Scientists’ struggle: talking climate ‘in plain English’

By Erika Bolstad | 03/28/2016 07:15 AM EDT

The city of New Orleans, devastated by Hurricane Katrina, has hired filmmakers to develop an animated video to help the public better understand other looming natural disasters, including earthquakes and tsunamis.

The city of New Orleans, devastated by Hurricane Katrina, has hired filmmakers to develop an animated video to help the public better understand other looming natural disasters, including earthquakes and tsunamis. Photo courtesy of the National Climate Assessment, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In New Orleans, the city’s planners would love to see block-by-block estimates of how sea-level rise might affect neighborhoods and critical infrastructure. In Seattle, they want to know how to shape their municipal culture so that even basic budgeting decisions factor in evolving climate patterns, and not just the past weather patterns that planners have relied on for decades.

Everyone is looking for something different from the next National Climate Assessment, including the scientists and decisionmakers who put together the current guiding document for climate policy in this country. And as they discuss how to put together the next blueprint, they worry about how to best get their message to the people who need most to hear and heed it.

Is anyone reading the assessment? Will anyone read the next one? And how can they make sure that people do?


"If we want to tell the nation the risk, we need to [do it] in plain English," Alice Hill, the National Security Council’s senior director for resilience policy, told scientists at a gathering in Washington, D.C., last week. As her boss, Susan Rice, often notes, Hill said, "climate change is a dire threat to the prosperity and safety of the American people."

The discussions played out at a two-day meeting of a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine panel advising the group that puts out the assessment: the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Work is beginning on the fourth assessment, a congressionally mandated review of climate change impacts on the United States. The third report, a multiagency effort released in 2014, found increased evidence of human-caused warming and warned of heavier precipitation events and more frequent extreme heat events, including severe droughts.

The climate assessment is intended to guide risk planning for federal, state and local agencies and tribal governments, as well as businesses, and the aim of last week’s meeting was to help shape how the next assessment will characterize and communicate risk given the state of current science, including sea-level rise projections.

A well-tailored assessment could communicate the scope of climate change in meaningful ways so that communities can better work adaptation into their planning — whether it’s reservoir managers trying to adjust to uncertain rainfall, ski resort operators assessing snowpack, or cities determining how high to build new pumping stations or how to manage other climate-related risks.

It’s time, many of its past authors say, to consider shifting the assessment away from being a document that tells people what scientists do and do not know about climate change and its risks, and toward something more interactive. Something, many scientists said last week, that explicitly lays out how much time people have to plan, prepare and even pay for the inevitable adaptation.

"We could make the goal that it should change the public discourse," said Susanne Moser, a California-based scientist who worked on the coastal chapter of the last assessment and who studies ways of helping people understand the challenges and risks of climate change. "Do not tell me just how high the sea-level rise is going to get. Tell me how much time I have to solve a very tough problem."

Pinpointing immediate risks

Already, the assessment has plans to include more social scientists into the mix, including people who specialize in research about decisionmaking. They include Robyn Wilson, an associate professor of risk analysis and decision science at Ohio State University, who led a panel on energy, land and water interactions and who spoke about framing climate change risks to enhance effective communication.

People are motivated by risks that are psychologically near in space and time, Wilson said. Public health threats, extreme weather events shaped by climate change and economic costs also spur decisionmaking, she said.

"Those are the motivating risks, the local ones," Wilson said. "The ones happening now, to me, in my geographic location."

She encourages scientists and policymakers to think about how to frame climate change in the assessment. Frames, she said, are interpretive storylines that communicate why an issue or decision matters — and they highlight what options or actions should be considered over others, she said.

"We would still have to make some decision about what we would focus on," she said. "What risks should we present? How do we present those risks in ways that are meaningful?"

She and others noted that this can be a challenging concept for many scientists, who may shy away from an advocacy role. This is particularly problematic in U.S. climate science, which has been drawn not only into domestic partisan politics but international treaty negotiations.

It’s also a place where many scientists disagree about their role in society. Among them: renowned climate science and activist James Hansen, whose warnings released last week about rapid sea-level rise were entangled in discussions about his advocacy for a fee on carbon to make it more expensive and curtail emissions.

Engaging vulnerable communities

Yet both Hill and President Obama’s chief science adviser, John Holdren, told the scientists that it was vital to communicate how interdependent humans are on their ecosystems and how disruptive climate change already is and will continue to be. The panel bandied about creative ideas for getting its point across, including hiring filmmakers for video storytelling, or writers and artists to craft a version of the assessment released in a graphic novel-type format.

New Orleans has done just that, Jeff Hebert, the chief resilience officer for his city, said in a phone interview. Its cartoon video was influenced by Japanese communicators who use such techniques to get across the threat of natural disasters, including earthquakes and tsunamis.

One key goal of nearly everyone at the panel, shaped by the lead crisis in the Flint, Mich., water system: ensuring that those most vulnerable to climate change are included in the discussions, including the poorest Americans in places that might not get as much attention as New York City, Seattle, New Orleans or Miami.

Water scientist Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute said he didn’t think it was that no one was reading their assessment. It’s more likely that "not enough people read it — or not enough people choose to act on it," he said.

"I think we could change that," he said. "And one way to change that is to have much more involvement of key, vulnerable groups."

In New Orleans, what it would like is data at a much more localized level. It will be "important too as we try to adapt to changing conditions," Hebert said.

‘People are flying blind’

Gleick said they need to consider what priorities are crucial to water utility managers, forest fire agency managers, reservoir operators, ski resort owners, coastal regulatory planners and land-use planners, as well as infectious disease specialists and first responders.

"People are flying blind and not building the infrastructure for tomorrow’s climate, but building the infrastructure for yesterday’s climate," said Paul Fleming, who heads the climate resiliency program for the Seattle Public Utilities.

Nowhere is the need for more information more obvious, Hill said, than in a place like Perdido Beach, Ala., a town of fewer than 600 on the Gulf of Mexico.

The mayor of the small community doesn’t have a planning staff and needs basic information about how to build a stormwater management system that will serve its future needs as the climate changes and sea levels rise. So do other communities addressing not just sea-level rise, but how to build power grids that manage more intense heat or ice storms, or who worry about rivers being too warm to cool nuclear reactors.

The United States spent $96 billion on infrastructure last year, Hill said, and it’s unlikely that much of that construction was screened for climate resilience. Engineers planning power grids, water management systems and other infrastructure need to begin building in that way, she said.

"What should I be doing? What should I plan for? What do I need to know?" Hill said. "If we can’t answer those basic questions of the people who need that information, we are at risk of missing the mark.

"Be ambitious," Hill told the panel. "Communication is key. And you really, in my opinion, have the chance to really change our history and change the course of preparations here in the United States."