By Jacqueline Koch
Translating the story of our time starts with a single word
Sun and smoke! If you weren’t from the Emerald City, you’d think this was the big draw for this weekend’s Hempfest. If you are from the Emerald City, then you know better. Sun and smoke became our terrifying daily weather forecast for the first half of August.
As wildfires raged in British Columbia, Canada, and smoke poured over the border, this summer our usually Emerald City took on a peculiar, apocalyptic, “Hello Beijing!” look. In a painful twist of coincidence—or is it irony?—Al Gore released “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.” As they say, “timing is everything” and as the film drew movie goers across the country, we Seattleites bear witness from our beautiful Pacific Northwest perch: all the warnings issued in Gore’s first film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” (2006) are coming to pass.
“The warnings about global warming have been extremely clear for a long time. We are facing a global climate crisis. It is deepening. We are entering a period of consequences,” Gore stated in the film.
Now 11 years down the road, Seattle made international headlines as a reference point to the reality of climate change. And make no mistake, climate change is the defining story of our era. Look to The Guardian —The Biggest Story in the World— and National Geographic, “The biggest story of our time.”
Climate change believers and doubters
So as we are choking on billows of wildfire smoke, why do clouds of doubt and denial continue to gather, swirl and muddy public opinion? Last spring, The New York Times offered a colorful set of data maps to illustrate the different views, conversations and questions surrounding climate change.
Why do most people think that climate change will harm Americans, but at the same time, they don’t think it will impact them personally? Everybody talks about the weather. But the climate? It turns out, it is not discussed everywhere.
What leads to this gap in understanding? Disinformation campaigns? Special interests? Fake news? We can spend a lot of time debating the great disconnect in the public understanding of climate change – yet let’s remember that 97 percent of climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.
Boost! Collective is founded on the power of storytelling, so we ask the question: Where did we go wrong in telling the climate change story, one of existential importance to us all?
A theory of climate change
Perhaps it all starts with a word: “theory.” Climate science is often couched in terms of “a theory.” (Note the danger quotes!). The public and the scientific community, including academics, researchers, scholars, each have their interpretation. And the resulting lack of alignment has pitted a mere hunch or guess—as the general public would more likely define theory—against how scientists apply the word, as a body of well-substantiated facts, repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment.
In a number of easy-to-understand graphics offered by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, we begin to grasp the breadth of diverging public perceptions about climate change, and, perhaps begin to understand how to address gaps in public understanding. We must take into account that “climate change communication is shaped by our different experiences, mental and cultural models, and underlying values and world views.”
But it still sounds like one Phd talking to another. Roughly translated: It’s time to understand our audience. Or audiences. And let’s adapt the message to ensure that they truly understand that change is real, climate change is happening.
Developing a shared language
So as a veil of unbreathable air descended on our fair city, forcing children and the elderly to stay inside, it’s high time to truly adopt a shared language. We must invest in, elevate and make the academic firepower that brings us these important insights accessible to all. So how do we harness these voices to ignite smarter policy and public understanding?
“Academics need to start playing a more prominent role in society instead of largely remaining observers who write about the world from within ivory towers and publish their findings in journals hidden behind expensive digital paywalls,” stated Savo Heleta, manager, Internationalization at Home and Research, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.
At the heart of his recent article—Academics can change the world – if they stop talking only to their peers—he points to the ways in which academics can push their valuable research and insights into the mainstream conversation. With the help of university and government incentives and training that embeds “the art of explaining complex concepts to a lay audience,” they can dramatically expand their role in a broader dialogue.
It’s an exciting trend for our time—lose the big words, the jargon and tell us a story instead. The climate change story is real, and really scary. We all have much to gain, now more than ever, should academics take the important step to translate their work for a broader audience.
If they don’t, we will only continue to wade deeper into Gore’s “period of consequences.”
Stay tuned for our next installment, exploring how women voices—as mothers, daughters, grandmothers, sisters, community leaders and public intellectuals—are shaping the climate change conversation.
Boost! Collective is actively involved in the conversation of issues that matter: equality and social justice, environment, wilderness preservation, homelessness, healthcare, global health and development and technology and education, among others. This is the first in a series of blogs that will address the ways in which we include all voices in these conversations, and to make them rich, layered and comprehensive so as to realize meaningful, positive social change.