State of the Planet

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You Asked: What’s the Best Way To Talk About Climate Change?

This story was published as part of our Climate Week NYC coverage. Learn more about Climate Week, read our other stories, and check out our upcoming events.

Hurricane Ida is seen in this image taken aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

More Americans today are worried about climate change than ever before. From 2014 to 2020, the proportion of people who said they felt “alarmed” by global warming nearly tripled, according to research from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. But while public awareness for climate change is at an all-time high, dinner tables and debate stages can still feel boobytrapped with uncomfortable conversations. As part of State of the Planet’s “You Asked” series, Columbia scientists, journalists, and content creators spoke to why that is and how, through thoughtful climate communication, it doesn’t have to be.

The Evolution of Climate Communication

Climate scientist and Columbia Climate School professor Kate Marvel remembers when the main story about climate change had to do with whether or not it existed. Experts not unlike herself were pitted against skeptics on live television with little time for well-meaning discussion. The relatively few stories that did uplift climate science focused on what was happening in the natural world; for mainstream publications—and the majority of their readers—that meant climate change was synonymous with polar bears trapped on melting icebergs or rainforests burning in the Amazon.

Andrew Revkin was an environmental reporter with The New York Times for over 15 years before joining the Earth Institute as the director of the Initiative on Communication and Sustainability. He said the “newsroom norm” of  prioritizing what had happened that day made it difficult for issues with incremental developments and long-term time horizons to get top billing. It is only in the last handful of years, he noted, that climate change has begun to “infuse itself into other coverage,” with reporters writing about its impact on other pressing social issues such as public health and racial justice.

At the same time, climate solutions have become more visible and scalable, resulting in coverage that considershow the crisis can be mitigated, rather than just its consequences. Sabine Marx, former managing director of Columbia’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, said this shift has offered a psychological advantage in how the threat of climate change is communicated. “If I know there are steps that I can take towards actionable solutions, then I am much more likely to accept that there’s a problem,” she explained.

Climate communication has also been supported by the proliferation of new forms of media.  Sustainable Development student Lauren Ritchie, for example, founded the online platform The EcoJustice Project to make climate education and action more accessible to her generation.

“Gen Z is eager to learn and trying to get involved,” said Ritchie. “Most of the time, I’m making content based on what I would want to consume.”

Through social media features like Instagram Live, Ritchie provides her tens of thousands of followers with the opportunity to hear firsthand from people experiencing and responding to climate change in their communities.

How To Talk About Climate Change

Whether it is in person, in print, or online, climate communication often begins where it ends—with the audience. Marx explained that the experiences and values of a person inherently shape the way that they choose to engage with climate change, if at all. As a result, what resonates with a financial investor in New England might not be what resonates with a farmer in the Southeast.

“Knowing your audience will allow you to get beyond the information deficit so that you can look at filling a motivation deficit,” said Marx.

With no shortage of prospective audiences, climate communicators are constantly adapting the way that they frame the issue, a process that Marvel has found to be really empowering. “I don’t like feeling like a robot,” she said. “I think if you decide that there’s only one way to communicate about this, and you have to say the same thing over and over, then you’re going to burn out really quickly.”

Journalist Brian Kahn will use any combination of analogies, examples, and recent climate events in his work to connect with his readers—including the ones who send him hate mail. “As long as they’re not threatening my life, I’ll usually respond,” he said. “There’s a surprising amount of common ground between folks where you might not expect it.”

Flooding in the Bronx the day after Ida passed through New York City. Credit: Jim Griffin

While finding common ground does not always equate to changing someone’s mind, Marvel noted that it is often the “human conversations without ulterior motives” that are the most productive. “When I talk about climate change, I want other people to understand this thing that’s really important to me,” she said, “and I want to learn from other people.”

It is a strategy that Marx refers to as “leading to” climate change, rather than “leading with” climate change. By starting with what is relatable—raising kids, owning a home, enjoying long walks on the beach—the impacts of climate change can be tethered to the shared reality of what is at stake. “We want to open the door with something that is meaningful to people, something that they care about,” she said.

The Future of Climate Communication

Given that climate communication has changed so much in the last two decades, it can be difficult to predict what will come next for the field as a whole. For Revkin, the future of climate communication will involve convening more stakeholders for in-depth conversations rather than writing for traditional media outlets.

“Climate and sustainability communication is different from telling another good story,” he said. “It’s getting brains into a place and having them think about something they might not otherwise, to collaborate on something that they can do more effectively together than alone.”

Through his “Sustain What?” webcast series, Revkin has already hosted a wide variety of experts to discuss issues ranging from global ecological restoration to the future of nuclear energy. In the last year and a half, he has recorded over 220 episodes that have engaged an estimated one million listeners.

The creation of new shared spaces like the “Sustain What?” webcast series can also function to champion greater diversity in climate discourse—something that Ritchie, Marvel, and Kahn stressed is desperately needed moving forward. “There is so much nuance to climate change,” said Ritchie, “and yet we tend to look at it through this privileged, white lens.”

Marvel agreed. “It’s an existential problem if climate communication is a monolith,” she said. “No one person or group of people is going to be able to talk to all communities, so we need to uplift diverse voices.”

Perhaps then the most important part of climate communication is that it keeps happening in more places with more people, especially in the face of what Kahn referred to as an “epidemic of climate silence” in the United States and around the world.

“People should not be afraid to talk about this stuff,” he said. “Having these conversations—even if they feel hard—is the first step to actually acting, passing climate policy, and getting this work done.”

Watch Elise Gout chat with Andy Revkin, Director of Columbia Climate School’s Initiative on Communication and Sustainability and host of the “Sustain What?” webcast series, on how to talk about climate change. 

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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