Shouting ‘Melting’ in a Crowded Theater

Can anyone de-wonkify climate change warnings and actually get people to listen?

Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The drumbeat of headlines from the new U.N. climate report has been loud and insistent: "Global Warming Impacts Widespread, U.N. Panel Says"; "Panel’s Warning on Climate Risk: Worst Is Yet to Come"; "New U.N. Report: Climate Change Risks Destabilizing Human Society." But the most telling one of all comes from Newsweek — "Climate Change: Is Anybody Listening?"

The funny thing is, the U.N. body known as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been issuing essentially the same warning for decades, going right back to the first reports nearly a quarter-century ago. (Sample headline from 1990: "Scientists Urge Rapid Action on Global Warming.") The problem hasn’t been the science; it’s been the messaging. People haven’t been listening. That’s why the latest findings, released on March 31 in Japan, go to truly incredible efforts to put together a message that the world can understand.

The report, which focuses on climate impacts and adaptation, is a multimedia, multilingual extravaganza. It includes a polished narrated video, multilingual webcasts of the news conference, and an online Q&A that includes, "What is the IPCC?" (Always good to cover the basics when an off-putting acronym is involved.)

The report itself exudes urgency and, where appropriate, certainty. Climate change, influenced by humans, is already having impacts "on all continents and across the oceans." The seas are rising, Arctic sea ice is shrinking, and the risks to those living along coasts and to the world’s food supplies are severe. Climate change is already happening, in other words, and it’s likely to get worse: "Increasing magnitudes of warming increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts," warns the "summary for policymakers" — which, of course, is all that anybody but the die-hards will read.

Scientists are not known for their gift of communication. Academic science writing, in fact, favors impenetrable terms clothed in clauses and subclauses. And past IPCC reports, though aimed at the public, have been no exception.

But something happened on the way to Kinko’s this year: The language is more clear, direct, and — gulp — understandable than it has been in prior reports. As it turns out, humans are screwed.

The term "anthropogenic," for example, is nearly entirely banished from the executive summary in favor of "human"-influenced. "Forcing," a favorite scientific term that essentially means "disturbance," appears only once. Basic terms like hazard, risk, adaptation, and — yes — climate change are clearly defined. The point is obvious: Government officials and the public need to pay attention. The corollary is: Nobody has paid enough attention yet. "We as scientists are realizing that the message is not getting through," says Katharine Hayhoe, a Texas Tech University atmospheric scientist who has done review work for the IPCC. Warming-related changes are happening faster than scientists originally predicted, she said, but the public has not internalized the urgency.

Nearly a quarter-century ago, when the first IPCC report thudded onto policymakers’ desks, scientists arguably had an easier time in convincing the world that a dire problem existed. That was 1990, two years before the global warming summit in Rio de Janeiro — where U.S. President George H.W. Bush spoke — and seven years before the Kyoto Protocol. Although the science of global warming held more uncertainties then than it does now, the world seemed ready to take action. This was the heyday of international environmental accord, with efforts to combat threats like the ozone hole and deforestation and, ultimately, climate change. It was also before the era of deep political fissures on climate change, at least in the United States, and before the spread of climate skepticism — a topic I’ve written about before.

But over the past decade, as the climate warnings have continued and intensified but momentum has flagged, it has become clear that climate scientists need some communications help. Scientists have always tried to use their best English in the IPCC reports, but it hasn’t always worked.

Back in 1990, the IPCC Working Group II’s summary on climate impacts was a painful read of small fonts and thick paragraphs, with sentences like "Little is known about regional details of greenhouse-gas-induced hydrometeorological change." On the issue of snow and permafrost, try this on for size: "The global areal extent and volume of elements of the terrestrial cryosphere (seasonal snow cover, near-surface layers of permafrost and some masses of ice) will be substantially reduced."

By 2007, there was vast improvement. Still, Working Group II spent several paragraphs introducing itself and the uncertainties of its work, before cutting to the chase: "Observational evidence from all continents and most oceans shows that many natural systems are being affected by regional climate changes, particularly temperature increases." Pretty good, but still wordy.

By 2014, the pros had whittled it down. The first real sentence of the new report is a succinct summation of everything IPCC: "Human interference with the climate system is occurring, and climate change poses risks for human and natural systems." Hurray for humans!

In this politicized era, IPCC scientists decided to ram home a reminder that humans are contributing to climate change. And there’s no mention of the cryosphere to be seen. Personally, I’d recommend substituting "hydrological" for "water-related" in the next report, but the improvements to date have been considerable.

All this matches a pattern of improving communication efforts by climate scientists, who have the hard task of persuading the world to pay attention to a long-term, worldwide problem.

In February 2014, Britain’s Royal Society and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences put out a booklet on the "evidence & causes" behind climate change. Nothing much is new in the report; it’s just a more forceful statement of what is already known. "Climate change is one of the defining issues of our time," it begins. Another report, from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in March, also reinforces the message, in simple terms, that "there is now a high degree of agreement among climate scientists that human-caused climate change is real."

Such language does not come naturally to scientists, who are happier in their academic cocoon.

Once, people would stereotypically "roll their eyes when scientists [would] try to explain something," says Inez Fung, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. And, on the flip side, when a scientist would go on television, "all [her] friends think [she’s] not serious," she said. It’s still painful: Hayhoe of Texas Tech, who was involved in the March report for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said writing and editing a group document with her fellow colleagues was sometimes like "herding tigers, many with sharp teeth." But scientists have realized, Fung says, that "your work is, in a way, in vain if nobody listens to you."

The great question is: Will people listen to the IPCC? Is it already too late, with battle lines drawn and attitudes hardening? Surely there is a "climate fatigue" factor as the messages of doom keep piling up. And the IPCC can only do so much with its improved communications; now it is up to the newscasters, bloggers, and tweeters to carry the message, and to a world distracted by a million other things — a missing airplane, a Russian annexation, a "conscious uncoupling" — to pay attention.

IPCC scientists obviously hope that the politicians, at least, will hear the call.

Interestingly, the report goes out of its way to praise each continent for "adaptation" measures — disaster-risk management in Africa, coastal mangrove restoration in Asia, conservation agreements in South and Central America, and so on. I’m no psychologist, but that sounds a lot like a bid for positive reinforcement. Maybe that will work. Realistically, alas, I wouldn’t count on it.

Kate Galbraith is a San Francisco-based journalist who writes about energy and climate issues. She is co-author of The Great Texas Wind Rush. Twitter: @kategalbraith

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