The climate is changing, and more quickly than expected. What was once only in computer models is now before us: rising temperatures, melting Arctic ice, migrating species, Hurricane Sandy and other storms. Disruption is the new normal.
A month ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presented its most recent report, describing the changes expected in coming decades, and how humanity might adapt. Here's a useful summary. The bottom line: climate change will affect everyone and everything. So it's really worth getting on with responding.
Yet so far the response seems mostly… nothing. As Sarah Boon asks, What's an environmental scientist to do?
There are several options. One is retreat: head to the hills, for a good think about the sorry state of the world. Paul Kingsnorth has made an eloquent argument for withdrawal:
If you don't go out seeking, if you don't retreat, if you don't put yourself into the wilderness with nothing to carry you, you will never see what you need to shed or what you need to gain. You will never change. And if you never change, neither will anything else.
It's an attractive option, and Kingsnorth presents it beautifully. Who doesn't love quiet time in the woods? But while soaked in ecocentric rhetoric, Kingsnorth's argument is deeply human-centered: personal feelings determine right conduct. Yet in a time that demands urgent change, this seems counterproductive (especially since it's better for the environment to live where there are lots of people). Would civil rights activists have advanced their cause by heading to the woods for a real good think about segregation?
Climate scientist Michael Mann has a more constructive message: If you see something, say something. In his view, being a scientist carries an obligation: tell others what you know.
Great. But what should scientists (and other concerned people) actually say? Here are three ideas.
1. Explain what scientists know.
Highlight the fact that they have reached consensus. With the media always aiming to present "balanced" views, that fact that reality is unbalanced – 97% of scientists are convinced climate change is happening – can get lost. There's also evidence that awareness of this scientific consensus can be a powerful motivator. It clears away debate, enabling a serious conversation about what to do next.
Facts are not enough. They can even be unhelpful: gloomy predictions of catastrophe may only paralyze. Instead, climate communicators need to practice listening. As Katherine Hayhoe and others have argued, climate conversations must be informed by how people know and care about the world. Seeing climate change with one's own eyes is a powerful motivator, and so are explanations that connect with how people believe the world works. Whether, say, actions by government, business, or individuals are considered effective influences how people respond to climate information. So those who talk about climate need to know how their audience sees society and the world. That means hearing what they have to say.
3. Remember the So What.
People need viable solutions more than warnings, and ideally, solutions that are not just about climate change. These might be local – say, finding an alternative to highway expansions that hardwire a city's car dependency. Nationally, this could mean making the case for an energy efficiency revolution. The point is: solving the climate conundrum only starts with the science.
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