It’s “very likely” that communicating about climate change is challenging

Communicating about climate change is tricky, no doubt about it. Not only is it a complicated issue, with plenty of risks and impacts (many of which are quite regionally specific), oodles of underlying science, and a wide range of possible actions, there’s also the complexity of the contentious political layer that inevitably gets added to the mix. It certainly isn’t a straight-forward conversation.

Those interested in advancing this issue—be they environmentalists, business leaders, scientists, policy makers, concerned citizens, or others—have generally come to the conclusion that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to communicating climate change. Instead, it’s all about knowing your audience, their motivations, and what resonates with them. For instance, we know that negative messaging (of the “We’re totally screwed!” variety) is, on the whole, ineffective. It runs the risk of desensitizing people and/or causing them to throw up their hands in defeat. Likewise, most people aren’t motivated to act out of a sense of altruism or even for the sake of their children or grandchildren; rather, you’re much more likely to convince them to take action if you link it to something more tangible and immediate, like their health, their wallet, or their competitive spirit (e.g., that one-upsmanship that’s driving Californians to rip up their lawns and install drought-tolerant gardens in order to show their neighbours up, or how people silently take note, one eyebrow raised disapprovingly, of who doesn’t put out their recycling and organics bin on garbage day).

Speaking purely anecdotally, on more than one occasion (and much to my annoyance), I’ve heard people pass the buck, saying that scientists haven’t done a good job conveying the climate change message—“Well I would’ve done something, but the scientists, they just didn’t communicate it properly!” It feels like a pretty lame excuse to maintain the status quo. Scientists are scientists. They do science. Yes, there are those who are also expert communicators, like David Suzuki, Jane Goodall, Bill Nye, and others, but, by and large, I’m happy for them to concentrate on the science. It’s not like they expect us to be quantum physicists, cardiologists, or organic chemists, so let’s not expect them to be wordsmiths and orators.

bennett - now playingHere’s the thing: We all need to take responsibility, for both delivering the message and receiving the message. Yes, we could almost certainly find a more effective way to communicate climate change, even with all its science and impacts and potential solutions. If marketers can manage to convince people that they need monthly subscriptions for things like novelty watches, vegetable peelers, or 18-month wall calendars, I’m pretty sure that it’s possible to convince people to take action on climate change. BUT—and this is a big and essential but—the public also has to do its part. We can’t whine about it being too complicated or hard to understand and stick our heads in the sand just because we don’t like what the weighty reality of the message implies. We need to step up, do the work to make sense of the issue (rather than retreating to our kitten memes and celebrity gossip), and then act on that information. It’s a two-way street, folks, and nobody is without responsibility. Hence the title of this piece: “Dialogue (The burden of the message).”

The inspiration for this mosaic was a study that examined the gap between what scientists mean and what the public interprets. Every few years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change puts out what are known as Assessment Reports. Thousands of scientists volunteer their time for this undertaking, where they comb through the scientific literature and synthesize it into a series of reports focused on the physical science of climate change, the impacts, and the mitigation options. The scientists assign the various findings that come out of this roll-up exercise with a rating that indicates how certain they are about each one (i.e., how settled the science is). For example, take this finding from the synthesis report: “It is virtually certain that there will be more frequent hot and fewer cold temperature extremes over most land areas on daily and seasonal timescales, as global mean surface temperature increases. It is very likely that heat waves will occur with a higher frequency and longer duration” (my emphasis). When IPCC scientists say “virtually certain” they mean they’re at least 99% sure, and for “very likely” there’s a likelihood of 90% or greater. But when the general public hears these verbal expressions of confidence, they tend to underestimate in cases where scientists are certain (and, oddly enough, overestimate certainty where scientists are less sure or the impacts are less likely). For example, while for IPCC scientists “very likely” means 90%-100% likelihood, people interpret this as more in the range of 50% to 90%. Takeaway message: communicating the science of climate change is hard because people’s baggage sways their interpretation and all too often things get lost in translation.

"Dialogue (The burden of the message)" mosaic by Julie Sperling - communicating climate change

“Dialogue (The burden of the message)” (2015), 17.25″ x 24.5″ — layered spray paint tesserae and rocks

This mosaic is a visual representation of the “very likely” rating and the corresponding public interpretation of it. In the main grouping there are 11 lines, each with exactly 100 tesserae, to represent the 90% to 100% certainty range—the layers of spray paint are the certain parts, the rocks the uncertain. And then slightly offset at the bottom is a 12th line (or a footnote, as R likes to refer to it) that’s 50% stone, to represent the lower end of the public interpretation of the “very likely” rating.

Angle view of "Dialogue (The burden of the message)" mosaic by Julie Sperling

All materials for this piece were sourced from within a 400m radius of my apartment

I was so happy when I landed on the idea of using layers of spray paint—fallen from a local graffiti wall—as the main material for this piece. Not only because it was so much fun (and different) to work with as I snipped and ripped and shaved it, but also because it feels entirely appropriate for two reasons. First (and directly linked to the study in question), because the IPCC assessment reports are a synthesis of heaps of individual scientific studies. (Plus, you have to admit, there is something kind of bookish about how the paint layers look in the mosaic). But more importantly, the graffiti paint is fitting because at its most essential it is layers upon layers of meanings and messages, which makes it a great material for talking about communication and dialogue.

Let's take a closer look at those layers, shall we?

Let’s take a closer look at those layers, shall we?

A commenter on Instagram said the paint layers were like fordite's edgier cousin---a comparison that I absolutely adore!

A commenter on Instagram said the paint layers were like fordite’s edgier cousin—a comparison that I absolutely adore!

So, to recap: Communicating about climate change is no small feat, but let’s not use scientists as our scapegoats for inaction. The onus is on both the messenger AND the recipient to transmit and interpret our considerable knowledge about what’s happening with the climate and then act responsibly and not turn a blind eye.

Detail of "Dialogue (The burden of the message)" mosaic by Julie Sperling

Spray paint tesserae and rocks, tilting to and fro…

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4 Responses to It’s “very likely” that communicating about climate change is challenging

  1. Danette September 9, 2015 at 4:41 pm #



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