The sooner we act, the better our chances are for stopping or even reversing human-caused climate change. In order for this to happen, the public needs to be informed about the possible ramifications of human-caused climate change and what can be done to prevent them.
A new project, Climate Voices, is dedicated to connecting scientists with the public by planning engaging conversations about these issues all across the country. AAASMC blogger Summer Allen recently interviewed Cindy Schmidt, who runs Climate Voices.
AAAS MemberCentral: What is Climate Voices and what are the main goals of the project?
Cindy Schmidt, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, Advisor for Climate Outreach: Climate Voices ' Science Speakers Network is a growing group of scientists across the United States volunteering to speak with fellow citizens about climate science and climate change. The project is supported by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and the United Nations Foundation, with the overall goal of enhancing the climate literacy of people across the United States so that they are better prepared to address the issues of climate change.
We all know about the role of citizen scientists in field projects. Climate Voices flips that to engage scientist citizens. Scientists who are active members of their local community are in an ideal position to discuss climate science with their fellow citizens. Through climatevoices.org, they can register for the network and the public can access their profiles and invite them to speak at local gatherings. Speaker profiles are searchable by geographical area, name, languages spoken, or expertise. There is also a resources section of climatevoices.org that makes presentation, communications coaching, and classroom materials available to Climate Voices volunteers. They need not be without resources when they accept an invitation to visit a local group!
AAAS MemberCentral: How many scientists are currently registered with Climate Voices and how many states are represented? How can additional scientists get involved?
Schmidt: The over-200 scientists registered for Climate Voices represent all 50 states. That is a wonderful target to have achieved, but to really reach into local communities across the country in every one of those states, we need to increase that number 10-fold. Through AAAS, I would like to invite scientists and students working on their doctorates to join this important effort. Physical and social scientists from all fields who know basic climate science are welcome. Climate Voices should be a rich mix of scientists who bring diverse knowledge about different aspects of climate change to discussions with their fellow citizens.
It's very easy to get involved. Simply go to climatevoices.org and click on the "Become a Speaker" link. You will be walked through the process of creating a profile that the public will then be able to access. Some participants have asked how many times they might be contacted by the public to join meetings. It's really impossible to predict. In the few weeks after our launch, I have heard of some experts being contacted multiple times and of some not yet at all. One of my jobs is to create demand for this resource across the country. I can use a lot of help with that! Participants who reach out to local organizations in addition to waiting for invitations will likely be called upon right away. But as a Climate Voices expert, you are in control of your schedule. If you can't accept an invitation because of a schedule conflict, you can negotiate a postponement or call on a colleague for help.
AAAS MemberCentral: What are your suggestions for how scientists should approach speaking to lay people about climate change?
Schmidt: Don't give a technical talk, but do involve people in real conversation about climate change, the magnitude of the problem, and the possible solutions. To really grasp the climate issues facing us, people need to know the basic science—but they don't need to know every detail of the science. The basics can be communicated in a very brief, accessible, context-setting presentation. (We are creating a sample slide deck through Climate Voices.) But then it's critical to initiate conversations about how people are feeling about the sobering news that the science represents, what sort of changes they are seeing in their regions, and what solutions might exist. Finally, always leave people with a hopeful message. The doom and gloom that is told through the data can be overwhelming. Tell your audience that it's not too late to address this unfolding crisis.
Also, if you are asked about policy recommendations such as carbon tax or cap-and-trade, you need to answer in whatever manner is most comfortable for you. You can simply state that that's not your area of expertise. Or, if you would really like to express your personal opinion, state that you are now speaking as a private citizen and not representing your institution.
And last, but definitely not least, do not make any sort of politically partisan statement, no matter how tempting that may be. You are representing the science, not a political party. And you will definitely lose part or all of your audience if the discussion devolves into political or verbal fisticuffs.
AAAS MemberCentral: Scientists at some of these events are likely to face questioning from climate change skeptics. Do you have suggestions for handling that type of situation?
Schmidt: Although I know some people try, it's hard to argue with the facts! When giving context-setting presentations, try to stay with observations to make your points. If a skeptic provides excerpted warming "hiatus" data of the last 12 or so years as proof that warming has stopped, go back to a slide that shows the longer-term record and the clear escalation in temperature. And perhaps illustrate your point through an amusing analogy such as the animation of a man (climate) walking a dog (weather) that's available on YouTube.
To take one argument off the table right up front, explain that global warming causes changes that may seem antithetical—especially during evenings when you've slogged through the snow to get to your event! And when you accept an invitation to speak with a group, you might want to review a list of climate myths and skeptic arguments such as those found at skepticalscience.com/argument.php just to remind yourself of some of the arguments you could hear. Whatever you do, don't engage in a heated debate with skeptics. You are the expert with the scientific knowledge. Stay calm and reiterate that there is no debate at this point about humans causing climate change—the data are clear and 97 percent of the world's experts agree. If a skeptic persists in asking hostile questions, you may have to say, "We'll just have to agree to disagree on that one. I'm not here to engage in arguments. I can just tell you: This is what the science shows."
AAAS MemberCentral: What are your suggestions for AAAS members who are interested in holding events to discuss climate change in their hometowns?
Schmidt: Register for Climate Voices—and be bold! You are a citizen who has critical information to share about what is, arguably, the greatest challenge of our time. Don't wait for your community to come to you—reach out to neighbors and fellow citizens. Local groups provide many opportunities for speakers who have interesting things to say. Contact service organizations such as Rotary and Optimists, faith-based institutions, libraries, city councils, chambers of commerce, and clubs. If this feels like awkward self-promotion, and you have a communications office at work, ask them to make the contact on your behalf. The important thing is that you share your expert knowledge about climate science and regional climate change with fellow citizens who can collectively make a difference. You will be making a tremendous contribution!