Climate Change News

Scientists Explore How Best to Communicate About Climate Change

An AGU Fall Meeting session focuses on communicating with appropriate urgency about climate change.


Don Haas, like many Earth scientists, wants to communicate effectively about the urgency of climate change. To make his point, Haas often uses an 8-foot piece of lumber.

Every gallon of gas contains about 5.5 pounds of carbon, an amount similar to that contained in an 8-foot two-by-four—a standard 8-foot-long, 2-inch × 4-inch length of wood—according to Haas, director of teacher programming at the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, N.Y. Sequestering that amount of carbon by planting trees would require growing the equivalent of a two-by-four for every gallon burned. This ratio would mean growing more than 1.5 trillion pounds of wood per year to offset the 391 million gallons of gas Americans burned per day in 2017 alone, Haas said.

“Next time you fill up your tank, think two-by-four, two-by-four, two-by-four for each gallon that rolls by,” Haas said. “That’s pretty astonishing.”

“It is, in my view, essential to always remain true to the scientific evidence, but what the scientific evidence is showing us is frankly terrifying. If we don’t pay attention to that, then we’re being irresponsible,” Haas said. Scientists should communicate that to people but “need to balance the scale of the threat with what we can do to make the world a less terrifying place.”

A 21st-Century Role for Scientists

Haas is one of the scientists presenting a lightning talk during an AGU Fall Meeting session on “Communicating with Appropriate Urgency: How to Connect with Audiences in a Time of Accelerating Change.”

“We’ve seen the emergence of scientists who want to play a much bigger role in the public discussion around climate change impacts and climate change solutions at all scales,” said Kim Cobb, a professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

The session, Cobb said, aims to provide a space for scientists who feel the urgency of climate change and who want to use their platforms to find a way to communicate more effectively about it. “We find ourselves so far behind the curve on this issue as a nation, regardless of who is in the White House,” Cobb said. “We need to start building capacity and moving hearts and minds and getting people together to solve this at every scale.”

Cobb added, “Recognizing that [scientists] do have a responsibility to the public good, and we’re brave enough to act on it, is a kind of 21st-century role for scientists, I suppose.”

Sounding an Alarm

Climate scientist Peter Kalmus, who along with Cobb is one of the cochairs of the session, said he is unable to work on climate science without also trying to sound the alarm about climate change. “I used to fear for my career as somebody speaking out and urging society to take action about the climate breakdown,” Kalmus said. “Now I’m so much more terrified by the climate breakdown itself that I don’t really have any fear about speaking out.”

Kalmus said that he has noticed a shift over the past couple of years, with more and more scientists eager to have a conversation about what it means to be a climate scientist now.

“What does that mean, to be a scientist studying this stuff and having a front-row seat to it? Do we have a responsibility to speak out more, and if we do, how can we do that in a skillful way?” asked Kalmus, whose session presentation is entitled “What Will It Take to Get You to Speak Out.”

Kalmus said that when he is making presentations to the public, it’s important to provide the scientific data and also to speak about what the data mean. “As scientists, if we see [climate change] as a kind of planetary emergency that society needs to act on, we need to make that clear somehow when we communicate it with the public.”

Stressing the Importance of Working on Policy

Denise Hills, another presenter at the session, wants people to understand that “a scientist getting involved in policy is not a dirty or negative thing.”

“Working on policy is as important as working on research,” said Hills, the program director for energy investigations at the Geological Survey of Alabama. Hills is also president of AGU’s Earth and Space Science Informatics section. “If our science does not interact with the world and how we decide to interact with the world, what are we really doing? Why are we really doing science? If we want the world to be a place where we want to be, we need to be able to advocate with information.”

In her position with the Survey, Hills views her role as being a trusted resource of information for the public and for policy makers, as she works to find common values with other people, some of whom may have very different perspectives. In her session presentation entitled “You Are a Voice for Science,” Hills plans to discuss being a voice for science even as she deals sometimes with controversial issues, such as oil sands mining.

A Middle Ground Between Scientist and Passionate Activist

Kristina Dahl, a senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists who is presenting a talk at the session, said that like many of her colleagues, she too feels a sense of urgency about climate change. Dahl said that for decades, scientists have assumed that just providing the facts and data to people would be sufficient to spark action on climate change but that this type of communication “hasn’t worked.”

“We have increasingly made it clear in our communications that while 20 years ago there were many options on the table for reducing emissions, and we didn’t have this sense of urgency that it had to be done within a decade, we do have that urgency now. There really isn’t time to be dawdling anymore,” Dahl said.

“I’d like people to come away [from the session] with a sense that it’s not all or nothing: [either] pure scientist or passionate activist,” Dahl said. “There exists a middle ground in which you’re doing rigorous research, the data are presented objectively, but you are talking about the implications of pure research passionately.” That approach, Dahl said, can “help to communicate the gravity of the problem” of climate change.

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

13 December 2019: This article has been updated with a correction to the amount of wood per year to offset gallons of gas burned per day.

Citation: Showstack, R. (2019), Scientists explore how best to communicate about climate change, Eos, 100, Published on 09 December 2019.
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