The Climate Is Changing. How to Make People Care?

The “Tipping the Scales” panel: left to right, Andy Revkin, Ian Cheney, Nicole Hernandez Hammer, Anthony Leiserowitz, Bina Venkataraman. Photo: David Corcoran.


Climate change is a hydra of a problem. Its myriad consequences are so far-reaching, and so many political, social, and technological barriers stand in the way of solutions, that it’s easy to get discouraged. But as protesters at the Earth Day March for Science put it, “There’s no Planet B.” So how can we make the monster problem of combatting climate change more manageable? This was the conundrum facing participants at “Tipping the Scales on Climate Change: Covering and Communicating an Unthinkably Big Problem,” an April 20 discussion sponsored by KSJ and Undark as part of the Cambridge Science Festival. (You can stream the two-hour event here.)

The event, at the Broad Institute, began with a screening of Ian Cheney’s “The Measure of a Fog,” a condensed version of the climate change documentary series he made for Undark. With its black-backdrop interviews and melancholy score, the film evoked a sense of somber contemplation. According to Cheney (KSJ 2014-15), the documentary was meant to serve “as an invitation to talk about some of the various large-scale complications associated with climate change, and as a way of taking stock of where we are.” Which was just what happened at the panel session that followed.

One of the complications raised by Cheney’s film was the public’s mental disconnect from the consequences of climate change. To overcome that obstacle, said Nicole Hernandez Hammer, a climate advocate with the Union of Concerned Scientists, she visits low-income coastal communities during the times of highest tides. That way, she can use the very practical problem of water infiltrating cars and homes to illustrate the larger issue of sea-level rise for people who have “limited bandwidth” to think about environmental issues.

Bina Venkataraman, director of global policy initiatives at the Broad Institute, agreed that it helps to focus on climate change consequences that are already unfolding, like devastating weather events that cost vast sums of taxpayer dollars per year. “If there’s more and more frequent droughts in the Southwest,” she said, “the specific drought you’re experiencing right now can be tied to that larger theme of preparing for longer-term future droughts.” On that note, the Yale political scientist Anthony Leiserowitz said natural disasters have clear effects on public health, the economy, and national security. So it’s possible to use those issues as leverage to convince non-environmentalists of the importance of climate change.

“There’s many roads to Damascus,” Leiserowitz said. People have a wide array of backgrounds, priorities, and sources of information, but everyone has a stake in preserving our planet’s life-support systems. And Leiserowitz seemed cautiously optimistic that humanity would rise to the occasion: When the panel’s moderator, the climate journalist Andrew Revkin, noted that “global warming” now ranks as American voters’ No. 6 priority, Leiserowitz pointed out that “the environment” and “clean energy” also broke the top 10.

Given the new administration’s stance on climate science, there was only so much optimism to go around. When Revkin turned to Venkataraman and said, “I want to ask you about the White House,” someone in the audience emitted an “Uh-oh.” Revkin went on to say that he sees the Obama administration’s climate policy as “a really fancy sand castle,” and the Trump administration as a group of bullies who just arrived on the beach.

Although Venkataraman didn’t dispute Revkin’s assessment, she did say that when it comes to implementing solutions, the issue of climate change probably doesn’t need to be so polarizing. She cited the tea party activist Debbie Dooley, who argues that when liberals try to persuade conservatives to use solar power, they should steer clear of the term “climate change.” It’s better to talk about energy choice and freedom, Venkataraman said; “then you’ll get some tea party people to fight their local utilities,” because they want to use solar panels to get off the grid.

Still, during the Q&A session, audience members were keen to know what strategies they should use — and what pitfalls they should avoid — in head-on conversations about climate change. Cheney encouraged active listening and staying positive, because changing the mind of even one person is “a really powerful thing.” In the same vein, Leiserowitz warned against harping too much on the doom and gloom of global warming: Research shows that trying to scare people into behavioral changes isn’t very effective.

Rather, he recommended helping people acquire a sense of self-efficacy. Convince them that they not only should invest themselves in environmental efforts, but also that they can make a difference. The problem of climate change may be daunting, he said, but “we get to write the next chapter of human history.”