range from language confusion, both inadvertent and deliberate, to the disinformation campaign designed to sow doubt about the science, to the way the media handle climate – the minimal coverage, the undue airtime given to contrarian views, and a general failure to connect the dots between what we’re experiencing and the human influence on climate. But while these failures have been obstacles to action, they’re not insurmountable. There are ways forward.

What do you see as the top hurdles in bridging the gap between science and policy action with regards to climate change?
The top hurdles include the partisan ideological divide – the “toxic tribalism” that has infected the climate issue, and the disinformation campaign that deliberately muddies the waters – and they’re not unrelated. It’s hard to get sufficient policies enacted in the U.S. when the leadership of one political party still largely denies the science. The disinformation campaign fuels that denial. And the scarcity of media coverage is a hurdle because people tend to prioritize what’s “trending,” so climate change just doesn’t reach high priority status for most people.

Ten years from now — and realistically speaking — do you see concrete, substantive action happening on climate change? What is your hope?
It depends on whether we can achieve the political breakthroughs necessary. It’s not primarily a problem of science or technology. It’s primarily a political problem. If we can summon the leadership and political will to bridge the ideological divide and agree on solutions that provide wide-ranging benefits, it’s my hope that in ten years we’ll be well on our way to changing our trajectory and ensuring our future. We can do this.

Are there any angles that the discourse on climate change is not leveraging? Ideology and faith for instance?
Some people are working diligently in those arenas. For example, Bob Inglis is engaging his fellow conservatives and Katharine Hayhoe is reaching out to her fellow evangelical Christians. And how about Pope Francis! Not only is he engaging the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, he makes a moral case for climate action that reaches many others too. This is where the critical importance of trusted messengers comes in. People are much more likely to accept an idea when they hear it from someone with whom they connect on values. So there’s an important role for identifying and promoting trusted sources for various audiences.

If you could, how would you solve climate change?
I would implement globally all the policies and technologies we can already see working in various places. These would include properly pricing all energy sources to include all of their real costs to society; instituting strong energy efficiency standards on everything that uses energy, from cars to appliances; removing all subsidies from carbon-based fuels; and instating policies that encourage the use of renewable energy. To do all this, I'd draw on the talents of brilliant people who are making these things happen in cities, states, and countries around the world now.

How can the public — especially the younger generations — effectively engage and drive action around climate change?
I think becoming politically engaged on all levels – your university, city, state, and region – is key to driving action. Each college or town can serve as a laboratory for what works and can be an example for others to follow. You can let your political leaders know that climate change is a top priority issue that will determine your vote. Young people can pursue careers in clean energy and other avenues that use science, technology, and policies to ensure a healthy future. And for all of us, it’s time to raise the profile of climate change – to bring it to the front burner.