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AAAS Pacific Division Explores Climate-Change Communication

Organizations that have studied climate-change education efforts—including AAAS, the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, and others—have found that simply providing scientific data is not spurring the necessary public and political responses. To connect with audiences about the science of climate change and its wide-ranging human impacts, new approaches that draw from across the sciences—and the humanities—are necessary, said experts at the AAAS Pacific Division annual meeting.

A San Diego, 2050 is Calling graphic explains health effects associated with temperature rise. | San Diego, 2050 is Calling.

“The world around us is seeing the impacts of climate change, and it’s important for us to explain what’s going on,” said Michel Boudrias, department chair of environmental and ocean sciences at the University of San Diego. Boudrias advocates
 an approach to communicating about
 climate change that can “bring in other
disciplines and other dimensions to get 
the message across,” he said.

The science of climate change—and its 
effects on western North America—was a recurring subject at the Pacific Division meeting, held 14–17 June at the University of San Diego. In several symposia and lectures, scientists presented new findings, including about the effects of rising ocean temperatures on sea creatures in the Pacific Ocean and the presence of aerosol particles in San Diego’s atmosphere. The 2016 meeting, which marked 100 years since the Pacific Division’s first official gathering, drew hundreds of researchers, educators, and students from a diverse range of fields.

AAAS has long been a home for interdisciplinary collaboration, said Rush Holt, AAAS CEO and executive publisher of the Science family of journals, at a 15 June town hall meeting for the Pacific Division. AAAS sees “all disciplines represented,” and it supports scientific work that may not fall within traditional boundaries, Holt said. The association’s interdisciplinary emphasis dates to its founding in 1848, when its organizers disbanded their scientific societies focused on individual disciplines to form AAAS to advance science as a whole, Holt said.

Robert Louis Chianese—professor emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, and, with Boudrias, an organizer and presenter of the symposium on innovative methods for communicating climate change—recommended grounding climate-change communication in the humanities and centering it on a compelling narrative. “Make it personal,” said Chianese, who has explored the role that storytelling, documentary, and personal confessions can have in spurring action.

Chianese recounted his encounter with a fishing-boat captain turned environmentalist who gave up fishing after witnessing too much waste—and bringing in fewer and fewer full-size creatures.

“It moved me because of the teller’s transformation,” Chianese said of the captain’s tale. “Such stories have a way of drawing us in, tying us to the specifics of the character and the situation in a way that media coverage of abuses against nature often does not. Hearing stories of personal confessions of transgressions against nature can prompt others to reevaluate their relationship to the natural world.”

The captain’s tale echoes an example from literature of the power of confessional storytelling, Chianese said: Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 18th-century poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” After a thoughtless sailor kills an albatross, his guilt prompts him to tell his tale and impart environmental wisdom, Chianese said.

Tom Fehrenbacher, a teacher at a San Diego high school, also sees a role for the humanities in conveying the science of climate change. “Science is lame without the humanities, and humanities without the sciences are blind,” he said, recasting a quote from Albert Einstein on the connection between science and religion. “Humanities bring value to the discussion,” Fehrenbacher added, “but we need to have our values informed by fact.”

Gathering and interpreting the facts also requires broad collaboration, said Nilmini Silva-Send, assistant director of the Energy Policy Initiatives Center at the University of San Diego. Data gathered from different disciplines is crucial for crafting local, state, and federal policies that address climate change and its effects, she said. Assessing greenhouse gas emissions, for instance, requires information from experts in energy, policy, engineering, planning, and law.

“We need to talk across all disciplines,” she said.

Boudrias detailed the multidisciplinary work of the Climate Education Partners, which brings together a team of climate and environmental scientists, educators, social psychologists focused on the study of learning, and experts in communications, policy, and the law. The group, of which Boudrias is a principal investigator, developed a report to help San Diego–area leaders make informed decisions in response to climate change and its effects.

“The science is there,” said Boudrias of the report, called 
San Diego, 2050 Is Calling. How Will We Answer? Scientific evidence in the report is bolstered by input from other fields to help experts best connect with their audience of local leaders in government, business, the transportation sector, the public health field, the region’s American Indian tribes, and its robust Latino community.

The report is grounded in social psychology concepts that empower local decision-makers to take action, Boudrias said. The report does more than just convey what scientists expect for San Diego’s climate—it provides concrete steps for local leaders to “answer the call” and address, according to a community’s needs, climate-change effects like dwindling water resources, longer wildfire seasons, and coastal flooding. It also uses infographics to depict climate-change effects and strategically chosen language, such as presenting temperature increases in Fahrenheit, rather than in scientist-approved Celsius.

The report leverages people’s concern for future generations—their top priority, according to the group’s research. This perspective also helped to inform the timeline of the report, which looks ahead to 2050, rather than hewing to the 100-year models that many climate scientists study. Looking toward the near-term future taps into people’s concern for the next generation, thereby providing a “tighter connection emotionally,” Boudrias said.

According to Tiffany Lohwater of AAAS, the session at the Pacific Division meeting presented useful case studies in local climate-change communication. “To effectively connect with your audience, research demonstrates that it’s important to emphasize how climate change affects people here and now, and right where they live,” said Lohwater. As deputy chief communications officer and director of AAAS meetings and public engagement, Lohwater heads up the association’s Communicating Science workshops and the Alan I. Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science, which last year named 
15 fellows to promote science-society dialogue about climate change and to be role models for their peers. “It’s encouraging to see AAAS division leaders working to convey the science of climate change in their own communities.”

This article originally appeared in the 29 July 2016 issue of Science

[Associated image: Heal the Bay/licensed and modified under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]


Andrea Korte

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