How We Talk About Climate Change

How we talk about climate change has the power to shape the discussion and overall perception of this important issue. A few ideas to consider:

Increase the media coverage and cover the science

The mainstream media rarely covers the important facts about climate change – even when they are directly relevant to issues or events that they are addressing.

Despite the near-continual stream of weather-related disasters and temperature records, Nexus Media reports that “fewer than half of Americans say they hear global warming discussed on the media once a month or more often.” A study by Public Citizen concludes that:

“For the public to be well-informed about climate change, it is critical that the media connect everyday coverage to climate where it is relevant, as well as cover the climate crisis directly, including developments on how we can mitigate it. On both scores, the media performed poorly in 2017. When discussing even the most clearly climate-connected topics, like record heat waves, the media mentioned climate change just 33 percent of the time. Regarding most other subjects, including hurricanes and the spread of mosquitoes, ticks, and the illnesses they carry, the coverage was far worse. One of the most important lacking pieces — a subject that appeared in just nine percent of coverage that mentioned climate change — is solutions.”

The media coverage following Hurricane Maria, with a substantial focus on President Trump throwing paper towels, is a clear example of this failure. The Guardian analyzed the media coverage of Hurricane Maria and hurricane season overall and found that “about 60% of the stories included the word Trump, and only about 5% mentioned climate change.” Coverage of the science was virtually non-existent.

“Equal” representation between climate deniers and the majority of scientists is misrepresentation

There is overwhelming consensus about climate change in the scientific community. In fact, 97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and caused by human activity. NASA points out that “most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.”

It is disingenuous and misleading to give climate deniers equal time when the stakes are so high. A balanced equal-time approach between a 97% consensus about climate change against the opposing views of a few extremists, misinforms the public by giving the appearance that both positions are equally credible.

Media representation of climate change must convey the actual science. It must inform the public about how and why climate change is happening, and what options we have to address it.

The terms “uncertainty” and “theory” mean two very different things to the scientific world and the layman. The Union of Concerned Scientists describes that while to most people, the term “uncertainty” means not knowing, to scientists, “uncertainty is how well something is known. And, therein lies an important difference, especially when trying to understand what is known about climate change… climate change deniers have linked less than complete certainty with not knowing anything.” 

In light of this, it is vitally important for the media to lead with the scientific findings and imperatives and to structure cogent arguments in ways that can accurately represent the scientific facts, data, and ultimately the dire need to act. 

Link climate change to the shared human experience 

One of the most important things we can do is to communicate the data around climate change in human terms, in a way that doesn’t require an advanced degree in climate science to understand. Some of the most important numbers and terms can also be the most confusing. The seemingly miniscule 2 degree goal in the Paris Climate Agreement, the incomprehensibly large notion of 5 quadrillion tons of air in the atmosphere, and other terminology such as the current 400 parts per million of CO2 are foreign to many people.

Climate researcher Craig Lee suggests “Simply publishing a piece that presents facts doesn’t give its audience the story behind them. When putting climate change into discussion, this ignores a very human aspect, like the cities affected by rising sea levels. Journalists and researchers alike should strive to frame climate change as a human issue, because in the end, it’s humans who will pay the price.” 

The media cannot continue citing numbers without giving context for the average person to understand what those numbers mean and how those numbers and climate change broadly will have an effect on their lives. 

According to 350.org, the five hottest years on record are 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013 and 2010. Scientists have predicted that unless climate change is addressed, by the end of the century Europe will suffer 150,000 heat-related deaths a year. Global grain yields have declined by 10%, which will impact the food chain and migration. Climate change related storms have caused billions of dollars of damage and incalculable human suffering. Despite all this evidence, there is a clear disconnect between what is happening and the concern of the American public. According to Gallup, less than half (45%) of Americans think that global warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime and fewer (43%) worry a great deal about global warming.

Communication about climate change must convey the seriousness of the situation by putting it into terms that people can understand, internalize, and act upon. People need to understand that it will affect them.