Climate communication: Live from San Francisco

Yesterday, about 100 earth scientists and communicators gathered for the AGU’s (American Geophysical Society) pre-conference workshop on science community.    Today the official program began.  I met for the first time in person some of those I consider “rock stars” of climate communication , including Susan Hassol (, Dan Kahan (Yale Law Project on Cultural Cognition), John Cook (Skeptical Science), Richard Alley, Bud Ward (Yale Forum), John Abraham &  Scott Mandia (CSRRT), Richard Somerville, Dan Satterfield, Peter Sinclair, Max Boykoff, and on and on.

We were delighted to hear ClimateBites mentioned by presenters as a source for metaphors and soundbites.

Here’s a sample of some of the insights I gathered, from Sue Hassol, a true pioneer of translating climate science into plain English.  (paraphrased due to my slow notetaking ability):

Best weather vs. climate metaphor:  ‘I can’t tell you how old you will be when you die, but I can tell you — with high certainty — the average age at which all people in the U.S. die.    That’s how insurance companies make money.    And that’s the difference between weather and climate.’

Best way use of metaphor to quantify something:   Invasive species:  ‘It’s easier to go get a rock off the moon than to dislodge an invasive species.’

Simplifying vs: “dumbing down.”   ‘Simple does not have to be simplistic.’

Best image:     Sea level rise:   ‘Do you want to live in an America behind sea walls?’

Best quip:    Fixing nitrogen?    ‘Is it broken?’,

Best re-framing:   Do you believe in global warning?   ‘No.   It’s not a matter of belief.  It’s a matter of evidence.”      (variation from a scientist:   ‘No.  I meausre it.’)

And here’s something to chew on, from Dan Kahan.   His presentation stressed that at the individual level, science denial may be rational if accepting the science would risk alienation from one’s peer group and community:

For the individual with a hierarchical-individualistic (i.e. conservative) orientation, it is rational to reject information about climate risk.   Like everybody, they are simply trying to maximize ‘how to have a good life.’    There is a high cost if they adopt views that alienate their community who they depend on for emotional, psychic and material support.    There is no cost to science denial.

Kahan’s prescription, based on experimental findings:

1) Re-frame the issue in terms of values that don’t threaten their world view (e.g. include nuclear and geo-engineering),

2) have the message delivered by somebody who looks and sounds like somebody who share’s the listener’s values.  His research showed that the preceived values/culture of the messenge is as or more important than the message itself, in determining whether the listener will accept the speaker’s views.

Because what may be rational (“expressive rationality”) for the individual can be disastrous for society, he calls his paper on this topic “The Tragedy of the Risk Perception Commons.

Last night, 20,000 conferees arrived for this annual pow-wow of earth scientists.   The official AGU program, which begins this morning.

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