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Cracking the Climate Code

Four stumbling blocks impede clear communication on climate change.

Research  |  Oct 18, 2017  |  By Emma Bloomfield
Emma Frances Bloomfield

Emma Frances Bloomfield, assistant professor of Communication Studies. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)

Editor's Note: 

Emma Bloomfield is an assistant professor of communication studies. She presented The Science of Stories and Stories About Science at the Marjorie Barrick Museum as part of the University Forum lecture series. Here, Bloomfield addresses some of the challenges of science communication.

One of the most prominent areas of concern for science today is communicating the severe consequences of climate change. In my University Forum Lecture, I address how science’s relationship with the public is often mediated by the stories that people tell to explain the world around them. Despite best-faith efforts rooted in logic, reason and physical evidence, science communication can nonetheless be met with resistance. During the lecture, we’ll take a look at how storytelling can be used to overcome potential roadblocks to communicating an issue like climate change. Here are the big four:

Antagonistic leadership

It’s hard not to turn on the TV, read a newspaper, or scroll through social media without seeing news about the Donald Trump administration’s negative actions towards the environment. From hiring climate denier Scott Pruitt to the head the Environmental Protection Agency, to issuing an Executive Order that allows contractors to ignore climate change predictions when making infrastructure safety regulations, the current political climate is less than encouraging. Our leaders can send cues us for what we should value. They also create laws and regulations that have immediate impact on the country’s ability to prepare for the consequences of climate change. Perhaps most frightening is the administration’s elimination of references to climate change from governmental websites.

Polarized voices

Despite a consensus from scientists about the seriousness of climate change, dissenting scientists are prominent figures in news media. In pursuing a journalistic norm of balanced reporting, media unintentionally gives equal footing and legitimacy to climate deniers. In an experiment about science reporting on the autism-vaccine controversy (which falsely correlates vaccine exposure with autism), researchers found that participants who read a “balanced” report on scientific information were more unsure about the lack of a vaccine-autism link. Comedian John Oliver poked fun at this phenomenon, which also happens in climate change reporting, in creating a debate between climate deniers and scientists that was more representative: three deniers on one side and 97 scientists on the other.

Competing beliefs

Another problem that climate communication faces today is the prevalence of competing beliefs that undermine or contradict mainstream science. While religion, politics, and economics are not always antithetical to science, these areas offer some of the most powerful challenges to climate change mitigation. Religious conservatives, for example, cite the Bible as a reason to deny climate change and oppose environmentally-friendly policy decisions. Businesses that would be negatively affected by climate change legislation pour money into lobbying at the tune of $115 million a year. Economics-based policy decisions tend to focus on the short term and the autonomy of the individual as a market member over long-term benefits and the environment.

An apathetic public

The de-prioritizing of climate change by people in power has a trickle-down effect. Surveys consistently show that people are largely apathetic toward environmental issues. The Pew Research Center reported in a 2017 poll that the public ranks the environment in the 11th and climate change in the 18th spot out of 21 policy priorities. These rankings have been relatively consistent for the past decade.

In receiving balanced information, hearing alternatives from leaders in politics, religion, and economics, apathy seems an inevitable result. But, it is only with the activation of the public and a renewed focus on citizen participation in science and politics can these problems be corrected. If we can communicate science as easily understandable and engaging stories, the public will want to consume scientific information and will hopefully care more about the implications of scientific knowledge. There are many obstacles that stand in the way of successful science communication, but the risks of climate change loom whether we decide to act or not.