Triple Bottom Line: The climate of effective communication
We are officially not doing enough to prevent irreversible effects of climate change … again. This is no surprise. The breaking news in the climate world this past week was the publication of the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This particular report may serve as a final warning as the report’s findings stated that “limiting warming to around 1.5°C (2.7°F) requires global greenhouse gas emissions to peak before 2025 at the latest” before irreversible effects of climate change.
Comprised of scientists from around the globe, the IPCC produces a comprehensive review of climate science every six to seven years regarding physical climate science, impacts and adaptations and solutions for cutting emissions to reduce further warming. The official 2022 mitigation report is a 17-chapter publication nearing 3,000 pages. Thankfully, there’s a handy Technical Summary, Summary for Policymakers and brief video recap, all full of the latest and greatest facts and figures that serves as a Sparknotes version of the IPCC.
Despite the relatively gloomy tone of the report, it offers us a chance to close the gaps between scientific discovery and legitimate public comprehension. Studies have shown that although climate change concern and engagement is growing, it isn’t reflected with more ambitious political action. It’s more important than ever that we find methods of effectively communicating climate information to reflect the legitimate urgency surrounding the situation. A majority of the world does not have a scientific background, and it’s imperative they’re able to fully comprehend the information to fuel collective action.
In a representative democracy such as our own, the public holds power. It’s crucial that both constituents and policymakers understand the element of variability when it comes to climate science. We can predict outcomes based on data-driven models, but there are still margins of error dependent upon the actions we take in the next few years.
Scientists know that the sea level is rising, yet how much it will actually rise is highly contingent upon how the world tackles carbon emissions. As a result, it’s understandably difficult to implement legislation with a degree of flexibility, not to mention comprehending that this element of probability doesn’t undermine the seriousness of the situation.
We may all be desensitized to bad climate news at this point, but beneath its technical vocabulary, this IPCC report actually leveraged many different messaging techniques to reach a wider audience, offering social solutions to climate mitigation. It models potential economic impacts of leaving the crisis unaddressed and emphasizes the importance of implementing lifestyle changes to reduce demand. Although the general report findings have been discussed in media coverage, the framing is just as important as the facts. It’s hard for anyone to visualize the ominously described future of our planet with abstract systematic concepts until it’s already upon us.
All this talk about scientific education and climate urgency begs the question — is it within scientists’ job description to be activists? At this point, climate change has become hopelessly intertwined with political persuasions, yet the scientific conclusions speak for themselves. Activism and critical climate messaging are interchangeable at this point, and the most effective way to spread the message is by diversifying our channels of communication in order to reach as many people as possible.
This IPCC report, while grim, is a step in the right direction — reconciling scientific implications with socioeconomic and political realities requires interdisciplinary analysis, and any sort of investment in the comprehension of constituents is a win for science communication. Maybe repackaging information in various forms doesn’t yield the immediate tangible results that studying global carbon cycles does, but as this report implies, fighting climate change is going to require strong public support and behavioral change. It may take time to see the effects of humanizing the battle against our human-altered landscapes, but climate science needs to be thoroughly understood beyond academia for maximum engagement and action.
Even if scientific communication achieves perfect layman’s terms, there won’t be a sea change in policy making. People constantly want to push the burden onto the next generation — but the conversation needs to enter mainstream media without all the clickbait and apocalyptic headlines. Talking about climate change is unquestionably scary — there’s some element of involuntary denial because it’s essentially impossible to fight nature and win.
There still is a way forward, but we need to make up for a lot of lost time. This is a phenomenon for which we are collectively responsible and of which will all suffer the repercussions. Regardless of how you look at it, climate messaging needs to incorporate everyone. The data itself is clear, but we have our work cut out for us in making sure that the language we use to describe climate change is just as accessible.
Montana Denton is a senior writing about environmental issues, sustainability and society. Her column, “Triple Bottom Line,” runs every other Thursday.