Climate Change Communications in Three Steps

August 24, 2017

By Dick Bourgeois-Doyle

My son Jonathon lives amidst the heavy oil fields of Alberta. When I proudly shared the news that I would attend the Canadian Commission for UNESCO's 2017 Annual General Meeting in Montréal, a gathering focused on climate change, its causes, and its threat to the planet, my son was less than enthusiastic. The goal of the event was to determine the best path forward for the next generation that includes my son and those around him. His feeling on the relevancy of this event to his life?  

"So, basically, I stand on a rig at 35 below, my buddies get maimed, and other guys get killed," my son said, adding "so we can pay taxes, give grants to university professors to tell us that we're lesser humans, that our employment doesn't matter 'cause we work in a dirty industry." 

Jon could easily be described as a climate change skeptic. 

Jon’s voice scratched the back of my head days later as I listened to the panel discuss the challenge of climate change skepticism and denial and what can be done about it. 

Debates like this are often filled with heat and wind but few answers to the skepticism challenge. Expecting to be sprayed by steamy clouds of wisdom, I was ready to pull out my umbrella at any time. 

But the panel, which included a couple of prairie voices, took a more practical bent.

On the question of how to engage skeptics and confront deniers, Dr. Gerald Farthing, a former Deputy Minister of Education in Saskatchewan, said he didn't have any answers just a few thoughts. Later in the open question and answer session, I teased him saying he had "lied" because I believe he did give us an answer. He suggested three steps that I think should be clipped out and pinned to the wall of every lab, office, and cubicle.

1. Repeat and repeat the scientific evidence—gently, respectfully.

2. Tell human stories of the impact of climate change—real ones.

3. Listen to people who think differently than you.

It means more than just saying the "science is conclusive." You have to study the evidence pro and con, absorb the data, and become convinced by them not by guileless faith in science.  

It means feeling as well as knowing the stories of hunger, dislocation, and conflict that climate disruptions bring. 

It means trying to look at the world through the eyes of people you can't understand and seem like your foe.

A simple checklist. Easy to remember, but not so easy.

 
Jon on the oil rig. 
A week later over beer and nachos in Saskatoon, I told Jonathon how I had invoked his comments in the Montréal, event, why he was wrong, and why he should be concerned.  
He bristled.

"It's not like I don't care about the planet," he said. "It's just that after years of not charging enough on royalties, they're now going to take it out on ordinary people, people with no work—carbon taxes, stupid." 

I told him about the downside of cap-and-trade, inputoutput flows, and the interconnected economy. Abstract stuff. No humans, no data, no listening.



 "Talk like that is why Trump won, you know," he said. "Jobs and security that's what you gotta talk about if you want people to listen to you."

I realized how quickly I had forgotten the points made by Dr. Farthing. Knowing then, from personal experience that they would be useful to a lot of people, I resolved to write them down in a blog for reference. 

Back at work and routine in Ottawa, I had difficulty finding the time to do so. Then, a week later, Twitter informed me that the U.S. President had announced his decision on the Paris Climate Accord with three words "we’re getting out." 

I set the alarm early and wrote this.

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Other Reading:
Proceedings from The Science of Science Communication Colloquium
Proceedings from The Science of Science Communication II Colloquium
International Council for Science—Science Communication (2010/2016)
Twelve things we’ve learned on the Road to Paris


Dick Bourgeois-Doyle is an Ottawa-based writer and Secretary General of the National Research Council of Canada.

Filed Under: Science Communication

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