Note: the following article recently appeared in Catalyst, the official publication of IABC.
By: Danielle Bond, SCMP
Climate change is a complex topic, but it’s one that needs our attention. It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation, so what role can communicators play in helping organizations and the public understand its urgency?
I spoke with Dr. Marco Tedesco, a Lamont research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and an adjunct scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. His research focuses on the dynamics of seasonal snowpack, ice sheet surface properties, high latitude fieldwork, global climate change and its implications on the economy and real estate.
Dr. Tedesco speaks about humanizing climate science through empathy and the impacts climate change is having on human species and the planet. He talks of his concerns about greenwashing and its impact on real climate transformation, as well as the unintended climate gentrification impacts — the intersection of climate change with other social justice issues.
We are now in a different territory when it comes to climate change, according to Dr. Tedesco. “There is a new generation of media and communicators who grew up with climate baked into their culture,” he says.
So how can we do more? Through convergence of intersectionality, information, inspiration, urgency and humanization.
Ultimately, he says scientists are humans who are motivated by their love of the planet. His advice for communicators is to learn the science in the same way scientists must learn communication.
“The convergence toward the meeting of the two disciplines of communication and science has to happen on both sides, and I think this is happening,” he says. But we can do more. Read on to find out how.
We want to elevate amongst our members and the broader communications profession the role we can play in helping audiences understand climate risk and the transition that’s needed if we’re going to avoid catastrophic outcomes. As a scientist, how important do you believe good communication is in tackling the climate crisis?
Some scientists don’t feel comfortable expressing too much of their view besides the proper numbers. When you combine this with the coverage of false information, the beginning of climate science has been very bumpy.
There is a new generation of media and communicators who grew up with climate baked into their culture. There’s a better understanding from the public, too. You see this with the way the economic market is reacting, the choices toward net zero — they are supported by government, but also embraced by people.
If we look at climate change as a hazard, it’s really the combination of the physical manifestation of climate change and the exposure of people. Over the last five years, there has been a shift in consciousness of the global scale of the anthropogenic nature of climate change, and the energy revolution that we’re all living through. There has been more room to focus on the social side of climate change — and I do believe that climate change is a social justice problem before being a physical problem. It’s of course both. However, I think the social side of climate change is far more immediate. It needs more attention as people are suffering now.
How can we communicate with the right amount of urgency — but at the same time, not to the point that people feel like they can’t do anything about it?
It’s complicated to talk about such big themes and try to provide people with tools to scale them properly. When it comes to climate change, the issues are so big they become unfathomable, so we start to forget about it.
Some people compare the concept of climate change with the concept of death. You can only process part of it, and at some point you keep living with the idea of it — knowing that it’s going to happen. But you don’t know how to deal with that.
There is a huge machinery required to build a scientific consensus at a global level.
We have a duty and responsibility to not only promote the science, but to actively promote the potential of science. We need to connect and align globally and not just annually — across financial markets, policy and scientifically.
Balancing the right amount of urgency with context and curating the facts in a connected way is paramount. We need to share scientific discoveries and the consequences of these discoveries with governments, industries and consumers.
Can you reflect on any examples where you’ve seen science and business communicators working together effectively to build understanding and trust around these complex issues?
The Washington Post was a real turn in direction, winning a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for their work. They were the ones instead of scientists who took a risk and created a common language through their communication style and graphics. They became such experts on something that we knew as scientists. I think they built trust with the readers about their competence on the science, explaining the information in a way that wasn’t sterile. It was strongly contextualized through other research that was part of the knowledge of the communicator. The message was strong, organic and coherent to building on multiple articles.
They really built a crowd and engaged the audience to be educated, similar to what the New York Times did. They were direct, straight to the heart of the piece. The language was burning, passionate and yet very technical. You could feel they were thinking about humanizing — you could feel that they were heavily involved in the research and they cared about the article.
Humanizing a Complex Issue — The Washington Post’s Award-Winning Climate Reporting
In 2020, the Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize for its climate change reporting, “2°C: Beyond the Limit,” a piece that blends nearly two centuries of temperature data with the realities of global hot spots today.
The Post analyzed 170 years of temperature records, pinpointing locations where the climate has already increased 2 degrees Celsius (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) — a threshold the international community hopes the planet will not reach.
Following this research, teams of journalists were deployed to put a face to this complex issue, telling the story of scientists, government officials, farmers and more who are impacted by these hot spots.
“As with the coronavirus, we are well served if we pay attention to the science. In producing this series, our staff not only paid attention to the science, but also built on it with deeper and more granular analysis,” The Post says in a release about their coverage. “And then, with the full resources of our news organization, we put a human face to the numbers, showing the severe impact that extreme warming is already having on communities around the world.”
How can we help translate climate science so it’s meaningful and actionable by people?
I think we need to humanize the way we communicate it. It’s important for those who listen and those who talk.
I look at [climate change] in a very emotional way, as would most scientists. We’re people who are in love with nature, and we shouldn’t forget this. Yes, the proper communication of proper scientific results is important, but how can we just be technicians?
Humanizing climate change has become more natural, but at the same time the question is how we tell these stories without overselling progress. I think empathy is something that can be stimulated through the humanizing side of climate change. It is one extremely powerful tool that is now being properly developed and utilized in many cultures. It could also help [us] better understand in which direction to fix things.
Humanizing the consequences of climate change is not just good for communicating to lay people, but it’s been incredibly important for inspiring my new lines of work and research on climate justice.
Climate justice is the science of climate applied to society directly, rather than looking at long-term physical changes over 30, 50 or 100 years. We’re talking about a different kind of climate science, which is to look at the short-term implication on people. I think in this case again, communication has been extremely important. It was the song that woke me up from the sleep.
Can you tell me about the two terms you used, climate justice and climate gentrification?
Climate gentrification is the process through which socially vulnerable populations are affected by climate events, displaced or forced to move out as a result of climate change.
What’s going to happen to some areas or classes of population as we transition to our new energy [system]? How do we make it equitable and just? What about jobs in the energy sector for people who are socially vulnerable and are exposed to low-income issues, for example.
Climate justice looks in this direction and tries to understand what the impact on the socially vulnerable population has been, what can be done and what are the potential consequences of the actions they are taking now to mitigate climate change and the social level population. Another way to think about climate justice is as social justice seen through the lens of climate.
It’s not only the socially vulnerable populations are more exposed, but they will be more and more exposed, and that’s the sad reality.
How concerned are you about greenwashing? If you wanted to send a message to communication professionals, what might it be?
It goes back to the problem of accountability and liability. Unfortunately, we live in a society where we are bombed by information and misinformation. We get so much content within a single day that, at the end, the things that stick become part of our knowledge. With greenwashing, I think they’re really capitalizing on this.
It’s extremely important for communicators to be knowledgeable but not become too specialized. They are not just the expert communicator, but they need to know the facts and communicate those facts in a contextual way.
Communicators should understand that this is a battle and there is some exposure in being part of this battle. If they decide to go into this arena, they really need to spend time doing some homework and being stronger on the technical side.