Expert Q&A: How to overcome the struggles of communicating climate change

Expert Q&A: How to overcome the struggles of communicating climate change

Despite an increase in extreme weather, like that of 2012's superstorm Sandy, research tends to suggest that extreme weather does not have a lasting impact on public opinion. Shown here are areas of Long Island, N.Y., following Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 30, 2012. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Rob Simpson/U.S. Coast Guard)

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Jeremy Deaton is a journalist for Nexus Media News, a non-profit climate change news service. The service’s articles and videos are reproduced in outlets like Popular Science, Quartz, Fast Company, HuffPo, ThinkProgress, and other outlets. Deaton, who attended George Washington University for grad school, is also a Planet Forward alumnus. He said working at Planet Forward gave him the background in journalism he needed that enabled him to get his job at Nexus Media.

In addition to writing about climate change, Deaton also runs a website called Climate Chat, which aggregates research on climate change communication. Climate Chat began as his thesis project in grad school at GW, and now he uses it to keep people informed on the latest research, sending monthly updates via a newsletter.

We recently spoke to Deaton about how to overcome the struggles in communicating the gravity of climate change and why climate change denial is a problem in the U.S. 


Jeremy Deaton
Jeremy Deaton

Q: Generally, how informed is the American public on climate change and climate issues?

A: I would say that the public is not as informed as scientists and advocates would hope it is. When you look at what people think of the causes of climate change, we are at the point where a little more than half of Americans say that humans are causing climate change. But when you break that question down and ask, “Do you think humans are the sole cause? Do you think humans are the primary cause? Do you think that humans are causing climate change, but also nature is causing climate change?” — that is a lot more confusing. And it seems that not enough Americans understand that humans are the primary driver of warming. 


Q: Do the American people have an understanding of the mechanism behind climate change? It can be a relatively abstract concept at times, and what is your feeling on Americans understanding of this?

A: I think that people, generally, have a pretty vague understanding of the mechanism of climate change. I think they understand that industrial pollution– pollution of carbon from cars and trucks and planes and factories and power plants–is making the earth warmer. But if you ask people to name as many greenhouse gasses as they can, I imagine that people might say CO2, but they wouldn’t get to methane or hydrofluorocarbons or some of the other more obscure gases.

But I also don’t think it’s really important that Americans understand the mechanism of climate change. I don’t think they need to understand the nitty-gritty of the science. I think they need to understand the basics — that pollution from cars and trucks and planes and factories and power plants, pollution from agriculture — from specifically raising livestock — pollution from deforestation is warming the planet, and that is a catastrophic risk. 


Q: While only 5% of Americans, in recent polling, fully deny climate change is occurring. Why is there still a relatively large chunk of Americans who are not willing to pin climate change on human activity? What do you think the root cause for that is? Are there things that are causing that?

A: Let me break that answer down into a couple of parts. One, I think it is tempting to divide climate change deniers into these many different groups, depending on what their specific views are… I think it is functionally fine to just group together anyone who denies that climate change is an overwhelming problem that requires an immediate and drastic response. You can just put them all together. If someone acknowledges that the planet is warming but denies that we need to do anything about it, that is functionally the same as someone denying that the planet is warming. 

As for why people would deny the need for drastic action for climate change, I think the answer is tribalism. For 30 years now, fossil fuel companies have been aligning with conservative politicians and conservative media to persuade conservative Americans that climate change is a liberal conspiracy to create a global government, and you have gotten to the point where climate denial is a shibboleth for conservative politicians. Membership to this group is now contingent upon denying the need to take drastic action to address climate change. It is really hard to change that. It is completely entrenched, and is really hard to form a new norm, particularly when you have all these forces that are reinforcing the current norm. 

I think there has been a lot of time and attention and energy devoted to trying to convert conservatives on climate change. The environmental movement has spent a lot of time and energy and money on that cause in the last couple of decades. And I think that energy would be better devoted to trying to mobilize people who are already inclined to care about the problem. And I think that the movement we’ve seen in public opinion in the last few months or last year, where you see more Americans caring about climate change, and it has risen in importance among liberals and Democrats, I think it has to do with the fact that you see more movement on the left.

You have charismatic politicians like (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) who are making this an issue. You have advocates like the Extinction Rebellion that are making this an issue, and you are pulling from the left, and it’s having an effect on the whole spectrum of public opinion. You see progressives care about it more, and you see swing voters starting to pay attention. And, as a result, you’ve got Republicans starting to — or at least trying to — sound sensible on climate change. Mitch McConnell acknowledges that it’s a thing. I don’t think he should get any credit for that, but I think that it is a result of pulling from the left.     


Q: If drastic measures are necessary to make the impact that needs to be made to save the planet and try to mitigate as many problems as possible, wouldn’t you need that percentage of people on the right to be on board, especially when it comes to policy?

A: I think that in our system of government you need consensus to make policy, because of the way electoral votes are distributed across the country and what you need to win a presidential election and because of the way the Senate works. You have to win in conservative-leaning states and you have to persuade people in conservative-leaning states because in the Senate, at least currently and for the foreseeable future, you need 60 votes to pass anything.

So when I look at that, and I consider that fact, one conclusion you could draw would be that environmental advocates need to win over conservatives. Now I think that is a reasonable conclusion, but I think that that is actually much harder than trying mobilizing progressives, mobilizing people to care about this problem. Our system of government may be such that it is difficult to pass policy without bipartisan cooperation, but it is easier to imagine Democrats taking unified control of government and passing climate policy than it is to imagine that conservatives will come along with that policy.   


Q: We talked about what you believe should be done when it comes to tackling this problem of acceptance of the problem and understanding of the problem on a macro level, what about on a micro level? Let’s say you are going to Thanksgiving and your more conservative family members are there, and climate change comes up. What do you think the best way to deal with a situation like that? You are addressing someone face to face instead of a constituency or instead of a whole population, what would you suggest someone do?  

A: First, I would say, I wouldn’t get your hopes up. Even if you are able to persuade someone to care about climate change — and there are a lot of conservatives who do — climate change still ranks pretty low as an issue for conservatives. They are going to vote on issues like terrorism, or fears of immigration, or concerns about national security, and those issues will likely supersede any concerns they have about climate change.

That doesn’t mean you can’t try. If you are going to try, then the way to do it is to make climate change a local and personally relevant problem. There is a lot of research that, in particular, points to the efficacy of highlighting the health risks of climate change.

Let’s say you live in Arizona, and you have historic heat waves, record-setting heat waves, that are making life miserable and are also a life-threatening risk for elderly people, and the infirm, and children. And those heat waves also make pollution worse, and that pollution is a threat to children. It’s a threat to your kids. It raises the risk of asthma, or it exacerbates existing asthma, those are the kinds of arguments that resonate with people.

One thing I would add to that is that there is a temptation to think that extreme weather on its own is going to change minds about climate change, that when people see and experience severe storms, drought, wildfires, heat waves, that they will be converted by virtue of their experience. But the research tends to suggest that extreme weather does not have a lasting impact on public opinion. People may be more concerned for a short time, but that is not going to convert them over the long term.

The things that do convert people are the efforts of advocates, cues from political elites, and the volume and quality of news coverage. Those are the things that tend to change minds. You can point out to that, “Hey, scientists say that burning fossil fuels has made this heat wave worse, and is a threat to your health,” and that might make someone more concerned about climate change, but you can’t assume the heat wave will do that on its own. You have to consistently repeat the message. It has to be present in the mind of the person you are talking to. It has to be a salient concern for it to matter.  


Q: What science is saying now is that we need to start taking drastic and immediate action, not just in our county, but around the world. Do you think that the level of support for something that drastic is possible to get in the timeframe that it needs to happen?

A: I don’t know the answer to that. I am a bit pessimistic, but I will also say I have been surprised by the shift in public opinion the last few months and the last year. So it is certainly possible. But whether or not it is possible doesn’t really have any bearing on what advocates or elected officials do. It has to be done, and we have to make every effort to persuade the public and persuade policymakers… We have no other choice.


Q: The first Democratic debate was last night, and there was a question about climate change, but there has been some criticism that climate change should be the first and biggest issue that anyone running for President should be addressing, because of the gravity of it. Do you think that the issue of climate change should be more elevated in the current campaigns and current political discourse?  

A: Yes, absolutely. I think there are moral reasons for that, as you suggested. Climate change is the defining issue of our time. It is the biggest issue. It is the literal end of the world, and it is the thing we should be talking about more than anything else. It is also an issue that encompasses every other issue. It is an issue of public health and national security and inequality and injustice and so forth.

In addition to the moral argument, there is a pragmatic argument. Across several polls and according to different methods of trying to determine what is important to Democrats, we find that climate change is the number two or three ranked issue. It’s something Democratic voters want to talk about. It is something Democratic voters care about.

At the first debate, I think that moderators waited more than an hour to ask the first question about climate change, and the questions weren’t great. They were questions that tend to focus on the politics of climate change instead of the policy of climate change. I think that journalists who are going to be asking politicians about climate change, particularly in a debate setting, should understand this is something that Democratic voters want to talk about. 

I like to do a little thought experiment sometimes when I think about the news coverage of climate change. We know that climate change is a problem that threatens the health and safety and lives of hundreds of millions of people — billions of people over generations. And we know that it is a problem that demands a World War II-scale mobilization to solve. That’s a comparison scientists have used again and again. So we have a problem on the order of World War II. Are we talking about this problem the way that we would talk about World War II? Are we talking about this problem the way we would talk about the threat of Japanese imperialism or Nazi Fascism? No, and we should be.

What would that actually look like? Climate change would be the first question in the debate, and then the next 12 questions would also be about climate change, and they would be substantive questions about what candidates would actually do to solve the problem. 


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